How do you solve a problem like Bill Clinton?
More precisely, how does, as is increasingly likely, President Hillary Clinton figure out what to do with First Gentleman Bill Clinton and his cargo hold of accompanying baggage?
Bill Clinton may be an asset to his wife, but he is also a problem – a sprawling, messy and hard-to-manage one that encompasses the twin minefields of sex and money.
Sex first. Donald Trump’s misbehavior with women is a far more important topic than Bill Clinton’s, for one simple reason: Trump is on the ballot; Bill Clinton is not.
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Trump has tried to drag Hillary Clinton into the picture, asserting that she “systematically attacked and discredited the victims of Bill Clinton’s sexual harassment and assault.” This accusation would be troubling if it had more factual support. It doesn’t. Yes, Hillary Clinton’s instinct was, too often and for too long, to credit her husband’s claims of innocence over the accusations of his accusers. Still, denial is a powerful psychological force, and her decision to stick with a troubled marriage seems as worthy of respect as it is of disdain.
That does not mean Bill Clinton’s conduct is irrelevant. There is no condoning a record that reflects not just serial adultery, but abuse of power. Clinton was a successful president who deserved the two terms for which he was elected, but his misbehavior would disqualify him from a third term even if the Constitution allowed it.
Having him back in the White House if his wife is elected president creates an uncomfortable situation. It shouldn’t stop her from getting the job, but it can fairly shape what we want and expect of him as First Spouse. It is intellectually dishonest to be appalled by Trump’s behavior toward women and to airbrush Bill Clinton’s.
To put it bluntly, anyone else with Bill Clinton’s background wouldn’t be hired to work in Hillary Clinton’s White House.
And about that money: The Clinton Foundation did good works, but the Clintons’ unseemly money chase is repulsive, and it has become clear that they cannot be trusted to appropriately navigate ethical boundaries between their private interests and public responsibilities.
Recent WikiLeaked documents make manifest what has been apparent to anyone familiar with the compulsive money-vacuuming, comfortable nest-feathering, mutual back-scratching operation that is “Bill Clinton Inc.,” as longtime Bill Clinton aide Douglas Band described it.
There is incessant, troubling, blurring of lines. How could Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin be employed simultaneously as a “special government employee” at the State Department and hold paying jobs at the Clinton Foundation and Teneo Holdings, the consulting firm co-founded by Band? What was Cheryl Mills, then Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff at the State Department, doing immersed in Clinton Foundation business?
There is evidence of incessant schnorring for private jets, luxury vacation lodging, expensive trifles. “In support of the president’s for-profit activity, we also have solicited and obtained, as appropriate, in-kind services for the president and his family – for personal travel, hospitality, vacation and the like,” Band wrote of his role as Bill Clinton’s concierge in chief. Seriously, what with the former president’s for-profit activity, haven’t the Clintons earned enough to pay for their own vacations, just like the rest of us?
This activity must stop. It cannot happen in a new Clinton White House, especially with a Republican Party already drooling over the prospect of congressional investigations.
So what’s a First Gentleman to do, especially one who’s been in the top job himself? The less, the better, actually. In this situation, two for the price of one is not the better deal. It would be more accurate to say we’d be getting one for the price of two.
For the first female president, the focus needs to be on her, not on her ex-president spouse. This would be true even without Bill Clinton’s sexual and financial history, but those factors underscore the wisdom of him being as invisible a First Gentleman as possible.
Hillary Clinton should, tacitly if not explicitly, drop the notion of finding some discrete problem for her husband to handle. It was crazy to suggest, as she did in the spring, that she would put him “in charge of revitalizing the economy, because he knows what he’s doing.” We’re hiring her, not him.
No pet projects, however unobjectionable. Instead, let Bill Clinton enjoy the grandkids. Play some golf, without having to worry about using it to line up speaking fees. Time for a new dog.
Retirement is a good option for Bill Clinton – and, with that, a good opportunity to retire the archaic role of First Spouse.
Washington Post Writers Group