Could Bill Clinton Be Headed Back to White House?

New Yorker editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Remnick talks about Bill Clinton's bid to fight AIDS in Africa and return to the White House, with his wife at the helm.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Defining a legacy has consumed, even obsessed, American presidents. What does the former Commander in Chief of the world's most powerful country do when he has to leave the White House?

President Bill Clinton has made it a mission of sorts to leave his post-presidential footprint on the world, at least as deep as the one he left as president.

David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker magazine. He shadowed President Clinton recently, and wrote about the former president's post-White House life in an article for the magazine. It's on the newsstands now, and he joins from our bureau in New York City. David, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. DAVID REMNICK (Editor, The New Yorker Magazine): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: You start the article with the president and his daughter, Chelsea, going to the World Cup in Germany, the final game there, and then almost right after the game he's on a plane to Africa. Not everybody's typical day.

Mr. REMNICK: Well, he may be the first white Harlem Globetrotter. You know, his offices are up in Harlem and he's got the Clinton Foundation there. And he, in the past several years, has been traveling all over the world - mainly about AIDS in Africa - but also many other projects having to do with global warming, public health, and all the rest. So I think there's that kind of Jimmy Carter side to his post-presidency writ large. But it's a unique post-presidency, it's not limited to that.

CONAN: And you write about the history of post-presidencies, and in the way that Jimmy Carter really redefined it.

Mr. REMNICK: Right. When Clinton was about to leave the White House at the very end of his second term, he looked around and tried to assess what the state of the post-presidency was and what were the models that he could follow. And there was Gerald Ford playing golf, and George H. W. Bush making some money -and also being an older guy - and kind of in a retired situation. And also, there's the politically delicate business of his son being the president. And Richard Nixon was writing lots of foreign policy treatises, largely in an attempt to resuscitate or revive his reputation, which never really quite happened.

And Clinton followed the Carter model but you'd have to say it was the Carter model squared. It was kind of retrofitted to the Clintonian dimensions. It's a lot less modest in operation I would say, although it's intentions are very good.

But there's also the political side of this, and his wife is a senator and is the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president. And so he has a very important, delicate, subtle role to play in that sense. And he's also the Democratic Party's big gun.

CONAN: You describe him at one point as the Advance Man in Chief.

Mr. REMNICK: Well, yes. I mean, not only did I go with him all over Africa and Germany, but also to Manchester, New Hampshire, where he just happens to be dropping in and making sure that the ground is fertile there - if and when his wife decides to run. He's going to speak at a dinner, a very important political dinner, in Iowa in the fall and you can be sure that he'll be used like that even before any announcement is made.

The key thing here is that Hilary Clinton has to decide come November, when she will most likely regain her seat in the Senate, whether to run or not. And that decision is going to be made on two foundations. One, the political calculation of whether she can win. And secondly, does she want to go through this again? The personal reasons, and they include does she want her daughter to be surrounded by 12 armed men all the time? And does she want her personal life to be examined the way people have to have it examined in running for the modern presidency and, of course, in the case of Clinton and the Clintons, that is magnified by enumerable times.

CONAN: With which we are all familiar. We're talking with…

Mr. REMNICK: All too familiar.

CONAN: All too familiar. David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker magazine on his article about Bill Clinton's post-presidential life. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And there are scenes in your description of his travels that are warmly nostalgic for those of us who lived through the Clinton administration. He's speaking to a group of kids about obesity, one of the things that he does talk about these days.

Mr. REMNICK: Well, you follow him and you begin to realize one of the political talents that help elevate someone to the presidency - and obviously there are large things, drive, various successes while in office in Arkansas. But there's also little things. And I saw him in New Hampshire at an obesity event. He's been, you know, trying to help in the campaign to cut down on the degree to which we have so many overweight kids.

And he was speaking to a big auditorium, overheated auditorium of kids, and a kid got up and he asked a question that embarrassed him enormously. And all the kids were laughing at him and Clinton knew just what to do. He just said, that's actually a great question, you know in that kind of empathetic, empathic way that he has, and immediately he won over the kid. He cut the laughing out and yet he did it without insulting anybody. There's this kind of connective talent that he has that is very much in place.

He also, you know I have to say when he went to the World Cup, he just decided he'd have to drop in on a big audience of 500,000 people because he just wanted to feel the love. He just wanted to get out there and connect with this big, outdoor audience that was going to watch the game on television screens. And he just basically came out there and presented himself, and you can imagine what would have happened if George Bush had done this at this point in history. The reaction would not have been the ovation that Bill Clinton got. He is very, very popular around the world.

In Africa he is a rock star, even though his record on Africa, arguably, is not as good as the record that the Bush administration has - much, in a sense, it's complicated to say. His record on AIDS in Africa was not particularly good. His record on Rwanda was as dismal as could possibly be. And yet, all is forgiven.

CONAN: You've described a lot of the work that the Clinton Foundation does is on AIDS in Africa trying to, and successfully, knocking down the price of drugs, making them more available. You suggest that this is motivated, at least in part, by guilt over his record on AIDS when he was in office.

Mr. REMNICK: Well, I think that would be too kind of cartoonish a suggestion. I think that there is no question that everybody's motivations for the things we do are complex. And I think that Bill Clinton should be given credit where credit is due. That he wants to do well but he also wants to do good, and he wants to do good in the world and in Africa.

Are there motives that have to do with a sense of not being able to do what he thought he should have done in his administration? I think that's probably fair to say, too. But I think that we can say that motivations are always complex. They're not that simple.

CONAN: To borrow one of the former president's favorite words, there is a fascinating description of him traveling and discussing a lot of these issues with another very famous and powerful man, Bill Gates.

Mr. REMNICK: It's very strange. We first arrived from Germany to Cape Town, and in Cape Town there was a conference being held and underwritten by Microsoft. And there you could see that the - and Bill Gates was there, with Melinda Gates - and Bill Gates' grasp of this topic, although Bill Clinton's grasp of it is quite detailed and he reads incessantly about it, but Bill Gates' is really on the very granular level. His interest in these issues about public health in Africa is extraordinary and you can see his interest is now shifting over, at least as much in the foundation and the giving away of this fortune, as it is in the day-to-day of Microsoft.

We then went to Lesotho and you could see it was a different kind of event, and there you could see the mastery of Bill Clinton in public relations and the kind of telegenic event in which AIDS patients are brought out for the cameras and they discuss how they've been helped by such-and-such a clinic. And there you could see Clinton's talents in high relief.

So in one sense you had the most famous man in the world coupled together with the richest man in the world, a couple of labels I think their supporters were not unembarrassed about talking about.

CONAN: A fascinating piece, David Remnick. Thanks very much, we appreciate it.

Mr. REMNICK: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker magazine. His article about Bill Clinton is in the current issue, September 18th. Harlem Globetrotter: Bill Clinton's Quest to Save the World and Elect His Wife. David Remnick was with us from our bureau in New York.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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