Bill Clinton the Attack Dog

Nobody loves a rope line, or works one, like Bill Clinton. Face flushed bright red, smiling broadly, he basked in the adulation of the crowd, fans elbowing each other to get near him after a two-hour "Solutions for America" town meeting at Huger's restaurant in Charleston, S.C. Stopping near a NEWSWEEK reporter, he was initially loose and friendly, until she asked how he would respond to critics who say he "tarnished" his legacy by acting as his wife's surrogate and attacking Barack Obama's record. The former president tightened and grew testy. "So should somebody be able to be elected president without answering questions?" he demanded. "Let me just say that I went through a year and all I did was compliment Senator Obama and I continued to compliment him when he said in Iowa that my wife was a dishonest person. An untruthful person." He paused. "A person without character." Dramatic pause. "Repeatedly." Another dramatic pause. "I never said a word. When he put out a sca-a-a-thing attack on me in Iowa, my business practices, I never said a word."

The NEWSWEEK reporter asked if Obama started the whole thing by comparing the ex-president to Richard Nixon. All of a sudden, one of Clinton's frazzled-looking handlers stepped in. "Thanks, you guys," the handler piped up. Ignoring the nervous aide, Clinton asked the reporter, "What?" The reporter repeated the question, referring to an interview in which Obama had said, "I think that Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not." As Clinton began to respond, the handler gamely tried to interject, "Thank you, guys, we're done," and steer Clinton down the line. But 20 seconds later, Clinton turned and fixed the reporter in his gaze and began spouting off again. "This is a media-driven story," he said. "This whole thing … I go to all these meetings and nobody asks about this. This is all driven by you," he said to the NEWSWEEK REPORTER as he became visibly more annoyed, "because you want conflict instead of to deal with what these people are really interested in."

Self-pity aside, Clinton is not wrong about the press's preoccupation. THE 2-HEADED MONSTER, the New York Post dubbed Bill and Hillary Clinton. "Bill's transition from elder statesman, leader of his party and bipartisan ambassador to ward heeler and hatchet man has been seamless—and seamy," wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd last week. Clinton is also right that, for now at least, the voting public seems less interested in the feuding than do the pundits. At his packed campaign event in South Carolina, a woman asked Clinton about the "race baiting" being "pushed by some of the media." (Several politicos have suggested that the Clintons, in a cynical play for white and Hispanic votes, are interjecting race into the campaign—trying to turn Obama into the 2008 version of Jesse Jackson, from a candidate who happens to be black into a black candidate.) But at Huger's restaurant, Clinton was able to smoothly defuse the race question. ("As far as I can tell on our side, neither Senator Obama or Hillary has lost votes because of race or gender.") Soon he had the crowd laughing and chorusing "Yeah!" Though Clinton had crowds in his thrall from the Lowcountry to the backwoods, he was not able to deliver South Carolina for his wife last Saturday night. Obama won in a rout with heavy black turnout and did better than expected with whites—a possible signal that voters there took umbrage to the former president's sniping tone. (He said Obama "won fair and square" at a Hillary event after the results were clear.) But by stumping forcefully in the Palmetto State, Bill Clinton freed Hillary to go West and campaign in California and other delegate-rich states holding primaries on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5.

There's nothing new about presidents trying to poison the cup before it can pass to their successors. In 1968, Lyndon Johnson sought to sabotage the despised Robert Kennedy by leaking how Kennedy, as JFK's attorney general, had authorized FBI bugs on Martin Luther King Jr. Teddy Roosevelt was so vexed about losing the GOP nomination to William Howard Taft in 1912 that he formed the Bull Moose Party and ran against Taft (thereby splitting the vote and electing Woodrow Wilson). But no one has ever been in the position of William Jefferson Clinton, a former president trying to get his wife elected president, in no small measure by baiting and badgering her principal opponent. The remarkable tag team of Clinton and Clinton is much more than political gamesmanship. If the Clintons succeed and win in November, the nation will have something truly unprecedented: an unelected, unofficial, but nonetheless true co-presidency.

Clinton is having some success at getting under Obama's skin, judging from last week's Democratic debate in South Carolina. "There's a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton, as well as her husband, that are not factually accurate," Obama declared. "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes," he protested. (Thus opening the way for James Carville, the Clintons' longtime adviser and sometime mouthpiece, to go on talk TV and chastise Obama for "whining.") The Obama camp had debated whether to turn the other cheek or push back. Campaign chief strategist David Axelrod finally argued that Obama had no choice, that he had to stand up against the Clinton distortions of his record. (Example: in New Hampshire, the Clintons circulated thousands of fliers accusing Obama of going soft on abortion rights because, as an Illinois state legislator, he voted "present" instead of "no" on an anti-abortion bill. As recently reported, the flier failed to note that Obama had done so at the request of an abortion-rights group, which asked its supporters to sidestep for tactical reasons.) Obama's advisers see a Clinton plot to "grab and pull Obama into the mud," as one put it, speaking anonymously because he did not want to be identified discussing internal campaign deliberations. If Obama takes the bait, he risks losing his aura as a leader who can rise above politics as usual, says this adviser, who tried to joke mordantly about Obama's angry pushback against the Clintons at the South Carolina debate. "Well, at least he didn't say, 'Stop lying about my record'," says the adviser, referring to a sullen outburst by GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole after he lost the New Hampshire primary against George H.W. Bush in 1988.

