MARRAKESH, Morocco — The scene that unfolded here last week as Bill Clinton convened world leaders for a philanthropic conference was hardly what his wife’s champion-for-everyday-Americans campaign would have ordered up.
Gathered in Marrakesh for a Clinton Global Initiative confab, foreign oligarchs and corporate titans mingled amid palm trees, decorative pools and dazzling tiled courtyards with the former president and his traveling delegation of foundation donors — many of whom are also donors to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.
When daughter Chelsea moderated a discussion on women’s empowerment, the only male panelist was Morocco’s richest person, Othman Benjelloun, whose BMCE Bank is a CGI sponsor. For the week’s biggest party, guests were chauffeured across the city to an opulent 56-room palace that boasts a private collection of Arabian horses, overlooks the snow-capped Atlas Mountains and serves a fine-dining menu of “biolight” cuisine.
Ahead of that event, Bill Clinton greeted Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal. “See you tonight, Turki,” he told his royal highness.
It was a long way from Hillary Clinton’s campaign-trail visits to Chipotle. The luxe week in Morocco highlighted the overarching question facing the Clintons and their coexisting circles of political advisers: What to do with Bill?
The question applies not only to the campaign but also to his role as first gentleman if she gets elected.
In a presidential race that could include two dozen candidates, none has a spouse like Bill Clinton — a former president whose sprawling charitable ventures are rife with potential conflicts of interest; an admired public figure whose common touch propelled his rise but who now charges up to $500,000 to give a speech; a curious ideas man whose penchant for speaking his mind drives news cycles; and a globe-trotting icon whose recognizable tuft of white hair draws onlookers everywhere, from his old Arkansas haunts to the bustling souks around Marrakesh’s central square.
Bill Clinton is a political animal who logged 168,000 miles on the campaign trail in 2014. Yet senior aides say he does not plan to do any campaign activities for his wife in 2015, including fundraisers for her campaign or allied super PACs. He has said privately that she should lead the campaign on her own, aides said.
“He’s completely focused right now on the foundation,” said Tina Flournoy, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. “That does not mean that he does not realize his wife is running for president. But he is not directly engaged in the campaign. As he has said before, if his advice is asked for, he’s happy to give it.”
But even if he’s off the campaign trail, Bill Clinton is never out of the limelight. He will remain prominent in the public eye with a busy schedule of appearances, including visits this week to a Harlem food festival and next month to Little Rock for a charity ball. In mid-June, he will be in Denver to host CGI America, a domestic-themed spinoff of his foundation conference.
On Tuesday, he’ll be on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
He will also speak for pay at Univision’s presentation to advertisers in New York on Tuesday. The prominent Spanish-language television network is owned in part by Haim Saban, a foundation and campaign donor who hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton last week at his Beverly Hills mansion.
“Bill Clinton is like nuclear energy,” said David Axelrod, a strategist on President Obama’s campaigns. “If you use it properly, it can be enormously helpful and proactive. If you misuse it, it can be catastrophic.”
Keeping the former president at a distance is one way the 2016 Clinton campaign is trying to prove it has learned from the mistakes of 2008. Although as her aides know well, it is impossible to truly isolate him from her campaign.
“He is a very smart political strategist and practitioner,” said Ann Lewis, a longtime Hillary Clinton adviser. “He has never thought that politics is beneath him. He believes that politics is the way that we govern ourselves.”
Bill Clinton has many assets. He is universally known and unusually popular; 73 percent of voters approved of his job performance as president in a Washington Post-ABC News poll in March, while his personal favorability rating stood at 65 percent in a CNN-ORC poll in March. He also is considered one of the Democratic Party’s most talented communicators; his 2012 convention speech was a standout moment in support of Obama’s reelection.
“Any conversation about Bill Clinton and his impact on the campaign has to start with the fact that Americans like him and they’ve liked him for a long time,” said Geoff Garin, a pollster for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign who now works for Priorities USA, a pro-Clinton super PAC.
But as Bill Clinton showed in 2008, he can be an undisciplined and rogue surrogate. Some of the ugliest episodes in his wife’s campaign were his making, including his stray remarks about Obama that angered black voters in South Carolina and his behind-the-scenes meddling in the campaign’s strategy.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who feuded with Bill Clinton in 2008 over what he saw as race-baiting, said in a recent interview that the former president should be “a supporting spouse” this time around.
“He should refrain from doing anything or saying anything that would take the attention off of her candidacy,” said Clyburn, who has not endorsed anyone in the 2016 race. “It’s got to be about Hillary. It’s got to be about her vision, and he’s got to be supportive of that.”
Axelrod, recalling the Clintons’ joint appearance in the fall at retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s steak fry in Iowa, said it would be foolish for them to campaign together regularly. “It’s hard to shine when you’re standing next to the sun,” he said recently. “He’s a luminescent character, and it is diminishing to have him out there at her side.”
