Magazine | August 1, 2016, Issue

A First Lady with Nothing to Lose

Bill Clinton promises to be a menace.

The news of the past several weeks has provided a reminder of the wisdom of proposals for mandatory body-cams: Bill Clinton may very well soon be wandering around the White House without adequate supervision, and somebody, somewhere, is going to need to keep an eye on him.

The Bubbacam: Find out which shiftless in-law back in Arkansas or Illinois wins that contract and buy shares.

There is a great deal of wishful thinking in Republican circles right now that somehow, possibly through divine intervention, Herself is not headed to the White House with the Big Creep in tow. It isn’t impossible that something else could happen. (It isn’t impossible that something worse could happen.) The bookies and the pollsters and the Ukrainian-sourced quant nerds locked up in fluorescent-lit basements may all be wrong. But they’re probably not wrong.

Bill is back — and this time, he has nothing to lose.

Think on that.

If you can remember the early 1990s, you’ll remember the character trait that was always the first thing psychoanalyzing pundits mentioned about Governor Bill Clinton: his desperation. Bill Clinton’s “need for approval” was cited to explain everything from his foreign-policy views (John Dumbrell, Clinton’s Foreign Policy, 2009) to his sexual misadventures (Robert Shogan classed him with Warren G. Harding, undone by an “obsessive need for approval and affection,” in The Double-Edged Sword, 1999) to his famous gift for triangulation (Katharine Seelye, “Bill Clinton: Power of Redemption,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 1992) to his habitual dishonesty (Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To, 1999). The embarrassing upbringing, the abusive stepfather, the low circumstances: Young Bill Clinton was driven by the need to show that he wasn’t just ill-bred tornado-bait from Bumfodder, Ark.

And he did that: a quarter century ago.

What, exactly, does he have left to prove? That he can pick out china patterns as well as Jackie Kennedy did? That he can look as good in Oscar de la Renta as Nancy Reagan did? (Oscar de la Renta has a weird relationship with first ladies: When Herself was pondering a second run for the presidency, she did so from the comfort of his beachfront estate in the Dominican Republic.) Bill Clinton long ago did what he was born to do: He sat in the Oval Office for eight fat years that coincided with a period of remarkable economic prosperity, left office with sky-high approval ratings — and this is a needy man who needs approval ratings like no one else — and then went on to stack up Scrooge McDuck–style piles of money while traveling around the world amusing himself in the most self-aggrandizing fashion imaginable. Bill Clinton the ex-president learned something from Bill Clinton the president: If things are going well and your approval ratings are healthy, then the key to further success is simple: Don’t do anything to mess it up.

Aside from the whole intern-diddling thing, President Clinton did not do very much to get in his own way. In reality, he couldn’t. Policy-wise, Bill Clinton was more or less hamstrung from the middle of his first year in office until his last walk to the helicopter. He spent his presidency signing Republican welfare-reform and criminal-justice bills. After the Republican wave of 1994, President Clinton’s main function was tapping the brakes as Newt Gingrich careered around Washington tearing stuff up. All the action was on the right, with the more sober-minded conservatives jokingly admonishing their more radical colleagues: “Rome wasn’t burned in a day.”

But even before the Republicans’ historic win in 1994, Clinton, the most gifted politician of his generation, saw what was coming. He had no illusions. Bob Woodward described him raging at his team of young idealists: “I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans. We’re all Eisenhower Republicans here, and we are fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great?”

Whom do you imagine he blames for that?

Not Newt.

President Clinton came into office promising to make a move toward the Democrats’ holy grail: a European-style health-care system. He made an uncharacteristic political mistake — pushing for too much too quickly — and he made it for an uncharacteristic reason, or at least a reason uncharacteristic of him: uxoriousness. He was a known creep, but Herself had swallowed her feminist pride — had gone so far as to publish a cookie recipe and stand by her man — and there had been loose talk of “two for the price of one” and (poor Al Gore!) a matrimonial “co-presidency.” Bill Clinton, a back-slapping horse trader of the old school who knew exactly what sort of a son-of-a-bitch was his son-of-a-bitch, put Bleachbob McCrazypants in charge of his signature domestic-policy item in his first year.

