One year after leaving office under a renewed ethics cloud, former President Clinton is reemerging as a top attraction on the political fund-raising circuit. Democrats are delighted.
With an eye on history and an ear to the ground, Clinton is hoping to help shape the political debate this election season and beyond, cementing the changes he brought to the Democratic Party and putting a retrospective gloss on his stormy presidency.
This week, Clinton will headline events for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in San Francisco and Gov. Gray Davis and the Democratic Party in Beverly Hills. In between, the former president will give a speech on globalization at UC Berkeley and make private appearances in Palo Alto and Santa Barbara.
Even in retirement, the nation's 42nd president remains as polarizing as ever.
Democrats say that today's sagging economy contrasts with the prosperity of the Clinton years and that the Enron Corp. debacle puts his tenure into perspective.
"Which is more troubling to you as a citizen: Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky or George Bush's relationship with [ousted Enron chief] Ken Lay?" asked Paul Begala, a political strategist in the Clinton White House. "Monica Lewinsky didn't cost anybody" a job, he said.
But Republicans say the recession and the terrorist threats facing America result from the failings of the Clinton administration, which "seems a lot less impressive than it did when the Nasdaq was at 5,000," in the view of William Kristol, publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard. "Now [the 1990s are] seen as almost a wasted decade."
The two major political parties certainly can't agree on whether Clinton will be an asset or liability to fellow Democrats.
"If a candidate wants to stand alongside Clinton, it's a picture worth a thousand words that will help Republicans all over the country," said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the GOP's congressional campaign arm.
But Paul Maslin, a Davis advisor, is delighted Clinton will be stumping for the governor at Thursday night's event in Beverly Hills. The dinner, hosted by billionaire Ron Burkle, is expected to raise $1.5 million for Davis' reelection effort.
"He dwarfs everyone else: the congressional leadership, [former Vice President Al] Gore, any governor," Maslin said of the former president. "He's still our No. 1 guy."
The attitude among Democrats has changed markedly from a year ago. Back then, even those who staunchly defended Clinton through impeachment and the worst of the administration's campaign finance scandals expressed disgust at the pardons he granted during his final hours in office. The most controversial, to fugitive businessman Marc Rich, is under investigation by the U.S. attorney in New York City.
A Gallup Poll last February registered Clinton's highest disapproval rating ever, 55%, and Democratic leaders across the country all but begged him to disappear.
Like so much else, those sentiments changed after Sept. 11.
The terrorist attacks "put many things into perspective," said Iowa Democratic Chairman Sheila McGuire Riggs, who was less than welcoming toward Clinton a year ago. Now, she said, the former president "has an open invitation to Iowa."
Part of it too is the stumbling economy and a federal budget awash in red ink again. For many Democrats, that only underscores the good times America enjoyed under Clinton. "People may have had problems with his personal issues with women . . . but not what he did with the economy," said Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "Clinton looks better today than he did in office."
In fact, the last time Gallup asked the question, in November, Clinton's disapproval rating had fallen to 47%. About the same, 48%, approved of him.
The former president used to devour that kind of polling data; once he even weighed public opinion on where to spend his summer vacation. But those close to Clinton insist that politics is just a tiny part of his post-presidential agenda.
He is far more absorbed, they say, in writing his memoirs, overseeing construction of his presidential library, giving speeches at $100,000 to $200,000 apiece and focusing on such issues as AIDS in Africa and national service.
Last week, he presided over a conference on the Middle East at New York University, the first under the auspices of the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation.
"He's much more interested in ideas" than politics, said Begala, one of several Clinton allies who sought to dispel the image of a man obsessed with his legacy or determined to sway history's judgment of his presidency.
At the same time, Begala and others said Clinton remains deeply invested in the change he brought to the Democratic Party, the "third way" that moved its policies toward the middle and made Democrats more competitive nationally.