The Bill Clinton Factor

Bill Clinton has actively campaigned for his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, with mixed results and not a few stumbles. Carol Felsenthal, author of Clinton in Exile, reflects on the role the former president is playing.

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MICHELLE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michelle Norris.

In this segment, the other Clinton in the Presidential campaign. Back in '90s that statement used to refer to Hillary Clinton, but now that she is the candidate, her husband is in the supporting role. And it's a role that's been fought with controversy, largely because of Bill Clinton's penchant for lashing out on a campaign trail.

President BILL CLINTON: Give a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen.

You got a really go some to play the race card with me. My office is in Harlem, and Harlem voted for Hillary, by the way.

'Cause she's winning the general election today and he's not, according to all the evidence. And I've never seen anything like it. I've never seen a candidate treated so disrespectfully just for running.

NORRIS: From defending his wife to marginalizing Barack Obama to charges that he's played the race card, Bill Clinton's behavior has been widely seen as damaging to his wife's campaign. And there are also questions about whether the long and often fractious campaign may affect his legacy. Carol Felsenthal is the author of "Clinton in Exile: The President out of the White House." She writes about his life in the past eight years and she's been watching him on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton.

Ms. CAROL FELSENTHAL (Author): Once she got into the race, it became a matter, I think of his legacy. Just as he saw the election of Al Gore in 2000 as being mostly about Bill Clinton, the election of Hillary Clinton is mostly about him, and that's why he's become so desperate and why he's made these series verbal gaffes. He's just being Bill Clinton. He's not sleeping. He's frantic at this point.

NORRIS: You used the word verbal gaffe, but there are some who wonder of these are actual missteps; these comments are actually, you know, benign statements that wind up being taken out of context, that these provocative comments are actually more calculated. The New York Times ask the question: method or madness? What's your answer to that?

Ms. FELSENTHAL: I think it's more the latter, and Bill Clinton is probably the most intelligent person I've ever written about. But he lives by his own rules, and from the beginning of Hillary's race for the nomination, Bill was freelancing; he's not really controllable. And he doesn't bother to be fact checked or the think much before he speaks, and it is one of the truly fascinating things for me to watch how during this campaign he has so often put his foot in his mouth.

NORRIS: You know, in looking at Bill Clinton's statements, particularly, you know, on a campaign trail, there have been examples where for instance someone has hackled him from the audience and he has answered back and actually almost waved a finger and fussed at someone.

Pres. CLINTON: Are you...

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)

Pres. CLINTON: Wait, wait, wait a minute, ma'am. We had rallies all over this country. She worked 40...

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible)

Pres. CLINTON: No, you're wrong. You're wrong. Wait a minute. I can't believe you're saying this. There are, there are millions of pages of documents that we have released showing the exhausting work that was done, the tens of thousands of people who were consulted, the rallies (unintelligible) that we had all over the country. Now, wait a minute, I listened to you. You interrupted my speech; you let me talk.

(Soundbite of applause)

NORRIS: There's - you know, some say these are the kind of destructions that hurt his wife's campaign, but you could also say this is a husband who's just protecting and defending his wife.

Ms. FELSENTHAL: Yes, I think that in some ways - as problematical a husband as Bill Clinton has been, he's also the kind of husband that women, many women would love to have. He's put himself out there, he's been ridiculed and joked about, and yet he perseveres. I think one of his qualities is that he believes in himself and he knows that he is going to come back and these temporary dips that he's taking will end and he'll resume his life and get back to the popularity that he had. And I find it rather poignant when he tries to answer critics. It's sometimes more difficult when Hillary is stumping and somebody will bring up something that's about Bill, and she is nonplussed by this and doesn't seem to know quite how to respond to it.

NORRIS: What effect is this campaign in the end had on the Clinton legacy? And perhaps did you write your book too early?

Ms. FELSENTHAL: Well, no, I don't think so. I think there's certainly going to be another book. I'm not sure that I'm going to write it. I think that it will have a short-term impact on the Clinton legacy. I believe that when Hillary - I don't think it's really a matter of if anymore - when she drops out of the race the Clintons will begin strategizing. Bill Clinton, one must remember, is the comeback kid. He did it in '92 when the Jennifer Flowers revelations came out. He did it in '98 and then up to 2000, up until the time he left the White House after Monica Lewinski and impeachment.

He left the White House with approval ratings in the 60s, three times as high as George W. Bush's. He picked himself up and became an appellation that he loves, and that's the rock star ex-president, the most popular man in the world. He was greeted by ovations and loved everywhere he went. He will do that again. It will - there'd be a couple of down months and then he'll be back, and Hillary will go about her business and they'll be back as a couple.

NORRIS: Your book looks at Bill Clinton's years out of the White House. This has traditionally been a very difficult period for any president, those sunset years when they leave the Oval Office. How has President Clinton navigated this period?

Ms. FELSENTHAL: I think that he's navigated it brilliantly. It took him a while to do it. He left the White House, went to Chappaqua. Hillary then left after two days and went to her career in Washington. He began to look at Jimmy Carter and how Jimmy Carter had conducted his post-presidency. And Bill Clinton being smart realized that Carter was a good model. And it was at that point that he started planning the most brilliant and the most admirable part of his post-presidency, which has been the work that he's done in Africa, bringing antiretroviral drugs to victims of HIV/AIDS, and particularly the work that he's done on the pediatric side.

NORRIS: Carol Felsenthal, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Ms. FELSENTHAL: Thank you.

NORRIS: Carol Felsenthal is the author of "Clinton in Exile: The President Out of the White House."

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