Bill and Hillary Clinton's Life in Exile: The Once-Powerful Political Couple Now Seeks Attention, Audience

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David Becker/Getty

One evening earlier this year, an old friend and adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton sat down with the former president for dinner at a quiet Manhattan restaurant. Bill, the friend says, looked thinner and more tired than he had in some time. He is 72 now, 15 years on from open-heart surgery and the complications that arose from it. He was, the friend says, a "bit sad, and more than a bit angry."

The 2020 race for the White House was underway, and not many of the ever-expanding field of Democratic contenders had phoned him or come calling to discuss what it is like to run a presidential campaign. A lot of the contenders seemed to be scrambling to the left to satisfy the progressive wing of the party "and the angry Twitter-verse," as Bill's dinner companion puts it. "This guy's political brain is still sharp—among the sharpest in the party—and he worries that [the Democratic Party] may be frittering away the chance it has to beat Trump next year."

That's where the anger comes in. And the sadness? "He realizes, politically, he's in exile, and to some extent Hillary is too. This is a tough time for them."

For reasons both political and personal, Bill and Hillary, the most powerful couple in the modern era of American politics, stand on the sidelines as one of the most important election cycles for Democrats unfolds. For the Clintons, this is the year the might-have-beens become especially painful. Just 80,000 votes in three traditionally Democratic states deprived them of the restoration: a return to the White House—with Hillary now "the Big Dog"—and a recapture of the leadership of their party.

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Photo Illustration by Gluekit for Newsweek; Clintions by John Moore/Getty

They have been cast aside for obvious reasons. Democratic politics have changed markedly since the Clintons ruled Washington. The economic successes of the era were rooted in centrist policies: a balanced budget (agreed to in compromise with Republicans) and a commitment to free trade exemplified by Bill's signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Now, in both parties, there is not much of a constituency for either. As president, Bill signed a crime bill that did, over time, result in lower crime rates. But progressives say it was partly responsible for the increase in incarceration rates for African Americans and Latinos ever since it was passed.

None of that, of course, is at the heart of Bill's exile. In the #MeToo era, the personal has become the political. And his history of skirt chasing—before the White House and during his presidency—is no longer defensible for many Democrats.

When Hillary insisted in a national television interview last year that her husband's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was not "an abuse of power" because "she was an adult," the press reaction was scathing. According to three friends of the Clintons interviewed for this story (who were granted anonymity to speak candidly), the furor had a "profoundly depressing effect" on the first couple and all those around them who still like and support them.

"It was just awful," says one of the friends. "For Bill, it brought up all the bad times, and it showed yet again that Hillary just has no political fingertips. It couldn't have been worse."

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Until that point, it had been an open secret in Clinton world that Hillary was at least considering another presidential run, though just how seriously is a matter of dispute. She was being urged on by Bill, according to two sources close to them, who was convinced she would beat Donald Trump in a rematch. To both of them, "Trump had been predictably awful. They felt that, even with a relatively good economy, he was very vulnerable." And a lot of Democrats still wanted to make history by electing a woman, and both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (whose supporters would have been infuriated by another Clinton run) obviously didn't fit that bill.

"Did they want revenge? Of course they did," says one former senior adviser. Either on the phone or at the occasional conclave at the couple's home in Chappaqua, New York, Hillary would bat around the idea with close aides, including former chief of staff Cheryl Mills, 2008 presidential campaign manager Maggie Williams and aide-de-camp Philippe Reines.

Some were less enthusiastic than others. In the first year or so after she lost to Trump, Hillary was somewhat insulated from the anger a lot of Democratic leaders felt toward her. That resentment was a subject Bill didn't raise, although he was aware of it from his endless soundings of his national network of contacts in the party. Public polling or approval ratings didn't provide much encouragement. A Gallup Poll in the fall of 2018 had her at 36 percent.

If there was ever any hope that Hillary might go for round two against Trump, defending Bill's conduct with Lewinsky ended it. The woman who somehow lost in 2016 "to an orange puffer clown fish," as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it, was, like her husband, done. Throughout most, if not all, of Hillary-land, there was relief. "It was probably the right decision," says former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a longtime Clinton ally.

Still, for reasons that bewilder some of their friends, the Clintons continue to feel compelled to be in the public eye, to make themselves heard. Consider the recently concluded tour called "An Evening With the Clintons," in which the two reminisced about their time in Washington. It began last fall at a sports arena in Toronto—a vast venue more appropriate for a Beyoncé concert than a political trip down memory lane. There were huge numbers of empty seats and large sections of the arena cordoned off by curtain. Ticket sales were slow, and the promoters had to cut prices in half. The entire evening was a debacle, and the tour took a hiatus.

But it was not canceled. Organizers had booked some smaller venues for the spring — though at at least two of these some seating was blocked out so as to create a more intimate setting. Ticket prices were slashed, and again the Clintons sallied forth: 13 stops across the country, ending on May 4 in Las Vegas, answering softball questions from factotums like former political adviser Paul Begala or celebrities like comedian Jordan Klepper, who, inexplicably, was chosen to host the Washington, D.C., event on April 27.

Most of the program is legacy-burnishing: how smart they were; how they wanted to unite not divide; how they grew the economy for everyone, not just the rich. They riff about how they ended the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. "Bill, this is boring!" a heckler yelled at the New York event before being hustled out of the Beacon Theatre.

