"Man, I like that stuff," Bill Clinton said. "I shouldn't eat it, but I like it." It was Sunday, March 4. On a private plane headed south from New York, the former leader of the free world was staring hard at a fully stocked bowl of food. A recovering snack-addict since his quadruple-bypass surgery in 2004, Clinton was thinking about falling off the wagon with a few bags of Fritos and some granola bars. No one on the plane was going to stop him—certainly not Malcolm Smith. The Democratic minority leader of New York's state Senate, Smith was just happy to be along for the ride. "He sat right in front of me," Smith later gushed to a NEWSWEEK reporter. "We shared the food."
Clinton and Smith were headed to Selma, Ala., to commemorate "Bloody Sunday"—the day in 1965 when 600 civil-rights marchers were attacked by white state and local lawmen at the foot of the city's Edmund Pettus Bridge. For Clinton, the occasion was at once historic and personal. That afternoon, the man Toni Morrison called America's "first black president" would make his own march through the city and be inducted into the Voting Rights Hall of Fame. But the day's great test was not for the former president; it was for his wife. In town for the commemoration, Hillary Clinton was set to compete for attention with Barack Obama, her nearest rival in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. The media wondered how Hillary would fare, not just against Obama, whose strong baritone and preacher's cadences had earned him comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr., but against her own husband, who had inadvertently overshadowed her at the funeral for King's widow early last year. Perhaps not by accident, as Hillary spoke in Selma, Bill's plane was still hurtling through the air.
But the former president was practicing politics all the same. A few days earlier, Smith had publicly criticized the Clinton campaign. Senator Clinton was preparing for a long, bruising battle for her party's crucial black primary vote. Trouble from someone like Smith, one of the most prominent African-American politicians in Senator Clinton's home state, was exactly what she didn't need. And so, the day before the flight, Smith received a call from an aide to the former president, asking if he might be interested in joining Bill on his journey to Selma. During the two-hour trip, Smith was treated to a full course of Southern-fried charm, courtesy of Bubba himself. "People say you have a lot of charisma and style," Clinton purred at Smith. Smith replied that it might be because of his August birth date and zodiac sign (gregarious Leo, Lion King of the jungle). Clinton noted that he was a Leo as well. Smith marveled at the coincidence: "I thought to myself, 'Maybe there's some hope for me'."
Senator Clinton is a Scorpio, but there was hope for her, too: two months later, Smith endorsed her instead of Obama. He says a variety of factors influenced his decision but admits the flight with the former president didn't hurt. "He's going to go down as one of the best presidents we ever had," Smith says. "You would get two [presidents] for one, and that's a good thing."
Will America agree? That's to be decided. For Hillary's campaign, "The Bill Factor" is a complex one. To some he's a shrewd politician, a clear thinker, a brilliant explicator who was president during an era of relative peace and indisputable prosperity. To others he's "Slick Willie," an undisciplined man who let his private appetites, and his addiction to risk, blur his focus, distracting the country for much of his second term. Hillary Clinton is running for president on her own. Her name will be on the ballot; if elected, she'd be making the final calls. But how engaged would the former president be in Hillary's White House—and would his vices once again overshadow his virtues? NEWSWEEK's reporting on the role the former president is playing in his wife's campaign thus far reveals that the Clintons are fully aware of the perils and promise the 42nd president brings to her bid, and depicts a campaign carefully working to manage an asset no other presidential candidate has ever had: a spouse who has run, and won, twice.
It's been more than a decade since William Jefferson Clinton last sought office, but he remains the best living practitioner of the long, soft sell. As president, he cultivated close ties with the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, one of the nation's largest African-American denominations and an emerging force in global Christianity. In March, Gilbert Earl Patterson, the church's presiding bishop, passed away. President Clinton was on the phone to offer condolences within two hours and attended Patterson's funeral in Memphis.
Senator Clinton followed her husband's lead, calling Charles Blake, the new bishop, to say she'd love to get together face to face and congratulate him on his new role. Support from the church could prove crucial to the Clintons in a primary struggle for the black vote. Indeed, Obama placed his own calls to Patterson's widow and Blake in the days immediately following Patterson's death. He sent his wife, Michelle, to attend the funeral. Blake says he has not heard "one political word" from either Clinton. But the grieving period was a political fight all the same, and the former president was his wife's not-so-secret weapon.
