comscore A worry if Clinton wins: An idle ex-president in the White House

A worry if Clinton wins: An idle ex-president in the White House

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PHILADELPHIA >> If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, Bill Clinton will not become a regular at Cabinet meetings, his wife’s advisers say. He will not be invited into the Situation Room. He will step away from his family’s foundation work and may not even have an office in the West Wing, given the undesirable optics of a former president and husband looking over the shoulder of the first female commander in chief.

But the steps Clinton aides are planning to shape his new life do little to address a potentially thornier problem: Historically, when Bill Clinton does not have a job to do, he gets into trouble.

It was during the government shutdown in 1995 that Bill Clinton began his affair with Monica Lewinsky. It was in the early years after he left the White House that his friendships with wealthy playboys became tabloid fodder. Sidelined by Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton went rogue and started lashing out at Barack Obama. More recently, his dinner with the businessman Mark Cuban and his tarmac encounter with Attorney General Loretta Lynch were reminders that when Bill Clinton has time on his hands, he can create dangerous distractions for his wife.

“He loves getting involved in things — no one loves policy and politics more than Bill Clinton,” said Mickey Kantor, a longtime friend and secretary of commerce under Bill Clinton. “He loves, and needs, to have a purpose.”

Putting Bill Clinton to good use, while containing his less helpful impulses, would be a major test for Hillary Clinton as president, given the spotlight and pressure they would be under and her limited ability in the past to rein in his excesses. Hillary Clinton sees him as her most trusted confidant and sounding board on national security issue and the economy, advisers say; one recalled a recent golf outing where Bill Clinton received several phone calls and emails from Hillary Clinton before reaching the 14th hole.

Yet Hillary Clinton is still not sure if she would give a formal position to Bill Clinton or rely on him to help behind the scenes and keep a low profile, aides say. She clearly wants him busy: Appearing on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, Hillary Clinton said that it would be “an all-hands-on-deck time” if she wins the presidency and that she would rely on Bill Clinton — as well as President Barack Obama — and “put ‘em all to work.” At the same time she emphasized, that she and Bill Clinton would not be co-presidents, leaving open the question of how he would spend his days when he is so close to the levers of power that he knows well.

Given his insights and experience, Bill Clinton could be more capable than anyone else in ensuring the success of her presidency — or he could cast a long shadow over her.

“Their relationship as a current president and a former president would be a very, very sensitive issue early on, and they’d need to carefully work out the rules of the road for the sake of both of them,” said David Gergen, who was a senior adviser to several presidents, including Bill Clinton.

“There’s some revisionist history underway about his presidency that clearly bothers him, for instance, and he may want to rewrite the story of his presidency partly by influencing Hillary’s policies as president,” Gergen added. “They both have to be very careful with that.”

Aides and allies of the Clintons were emphatic that his sole focus would be on helping his wife as president and doing what she asked of him. They played down any controversies over the last several years, pointing out that Bill Clinton had focused on the foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative during that time. But at the same time they acknowledged that Bill Clinton would not be content to sit idly by or speak only when spoken to.

At 69, even as age and health have somewhat slowed him, Bill Clinton still has a strong desire to be in the center of the action, friends say, and his intellectual interests and curiosity remain vast.

One aide says he now spends an extra hour every day reading about world economies, partly in anticipation of helping Hillary Clinton if she asks him to help with economic revitalization, as she has indicated. He enjoys working abroad — his popularity is sky-high in many foreign countries — and he likes calling up whomever he wants, whenever he wants, especially his wife. But if the Clintons return to the White House, his life will inevitably become more circumscribed, and he will be expected to show the self-discipline that most first spouses have demonstrated.

“He’ll do anything she wants and nothing more,” said Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1997 to 1998. “That will be hard for him at times, but that’s the reality of the situation if she is going to succeed on her own.”

Tina Flournoy, who is Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, noted that he has been a prodigious campaigner and fundraiser throughout the campaign at Hillary Clinton’s request — a role that political analysts have described as a net asset for her candidacy. “If Secretary Clinton is elected, he will continue to support her whenever and wherever he’s asked,” Flournoy said.

