Clinton still the life of the party

Campaigns: With fund-raisers and advice for candidates, he has found his post-presidential niche - politics.

September 20, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DETROIT - Bill Clinton, looking fit and richly tailored, stepped nimbly from the wings at the rococo Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit.

He nodded to the saxophonist as the stage band struck up his anthem ("Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow") and saluted a wildly enthusiastic throng of supporters. Then he stood silently as waves of whoops and applause broke over him.

Clinton, the best campaigner of his generation, kept his distance from the 2000 campaign, sidelined by fears he would hurt the national ticket. This fall, his tour schedule could be busier than the Rolling Stones'.

"You know," Clinton said when the noise subsided, "I can't run for anything." He added, with a sly grin: "I can say anything I please."

Despite that teasing remark and his restless nature, Clinton is anything but a loose cannon these days. After a rocky start to his post-presidency, he seems to have found his groove. Not surprisingly, it's in politics.

"I have a really full and rich and wonderful life and I'm very grateful," he said recently on CNN. "Besides that, Hillary's doing the politics now, and that suits me fine."

Self-effacing comments aside, nearly two years after leaving office, Clinton is still the most powerful figure in Democratic politics.

He could run again, of course - for anything except the presidency. But he's unlikely to follow the example of John Quincy Adams, who became a leader in the House of Representatives after leaving the White House.

Instead, at 56, one of history's youngest ex-presidents is carving out a series of less formal political roles.

He's traveling coast-to-coast this election season, generating campaign cash and energy for Democratic candidates. He is to campaign in Maryland for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in mid-October, though details have not been announced, according to the former president's office.

Along the way, he's giving advice, on campaign strategy and message. "In my experience, he's usually the best pure political strategist in the room," said Steve Richetti, a former deputy White House chief of staff who is among a small group advising Clinton on politics.

Clinton is also counseling his party's prospective 2004 presidential contenders. Among those who have come courting: Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman, John Kerry and John Edwards and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. He also remains in sporadic contact with Al Gore, his vice president, though they aren't close.

He played power-broker recently in nudging Andrew M. Cuomo, his former housing secretary, out of the New York governor's race, which he had no chance of winning. Clinton's involvement, however, may have had less to do with his ties to a former Cabinet member than his desire to help his wife, Hillary, get behind the eventual winner before the primary election.

Like other recent ex-presidents, he is working hard at shaping his legacy. He's writing a book, for which he received a $12 million advance, and hitting the worldwide lecture circuit for eye-popping fees (earning more than $9 million in all since leaving office).

Following the example set by Jimmy Carter, he's taken a role in charitable endeavors, fighting AIDS in Africa and, along with former Sen. Bob Dole, heading a scholarship fund for children and spouses of Sept. 11 victims.

Douglas Brinkley, author of a book about Carter's post-presidency, thinks Clinton is much too fond of the social whirl to make the sort of personal sacrifices Carter has since leaving office.

Clinton "is the furthest from the Jimmy Carter model as possible," said Brinkley, who directs the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans. "The Clinton ex-presidency is still about political power." In that sense, the historian added, "there's been nothing like him since Theodore Roosevelt."

Clinton exercises political influence in several ways, including through the national party, led by longtime friend and fund-raiser, Terry McAuliffe.

"His schedule is pretty much politics for us between now and Nov. 5," said the Democratic chairman, who held a planning session with Clinton this week. Clinton will make more than 80 political appearances this year and has already received twice that number of invitations from fellow Democrats, McAuliffe added.

Besides a fund-raising meeting today in Harlem with H. Carl McCall, the New York gubernatorial nominee, Clinton will travel soon to Maine, Arkansas and Illinois. He will also visit Africa and Europe, address the British Labor Party conference in Blackpool, England, and appear at the ceremonial reopening of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

Most of his campaign events take place in heavily Democratic areas, including the black community, where he remains a hero. In the final days before the Nov. 5 election, he will play a leading role in the party's voter turnout efforts around the country.

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