Bill Clinton: Popular, Opinionated, and Still Relevant
By Tara Krieger
President Obama assured him it would be “just like riding a bicycle.” The ex-president would remember what to do. But former President Bill Clinton described that night in December 2010 when Mr. Obama ceded him the White House podium another way.
The nation’s 42nd president had appeared in the briefing room to lobby a tax cut bill when his Democratic successor whispered—moments before the cameras began rolling—that he would be ducking out early to appease the First Lady at a Christmas party.
“He hit me right between the eyes when we were standing there,” said Mr. Clinton, who fielded questions for an hour Thursday night from the event’s moderator, Thane Rosenbaum.
(This author, a former LASIS staff writer, feels the macrocosmic parallel of reassuming a role she once performed regularly, and is grateful for the opportunity to pen one final article before she graduates next month.)
Nearly a dozen years have passed since Mr. Clinton last occupied the Oval Office. His hair is a little whiter, his Arkansas drawl a bit hoarser, and his physique, after his much-touted conversion to a vegan lifestyle, much leaner, but he remained ever as likeably outspoken on Thursday night, the centerpiece of a conversation brought to us by the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at Fordham Law School, as part of its annual Conversation series.
Indeed, said Professor Rosenbaum, the Forum’s director, the Clinton administration feels like “another lifetime ago.” He reminded us of that seemingly-long-ago era before the peace and prosperity of the 1990s yielded to war, terrorism, and economic strife; before a Congress that once worked together became horribly fragmented; before a budget surplus gave way to colossal debt; before traditional print and broadcast media were supplanted by the Internet and 24-hour news networks. The dualities are far from that simply pronounced—among other things, the Clinton era also featured government shutdowns and partisan impeachment hearings—but a longing for those rosier times could explain Mr. Clinton’s continued involvement as a “crusading diplomat on the world stage.”
Since leaving office in early 2001, Mr. Clinton has partnered with other political leaders—including unlikely ones such as former Senator Bob Dole and both former President Bushes—and been deployed by the United Nations, all in the name of humanitarian work, raising money for families of 9/11 victims and recovery efforts after the South Asian tsunami, Hurricanes Ike and Katrina, and the earthquake in Haiti.
In 2005, he established the William J. Clinton Foundation, a sort of global think tank that brings together philanthropists, heads of non-governmental organizations, and members of the media to form “creative networks of cooperation” to address problems such access to HIV/AIDS and malaria medication, childhood obesity, and climate change.
“If I were a lawyer, I’d say I got a disaster practice here,” said Mr. Clinton.
Well-known is that Mr. Clinton, who Thursday night offhandedly professed a love for the Socratic Method, graduated from Yale Law School in 1973. Less well-known is that his first post-law school job was teaching law at the University of Arkansas.
“I was the new guy on the block and they made me teach everything they didn’t want to teach,” said Mr. Clinton, whose classes included antitrust, agency law and partnership, criminal law, criminal procedure, constitutional law, and admiralty law (apparently some of the lakes in Arkansas feed into ships passageways).
He wasn’t there long, as in 1974 he ran unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives against Republican incumbent John Paul Hammerschmidt—“a guy with 85% approval rating and 99% name recognition and I had zero-zero.” But Mr. Clinton recounted with great pride the slim margin by which he lost (51.5%-48.5%), and the percentage-by-percentage breakdown of the voters he won over (Mr. Clinton had 66% name recognition by election day). Another matter of pride to him: not until after the primary was over did Mr. Clinton give up his day job at the law school.
Although he no longer campaigns for office, Mr. Clinton’s competitive fire intensifies when he discusses any political topic from the budget deficit to health care reform.
Asked whether he misses the Oval Office. Mr. Clinton replied that he didn’t. He is truly gratified by his humanitarian work. But there is, he said, one job that he has recently found himself coveting. “I wish I’d been solicitor general in the health care case before the Supreme Court,” Mr. Clinton said. “It’s an easy case.”
As proof, he cited Wickard v. Filburn, which extended the bounds of what Congress could regulate under the Commerce Clause to intrastate transactions that had a substantial effect on interstate commerce, as well as an individual mandate on seamen enacted by President John Adams in 1798. (“Scalia loves the founding fathers. Last time I checked, John Adams was a founding father.”)
“I kind of think they will uphold it,” said Mr. Clinton. “But it’ll be close. [James] Carville says they don’t want another rotten decision on their scorecard — they’ve already got Bush v. Gore, which is one of the worst cases of my lifetime, probably since Korematsu,” which allowed the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“I feel sorry that for Governor Romney to get nominated he had to forego one of his best arguments,” Mr. Clinton said, describing the success of RomneyCare in Massachusetts, adding that Mitt Romney “can’t claim credit for that, because in the Spanish Inquisition that was the Republican primary, if he flunked that question, they’d say, ‘You’re outta here.’”
Mr. Clinton also decried Newt Gingrich for his “selective memory” in helping to balance the budget while he was Speaker of the House of Representatives, noting that over 90% of the Republicans in at the time voted against the bill that was responsible for most of the basis of the plan.
He blamed today’s radical politically fragmented climate on the electorate—“when people vote for polarization, they get it”—but felt some sympathy for the “freshman Tea Partiers” in Congress, because “all they did is what they promised to do.” Still, he was optimistic about the eventual prospects of bipartisan cooperation.
“We live in a time when conflict is good politics and cooperation is good policy,” Mr. Clinton said.
He also spoke with veneration for our current Secretary of State. “I want you to marry me, but you shouldn’t do it,” he said he told Hillary Clinton when he proposed.
“You’re the most talented person of your generation,” he said then, urging her to move to a big city and seek political office, rather than following him to Arkansas on a “fool’s errand.”
Mrs. Clinton is resigning at the end of her term next year, leaving Washington without a Clinton for the first time in decades. Perhaps only the 22nd Amendment stood in the way of the former President seeking another term.
“It’s a waste of time taking an hour of your life and wishing you could do something you can’t do anymore,” he said of being President.
Yet he seems ever at ease remaining “active in areas that I cared about when I was President that I could have an impact.” For Mr. Clinton, should that translate into another official political office someday, he’d likely find the task just like riding a bicycle.
The event was first-come-first-serve, and was free of charge. It felt up close and personal, and I was fortunate to get a “golden ticket” and attend.
NB: We actually have a question for Professor Rosenbaum: How do you put on such consistently outstanding and memorable events?