At long last, eight years and nearly seven months after the left the White House, Bill Clinton’s post-presidency began on Tuesday.
Oh, sure, he’s been an ex-president all this time, and in that role he’s attended state funerals, written a memoir, opened a presidential library and done some very worthy work through his foundation.
But at their best, former presidents function as diplomatic sages, men (and someday women) with international stature who, unburdened from the constraints of domestic politics, can act as statesmen, and not just politicians. With his dramatic trip to North Korea, during which he secured the release of two imprisoned American journalists, Clinton has finally assumed this role.
For most of this decade until now, Clinton has been an unusual ex-president, still perceived—by both his friends and his enemies—mainly as a political figure whose actions were geared toward a political end. This made the transition to statesman-above-politics status difficult, if not impossible.
The main reason Republicans saw him this way was the emergence of his wife as a political force of her own in 2000. Just as Bill was leaving the presidency, Hillary was entering the Senate—which, it was clear, would be a temporary home for her until the inevitable national campaign in 2004 or 2008.
This made it vital to the right that there be no ceasefire in the “Clinton Wars” of the ’90s. For the first half of 2001, Clinton’s first year out of the White House, conservative activists and media figures were fixated on his unwise last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, a fugitive tax cheat.
To be sure, the pardon smelled rotten, but the G.O.P.’s response—a flood of made-for-television hearings by all sorts of Congressional committees and even suggestions from some of a retroactive impeachment—was overkill. The title “former president” earned Clinton no new respect in their eyes.
And then came 9/11, which kicked off a years-long effort by the right to pin the blame on Clinton. Part of this effort was inevitable; even if Hillary hadn’t been eyeing the White House, conservatives would still probably have pointed the finger at George W. Bush’s predecessor. What were they going to do, fault their own guy?
Still, their effort further hindered what might normally have been a natural transition for Clinton to the role of post-partisan ex-president.
At the same time, the left continued to embrace Clinton primarily as a political figure. Part of this was in response to the G.O.P.’s attacks, a continuation of the partisan warfare of the 1990s. But it was also a sign of the gaping leadership void at the top of the national Democratic Party. Clinton had been the first Democrat since F.D.R. to win a second term, the man who had magically broken the G.O.P.’s lock on the electoral map.
With the utter failure of Al Gore and John Kerry to connect with the crucial swing voters who’d gravitated to Clinton with ease, the former president’s political skills assumed an almost mythical quality. By 2004, Clinton the Politician had become something of a superhero to Democrats.
Kerry’s defeat in ’04, of course, opened the door for Hillary’s eventual presidential run in 2008. Now, Bill was a candidate’s spouse, albeit a particularly accomplished and well-known one. It was impossible to interpret any utterance or action of his as anything but an effort to improve the odds of a Clinton restoration. And when his wife’s campaign hit the skids in early ’08, his nasty side—forgotten by most voters but hardly gone—returned to the fore.
Usually, an ex-president’s popularity creeps upward the longer he’s been out of office. But by the summer of ’08, Clinton’s seemed stuck in reverse. He was seen primarily as a politician (and a rather grumpy one, at that), and not a statesman. In hindsight, though, that nadir actually marked an important turning point in Clinton’s post–White House life.
First, Barack Obama’s emergence filled the Democratic leadership void. For the first time since January 2001, Democrats had a national leader who knew how to win. Obama’s rapid rise effectively ended the campaign that the right had begun in 1992 to destroy Bill and Hillary. Suddenly, Obama became the chief object of conservatives’ resentment and scorn. The Clintons? They were just the poor has-beens who Barack and his brainwashed army shoved aside.
Obama’s win also ended Hillary-as-president-in-waiting narrative that had dominated most of this decade. This allowed the media and the right to stop portraying every Bill or Hillary action as a campaign ploy, encouraging the public to view them both in less cynical and partisan terms. In reality, Hillary is actually well positioned (at least for now) for another presidential campaign in 2016. But she and her husband are not being covered that way.
Finally, Hillary’s selection as secretary of state created an opening for Bill to play a more substantial role in the Obama administration than anyone would have expected a year ago. Exactly how his North Korea mission came about is unclear, but it’s hard to believe she had nothing to do with it.
All the pieces are now in place for Bill Clinton to enjoy a real post-presidency. The right has dropped its active hostility toward him, Democrats have stopped treating him as their leader-in-exile and the media has stopped regarding him as an agent of Hillary’s presidential aspirations. This week’s events should be a preview of what’s to come.