The applause has faded, but Bill Clinton continues to star on the airwaves in the wake of his widely praised defense of President Barack Obama’s economic policies at the Democratic National Convention.
The Obama campaign is showing a commercial in which the former president repeats his contention that no one could have fixed in just four years the economic mess the Republicans bequeathed. And rival Mitt Romney tried to undercut Clinton’s impact with an ad displaying his criticism of Obama during wife Hillary’s 2008 primary campaign.
The competing ads not only underscore the widespread belief that Clinton gave the convention’s most effective speech but serve to illustrate his unique post-presidential political role in the dozen years since leaving the White House.
It’s a role unrivaled by any modern chief executive, perhaps only matched in prior American history by Theodore Roosevelt a century ago and by John Quincy Adams on the foreign policy of the 1830s and 1840s.
Indeed, few ex-presidents have sought to play an important political role after leaving office. Most were either ready for retirement or sufficiently unpopular that their parties had little interest in embracing them.
The first group includes such popular modern presidents as Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. The second comprises both their less popular counterparts like Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush and those actually voted from office such as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and the first George Bush.
Thanks largely to the 1947 amendment limiting presidents to two terms, none has sought to emulate the first Roosevelt, who made one post-presidential bid to regain power and was preparing for a second when he died.
Before Clinton, only Truman sought continuing political influence, and he achieved minimal success in trying to block the nominations of Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Largely through the machinations of aides, Ford was thrust into the 1980 campaign in an ill-fated effort to make him Reagan’s running mate. But that was his last political hurrah, though he later joined Carter, the man who beat him, in urging action to curb the rising budget deficit.
When Clinton was preparing to leave office a dozen years ago, he indicated that, were it not for the 22nd Amendment, he might well have been tempted to try for another term.
His would-be successor, Al Gore, foolishly limited Clinton’s role in the 2000 campaign, though he might have made a difference in one of the nation’s closest elections. And though his involvement with Monica Lewinsky led to his becoming the second president ever impeached, Clinton’s job approval was 65 percent when he passed the presidency to George W. Bush.
Afterward, Clinton kept a relatively low political profile as his wife, Hillary, became a leading Democratic figure. But he re-emerged with a vengeance in 2008 as a strong advocate — and occasional embarrassment — for her presidential campaign.
When she narrowly fell short, Clinton helped forge party unity at the Denver convention that nominated Obama with a strong affirmation of his presidential qualifications. Once elected, one of Obama’s most significant political steps was naming Hillary as his secretary of state, eliminating the prospect that, whatever his subsequent problems, she and her still popular husband could create the kind of internal party schism that helped defeat Carter in 1980.
Despite evident tensions between them, Clinton again stepped forward when Obama sought his help in the current campaign, delivering a performance so impressive that columnist Walter Shapiro tweeted afterward, "This is the moment when I realize that — save for the pesky 22nd Amendment — Bill Clinton right now would be running for his sixth term."
That can’t happen, but the view was widespread in Charlotte that, regardless of Obama’s fate, the Clintons might again make political history four years from now, Hillary Clinton as a likely Democratic candidate and Bill as her chief strategist and cheerleader.
The presidents who preceded and followed him are retired from politics. But Bill Clinton still plays a starring role.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: email@example.com. The George Will column scheduled for today was printed in Friday’s American News. His columns will return to their normal schedules on Thursday.