Shill Bill, Vol. 1

In terms of concrete information, Bill Clinton’s memoirs are a pretty hazy subject right now. His publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, which reportedly paid between $10 million and $12 million for the book, has yet to release information about a title, a print run or even a publication date. Though a source close to the former President told The Observer that Mr. Clinton’s memoir “has always been scheduled for mid-2004”-a statement that sounds like it has a built-in escape clause-Knopf’s executive director of publicity, Paul Bogaards, said “the book remains unscheduled at this time.” Mr. Clinton, he added, “is still writing.”

And yet, for some Democrats, Mr. Clinton’s book is-at the moment-the other elephant in the room of the 2004 Presidential election. They, too, have heard that sometime this summer, the Man from Hope, Ark., and 125th Street, N.Y., will publish his account of the eight roller-coaster years he spent at the helm of this country, and then apply all of his considerable charisma to selling it on a book tour that should begin steamrollering across this country via its media and bookstores just as Senator John Kerry’s campaign gets down to the nitty-gritty of unseating President George W. Bush.

What happens next frames the much larger question of just what role Mr. Clinton-who was kept at arm’s length during Al Gore’s 2000 bid-will play in the upcoming Presidential election. And whether, ultimately, he will be seen as an asset or a liability.

Certainly, as Mr. Clinton’s former deputy chief of staff and current Democratic political adviser, Steve Ricchetti, put it: “There are few people, if anyone, better than Clinton at framing and describing the substantive challenges facing our country domestically and internationally.” And if Mr. Clinton manages to convert the nostalgia for the flush days of his administration into votes for Mr. Kerry, he could prove an excellent asset to the candidate from Massachusetts.

On the other hand, there are those Democrats who envision Mr. Clinton mounting the modern equivalent of Elvis Presley’s 1968 NBC comeback special, replete with swooning women at the local Barnes and Noble and a tumescent tabloid media revisiting their greatest hits, from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky to whether the resulting impeachment scandal distracted the nation from the looming threat of terrorism.

“I think that’s misplaced anxiety,” said Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary under Mr. Clinton, who now has his own consulting firm, the Glover Park Group. Mr. Lockhart said he was “as clueless as the rest” about the contents of Mr. Clinton’s memoir. But he added: “Obviously, the book will deal with some of the more sensational stuff that the media likes to pay attention to-but the bulk of it will be devoted to the way Clinton tried to govern, and after the last three and a half years of trying to undo all that, I think it’s something that will excite Democrats and remind them that there are choices and there is a possibility to go back to that road. So I think this will have a neutral-to-positive effect.”

And the Kerry camp, of course, denied any anxiety as well. “I think after four years of job losses and budget deficits and broken alliances, President Clinton’s book will remind America of better days when we created 23 million new jobs, balanced the budget, and the United States led the community of nations,” said Kerry campaign spokesman David Wade in an e-mail. “The only person who should be worried about President Clinton’s book is George Bush.”

Nevertheless, said one Democratic activist who supports Senator Kerry (and who describes himself as “pro-Clinton but pragmatic”), “you know the media is not going to focus on the finer points of NAFTA during the tour. You know what’s going to be the focus-which was the focus on Hillary’s book. And that book tour is going to run from June through Christmas. And let’s not forget, he’s going to be opening his library in November after Election Day. My point very simply being, it’s going to be tough enough for Kerry, with a limited budget, to command attention around key issues. And the free media is going to be critical to Kerry. Clinton’s memoir is just going to suck all the oxygen out of the air.”

And it’s true. Bill Clinton is many things, and one of them-as anyone who remembers his long walk underground to the podium in Los Angeles during the 2000 Democratic Convention, which met to nominate Al Gore-is a one-man circus. When he enters a room, spotlights, TV cameras and innocent babies helplessly turn their gazes toward him.

The activist said that Mr. Kerry’s operatives “have really pushed back about the book tour,” though if the candidate’s camp is concerned about Mr. Clinton and his book, they have yet to make it known.

And no matter what behind-the-scenes machinations might have been brought to bear on Mr. Clinton’s literary ambitions, it’s hard to imagine Knopf risking its multimillion-dollar investment by moving the publication date of the President’s memoirs to after the frenzy of the election season has left the nation spent-which would be akin to trying to sell a Christmas tree on Dec. 26, or unloading Super Bowl tapes in the supermarket to a football-weary nation. Presidential memoirs, with a few exceptions-U.S. Grant’s and Harry Truman’s-have been notoriously bad sellers.