Bill Clinton is not likely to shoulder many of the traditional duties of first ladies, advisers say, like selecting White House china and floral arrangements and presiding as the host in the national home and arranging state dinners. Some of that is expected to fall to the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea. Clinton also has not given thought to using the role of first gentleman to redefine images and ideas about masculinity and patriarchy, nor has he decided if he might draw on his personal interests — like veganism — for a healthy-eating initiative the way Michelle Obama did, his advisers say.

Friends of Bill Clinton say the smartest way to use him would involve a major but focused appointment, like leading a task force to fight climate change, global poverty, or the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which would be natural outgrowths of his foundation work. Others, including some who worked in Bill Clinton’s administration, like the idea of him as Middle East peace envoy, given his herculean efforts in the region during his presidency, or as a kind of jobs mastermind focused on rebuilding the most struggling regions of America.

“In some ways the Middle East is the most natural job for him, because he’s so popular with all sides and he spent so much time on peacemaking,” said Martin S. Indyk, a U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration and a longtime negotiator in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Aides to Bill Clinton said Middle East peace envoy was not a job they had heard him express interest in.

They also noted that for every possible job, there is a potential downside — that he would spark tensions with her secretary of state, Treasury secretary, or other cabinet officer; that he might upstage Hillary Clinton or box her in because she might have difficulty overruling him; or that he would become a political target of Republicans once again.

Hillary Clinton has some personal familiarity with the issue. In 1994, she led the White House’s health care reform effort, an endeavor that put her in conflict with congressional Republicans and competition with Vice President Al Gore. Advisers say she is mindful of that experience and wary of putting Bill Clinton in the cross hairs with a high-profile policy role.

But the Clintons would not simply be changing roles if she becomes president and he the supportive spouse. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who was new to Washington when she became first lady, Bill Clinton brings a wealth of political relationships, untold diplomatic experience and vast firsthand knowledge about issues and crises that presidents face. He could easily be deployed to make discreet phone calls to governors, members of Congress and business leaders, or to play a role in negotiations between foreign leaders or in global hot spots.

Bill Clinton is excited to return to the White House because he thinks he can genuinely help Hillary Clinton, his advisers say, so relegating him to a narrow role — like being the head of a task force — might leave him wanting more.

“We’re never had a former president who, as a behind-the-scenes roving emissary, would have so much power to speak on behalf of a sitting president,” said Douglas Schoen, a former adviser and pollster to Bill Clinton. “He is uniquely qualified to be her consigliere, and I think it would thrill him because intellectually he is always restless and engaged. She just has to channel him the right way.”

Advisers to Hillary Clinton, asked about specific roles that Bill Clinton may play, said she had not given the matter much thought.

“She would certainly seek his advice and counsel,” said Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton. “Beyond that, it being July, it would be getting ahead of oneself to talk about any sort of formalized role for anyone in an administration.”

Bill Clinton would not necessarily be at the White House full time, advisers say. The couple would most likely keep their home in Chappaqua, N.Y., and Bill Clinton might continue doing some work in Manhattan with his foundation or at the offices he has kept in his post-presidency.

When in Washington, he would be less likely to be a social planner for his wife than to be her protector within the White House. Some friends of the Clintons said they could see him taking a page from Nancy Reagan, who could be aggressive in ensuring that administration staff members were serving the interests of President Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton might know better than most if Hillary Clinton was being overburdened or receiving bad advice.

“He’ll be her advocate, he’ll be her lawyer, and if he thinks the staff isn’t protecting her, they’d have private conversations about it,” Kantor said. He said, however, that he did not think Bill Clinton would go as far as Nancy Reagan, who orchestrated the outer of Donald Regan as White House chief of staff.

“He wouldn’t meddle,” Kantor said, “in a negative way.”

Advisers to the Clintons say they have no models for their lives in the White House if Hillary Clinton wins; Bill Clinton would be in a league of his own as a former president as well as the first male spouse.

His focus at this point, advisers say, is simply to help get Hillary Clinton get elected.

“It’s remarkable,” Gergen said. “She would be the first president in history who is protecting the legacy of two presidents. And I think her presidency would bring him a certain amount of redemption — that the country did see the Clinton years as good enough that they wanted to return this couple to the White House.”

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