Bill, a foot soldier for Hillary

RICHARD LEIBY
Last updated 05:00 04/07/2014
bill and hillary clinton
BLOOMBERG/Peter Foley

SUPPORTIVE: Former President Bill Clinton, right, introduces his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state, at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York in 2012.

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The candidate hasn't made it official yet, but signs are emerging. Read the tea leaves, people. It is time to declare that a Clinton is running for the White House. Again.

This time, for First Gentleman.

Bill Clinton has emerged in recent days as the compliant follower of his wife's directions; her human shield against political spear throwers; her tireless advocate as she positions herself for a still-undeclared run for president.

In classic stand-by-your-woman fashion, he scorches those who bash her over Benghazi or paint her as an indifferent millionaire. Yet he demurs on his influence, as would any good, sensible spouse who knows the danger of stealing glory from one's Better Half.

"And you're just a bit player as to whether Secretary Clinton runs?" NBC's David Gregory probed the prospective First Gentleman at the Clinton Global Initiative last week in Denver.

"That's exactly what I am," the former president replied. "I'm a foot soldier in an army. I will do what I am instructed to do."

Why of course. What smart husband wouldn't? In the audience, his wife grinned broadly.

So let the inevitable trial-ballooning begin. Has the 42nd president mounted his own unannounced campaign for First Husband?

"No, I don't see any signs right now," said veteran Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. "We shouldn't be looking for any signs."

But his wife's 2016 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination is now received wisdom. There she is, staring from the cover of the latest New Republic under the headline "inevitable," while other media outlets offer flimsy fig leaves like "If, as many suspect, she is running for president . . . "

Clearly a coverage vacuum must be filled for the next two years. Therefore, we've decided that speculation about Bill Clinton's race for First Hubby should now begin in earnest, or at least begin. And our unstoppable, though possibly dead-wrong, conjecture is just as valid as the speculation about Hillary that began months if not years ago.

"I think we are spilling an enormous amount of ink on a non-candidate," Brazile said, regarding Hillary. "It's shameful."

Yes, there will be naysayers. It's entirely possible that Clinton has not yet made up her mind, or will change her mind if, in fact, she has already made it up, in either direction — or just thinks she has made up her mind and is about to think otherwise. (Tautology or punditry? You decide.)

But self-important pseudo-players — in other words, the Beltway press corps — will not be deterred.

If they say Hillary is running to rule the West Wing, then accordingly, Bill must be running for the East Wing.

Hypothesis: Bill Clinton would love to return to the White House. Yes or no?

"Don't ask me a question the answer to which is obvious," Don Fowler, a longtime friend of the ex-president, said amid guffaws. "It's pretty obvious."

Not that he's saying a First Gentleman bid is under way (we tried). No, not in the least. Even with close friends, Bill Clinton will provide no hints about his 2016 intentions — let alone his wife's.

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Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, says he called Bill a couple of weeks ago to offer support for a "Hillary 2016" bid — when and if she decides on running.

"I asked him specifically, would she run, and he said he didn't have any idea," said Fowler. "I suspect that regardless of what he knows, he has to adopt that policy."

A spokesman for Bill Clinton offered no comment.

Bill Clinton has stumped for the First Gentleman job in the past. He backed his spouse's U.S. Senate race in 2000, which helped cue up her 2008 campaign for the White House. In the primaries, he made surrogate appearances linking her to his two terms, which he portrayed as a Golden Era of prosperity and peace.

"I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes," Barack Obama said of the tag team during an early 2008 debate.

At the time, Hillary characterised her husband as "a tremendous asset." But Bill also committed gaffes that led to hand-wringing by campaign advisers.

Keeping him on message and away from micromanaging political strategy during the yet-to-exist 2016 "campaign" will be a challenge. "The question is, how does Hillary utilise Bill as an asset while also making sure he doesn't work at cross-purposes to the campaign?" said PR man Peter Mirijanian, who worked on Clinton's 1992 and 1996 races. "You have a rock star who is still enormously popular, but you have to manage that judiciously."

But this time around — hypothetically, of course — Bill has a stake in the "race" too: He can't realise his "goal" of becoming "the first First Gentleman" unless he falls in line behind the future "presidential candidate."

At the summit in Denver, with daughter Chelsea by her side, Hillary gazed adoringly at her husband of nearly four decades as he took Gregory's questions and sang her praises — and declared he would do as instructed. (Fowler said Clinton told him "exactly that" too.)

"I'm for it," Bill said of another Hillary presidential bid. "I think she's the most gifted public servant I've ever worked with, even if we are married."

By just about any measure, Bill Clinton has been both a loyal and terrible husband. But 15 years after an ignominious sex scandal and his impeachment, he remains as popular as when he first entered the White House. In a recent Washington Post poll, he pulled a 63 percent favourable rating to 32 percent unfavourable; the 2-1 positive marks were the highest since early in his presidency.

No one has polled on his chances of becoming First Mister — it's just a matter of time — but in any scenario that imagines a Clinton Restoration, the next question is how to keep the man from Hope busy after he waltzes into 1600 Pennsylvania on the arm of his wife.

Like presidential spouses before him, he could take on a noncontroversial project: support for military families, beautification, reading, that sort of thing. But strategists such as Mirijanian envision him convening blue-ribbon commissions on entitlement reform or youth unemployment — while still keeping his hand in the wide-ranging initiatives of the Clinton Foundation.

"What about the Mamie Eisenhower precedent?" offered one friend of the Clinton family.

What did she do?

"Nothing," said the friend, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of a story with an entirely hypothetical premise.

"She would talk to him about what he could do," our source added, referring to Hillary. "But that's getting ahead of ourselves."

True. But still . . .

"If this comes to pass, there are many ways to keep the First Spouse viable and busy," Brazile said, indulging in speculation because we practically begged. "He's so engaged in the day-to-day activities in the world. I am sure it will be a clearly defined role — not that that ever stopped Bill Clinton from changing lanes."

True again. The ex-president, known to some as the Big Dog, has never been one to remain obediently on the leash. Controlling Bill has been a concern for a long, long time, according to an intensive search of old news clippings.

"My 92-year-old grandmother says, 'He's a good man and would make a good president, but he's still a hard dog to keep on the porch,' " Mark Robertson, a native Arkansan, told The Post way back in 1992, before the dawn of the Clinton era in Washington.

So where does all this leave us, more than two decades later? For one thing, still fixated on the Clintons.

For another, grasping for facts in the murk of political indecision, but writing stories anyway.

But regarding Bill Clinton's intentions, there can be no doubt.

"I'm following my leader!" he tweeted this spring, deploying a photoshopped image of himself that mimicked a widely seen picture of his wife in sunglasses, scrolling her hand-held device on a military airplane.

Okay, it was April Fool's Day. But was it a joke? Where else would he be following her but to the White House.

 

-The Washington Post

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