In all of the 36 years in which Bill Clinton has been a public figure, nothing in his character has led the public or the press to expect that he has either the interest in or the capacity to remain sidelined during his wife’s presidential campaign. Nevertheless, reports have begun to indicate that the 42nd President of the United States will hold his tongue in 2016.
The New York Times is primarily responsible for suggesting that Bill Clinton is poised to adopt a more reserved posture. Describing him as appearing “older than his 68 years,” the unflattering March 29 dispatch added that the former president was a loose cannon in 2008. His penchant to speak his mind, The Times suggested, did Hillary Clinton no favors.
“In that race, the former president was at times a frustrated and unpredictable presence, operating on his own, calling up some of his wife’s aides to second-guess strategy and shifting the news media’s focus from her to him with stray remarks, such as when he set off African-American anger by diminishing Barack Obama’s success in South Carolina,” The Times reported.
Clinton had reason to be angry. “I am not a racist,” Clinton was forced to tell ABC’s Good Morning America when pressed over his personal antipathy toward Barack Obama. “I never made a racist comment, and I didn’t attack him personally.” Clinton had to make those comments after a concerted effort by the Obama campaign to frame the Clintons, Andrew Cuomo, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, and other Democrats on Team Hillary as racially suspect.
The Times’ characterization of Bill Clinton as frail, a terrible campaigner, and a liability for his wife rather than an asset has understandably irked the former president. Described by Politico as “feisty,” Bill Clinton lashed out at what he suggested was The Times’ mischaracterizations of what his role will be in a second Hillary Clinton presidential bid.
“The piece was more appropriately characterized as ‘creative writing’ than news, Bill Clinton told donors to his family’s foundation, according to someone with knowledge of the event,” Politico reported.
Asked about Clinton’s dig at the story, Matt McKenna, a spokesman for the former president, pointed out that a correction had been appended to the bottom of the story. It indicated that the story had “referred imprecisely to the driver of Mr. Clinton’s S.U.V. The vehicle is driven by a United States Secret Service agent; Mr. Clinton is not ‘chauffeured.’”
The comments that resulted in Bill Clinton being branded a racist by the Obama campaign have been proven prescient. He called the narrative that propelled the freshman senator to the Democratic nomination and ultimately the White House a “fairy tale.” In a conference call with donors, Bill Clinton added that the Obama campaign had adopted a strategy of convincing the public the government serves as “an automatic ATM machine for everybody for life.”
This wasn’t racism; it was political analysis. Nevertheless, Bill Clinton was standing athwart history in 2008.
Today, if he can escape the minders that Team Clinton will reportedly assign to him to keep him on message, he might find comments like those he made in 2008 more acceptable to the American public if not the political press.