What's next For Bill and Hillary?
Win the post-trial spin-off, get Gore elected in 2000 and then start figuring out the rest of their lives
By Nancy Gibbs
February 8, 1999
Classical drama requires elegant balance. So, for that matter, does farce. One way or another, then, it makes sense that this story began and now ends with Monica. The cartoon versions of her that dominated the past year--child-victim, stalker-vamp--threatened to reappear on Saturday, when we got to meet her at last, on videotape. But for all the artful editing by both sides, there was no concealing that a flesh-and-blood Monica Lewinsky really does exist after all. She talks, she hides, she teases, she thinks fast and explains, grounded and credible and well practiced after 23 depositions. The very reality of her was more of a relief and revelation than anything she had to say. And that her long-awaited, much feared, out-of-body performance on the Senate floor should have been more anticlimax than denouement was the greatest justice of all.
Even though the outcome was never in doubt, the White House bit its lip while watching her, as it has throughout these final weeks, because there is more to worry about than Clinton's removal from office. In the debris of this past year are scores to settle and debts to pay, which will help shape the last two years of the President's term, which in turn affects what happens in 2000, which then helps shape the rest of his life. For both Bill and Hillary Clinton, what matters now isn't so much what they do as how they seem--how reconciling, how inventive, how invested in the well-being of every last citizen whose hand they will shake and vote they will claim on behalf of their anointed successor, Al Gore. Because in Gore's victory they see their redemption.
So the Clintons were careful to learn from their mistakes, especially the post-impeachment pep rally on the South Lawn, which had convinced many moderates that Clinton still thought of himself as a victim, deserving of cheap grace. If a full acquittal this week triggers an early Mardi Gras inside the White House, the bitterness among Republicans and disgust among Democrats could become a kind of poison in the system. Clinton's outside advisers are pushing for discretion. Says one: "I hope he just gives a 30-second statement saying, 'I'm glad it's over,' and goes upstairs for a cold drink."
And so it was that spokesman Joe Lockhart declared the briefing room "a gloat-free zone," and at the senior-staff meeting Thursday morning, chief of staff John Podesta put the word out: "I don't know if I need to say this again, but I'm going to say it anyway: everyone should focus on their business and keep their opinions to themselves."
Their business now is the boss's statuary: what will last once the presidency officially ends. Clinton began his ostentatious search for a legacy soon after he became the first Democrat in 32 years to be re-elected, and that was before a year of sex scandal following a year of campaign-finance scandal raised the risk that the echo of his presidency might sound like a dirty joke. He was lucky and unlucky to have been elected at just 46; with his youth comes the reality that he will actually have to live with his legacy, which may be why an aide says she detects "a sense of urgency to him: 'What can we do? What can we do?'"
It is Clinton's good fortune that the trial should be ending when the days are getting longer and brighter and balmier--especially at the White House, where the wonks are hard at work. "This time of year--this is spring, this is renewal," says Lockhart. Clinton got to plant a thousand flower bulbs in his State of the Union, and last week he submitted his budget, watering the field of ideas with targeted tax cuts, school construction and child care. The offerings were so rich that they could be viewed less as an agenda than as a list of campaign slogans. Which, the White House all but admitted, it was. "There's a few we plan to fight for now," said an economic official of the President's ideas. "But the rest we'll carry over."
That does not bode well for Republicans, whose desire to change the subject may be even greater than Clinton's. There are many things Clinton can't do and compromises he can't make with the G.O.P. even if he wanted to. For once he owes too much to congressional Democrats to sell them out for his own glory. That leaves him unlikely to push any of the issues, such as trade, that have divided them in the past, which is why when House majority leader Dick Armey revived a proposal to allow for "fast track" trade deals a few months ago, hoping to split the Democrats, Clinton didn't lift a finger to support it.
This does not mean, however, that his party will now yank him further left. Dick Gephardt's dreams of the speakership, like Clinton's dreams of redemption, depend on getting Gore elected and winning back the Congress--all of which would absolve Clinton for casting his party into oblivion in 1994. That goal pretty much rules out bold foreign policy moves, such as an opening to Fidel Castro (which would cost Gore votes in Florida) or a toughening of U.S. policy toward Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu (which would alienate some Jewish voters).
As for domestic policy, unions, blacks and feminists, who can read the polls as well as the White House, see there is no appetite for a Big Government agenda. They're getting with the President's mall-tested program: patients' rights, education standards, help for busy families--tiskets and taskets of tidy, munchable proposals that sound good, play well and don't cost much. Everyone's a New Democrat now.
And that, of course, may be the only legacy left for Clinton, less a legislative imprint than a political one, which allows him to play his party's redeemer for putting the Democrats back in touch with mainstream concerns and appropriating the G.O.P.'s most popular ideas. Their hand will be even stronger if they can keep casting the G.O.P. as barren of ideas and obsessed with investigation--which is why Clinton needs to have ideas more than he needs to execute them.
The exception is Clinton's surprise proposal to rescue Social Security, which everyone around him believes he is determined to see through to a signing ceremony. The President's plan is both bolder and more detailed than anyone expected, even at the expense of alarming some of his liberal allies with a plan for partial privatization. But it is also designed to trap Republicans on the losing side of the political debate over how to spend the budget surplus. Clinton has framed the debate as a choice between saving Social Security and Medicare and cutting taxes for the rich. A New York Times/CBS News poll last week found that 64% of the public said they would prefer the surplus be spent on Social Security.
