Standing against a back wall, smiling as he scanned the crowd of Democrats at James Madison University, Glenn Huffman seemed open to answering a question. What do you think of Bill Clinton? “He’s a bastard,” Huffman replied. “That Monica Lewinsky thing just about ruined his presidency.”
Dude must be a hater. Except that Huffman had stood in a 30-minute line to attend a joint appearance Tuesday of the former president and Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia. Why are you here? “I came to see Bill,” he shrugged. “Other than that Lewinsky thing, he was a successful and popular president. I love the man. Love to listen to the man.”
As Huffman pulled me closer to chat more about Clinton, I realized that the librarian from Bridgewater, Va., might be a window into 2016, when the ex-president’s wife Hillary could make a second run for the presidency. Because if there’s one word that describes the feelings Hillary Clinton’s friends and advisers have for Bill Clinton it would be ambivalent. He hurt her campaign in 2008, they say, but if she runs again, Bubba won’t blow it.
Six years ago, it was a different story. In July 2007, as Clinton prepared to make his first campaign trip on behalf of his wife, I wrote about his self-absorption and her team’s fears that the former president wouldn’t be able to control his ego. “Her advisers privately fret that the former president will overshadow Sen. Clinton with his unparalleled campaign skills and career-long habit of drawing attention to himself,” the column said. “One of her confidants, still stinging from the Monica Lewinsky affair, refers to Clinton as ‘Mr. Me.’”
Months later, Clinton’s vigorous defense of his wife and of his own record threatened to divide the Democratic Party beyond the 2008 nomination fight with then-Sen. Barack Obama. Ham-handed attacks on Obama, particularly in South Carolina, caused long-time allies to fear that Clinton had lost a step politically. Some thought he was more of a liability than asset.
Looking back, some family friends and advisers believe that Clinton’s health (he received quadruple heart bypass surgery in 2004) was still sub-par in 2008, making him moody, tired, and impatient. “He’d lost that sunny optimism that made him so great,” said a friend. “It’s back, thank God.”
Despite ill health, a competitive streak sharpened by seven election cycles in Arkansas and two presidential campaigns had not softened in 2008. This made Clinton thin-skinned and vulnerable. “Obama’s guys baited him,” a second friend said. “And he took the hook.”
In the last five years, Clinton has matured along with his global foundation, learning that with the absence political power derived from elective office he needs to be more consultative and less combative, associates say, a team player rather than an alpha male. Friends describe him as listening more and talking less during meetings, ceding rather than scoring points.
The evolution includes the obvious — sharing power with his wife and daughter Chelsea in the foundation. But it’s more than that. In negotiations with foreign leaders, Clinton is no longer a peer, and that new dynamic has helped change him. He’s learned the power of humility, said an advisor, who mentioned yet another catalyst: Clinton is 67, and he’s learned not to sweat the small stuff.
Clinton’s pivot began shortly after his wife lost the nomination. Determined to help elect Obama and refurbish his reputation, the former president spent days writing and rehearsing his 2008 convention address. Twenty hours before the speech, Clinton was still scribbling in notepads past midnight, oblivious to family and friends gathered to toast his wife, who had just delivered her convention address. “I gotta get this right,” he told me. “Gotta get this right.”
Bad habits die hard. Clinton is still promoting his presidency, even while campaigning for McAuliffe. “I gave you four surplus budgets, all those jobs, declining poverty,” he told an adoring crowd. But he still is the nation’s greatest living politician, especially when it comes to framing a debate. Clinton’s takedown of GOP candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 prescribed the fall narrative for Obama.
Clinton has a rare ability to demonize opponents without looking mean or petty, as demonstrated again Tuesday at JMU when he attacked Virginia Republicans for refusing federal money under Obamacare. Adopting the voice of the federal government, Clinton told the crowd, “OK, Virginia, you gave us the money and you don’t want it back. You want us to send your money somewhere else and you want your hospitals holding the bag for the uninsured, which means everybody else’s insurance rates are going up. That’s what this is about: Divide and conquer.”
In just two sentences, Clinton explained a complicated policy and diminished the GOP. On stage, McAuliffe smiled and nodded. At the back of the room, Huffman grabbed my elbow and said, “What’s not to like about him?”
The librarian briefly reflected again on the Lewinsky scandal then shrugged. “He may not be perfect,” Huffman said, “but he’s the guy you want arguing your case.”