In his rope-line interview with NEWSWEEK, Clinton shrugged off the bickering as standard politics. "That's what elections are about," he said. "That's not disrespectful." One Clinton campaign adviser, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject, says Bill Clinton's attacks on Obama have not been premeditated or strategic. This adviser did say that the Clinton camp has some concern that the former president's outbursts in the media could hurt the campaign. "I think you'll see him dial it back," says the adviser. But "he's hard to control." Another adviser, who asked not to be named for the same reason, speculated differently: "I think there was a strategic decision made for him to be the attack dog. That, in general, was thought out. There's an occasional loss of control, however." A third adviser said, "This all started because he thought the media wasn't doing its job, looking into Obama's record."

Whether Clinton's attacks are part of some grand campaign strategy is almost beside the point. Clinton is an unstoppable force of nature, a keenly intuitive politician who is not going to be part of someone's strategic plan unless it's his own, and even then he'll roar off in a different direction if his mood or his instincts move him. Clinton may be honored around the world as a statesman. But to say that he misses the raw power of the presidency is an understatement. He doesn't really attempt to hide his yearning. In Aiken, S.C., last week he waxed on to a group of adoring supporters: "Think what being president's like. They play a song every time you walk into the room." His presidency over, Clinton mourned: "Nobody played a song anymore. I didn't know where I was."

There was a time, about six months ago, when Clinton could afford to float above the fray and play the grand old man of the party. In September he told Larry King, "I like having a field of people running for president where I don't have to be against anybody, you know, where I can admire these people and appreciate what they bring to the race and trust the voters to make the right decision." But that was when his wife led in the national polls by 19 points. Now, as Dana Milbank pointed out in The Washington Post, "he sounds as if he's campaigning for a third term." In Aiken, Clinton "tried mightily to talk about Hillary," Milbank wrote, "but he kept lapsing into the first person."

It is hard to know exactly when Clinton set his sights on Obama as a genuine threat to the Clinton restoration, but the most visible moment came during the course of an interview the former president gave Charlie Rose on Dec. 14. Voters, Clinton said, would "roll the dice" if they chose Obama instead of his more experienced wife. Rose tried to point out that JFK had been only 43 years old (and Clinton himself, 46) when he took office and that Washington experience was not necessarily a virtue. But, his face turning red, Clinton went on to attack Obama long after Rose seemed to want to change the subject. Waiting in the greenroom, Clinton's aides began agitating to bring the interview to an end. They got a producer to tell the host to wrap it up, that Clinton was late for his next appointment. (Clinton aides dispute this story, noting that in fact Clinton did arrive late to his next event.) But Clinton's "roll the dice" comment, along with his crack that Obama is engaging in a "fairy tale" when he talks about his stance on Iraq, are now deemed to be shrewd attacks by Hillary's campaign. They have served to sharply highlight Obama's lack of experience and make it stick as a campaign issue.

Clinton has an uncanny ability to spot turning points and weak spots. "It's a preternatural talent," says one former adviser, who asked not to be named discussing the former president. "He can detect mood changes before they turn up in the polls." On Jan. 15, as Clinton traveled to an event in Nevada before the Jan. 19 caucuses, he was flipping through a stack of news clips and noticed some comments that Obama had made the day before to the conservative-leaning editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal. Clinton expressed astonishment that Obama was on the record appearing to recognize Republicans for being the "party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom." Clinton looked up and scoffed: "What ideas is he talking about? Torture? That a new idea? Privatizing Social Security? What the hell is he thinking?" The Clinton campaign is now trying to cast Obama as a closet Reaganite. (Never mind, as columnist E. J. Dionne pointed out, that Clinton himself, running for president in 1991, had praised Reagan to a Washington Post editorial board for pushing for change and new ideas.) A radio spot accusing Obama of embracing such Reaganite positions as holding down the minimum wage was widely jeered as an outrageous stretch —and the ad was pulled after 24 hours. But not before it had helped cast doubt on Obama as a true Democrat.