Generally, though, President Clinton is more careful to stay in the shadows of his wife's campaign. He confines his strategic advice to conversations with Senator Clinton and a few close aides at the top of her staff. He maintains a full-time commitment to his foundation, traveling the globe working on AIDS, climate change, childhood obesity and other issues. He knows it's Hillary's moment, aides say, and he's tried hard not to meddle too much.
His low profile comes as a relief to some Democrats who aren't keen to tune back in to what they fear could be another installment of the Clintons' marital soap opera. Clinton supporters sound awkward when discussing the subject of Bill's current fidelity to Hillary, an issue raised in political circles in February, when Hollywood mogul David Geffen told The New York Times's Maureen Dowd that he was worried about Clinton's "reckless" behavior. "I don't believe those rumors about women," a friend of Bill's recently volunteered—without prompting. "He's too smart for that." Didn't you say the same thing about the rumors 15 years ago, a NEWSWEEK reporter asked, and the rumors turned out to be true? "Fifteen years ago, I didn't say he was too smart for that," the friend responded, "because he wasn't."
Senator Clinton has spent most of her adult life balancing the risks and rewards of being Bill Clinton's spouse. He has always been her political mentor. On the couple's first date, a young Hillary Rodham watched in amazement as her future husband talked his way into an art museum that had been closed down by a labor dispute. In 1974, Bill initiated Hillary in the political rites of Arkansas as he campaigned for attorney general across his native state. She has always shared in his model for political success: centrist policy positions paired with partisan rhetoric.
But Hillary's life as a political candidate began with a declaration of independence from Bill. She announced her Senate bid at the upstate New York farm of retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan on a bright July day in 1999. Her husband, still the president and leader of the Democratic Party, was touring an Indian reservation in South Dakota. Hardly anyone thought it was odd; less than a year earlier, Hillary's husband had admitted to infidelities with Monica Lewinsky in the White House. Once his wife was in the Senate, the former president set out for the world. Politics at home were never far from his mind, however. He watched in exasperation as Republicans won sound victories in the 2002 and 2004 elections by painting Democrats as too weak on security to govern in a post-9/11 world. He longed for a party that remembered how to fight back.
Hillary would be his chance. As his wife prepared a Senate re-election campaign that seemed to be a practice scrimmage for a larger fight, her husband played the role of winking naif. "I don't know if Hillary is going to run," he'd say when asked about a Hillary for President campaign. "We have a rule in our family," he told CNN in 2005. "Don't look past the next election or you might not get past the next election." Privately, he wasn't so coy. In the summer of 2006, he talked about Senator Clinton's fortunes in the Democratic primaries with a former aide, who, like many of Bill's associates and supporters NEWSWEEK talked to for this story, wouldn't be named discussing his conversations with—or talks about—the former president. "Someone's going to come along," he warned, a "fresh face" who would capture the hearts of disaffected Democrats and the ever-fickle press. Invoking the tale of the tortoise and the hare, the former president imagined a Howard Dean-like trajectory for this nameless challenger—discovery, rapture, disappointment—at the end of which the party would return to solid Hillary. "You can't get knocked off stride."
Obama would prove to be the fresh face. On a book tour last fall, Obama began floating the idea of an '08 run. Some in Senator Clinton's circle shrugged off the potential threat. He'd been in the Senate for only two years, they reasoned; he was just trying to sell books. But the former president, say several knowledgeable Democrats, was among the first to see Obama as a real threat.
