On March 31, Bill Clinton stood on a small stage in the Allen Room on the top floor of Jazz at Lincoln Center, talking to an audience that included millionaires, nonprofit leaders and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. He spoke about everything from global warming to world poverty to playing basketball for peace in the Middle East. (“I think the founders of Jericho would get a kick out of that.”) His face was thin but ruddy, his head full of cotton-ball hair, and he wore a turquoise tie louder than the colors in Mr. Obasanjo’s robes.
“You are the people’s rainbow,” John Bryant, the founder and chief executive of Operation HOPE, said to Mr. Clinton.
Indeed, Mr. Clinton’s philanthropic endeavors, and the vim with which he pursues them, have an appealing, unassailable air. While his stature as a former President surely has helped his organization raise more than $2.5 billion for myriad causes, there is something distinctly unthreatening, even First Lady–like, about his role as charity fund-raiser.
“He could sort of be seen as a First Lady on steroids,” said Robert P. Watson, the editor of First Ladies of the United States: A Biographical Dictionary and the author of several books on the role of the First Lady.
So it’s no surprise that when the second annual Clinton Global Initiative Forum is held in New York in September, the current First Lady, Laura Bush, will be in attendance, joining heavy hitters like Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Jacques Chirac. And Mrs. Bush’s participation, while nonpolitical, is good political news for Mr. Clinton’s wife, Senator Hillary Clinton.
“Like many First Ladies, she [Laura Bush] is more popular than her husband,” said Myra Gutin, author of The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century. “I think inviting her is smart because it builds consensus. It’s a win-win situation.”
After trotting amicably around the world with former President George Bush to raise funds for victims of the tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Clinton has cast himself as a statesman who is above politics. That stature can only be enhanced by Laura Bush’s presence at the September event. And that wins political points for Mrs. Clinton. The more her husband hobnobs with the reigning Republican dynasty, the harder it is for conservatives to demonize her as a creature of the far left, not only in her re-election campaign but if (read: when) she runs for President.
But while Mr. Clinton dedicates himself to charitable works in cooperation with groups and programs like “Transcending Poverty Through Investment in Adolescent Girls,” “Advancing Universal Access to Family Planning” and the “Gandhi Project,” Senator Clinton continues to toughen up her image.
In the past week, the Senator has appeared as “Hillary the Hawk” on the cover of American Conservative (the magazine wishes that she were more of a dove), has referenced Jesus in the immigration debate, and has received accolades from Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
That last honor came only hours after Mr. Clinton’s event in Lincoln Center. Unlike the music there—smooth jazz played in a bright and airy room—a brassy military march greeted Senator Clinton as she arrived in a windowless hall at One Police Plaza. Where Mr. Clinton had worn a tie the color of a tropical fish, Mrs. Clinton slipped on an NYPD jacket that made her look like Cagney and Lacey’s missing partner.
“At every stage of her career, she has broken new ground,” said Commissioner Kelly, before calling the Senator “a true friend of the New York City Police Department.”
Mrs. Clinton, all smiles but still all business, stepped behind a small podium.
“As I look over the horizon in this new century, there are lots of challenges ahead. But nobody has gotten it more right than America,” said Mrs. Clinton, “We will defeat the terrorists not only on the battlefield, not only as they try to undermine our safety and security, but because our values are better, what we stand for deserves respect, and because we recognize fully the equality and participation, the rights and responsibilities of women.”
And so, like any happy husband and wife, political or otherwise, the couple complemented each other. Mrs. Clinton talked about terrorism and values, and the former President about micro-financing in India. It was a realization of the “two for the price of one” theme that Mr. Clinton spoke of during the 1992 Presidential campaign, and under opposite yet identical circumstances.
But this time, Mr. Clinton is helping the former First Lady get the opportunity to make him into the nation’s first First Gentleman.
Watch Your Language!
While Mr. Clinton has been careful not to repeat the mistake of Bob Dole, who in 1999 said he would consider contributing to the Presidential campaign of Senator John McCain even while his wife, Elizabeth Dole, was still running for the G.O.P. nomination, he hasn’t completely steered clear of controversy.
In March, as Mrs. Clinton railed against the Bush administration for giving a Dubai-owned company operation of some American ports, Mr. Clinton revealed that he had advised the Persian Gulf nation on how to respond to the uproar, though he quickly added that he was also against the deal.
And during last Friday’s event, he seemed to make a subtle dig at President George W. Bush—his traveling companion’s son—who, during his recent trip to India, skipped a trip to the Taj Mahal when he was in New Delhi, just three hours away.
Mr. Clinton fondly recalled “the last time I went to the Taj Mahal in India, which I do as often as I can.”
Such jibes are fine for now, as Mrs. Clinton seems to be rolling toward re-election in her Senate race. But some commentators think there will be much greater scrutiny of every word Mr. Clinton says as the 2008 national elections approach.
“He is in that Davos universe now, jet-setting and talking about world peace and helping stop hunger—and there is nothing wrong with that,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant. “It’s when you are in a campaign environment that his words have to become much more constrained and circumspect.
“The difficulty is finding a space for him to exist in politically,” Mr. Wilson continued. “And there is the fact that Bill Clinton has a very, very natural desire to be involved in the cut and parry of politics.”
Mr. Clinton is no doubt hoping to join Jimmy Carter and John Quincy Adams in the ranks of history’s most successful post-presidencies. But he also seems to be trying to ascend to the sphere occupied by Julia Tyler, Grace Coolidge and Francis Cleveland among the nation’s most active and effective first spouses.
To that end, Mr. Clinton said on Friday afternoon that he was moved by Reese Witherspoon’s speech after winning an Oscar earlier this year. Ms. Witherspoon played country singer June Carter, who, the actress noted, often said that her purpose in life was to matter.
“The truth is, that’s about all the rest of us want,” said Mr. Clinton. “We just want to matter.”