Despite Missteps, Bill Clinton's Legacy Will Emerge Intact

After the rough campaign for his wife, Clinton may have done some damage to his reputation.

Former President Bill Clinton addresses an audience during a Hillary Clinton fundraising event featuring Tony Bennett in New Brunswick, N.J.,December 12, 2007.
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Hillary Clinton has said she's willing to take her broke and nearly extinguished battle for the Democratic presidential nomination all the way to the party's August convention. But her campaign's post-mortems are already being written and the fingers of blame pointed.

Some of those fingers are aimed directly at her husband, former President Bill Clinton. And among Democrats who have singled out the former president as contributing towhat is expected to be the failure of his wife's historic run for the White House are those who served in his administration—loyalists who wrote his speeches, pitched his policies, and stuck with him through historically turbulent times.

In interviews over the past week, many former Clintonistas say they don't recognize the man they've watched on the hustings. They say they have been surprised that a campaigner considered among the best of his generation not only misread the revolted-by-politics mood of the country but also stoked (intentionally or not) the country's racial divide with his comments comparing Barack Obama's win in the South Carolina Democratic primary to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1980s successes there. And they ponder how the past year will affect the long-term legacy of a man who was well on his way to becoming a respected elder statesman.

"Most political brilliance is partly coincidental and pertains to the moment in which the politician looks brilliant," says Bill Curry, who served as a close adviser to Clinton in the mid-1990s. "In Bill Clinton's case, that moment was the 1990s." So as the primary season winds down and Bill Clinton continues to battle, taking on the media and reportedly agitating for a vice presidential offer for his wife, these loyalists—some now in the former category, others still firmly in the Clinton camp—are taking stock and wondering how history will treat their former boss.

When he left office nearly eight years ago, there was little argument that the country was suffering from Clinton fatigue. Though he governed through peace and prosperity, his term was marred by scandal—from Monica Lewinsky and impeachment to the final-days pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich and reports of a help-yourself attitude toward White House furniture. People were tired of him, says Matt Bennett, who served as an adviser to Clinton during his second term. But post-administration, Bennett says, the former president managed to change their minds, and quickly—as he often had done in the past after he had stumbled.

"In the immediate aftermath of his administration, he had some recovery to do, and he did it brilliantly," Bennett says. "He rejuvenated himself in less than a year through political skill and emotional intelligence." Clinton wrote a book, gave speeches, got rich, opened an office in Harlem, started a foundation, and refrained from criticizing President Bush. And, perhaps most important, he forged nonpartisan relationships with people like former President George H. W. Bush, with whom he worked as a high-profile international do-gooder. Even his most ardent critics found things to like as the former president capitalized on his enduring popularity overseas.

Then came January 26 and the South Carolina primary. Race and gender were bound to be issues during the historic Democratic contest that has pitted a well-known former first lady against an up-and-coming African-American. But what stunned Clintonistas like Bennett is that it was the former president, who long enjoyed deep support in the black community, who put race front and center in what turned out to be a durably divisive way. "I don't know what he intended to do, but what he did is raise the notion of Obama as a token candidate," says Bennett, who considers Clinton the formative person in his political life. "I was mad. He's just too damn smart to do that." Bennett, who helped found the Washington-based progressive strategy center Third Way, is among those who say that each of Clinton's statements about South Carolina can be defended individually, but that the cumulative effect went over the line.