But he is a former president with a difference—even a different sort of striving former president possessed of a mission to rehabilitate himself. The latter category included such successful former presidents as Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. But Lou Hoover, Pat Nixon and Rosalynn Carter never ran for president. Hillary Rodham Clinton did.
Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, to apply a phrase Douglas MacArthur deftly appropriated from a World War I ballad, faded away. Bill Clinton became more vivid.
As a consequence, Clinton is a particularly appealing subject—make that a particularly appealing target—for Chicago writer Carol Felsenthal, who, in "Clinton in Exile," sketches a portrait of a rogue looking for a rumble (and a tumble). Make no mistake—this is not an appreciation, nor an elegy. Felsenthal apparently thinks the former president is a lout, and that his postpresidency is an extension of his adolescence.
In truth, the former president, once so surefooted on the campaign trail, has not exactly had a good spring. The Big Dog, as he is sometimes called, began as a marquee attraction for U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign and swiftly became a sideshow. He once was regarded as a secret weapon; as the campaign wore on it was possible to think the Clinton campaign was trying to keep the First Husband a secret, sending him to inconspicuous places—"the backwater," as he put it in a campaign appearance in May—while she played the big halls in the big cities. (Two days before the New Hampshire primary, Bill Clinton was dispatched to Berlin, N.H., which has a population of about 10,000 and might be considered on the back porch of Canada. Campaigns go to Berlin two years before primary day, not two days.)
In some ways the Felsenthal volume is well-timed; the Big Dog is big news right now. But in some ways her timing is off. Someday—let us pray—the Democratic presidential nomination struggle will be over, and any look at this historic race will require a sober look at the role played by Hillary Clinton's husband. This is necessarily absent from a volume being published this spring.
So this is at best a tentative look at Bill Clinton. It is also an angry book, and it may prompt a reader to wonder whether any disparaging quote, observation, aside, or unproven and unprovable anecdote could possibly have been omitted from its 300-plus pages of text. Many of these points are made in the rhetorical camouflage of "some said" ("he had a strained marriage that some said was a charade"), many are made by inserting gratuitous phrases into her sentences ("the most humiliating details of a pathetic tryst with an intern not much older than his beloved [daughter] Chelsea"), and many are made by sweeping statements ("Not even his friends had a kind or even neutral word to say about Clinton's pardon of the billionaire fugitive-from-American-justice accused of trading with the enemy," a reference to Marc Rich). Those three examples appear within seven paragraphs of each other.
That said, Felsenthal brings some important insights to her book. She makes a smart comparison between Clinton in exile and Theodore Roosevelt in exile, and would have done well to examine the comparison at length, for TR also struggled in his postpresidency, ending it as a colorful figure and symbol of a peculiarly American type but waiting for a generation, maybe two, for historical and popular redemption. She also peppers this volume with some nice tidbits, like the fact that Clinton has 50 watches, or that when Clinton meets with George H.W. Bush he goes out of his way to say something nice about Bush, or that in his postpresidency Clinton struggled to figure out how to use his cellphone, or that he still has a taste for Doritos and Fritos.
Clinton has spent his postpresidency engaged in issues like disaster relief, international development, global warming, childhood obesity, world health, international poverty and ethnic strife. "[H]e wanted to be the rock star with gravitas; a kind of Bono in a business suit, who could attract the kings, the former presidents, the secretaries of state, the foreign ministers, and the billionaire businesspeople and extract money from them to bring his programs to fruition," Felsenthal writes.
In fairness, she praises Clinton's willingness to use his clout and lend his forum, particularly in strife-torn Rwanda and in the battle against AIDS. She notes that it wasn't until Clinton "publicly embraced an HIV-positive citizen" that China began to mobilize against the disease.
But in fairness to Clinton, I am not sure Felsenthal is correct in one of her core beliefs, that the son of Hope, Ark., was racked with insecurity, thinking "that he did not really belong in the elite circles in which he mixed, that he was, after all, just white trash."
Clinton is a student of presidents and of the human condition and of the American way, and one of his core beliefs is that America is a meritocracy. As a consequence, it is a conviction of Clinton's that social mobility is the greatest of America's attributes and that his modest roots in Hope ennoble, not disable, him—and place him squarely in the American mainstream. Indeed, that is a view that has been shared by millions, including Herbert Hoover of West Branch, Iowa, Richard Nixon of Yorba Linda, Calif., and Jimmy Carter of Plains, Ga.
Clinton in Exile
By Carol Felsenthal
Morrow, 386 pages, $25.95
Carol Felsenthal will be at the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Book Fair, June 7 and 8. www.printersrowbookfair.org