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As Hillary Rodham Clinton makes a historic run at the presidency, Washington ponders another potential first ...
BY ROLAND FLAMINI
"Bill and I know how to beat (the Republicans) - we have consistently, and we will," declared Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton in a New Hampshire campaign event in which, the New York Times reported, she mentioned her husband eight times. "Although I am obviously my own person, and have my own record and my own qualifications and my own experience to put before the voters," she said, "I will certainly talk a lot about what we did during the Clinton administration, the disappointment that I feel at the way the Bush administration rejected everything from a balanced budget and a surplus with fiscal responsibility to peace-keeping and nation-building."
It's hardly surprising that candidate Hillary is sending an early signal of her intention to harness the legacy and personal popularity of husband Bill in support of her presidential bid. In reality, she has little choice. Badly handled, her campaign relationship with her husband could become the 500-pound gorilla, her very own King Kong, looming over her campaign. But by immediately setting the former president in the context of her own campaign for the White House she has pre-empted a line of attack by the Republicans, or her own party rivals. Projecting the Clinton presidency as a co-presidency, she can claim part of the credit for its successes.
Trouble is, she can also be harmed by its failures. Pundits agree Bill Clinton's popularity, charm and political skills will be an asset on the campaign trail. The New York Times quoted unnamed "Mrs. Clinton's advisers" as saying that husband Bill "will be a chief surrogate at fund-raisers and political events through November 2008." But there are risks in this strategy, and they worry some of Hillary's supporters and well-wishers.
Too much Bill Clinton will revive memories of both a polarizing former president returning to the White House, and the errant husband of the Monica Lewinsky affair. Too many appearances together would provide ammunition to her opponents. How long before the enemy begins to insinuate that it is Hillary who is the surrogate - a surrogate candidate for her husband? You can see the bumper sticker: "Vote for Hillary and give Bill a third term." Worse, the couple could become a derisive media shorthand: "Hillbilly" ... the Branjolina of the 2008 presidential campaig
Even more important to Hillary Rodham Clinton than Bill's role in the campaign, is the issue of what he will do as First Husband, should she make presidential history by winning the election. (Incidentally, First Husband seems more appropriate then First Gentleman, even though the latter is the masculine equivalent of First Lady.) If the 500-pound gorilla is a danger to the Clintonpresidential run, it will be a positive menace in the White House. Left unanswered fully and conclusively, the question of the former president's future will bedevil the campaign. By the time she reaches the television debates Hillary Clinton will need to have batted that one right out of the ballpark with a decisive answer.
The situation has the makings of a Tom Stoppard play, but this is one instance where life takes precedence over art. It is not sexist to think that there is something surreal about the notion of the former president pottering about upstairs in the White House, while his presidential wife is working one floor below in the Oval Office. Clinton's Republican critics will warn darkly of a dynastic takeover, but in pushing that line they are on shaky ground.
Bush senior's studied detachment from his son was exemplary, but it didn't prevent speculation that the phone lines were busy between the White House and the ex-president's homes in Houston and Kennebunkport. And in the end Bush Sr. could keep his distance no longer: he stepped in with an attempt to rescue his son from the disastrous consequences of his actions in Iraq only to have his help (in the form of the Baker-Hamilton commission) and his advice rejected.
Paul Begala, a Bill Clinton presidential campaign strategist, makes the point that the former president has been "a model of a modern senate spouse," implying that Clinton will stay aloof from his wife's decision making. But while Bill Clinton has never been a senator, he is a two-term former president of the United States. Given that background, can he maintain the same appearance of detachment if he moves into the White House?
Running his Clinton Foundation, which focuses on global issues of health and economic empowerment, is not likely to keep the former president occupied, so President Hillary will simply have to find him something to do. One newspaper suggested recently that Clinton could serve out his wife's unexpired term in the U.S. Senate (in 2008, it would have four years to go: the length of her presidency). "He knows the issues, he loves publicity, and he's a good politician," former Clinton aide Harold Ickes was quoted as saying.
Another possibility: appoint him ambassadorat- large, which would involve travel away from Washington and the White House on important international missions. But Clinton would find that thin gruel. Better yet, appoint him U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, which would move him out of the White House altogether, and into the ambassador's residence in the Waldorf Astoria Towers in Manhattan. But for a man who, however fleetingly, eyed the post of U.N. Secretary General, even that key international post would seem a step down.
Then what about Bill Clinton as secretary of state? The post would involve travel away from the White House, would give him an office to go to every day, make maximum use of his skill, interests, and, let's face it, charisma, and would unquestionably be highly popular in the international community.
On hearing this idea, a European ambassador in Washington brightened and said, "The image of the United States world wide would take a quantum leap for the better overnight." Analysts will say that Bill Clinton's foreign policy record was a mixed one, but on certain key issues, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, and relations with Europe, his heart was in the right place. The appointment would, of course, put him in Hillary Clinton's cabinet, but there is surely some advantage to having his advice given out in the open instead of in the privacy of the White House living quarters.
Alright, so the idea of Secretary of State William Jefferson Clinton is likely more fantasy than realtiy: the cries of nepotism would recall the furious opposition to President Kennedy's decision to give the post of attorney general to his brother Robert, another man with Bill Clinton's knack for generating deep friendships, but even deeper enmities.
Over the centuries the role of presidential wives has become frozen in a certain mold, and Hillary Clinton was not the first to chafe at its limitations. As the first presidential husband Bill Clinton would be writing history - doubly so as a former president returning to his own former seat of power. Whatever his own future may be, one thing is certain: it will change life in the White House for the First Ladies who follow.