Clinton undoubtedly knows that he is paying at least a short-term price for his role as his wife's attack dog. But his supreme confidence allows him to believe he can regain any lost ground (after all, he was impeached for lying to a grand jury about his affair with an intern and went on to become a global hero for his work on AIDS and poverty). "He's deliberately sacrificing his stature as senior statesman in order to help her win," says an adviser who declined to be identified discussing Clinton's motivations. "He thinks he can get it back later."

The Obama camp gloomily warns that by dividing the Democrats in an "old politics" party squabble, the Clintons threaten to bring New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg into the race as an independent candidate. Other party elders have been wagging their fingers at the Clintons. Clinton has chosen to "reduce himself," says former Democratic Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, "to minimize his postpresidency in a very dramatic way, and I think to lower himself in ways that I would not have expected … It's his competitive juices," suggests Daschle, a member of a self-styled Obama "truth squad" pushing back at the Clintons. "It's demeaning," blogged Clinton's former Labor secretary and Oxford roommate Robert Reich, "for a former President to say things that are patently untrue (such as Obama's anti-war position is a 'fairy tale') or to insinuate that Obama is injecting race into the race when the former President is himself doing it."

If nothing else, Clinton's high-visibility role, and his constant reminders that the Clintons were and are a team, strongly suggest that they will remain one if Hillary is elected. Throughout his speech at Huger's restaurant in Charleston, he used the first-person plural as well as the singular, referring to Hillary and himself as "we" and to achievements from his White House days as "ours." Clinton is careful to say he will not take a formal job in his wife's administration. "I'd be like the Abominable Snowman," Clinton told reporters last Monday. "I'd be Bigfooting everybody even if I tried not to. There's almost no way you can avoid that." But at other times he can't resist signaling that he would be a force to be reckoned with. Speaking in Charleston, he told the audience that Hillary had asked him to mobilize leaders from both parties who disagree with Bush's foreign policy and go to the rest of the world and, as Clinton put it, proclaim, "We're ba-a-ck!" The crowd whooped and hollered at Clinton's cheekiness.

The Obama campaign and a good part of the media elite splutter that such talk only underscores that the Clinton campaign is about the tired old politics of yesterday, while Obama is about tomorrow. Maybe so, but a sizable portion of the American public, certainly in the Democratic Party, longs for yesterday—the mid-'90s, when the economy was booming and the world seemed at peace. Clinton campaign staffers point out that New Hampshire Democrats gave Bill Clinton an approval rating of 83 percent in primary exit polls even as the media were clucking over his "fairy tale" remark.

The advisers closest to Hillary—a circle of old friends and aides, almost entirely women, known as "Hillaryland"—are particularly frustrated by perceived media bias against the Clintons. They especially chide MSNBC "Hardball" host Chris Matthews (who publicly apologized last week for seeming "disrespectful" to Hillary) and the Times's Dowd. In the collective view of Hillaryland, the press critics have a sexist double standard. The pundits squawk when Bill Clinton goes out to defend his wife, Hillary's friends say, but they make barely a peep when Michelle Obama plays the role of hard-hitting surrogate for her husband. Some of Hillary's old-time allies are irked at her campaign staff, particularly chief strategist Mark Penn and ad guru Mandy Grunwald, for not doing a better job of softening Hillary's sternness in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. Lately some Hillarylanders, notably Maggie Williams, Hillary's former chief of staff as First Lady and later a Bill Clinton aide, have played a more prominent role in the campaign. And Hillary has shown a more human side, memorably getting misty-eyed before the New Hampshire primary.

It is true that Bill gets more, and much tougher, scrutiny than Michelle Obama or any of Obama's surrogates (who, it is also true, are not above taking thinly veiled swipes at Hillary; Michelle has said, "If you can't take care of your own house, you can't take care of the White House"). But the fact is that Bill Clinton is not like any other would-be First Spouse or First Friend. He is a former president of the United States with a global-size ego and need for attention. And he is a very hard man to keep down. A few minutes after Clinton berated the NEWSWEEK REPORTER for bringing up Obama's criticisms, he laced into a reporter who asked if he was accusing Obama of interjecting race into the campaign. "You just want one more story!" Clinton hissed. "Shame on you! … you just want one more story! Print the facts. Nobody ever prints any facts."

With that, he was off again, racing across South Carolina, through the small towns of the rural countryside, where he was introduced by one local pol as "father of Chelsea Clinton and one bad saxophone-playing dude, the 42nd president of the United States who is campaigning for First Husband USA." Clinton was greeted by a standing ovation by the overflow crowd of 300, about 90 percent of whom were black. At the end of the event, people knocked over each other to get to the front of the receiving line for photographs. A handful of reporters followed Clinton out of a side entrance to shoot questions at him. Clinton's handlers asked the local police to herd the reporters back inside so Clinton could avoid the media at this stop, unlike the last. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

Join the Discussion