Pardon the Ex-President: Bill Clinton Spent His Public Life Making a Legacy and His Legacy Years Making Money. What Trouble Will He Make for Hillary?

By von Hoffman, Nicholas | The American Conservative, February 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

Pardon the Ex-President: Bill Clinton Spent His Public Life Making a Legacy and His Legacy Years Making Money. What Trouble Will He Make for Hillary?


von Hoffman, Nicholas, The American Conservative


BILL CLINTON fought so hard against becoming an ex-president in his trial in the Senate that he may not have thought about how an ex ought to behave when his time in office was up.

There are models he might have copied. He might have meditated on the post-White House years of John Quincy Adams, who left the presidency to become a congressman and such an unflinching champion of free speech and abolitionism that he was nicknamed "Old Man Eloquent." (Bill, on the other hand, is at risk of being remembered as Old Man Delinquent.)

Thanks to his intransigence, Adams achieved a post-White House unpopularity eclipsing that of Jimmy Carter, an ex-president who is able to irritate even those who are in wholehearted agreement with him. Carter is a man much admired for what he does even though, when he flashes that nasty sweet smile, he drives people nuts. Like Adams, an easy man to admire, a hard man to like. (With Bill, it's the other way around.)

Herbert Hoover's chief function, in the decade after his defeated attempt at re-election in 1932, was to be a football for the Democrats. But redemption came to Hoover when Harry Truman asked him to head an effort to devise a plan to reorganize the federal government. The Hoover Commission was as much of a success as anyone could have asked for, taking into account the inevitabilities of politics and the jackass factor in human events.

Former presidents can do great things or cause havoc. Theodore Roosevelt was a major wreaker of havoc. After leaving office he split the Republican Party in two, causing the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. With the outbreak of World War I, the rip-snorting ex-prexy tramped back and forth across the country, denouncing Wilson as a poltroon for not joining the fray. Unlike today's politicians, TR paid for his bellicosity when he lost a son in the war he did so much to precipitate.

Some ex-presidents have been content to retire to their desks to write books, all but one of which are of interest to no one other than graduate students. Ulysses S. Grant's autobiography stands alone as a work of quality; Bill Clinton's, after a mixed reception, appears to have been relegated to the stack of rarely read former presidential effusions.

Like Clinton, Richard Nixon also left the White House in disgrace, but the latter spent his post-presidential years working to get back into good odor. Bill Clinton, who doesn't seem to have recognized the truly low opinion he was held in, not only by his political opponents but also by the yallerest of yallerdog Democrats, has spent no time atoning. If you haven't sinned you are not in need of redemption.

Though he may sometimes look like the aging roue and disbarred lawyer he is, the smiling, toe-tapping Bill we see on TV acts as though he were in a perpetual state of grace. In their post White House years, Wilson, Coolidge, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon lived as though they had an obligation to conduct themselves so as to uphold the dignity of the office they had once held. Bill Clinton burst out of his eight years on Pennsylvania Avenue like a youth with a fresh college degree and a world-is-my-oyster attitude.

When, near the end of his term, Calvin Coolidge was offered dignified employment by Charlie Merrill of Merrill Lynch, he turned it down. Clinton apparently turns nothing down when the tincture of money passes his nostrils. It is as though he has sublimated his roaring libido into an unzipped drive for money.

Accurate figures are not available, but from information derived from Hillary Clinton's Senate disclosure forms, this couple, who left the White House in debt thanks to Bill's legal bills, is worth upwards of $54 million. They are rich enough that Mrs. Clinton could write a check of $5 million for her presidential campaign with the ease of someone sending in the monthly mortgage payment.

In the circles Bill Clinton moves in, his activities are difficult to trace, for his is a life of private jets, walled mansions, smoked windows, and deluxe hideouts whose existence is known only to the billionaires who own them and the body servants who maintain them. …

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