It was time for Bill to get involved. A few days after Hillary's announcement, John Catsimatidis, the New York supermarket magnate and Democratic fund-raiser, received a call from her campaign. President Clinton had some time open that coming Saturday; could Catsimatidis pull together a fund-raiser? Catsimatidis accepted but was taken aback. He'd hosted Bill "probably 30 times" at various functions. But he usually had two weeks' notice to get a crowd together. Hillary's people were giving him four days. Feeling the pressure—his reputation would suffer if he failed to deliver—Catsimatidis hit the phones. In the end, he managed to gather 50 to 60 guests, each contributing the maximum $2,300 to Senator Clinton's primary campaign, at his home overlooking Central Park. Working the room in a black suit and light blue tie, Bill eventually gave a short speech touching on Iraq, the economy and, finally, Senator Clinton's strengths. "He's become the surrogate campaigner," Catsimatidis tells NEWSWEEK. "People would love to see him versus anyone else."
From the outside, it looked as though the campaign was scrambling the former president in response to the Obama threat. "They wouldn't have brought him in so much if they weren't nervous," says an outer-circle Hillary adviser who would discuss the senator's vulnerability only anonymously. "The more you see Bill, the more you know they're worried." Hillary's campaign strongly denies that Obama factored into their Bill calculus. "We had always planned to make good use of him from the start," says Howard Wolfson, Senator Clinton's spokesman, "no matter who we were running against." Campaign aides add that both Clintons have long since learned not to fixate on the ups and downs of a lengthy campaign. But privately, some Democrats say, Bill is alarmed by the Obama threat. "Bill isn't stupid," says one supporter, who notes Hillary's high negatives in national polls. (In an April Gallup poll, Senator Clinton's favorable rating was 54 percent and her unfavorable rating was 42 percent; her husband's was 60 percent favorable, 38 percent unfavorable; President Bush, in a February Gallup poll, had a 44 percent favorable and a 55 percent unfavorable.)
On the fund-raising circuit, Bill is careful not to attack Obama frontally. Instead, he talks up Hillary's vast experience (and, occasionally, the experience of other Democrats in the field), leaving the obvious contrast with Obama unspoken. Sometimes his indirect critique is less subtle. At a March fund-raiser in Manhattan, first reported in the New York Post, the former president complained that The New York Times hadn't adequately probed Obama's position on Iraq. Curtis Sliwa, a host for the radio station WABC, was a guest. "The message point of that day was that the Times is not being fair to Hillary," he tells NEWSWEEK. "That they really need to examine Barack Obama's position on Iraq."
Mostly, though, Bill and Hillary leave it to a broad circle of former aides to get their hands dirty. The night before the Bloody Sunday commemoration, Rep. John Lewis, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who has yet to sign on with a candidate, noticed a coterie of "former Clinton staffers and administrators" buttonholing guests in the lobby of a Montgomery, Ala., hotel. "I think they were the eyes and ears of the Clinton campaign," Lewis tells NEWSWEEK. While several Clinton camp defectors reached by NEWSWEEK say they've gotten word that Bill and Hillary aren't happy with their move, none can report hearing directly from the Clintons. "It's implied," says a Democratic senator who wouldn't criticize the Clinton campaign on the record. "You must be for Barack because you're against the Clintons." (The Clinton campaign says it has not engaged in any strong-arming.)
One guaranteed way to get the former president fired up is to ask him about his wife's 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq War. At an event for the liberal advocacy group Democracy Alliance in Texas last year, he grew finger-wagging angry when asked if it was credible to say the pitfalls of war in Iraq weren't knowable in 2002. (Students of the Lewinsky saga might recall that a Clinton finger-wag in an argument can signal a weak case.) In April, a San Francisco radio reporter's question about the war prompted the president to raise his finger again. When the reporter tried to change the subject, Clinton lashed out: "You asked me about this, you're going to get an answer." In both instances, Clinton later reached out to his inquisitors to make nice.
Soon, Bill may start having to defend his own record. To many Republicans, the Clinton reign was a low, dishonest decade in which the country looked inward and ignored Al Qaeda. On the campaign trail, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, borrowing a phrase from columnist Charles Krauthammer, calls the Clinton era "a holiday from history." Republican strategists think they can use the Clinton record to make Hillary look weak on terror. "Very few people have scrubbed the Clinton record on terror," says an aide to one Republican candidate who would not be named discussing potential campaign strategy. The Clinton campaign says it welcomes a debate on the Bush and Clinton foreign-policy records. "That's a losing fight for them," Wolfson says. Indeed, after the tumultuous Bush years, Senator Clinton's aides are convinced that the more the country is asked to remember the Clinton past, the better her fortunes will be.