Bill Clinton, of course, is different-and that’s the Democratic dilemma.

A number of Democrats in orbit around the Kerry campaign say that Mr. Clinton’s book doesn’t pose a problem. John Weaver, a former adviser to Senator John McCain who has been informally advising Mr. Kerry on his campaign, told the Observer : “There’s a lot of things they ought to be worried about-what George Bush is or isn’t doing-but I don’t see that that book will suck much of the oxygen out of the presidential race. Voters are pretty clever about discerning that this race is between John Kerry and George Bush-and that, you know, Bill Clinton is well removed from being topical.”

Congressman Charles Rangel, who supported Wesley K. Clark in the primaries but has since endorsed Mr. Kerry, also said he wasn’t too worried about Mr. Clinton’s memoir. “I suppose I could see where some people would say, ‘Goddamn, can’t he wait until after the election to put out that book?'” said Mr. Rangel. “I’m sure that’s a real big issue for the sophisticated reading audience of The Observer , but I think it’s a little too heavy for most people.”

Asked whether there should be any concern about Mr. Clinton’s political liabilities, Mr. Rangel replied, “Hell, no! You know, you pick out the most negative thing that you could about Clinton and compare that to George Bush and the Republicans in charge, and the bad boy becomes the hero.”

Mr. Clinton’s office declined to comment. And those who have worked closely with Mr. Clinton in the past contend that the former President’s book and tour could have a positive effect on the Kerry campaign.

“A good campaign sits around and obsesses on everything,” Mr. Lockhart pointed out. “So I think they’d be crazy not to think through ‘Well, what does this mean for our campaign for those two weeks?’ You get paid to be anxious and anticipate things that will happen. But I just don’t think that this is something that’s going to have a major impact on the campaign.”

That all depends on the extent of Mr. Clinton’s promotional obligations-which, given that Knopf has paid him more than Pope John Paul II, should be considerable. As the national Democratic activist recalled, Ms. Clinton’s tour to promote her memoir, Living History -for which Simon and Schuster paid in excess of $8 million-“ran longer than most Broadway shows” and attracted plenty of print about her section on Ms. Lewinsky.

Mr. Lockhart didn’t exactly agree with this assessment. “If you look at when Senator Clinton’s book came out, there was a huge burst of coverage focusing on a lot of different things, but the first out of the box was certainly the Lewinsky matter.” But, he added, “I’d be hard-pressed to find a Democrat that thought that, given when that book came out, and given where the Democratic Party was, that that wasn’t a boost-that she could come out and be so visible and be talking about the things she was talking about.” Besides, Mr. Lockhart said with a laugh, “she didn’t spend a lot of time talking about what she didn’t want to talk about. She’s pretty good at that.”

Mr. Lockhart opined that, “in the long run,” Mr. Clinton’s memoir and the media whirlwind that will envelop it are “not going to be crucial to deciding who wins this election. But I think in the short term, it will be another thing that will help energize Democrats. It’s hard to see Democrats getting more energized than they are now. But I think it’s a reminder of what it was like when we were respected around the world and creating jobs here at home. And that isn’t a bad thing.”

But what if it’s reminder of something else? Namely the rock-star charisma and evangelical empathy that Mr. Clinton brought to his job, even as it seemed like half the Western world was trying to bring him down.

Who didn’t feel a juicy little pang of nostalgia while perusing the March 16 Rush and Molloy gossip column in the Daily News , where Mr. Clinton-looking a bit like Robert Redford-was captured by a photographer in Paris, grinning his Lucky Pierre grin as he eyed a leather-miniskirted beauty named Dagmar. Oh, for the good old days when politics could be sexy-and fun. Now it’s a much grimmer business, with even grimmer consequences, and the Jacksonian gauntness of Mr. Kerry’s bony visage seems tailor-made for the task at hand.

But this is a country gulled by nostalgia and sex appeal and hot revival acts, and there is always the possibility that when Mr. Clinton turns on his heart light and goes out on the road to sell himself, he will be Madonna to Mr. Kerry’s Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin to Mr. Kerry’s Céline Dion, and will convince some voters that Mr. Kerry doesn’t have quite the wattage of his Democratic predecessor.

“Kerry suffering in this comparison, I think, is a remote prospect,” Mr. Ricchetti said. “First of all, I don’t think you can obtain any higher degree of celebrity in the political process than Kerry’s going to get over the summer. He’s the nominee of our party. Everybody’s interested in him. But having said that, of course, President Clinton will be sensitive to the dynamics of the campaign.”