The Cut-Rate Clintons

Most of the crowds are still adoring, of course; the Clintons don't even have enough juice to draw many protesters anymore. The crowds on the tour applaud virtually everything both of them say. But the small-scale venues—many were still not sold out—and the cheaper prices speak to the very real cost of exile for the Clintons. Beyond the just-ended tour, their speaking fees have plummeted. After she left her job as secretary of state but before she declared her 2016 candidacy, Hillary used to make $200,000 per speech. In 2014, she spoke at eight different universities and pulled in $1.8 million.

No longer. The head of one prominent public speakers' agency, who didn't want to be quoted on the record, says Hillary's fees have come down sharply—particularly after a couple of post-2016 university speaking engagements (for which she was paid up to $300,000) sparked a fierce backlash. Since then, her fees have been as low as $25,000 or $50,000 per event. A Clinton spokesperson disputed these figures but declined to disclose specific speaking fees.

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Bill, because of the current political climate, doesn't do as many solo domestic gigs as before, though he's still in demand abroad, commanding $200,000 or more for foreign engagements. He doesn't do them as often as he used to either—he's had "more than 30" engagements in the last 12 months, according to a spokesman—because physically, an associate says, "he's not up to it." From 2001 to 2015, just before Hillary declared as a candidate, the Clintons made more than $150 million in speaking fees. "Those days are gone," says the associate.

The Clinton Foundation—the philanthropic unit Bill set up after his presidency—has also fallen out of favor now that there is no prospect of the Clintons returning to power. Federal tax filings show donations of $62.9 million in 2016 fell to $26.5 million a year later. A Clinton spokesman said that's "largely" because the annual Clinton Global Initiative Conference was canceled in 2016, and fundraising for the endowment ceased. Republican critics often charged that the foundation was a pay-to-play scheme while Hillary was secretary of state and then a prospective president. But those political charges have become as irrelevant as the Clintons are.

Shades of Irrelevance

Of the two, Hillary retains the higher public profile. She's still doing select TV interviews and some solo speaking engagements. Friends of hers say there was a time following the 2016 election when she didn't know how much to re-engage with the public—if at all. There was—and remains—considerable sentiment among Democratic stalwarts that the woman who lost an election to Trump should just go away. Friends, including former Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile, helped coax her out of despair. Brazile says she urged Hillary "to pick her spots, speak up and speak out."

She has done so and, in contrast to Bill, has been gratified that several of the current Democratic contenders have sought her advice on the 2020 campaign. That includes all of the major female candidates—Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand—as well as former Vice President Joe Biden, among others. Jennifer Palmieri, who served as Hillary's communications director in 2016, says she expects Hillary to be "a very visible" presence as the 2020 campaign continues. "She has a lot to contribute and a lot to say, both in private [to other candidates] and in public."

Friends of both Clintons say Hillary has been "warmed" by the amount of sympathy she gets from voters she encounters. "The political pros may still be angry that she lost and think she should stay out of the limelight," says Joe Lockhart, who was Bill's press secretary when he was president, "but a lot of people voted for her enthusiastically, and she has already been reminded of that. She's still a significant voice in American politics."

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A Mysterious Marriage

As with any story about the Clintons, particularly one about their exile, there are questions about their endlessly scrutinized marriage. Hillary spends most of her time in Chappaqua—her days of long, lonely walks in the woods are over—and Bill is there more often than not. Ask friends how the Clintons are doing in their private life as a couple and they usually avoid answering.

"I'm not a psychiatrist. I'm not going there," one of Bill's longtime senior aides puts it. The truth most likely is: They are as they have been. Despite the personal scandals and political disappointments, "they're partners," says the aide. "They always will be."

Still, there are moments that are jarring. At the Daughters of the American Revolution Hall, where the D.C. "Evening With the Clintons" was held, Bill, in the midst of a riff about the current political state of affairs, said, "There are a lot of very smart, decent people out there who are a part of the 'Make America great' rallies. People who feel that they're stuck in economic stagnation, social insignificance and political disempowerment.''

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Hillary was sitting next to him as he said this. There was no mention of her infamous description of Trump supporters as a "basket of deplorables" and "irredeemables" during the campaign—the moment many of her aides believe cost her the election, never mind Russian meddling. Hillary didn't even bother to campaign in Wisconsin during the general election, even though, according to a longtime friend, Bill had been unsettled by the number of "Make America great again" signs he had seen there while campaigning on her behalf.

It was a stunning moment. Of course, Bill was right. Former aides to the president say it drove him nuts that Hillary's campaign didn't feel the need to go after the white working-class people who, in many respects, were his political base during two successful runs for the presidency. That they ended up electing Trump "just kills," says a friend.

Did Bill make the "smart, decent people" remark to rub it in to Hillary and her former campaign advisers? Does he not know how that comment would be perceived? Hillary didn't react one way or the other; the conversation moved on. Later, she alluded, as she did at several of these evening "conversations," to the election being "stolen" from her—a reference to Russian interference. The audience applauds enthusiastically. Both Clintons nod.

Both are smart people, famously so. One was charismatic politically, one was decidedly not. Now, their public careers are over, and maybe it's easier for them to say that a malevolent foreign force was the cause of her defeat. Bill, however, spoke an obvious truth: Insulting the voters you need only lands you in exile.

This story has been updated to correct the name of Cheryl Mills, who was incorrectly referred to as Cheryl Williams, and to add information regarding the Clintons' speaking fees and funding of the Clinton Foundation.