Aides insisted that Bill Clinton is not calling up campaign aides, devouring polls or mapping out strategies. The campaign has no “Bill whisperer” tasked with managing him, although Flournoy is in regular contact with top aides at Hillary Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters. The former president also has long-standing relationships with campaign chairman John D. Podesta and other advisers.
The Clintons speak to each other often, sometimes multiple times a day, but usually about personal matters and rarely about the nity-gritty of her race, aides said. Some days, he doesn’t know where she’s campaigning. And on the Africa trip, he was more attuned to the British elections — glued to the BBC — than to her campaign.
One afternoon in April, Bill Clinton looked up at a television in his midtown Manhattan office and saw the grainy security-camera photo of his wife and her aide, Huma Abedin, at a Chipotle in Ohio, appearing incognito in dark sunglasses. He turned to aides and wondered, “What are she and Huma doing? Are they robbing that place?”
As Hillary Clinton raised money in California last week, Bill Clinton was about as far away as he could get, visiting the family foundation’s projects in Africa and convening the CGI meeting in Morocco.
Yet he was still making big headlines. In an interview with NBC News in Kenya, he appeared testy while defending the foundation’s foreign fundraising. He also said he would continue giving six-figure paid speeches: “I’ve got to pay our bills,” he said, sounding out of touch, considering he has reported earning $105 million in speaking fees over 12 years.
There were other awkward moments as well. As Bill Clinton wrapped up the CGI meeting in Morocco, a top Coca-Cola executive joined him onstage to announce a $4.5 million program to help African youths obtain job skills and career counseling.
Then Curtis A. Ferguson, the company’s regional president, shifted to the sales pitch. “I hope they’re thirsty,” he said, referring to the young Africans. Then he said he wanted to “share a Coke with Bill,” pulling out a Coke bottle inscribed with the former president’s first name in Arabic. They posed for photos holding the bottle, smiling.
But much of the Africa trip — which stretched for 10 days and included stops in Tanzania, Kenya, Liberia and Morocco — was aimed at showcasing the good works of the foundation and its partners.
At a hearing-aid fitting in Kenya, Bill Clinton witnessed a young man hearing the voice of his sister for the first time. In Tanzania, he met farmer Wazia Chawala, a single mother with seven children, who with foundation help has improved crop yields with modern soil, seed and crop-rotation techniques.
Clinton also visited a drab Nairobi laboratory, where he listened to a presentation on tracking carbon emissions and rainfall patterns so farmers could improve their yields. When he asked the donors with him if they had any questions, Drew Houston, the chief executive of Dropbox, asked, “What were your biggest technical challenges?”
For Clinton and his staff, it was a proud moment of synergy — the founder of one of the world’s largest cloud-computing companies asking a Kenyan lab technician a question about uploading data to the cloud.
Clinton, who declined a request to be interviewed for this report, is grappling with what the future might hold. He is continuing to raise money for the foundation, where his daughter has assumed a greater leadership role. Last year, the foundation raised a $250 million endowment to provide long-term stability in his absence.
His advisers understand that the foundation’s activities could complicate a Hillary Clinton presidency.
“In his heart and mind, I think he wants there to always be a scenario where his foundation is doing the work that he’s deeply invested in,” Flournoy said. “How does that look, and what does experience and time and history mean you might have to change? We don’t know. But this is his life’s work.”
Bill Clinton says his role would be determined by his wife. “What does she want me to do?” he said in an interview last week with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “I have no idea.”
One option is that Hillary Clinton could draft him as a special envoy somewhere or give him a portfolio in her administration. He is continually fascinated by science, aides said, and lately has been thinking about creating a fairer economy. He also has talked about bringing together corporate partners to rebuild Baltimore after last month’s riots.
A return of the Clintons to the White House would also usher in a blurring of traditional gender roles, not to mention titles: Bill Clinton’s aides still refer to him as “the president.”
“Even if he were assigned the responsibility of picking out china, I think others would probably overrule him on taste,” said Skip Rutherford, a longtime adviser and friend. “People used to kid him about picking out his crazy ties. I can’t imagine.”
The closest historical parallel is Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. During Franklin’s presidency, Eleanor earned personal income from paid speeches, newspaper columns and a weekly radio show, which was sponsored by Simmons mattresses, said Carl Anthony, a historian at the National First Ladies’ Library. He said she gave most of her income to the March of Dimes Foundation, which her husband founded to combat polio.
“She made a lot of money on her own, but not without a congressional investigation and media attacks on her commercializing the presidency,” Anthony said.
Fred Wertheimer, president of the reform group Democracy 21, said the couple should completely withdraw from the charity if Hillary Clinton wins: “Change the name of the foundation, and make a clean break.”
Foundation supporters believe otherwise.
“It would probably be one of the greatest wastes of human talent in the history of the world” for Bill Clinton to withdraw, said Jay Jacobs, a major donor who traveled with him to Africa. “How do you say to these poor farmers, to mothers whose children can’t hear, ‘Sorry, no more because politics can’t abide by it?’ That would be morally wrong.”
Kevin Sieff in Nairobi contributed to this report.