Send Bill Clinton to the Senate

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By Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Amid the blizzard of résumés blanketing Washington as the Obama era dawns, there is a superbly qualified candidate for full employment whose name has been overlooked. We refer, of course, to William Jefferson Clinton, America's 42nd chief executive and commander in chief. Yet now, by a wonderful combination of circumstances, comes an opportunity to harness his unquestioned political talents to benefit his country, the Democratic Party, New York state and his spouse. If, as is expected, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes secretary of state, New York Gov. David Paterson could send her husband to the U.S. Senate.

Doing so would spare the governor the agonizing dilemma of choosing from the 20 or so Democrats already named as contenders for the junior senator's seat. Those mentioned include six sitting members of the House of Representatives (three of each sex), Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Caroline Kennedy and her cousin Robert Kennedy Jr., Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (an African American), and Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr. (who is Hispanic). In this no-win competition, Paterson has to balance claims of gender, race, ethnicity and geography. He could wind up gaining one grateful ally while alienating not only all the losers but also millions of members of the disparate constituencies that each represents.

Hence the appeal of Bill Clinton. Who in his party could question so historic and dazzling a choice? In a stroke, the appointment would provide Sen. Clinton's indefatigable husband with a fitting day job, serve the interests of a state beset by a meltdown in its most vital economic sector and offer a refreshing reverse twist on a tradition whereby deceased male senators, representatives or governors are succeeded by their widows.

It wouldn't be the first time an emeritus U.S. president was sent to Congress. In 1828, John Quincy Adams, like his father a prickly but principled chief executive, lost his bid for a second term to Andrew Jackson, the first populist Democrat. Two years later, Massachusetts voters elected Adams to the House of Representatives, where he served until 1848. "Old Man Eloquent" was renowned for his impassioned opposition to slavery, leading an eight-year fight to reverse a "gag rule" promoted by Southerners that required the automatic tabling of any petitions opposing slaveholding.

And it was thanks to John Quincy Adams that the Smithsonian Institution exists in its current diverse form. In 1836, Congress voted to accept a generous bequest from James Smithson, a Briton who willed the funds "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." The question of how to use this unexpected and unprecedented windfall of $508,318.46 (in gold, filling 11 boxes), then went to a select committee chaired by Adams. He fought tirelessly to protect the bequest from "hungry and worthless political jackals," and, thanks to his efforts, a measure honoring the intentions of the donor was finally approved in 1846.

Who better than Bill Clinton to deepen and energize such a tradition? Why shouldn't former presidents continue their political lives in Congress? The British have long benefited from a tradition whereby former prime ministers acquire a seat and voice in the House of Lords. In today's unusual circumstances, surely beyond the imagination of any novelist, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would not have to fret about suitable protocol for dealing with her spouse on foreign trips were he occupied, full time, with senatorial duties.

Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac are the authors of "Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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