Prominent Democrats are upset with the aggressive role that Bill Clinton is playing in the 2008 campaign, a role they believe is inappropriate for a former president and the titular head of the Democratic Party. In recent weeks, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, both currently neutral in the Democratic contest, have told their old friend heatedly on the phone that he needs to change his tone and stop attacking Sen. Barack Obama, according to two sources familiar with the conversations who asked for anonymity because of their sensitive nature. Clinton, Kennedy and Emanuel all declined to comment.
On balance, aides to both Bill and Hillary still see Bill as a huge net plus in fund-raising, attracting large crowds and providing a megaphone to raise doubts about Obama—even if some of those doubts are distortions. But there's concern that in hatcheting the Illinois senator and losing his temper with the news media (last week he thrashed a San Francisco TV reporter for asking about a lawsuit filed by Clinton-backing teachers union members to limit the number of Nevada caucuses), Clinton is drawing down his political capital and harming his role as a global statesman. "This is excruciating," says a member of the Clintons' circle, who asked for anonymity. "But the stakes couldn't be higher. It's worth it to tarnish himself a bit now to win the presidency."
During a December taping with PBS's Charlie Rose, a frustrated Clinton called Obama "a roll of the dice," as aides tried to end the interview. Then, in New Hampshire, he argued angrily that the story of Obama's principled position on the Iraq War was a "fairy tale," a charge few reporters bought. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the top-ranking African-American in Congress and officially neutral, found Clinton's tone insulting and said so publicly.
When the former president called Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat gave Clinton an earful, telling him that he bore some blame for the injection of race into the contest. In any event, both Hillary and Obama made peace on the race issue at the Las Vegas debate. The Clinton camp now fears that Kennedy is leaning toward Obama, according to the Clinton source, though Kennedy's office says he is making no endorsement "at this time."
Clinton aides admit the boss sometimes goes off script. Obama officials say this itself should be a campaign issue. Greg Craig, who coordinated Clinton's impeachment defense in 1998 and is now a senior Obama adviser, argues that "recent events raise the question: if Hillary's campaign can't control Bill, whether Hillary's White House could."
There is little precedent for a former president's engaging in intra-party attacks. In 1960, Harry Truman criticized the idea of a Roman Catholic president and tried briefly to stop John F. Kennedy's nomination. "I urge you to be patient," he told JFK publicly. But in 2000, former president George Bush declined to attack his son's GOP primary opponent, John McCain.
Clinton is undeterred by the criticism and will likely keep hammering Obama if he thinks it helps Hillary. "History will judge the impact on the Clinton legacy, not daily or weekly political reporters," says Matt McKenna, Bill Clinton's press secretary.