It was, you may recall, a fiasco. A beautiful, glorious, wonderful fiasco if you happened to be a young conservative at the time, but no fun at all for the Clinton mob. Even before all those Harry-and-Louise ads that the insurance guys rolled out, Hillarycare was a millstone, an albatross . . . an albatross made of millstones . . . metaphor be damned, his approval ratings — his precious approval ratings, by God! — went from just under 60 percent in the honeymoon months to down in the 30s by June 1993. It was such a goat rodeo that Washington all but gave up on health-care reform until George W. Bush came along and decided Medicare needed expanding.

Bill Clinton’s 1993 State of the Union address, Kempish though it was (balanced budgets! pro-growth entitlement reform! investment tax credits! enterprise zones!), also contained some JFK-style Big American Dream bits, such as reinventing the Peace Corps with a national-service program, and a network of community-development banks to be paid for with a non-trivial tax increase on Americans in the top income-tax bracket, from 31 percent to 36 percent. (It is higher than that today.) By 1996, it was: “The era of big government is over!” (Hurrah!) Anybody remember what the two big policy ideas were that year?

School uniforms and a crackdown on illegal immigration. In his final State of the Union address, it was all bragging about balanced budgets, a bouncy GDP, and family values:

Our economic revolution has been matched by a revival of the American spirit: crime down by 20 percent, to its lowest level in 25 years; teen births down seven years in a row; adoptions up by 30 percent; welfare rolls cut in half to their lowest levels in 30 years.

Bill Clinton today is a much-reduced figure. We should not indulge in sentimental Clinton nostalgia — he was and is a nasty guy who couldn’t manage his penis and succeeded as president largely owing to economic and political factors with which he had basically nothing to do — but, while age is cruel to us all, it is especially cruel to beautiful women and men once famed for their vigor. Clinton hasn’t been in the game since Montgomery Ward was a going concern, “Thong Song” was on the charts, and AOL had big ideas about acquiring Time-Warner. Now he dodders around looking vaguely confused, unsure of himself. He used to be seen in jogging shorts and that hideous Timex Ironman sports watch he wore as president, a Master of the Universe in mufti, but he long ago settled into the role of oligarch in his bespoke suits and his limited-edition platinum A. Lange & Söhne Grosse Langematik Gangreserve wristwatch. He almost certainly has not flown commercial in the post-9/11 era — Herself has not driven a car since before Maisie Williams was born — and he probably doesn’t remember a time when he was not untouchable: Here’s a guy who was impeached over misconduct related to a sex scandal who apparently felt perfectly comfortable dumping his Secret Service detail to accompany Jeffrey Epstein, now a convicted sex offender, aboard the airplane known as “Lolita Express” to the destination now christened “Pedophile Island.”

Does that sound like a guy who is desperate to see Herself succeed?

There have been the persistent rumors of long-term affairs and flings (“the Energizer,” one alleged lover was nicknamed), but one wonders whether Bill Clinton in his current beaten-down form is really up for that kind of trouble.

And if he’s not, the terrifying question is: What kind of trouble is he up for? Because there’s no way that this guy is not getting into trouble. Maybe not the kind of trouble endured by the intern-diddling CEO who “slammed his d*** in the cash register,” as his lawyer put it, but trouble.

A normal ex-president would by this point in his life have very few interests other than entertaining himself and maybe polishing up the old trophies for the historians. A guy like that would make an excellent first lady. He could organize great parties and reputation-enhancing social events, court the right kinds of intellectuals and celebrities, take up some Very Very Worthy Cause.

Bill Clinton is not that guy. Keep an eye on the Bubbacam.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


Politics & Policy


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