But what about the future? What would First Gentleman Bill Clinton do? Just about anything Hillary wished. He could sit in on cabinet meetings and national-security briefings, as Rosalynn Carter did. Without a constitutionally defined role, he could be a powerhouse without a portfolio—a sobering thought, perhaps, after six-plus years of Vice President Dick Cheney's behind-the-scenes influence.
The mix of family, power and politics can be enormously complex. One need look no farther than the Bushes to see how. George H.W. Bush is a proud father, but friends say they think that ceding center stage to his son has been harder than the Bushes have let on. "My guess is that Clinton doesn't truly get it yet—that he really will have to take a back seat," says a Bush family friend who asked to remain anonymous when discussing sensitive matters. "That happened to the Bushes ... It was hard for the father to recede completely to make way for the son. Bush Senior thinks Clinton had better be careful what he wishes for; her winning will be harder for him than he can imagine."
President Clinton professes to be unconcerned about taking a back seat. "I've about decided that we ought to let women run everything," he joked at an NAACP event in South Carolina last Friday. "Make more time for golf." Senator Clinton has said that Bill would serve as a "global ambassador" in her administration. Asked to elaborate, Clinton staffers say Bill would continue his foundation's work on issues such as AIDS and climate change—and foster reconciliation with American allies in a post-Bush world. At a recent Washington dinner party, a major Clinton backer was overheard offering a more coded interpretation of global ambassador: "That would get him out of Washington"—the implication being that a President Hillary Clinton may be able to use the breathing room from her spouse.
But too much time away would bring a major political risk: renewed focus on the Clintons' marital bond. Some Democrats grow fatalistic when discussing Senator Clinton, convinced that Republicans have already gathered loads of fresh dirt on both Clintons. Two former senior Republican operatives who maintain close contacts with the party's opposition-research apparatus tell NEWSWEEK, however, that they are unaware of the GOP's spending resources researching either Hillary or Bill. (It's not yet worth the time and money, they say, since Senator Clinton is not the nominee.) Moreover, the country has, after all, had a trial about these things—Clinton's Senate ordeal over Lewinsky—and decided that the then president's public record was more important than his private life.
Still, some vestiges of what Senator Clinton once called "the vast right-wing conspiracy" remain. David Bossie, a former investigator for Rep. Dan Burton's House Government Reform Committee, which launched numerous inquiries into the Clinton presidency, is preparing an investigative documentary on Hillary. "We are looking for material on every aspect of the Clintons' lives," Bossie says. Public records show the Clintons still employ Williams & Connolly, their old warhorse law firm, for representation in three civil lawsuits. (David Kendall, Clinton's personal attorney, says he never comments on Williams & Connolly's cases.)
Meanwhile, Hillary's War Room will get its first major test next month with the publication of two biographies, one by journalist Carl Bernstein and the other by investigative reporters Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta. Senator Clinton's campaign professes to be prepared for—but not preoccupied with—the books. Wolfson, who oversees rapid response, says he has done enough due diligence to combat any charges against either Clinton. Senator Clinton's best hope is that she and her husband have grown since leaving the White House, and that she can convince the country she is a figure for the future, not one of the past.
And on that score, as on so many others, her husband at once helps and hurts. Back on the private plane, after a long day in Selma, the former president's mind again turned to junk food. "Let me check those Doritos out," he said, eyeing the snack bowl. "Gotta see what these kids are eating." He had a new guest—Trenton, N.J., Mayor Douglas Palmer, another influential politician. As the plane headed north, the conversation drifted to his wife's speech that day. Wanting to know what everyone onboard had thought, he listened intently for 10 minutes. Finally, he raised his voice. "You know, I worked with her on the speech till 1 o'clock this morning," he said. "I told her to feel it. I told her to sing it." In the days that followed, her speech was mocked by critics who said she'd faked a Southern drawl. Singing is nearly impossible to perfect if you aren't a natural. Presidential politics is almost as hard—even with a master teacher.