At a time when gas costs 93[cents] per gal., unemployment is almost invisible and the stock market is making people feel as if they've got more money in their pockets, whether or not they actually do, tax cuts are the only punch the Republicans know how to throw. Clinton, as a White House official put it, is "boxing them into a smaller corner." Congress Daily reported that at the House G.O.P.'s aptly termed retreat in Colonial Williamsburg, Joe Scarborough of Florida called a 10% tax cut, like the one favored by the party's Budget Committee chairman, John Kasich, "a loser idea."
Like an automobile dealer trying to sell you the same car twice, Clinton will spend more time highlighting what he has already done than he will trying much that is new. His willingness to use some of the surplus to pay down the debt speaks to a kind of long-term focus that is the luxury of a lame-duck President. The plan for the next two years seems to be, Trumpet the past; give Gore the future.
When it comes to securing the succession, Hillary may be even more valuable to Gore than her husband. Consider what she can do on the campaign trail. Unlike Clinton, whose Technicolor campaign appearances beside Gore often make the Vice President seem drawn in black-and-white, Hillary energizes Gore without overpowering him. She represents what people like about Clinton's presidency without reminding them of what they don't like. She can raise buckets of money. And she can connect with people on the very issues--children, families--that people have trouble associating with Gore.
Her devotion to getting Gore elected doesn't leave her much time to run for office herself. As the speculation about a New York Senate bid continues, she has done nothing to stop it, and serious people have begun to take the idea seriously; her husband has been telling people in private that he thinks she just might do it. But while Hillary may like the attention, it still reflects as much wishful thinking as reality. After she endured the indignities that a race against someone like Rudolph Giuliani would surely bring, how much fun would it be to serve as the junior Senator from New York, stuck in the Senate Chamber at 11 on Wednesday nights, waiting for some other junior Senator to finish a filibuster on a second-degree amendment to an appropriations bill?
Despite all the noise about her grand future, Hillary has predilections these days that are downright modest. In her public appearances, rather than spreading her wings, she seems to be nesting. Whereas she once wanted to colonize no less than one-seventh of the economy with her health-care plan, consider the role she played in this year's budget. Her fingerprints are all over dozens of small, shrewd programs. She was the driving force behind the tax credit for stay-at-home moms (per-person average: $178), the $50 million in grants to help children on Medicaid treat their asthma, and more money to train pediatricians in children's hospitals. She recently attended an event designed to inform women about the benefits of folic acid. While she no longer sits in on West Wing meetings, she makes sure that top members of her staff do. Says one: "She has two or three people who are kind of constantly with us." And they rarely lose an argument.
It was early one evening in 1996, a month after his re-election, and Clinton was sitting with some acquaintances in the Map Room of the White House, musing about the future. One of them asked if he'd given any thought to what he might do after he was out of office; he had given it plenty. As he sat there on the red sofa, Clinton warmed to the subject. He would be the youngest ex-President since Teddy Roosevelt, and that, he noted, was a cautionary tale. Roosevelt had plenty of time to harass his successor, because he thought William Taft had betrayed his legacy.
It struck Clinton that the most successful ex-Presidents were those who had been denied a second term and used their remaining days to restore their souls and reputations. He was impressed by how Herbert Hoover had devoted himself to service; John Quincy Adams had returned to Congress and fought against slavery and the Mexican War. But the greatest of all in retirement, Clinton argued, was the world-traveling, peacemaking, home-building Jimmy Carter, who had turned his library into a center of social action, not a museum. Yes, Clinton said, that was it: he wanted to do something useful without getting in the hair of the President who followed him.
So it should be no surprise that Clinton is planning to build a presidential library in Arkansas and is already monitoring its fund-raising operation with his usual acuity. The $100 million facility in Little Rock will be built on 14 acres along the Arkansas River, as a repository of Clinton papers and a research center for presidential scholars. But Clinton also seems to be imagining the library as a sort of government-in-exile--like Carter's but even more activist--part policy institute, part Peace Corps, focusing on Africa, showcasing his accomplishments.
Once they lift off from the South Lawn for the last time, the Clintons could fly in all sorts of directions. Both are young enough to start new careers; they need to earn the money to cover their legal bills; there are universities to run, foundations to chair, boards to sit on, books to write, speeches to give at $100,000 a pop. But there are also limits unique to ex-Presidents. Law firms want partners who make rain, not hail, and certain roles may not be suited to a President who carries as much personal baggage as this one. As for the ubiquitous rumor that Clinton will end up in Hollywood, working at DreamWorks SKG with his friends Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio's executives have denied it so many times that now they can only sputter. "When you've been asked the question 8,000 times," says DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press, "the humor begins to fade."
For Bill and Hillary that leaves the most obvious career move: the his-and-her memoirs and policy tomes that most people expect them to write. Provided they tell the "real story" of what went on in the White House, say publishing bookmakers, a Clinton book could fetch an advance of anywhere from Nixon's $2.2 million to Reagan's $7 million. Among the most invested in the speculation is Simon & Schuster, which currently publishes Hillary. "I think her book would be worth significantly more than his," says president Jack Romanos, a note of hope in his voice. "Remember that Barbara Bush's memoir was the book everyone wanted after the Bush Administration." Turns out that the most in-demand view may be the one from behind the throne.
--Reported by Jay Branegan and Karen Tumulty/Washington, David S. Jackson/ Los Angeles and Andrea Sachs/ New York
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Cover Date: February 15, 1998
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What's next For Bill and Hillary?
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