Clinton Embraces Return to Ambassador Role
Sunday, August 3, 2008
KIGALI, Rwanda, Aug. 2 -- There will be no Clinton restoration -- not this year, at least. But the rehabilitation of Bill Clinton has begun.
The former president in many ways ended the Democratic primary campaign more isolated than his wife, with his own friends and allies unhappy with his flashes of anger and ill-chosen words and blaming him in part for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's defeat. With a negligible relationship with Sen. Barack Obama -- he has spoken to him just once since the primaries -- Clinton has been shut out of the Obama campaign almost entirely and does not know even basic things, such as the role he will play at the Democratic convention.
It is uncharted territory for the most successful Democratic politician of his generation, and part of the reason he was in Kigali on Saturday, the latest stop in a grueling journey across Africa to visit some of the places where his charitable foundation has been active -- and in the process re-establish his role as a global elder statesman. At the same time, Clinton began, slowly, to discuss the bruising Democratic primary season that ended two months earlier.
In his first extended interview since his wife exited the campaign in defeat, Clinton said he was glad to be back doing international foundation work. "This is my life now, and I was eager to get back to it, and I couldn't be happier," Clinton said in a hotel suite, with three aides looking on.
In a session that lasted more than 45 minutes, Clinton described his role in the 2008 campaign as "a privilege, an honor," and said, "I loved it," but he declined to discuss any of his own possible mistakes, describing them as a distraction. "Next year, you and I and everybody else will be freer and have more space to say what we believe to be the truth" about the primaries, he said.
Clinton volunteered very little praise of Obama, beyond describing him as "smart" and "a good politician" when asked about him toward the end of the interview. He did, however, muse at length about the role that race could play in the general election -- the issue that some of his former black allies angrily accused him of introducing in the Democratic primaries -- as a factor, if not a decisive one.
Clinton appeared at ease, in a yellow button-down shirt and green khakis, an unlighted cigar in his hand, after a long day in which he had visited a remote town in eastern Rwanda to meet with local farmers growing cassava, a sturdy root plant, with assistance from his foundation.
He worked his way up into a village on foot, meeting a 14-year-old boy with AIDS who is receiving care from a local health provider allied with the Clinton health initiative. Then, after having lunch with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, he took a helicopter to just south of the Ugandan border to break ground on a new, advanced hospital -- digging a shovel into the ground and declaring the space as one that "symbolizes health and hope and peace and unity."
He was, along the way, classic Clinton: nodding attentively as villagers described the impact his nonprofits are having, interrogating participants about what they needed, showing off his range of expertise on topics including gorilla preservation and pediatric AIDS care.
Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who with his wife, Christie, accompanied Clinton on the trip, pointed to the stops as part of the way the former president is still helping set an example without making policy outright.
"The lesson here is that this is what foreign policy ought to be about," Vilsack said.
Yet the sight of the Vilsacks trekking down a dusty road in rural Rwanda with Clinton -- with Terry McAuliffe, the ubiquitous Clinton cheerleader and former Democratic National Committee chairman, bounding along close behind -- offered a snapshot of how remote the former president's orbit has become. Vilsack was one of Hillary Clinton's most dogged backers after his own presidential bid faltered, and he remains a Clinton ally now, when it is less fashionable.