Indeed, Mr. Ricchetti continued, Mr. Kerry’s camp “has been actively seeking out his advice and support. The specifics of what he’ll be doing will be worked out over the next several weeks and obviously will have to be balanced with the former President’s other commitments over the course of the year. But we’ll be at the ready to help them in any way they deem is appropriate.”

However they handle it, the Kerry campaign will face the same calculation as the Gore campaign did in determining how to best make use of Mr. Clinton’s political skills without turning him into a lightning rod for the Republicans. Though he remains highly popular among Democratic voters-especially those referred to in political-speak as “core,” voters-the former President is as repellent to conservatives as he is attractive to loyal liberals. There are also questions of legacy: While Mr. Kerry would be delighted to be associated with the economic record of the Clinton administration, it is less clear whether he wants to be put in a position of defending Mr. Clinton’s handling of the war on terror, say, or his personal failings in office.

This is the problem that Al Gore famously grappled with in the 2000 election, when he essentially kept Mr. Clinton tucked away for fear of offending “swing” voters in battleground states-and for fear of being overshadowed by the man he’d served under for eight years.

Though a recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times floated the possibility of Mr. Clinton as Mr. Kerry’s Vice Presidential running mate (a request for Mr. Clinton’s press office to respond to this went unanswered), the official line from the Kerry camp is that no decisions have made as to the role of Mr. Clinton or any other surrogate.

The Kerry campaign has already done its best to give the impression that it will improve on the Gore campaign by learning from its mistakes, and the involvement of Clinton with the campaign is unlikely to be an exception.

But some important Kerry supporters seem to want to position their candidate as the anti-Gore on this issue: namely, that the candidate is a strong enough personality not to be overshadowed by Mr. Clinton. Mr. Rangel, who has been critical of Mr. Gore since the 2000 campaign, said he felt Mr. Gore did suffer in comparison with the more natural Mr. Clinton.

But he also said that he regarded it as a mistake to have run away from him, and predicts that the Kerry campaign will take a very different approach.

“Kerry has self-confidence,” said Mr. Rangel. “I would have speculated that if Clinton had come in early, before Kerry had gotten his walking legs together, it could have been a problem. But now I think it works.”

He said that he’d advise the campaign to deploy Mr. Clinton in areas in which he performed well in Presidential elections-especially in black communities, and particularly those in battleground states that were closely contested in the last election.

Pollster John Zogby said that, unlike 2000, the electorate this year is so polarized that the benefits of having Mr. Clinton out there would far outweigh the risks. “This election isn’t about swing voters-there aren’t any,” he said. “This whole election is about reinforcing your base, and Clinton can not only do that, but could pick off a few votes from the other side.”

There’s one other thing that John Kerry knows: Bill Clinton can sell books. He can sell politics. And he can raise money like nobody else. He turns dispirited Democrats into mad, slathering, drooling mosh-pitters who will throw checks and cash in his direction the way women threw their underwear at Elvis. The former President is already doing so: Mr. Clinton sent an e-mail to prospective donors on March 16 urging them to help the Kerry campaign with online contributions, and he will appear at a Democratic National Committee “unity dinner” with former President Jimmy Carter on March 25 to raise millions more, as the Democrats desperately attempt to catch up with President Bush’s $120 million campaign kitty.

Dogged by perceptions that his real interest lies in paving the way for a run by his wife, Senator Hillary R. Clinton, in 2008, Mr. Clinton will no doubt be anxious to prove his helpfulness to the Kerry campaign-and the Democratic Party-this time around. Those conspiracy theories were only fueled by his perceived support for the candidacy of former General Wesley Clark, who was somehow supposed to serve as a stalking horse for Hillary 2008.

Mr. Clinton is very concerned about being perceived as not doing all he can to help Mr. Kerry, said a major Kerry supporter. But in 2004, Mr. Clinton will have two bosses: Bertlesmann, the owner of Knopf, and the Democratic Party, which will either return his team to power or fail-in which case, the former President will almost necessarily begin thinking about a national campaign for his wife in 2008. Few who know him, however, take that seriously as a priority.

“I certainly know that there’s nothing he’d like better than having the Democrats regain the White House, and he’ll work very hard for that,” Mr. Lockhart said. “But I think he also understands that there are some things you just can’t control. And he’s just going to do what he’s going to do.”

Shill Bill, Vol. 1