Some think ex-president stooping on campaign trail

Clinton defends his role as feisty advocate

Email|Print| Text size + By Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / January 24, 2008

AIKEN, S.C. - Bill Clinton was already working the crowd with a vociferous appeal to vote for his wife when the dozens of people jostling to get inside the auditorium provoked a campaign worker to cry out, "Adults should not be acting this way!"

Coincidentally, Clinton's sharp- elbowed advocacy leading up to Saturday's South Carolina primary is prompting some pundits and fellow Democrats to voice a similar sentiment: Should a former president be acting this way?

Several prominent Democrats say no. In recent days, they have publicly warned that he is hurting his party and his own status as elder statesman by taking on the highly charged role of critic-in-chief of Hillary Clinton's main Democratic rival, Barack Obama.

Obama has accused the Clintons of double-teaming him with inaccurate attacks, complaining during Monday night's debate, "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."

Bill Clinton is unapologetic about jumping into the game. Yesterday, he bristled at the Obama camp's criticism of his role and lashed out at the media for fixating on race.

Clinton fans who have come out to see him in South Carolina - where he has emerged as primary spokesman for his wife's campaign - say they believe he is acting the way any husband would if his wife's career was on the line. Hillary Clinton made much the same argument during Monday night's contentious debate with Obama, saying, "I think we both have very passionate and committed spouses who stand up for us."

But Bill Clinton is no ordinary spouse.

And several historians said he is redefining what it means to be a former president. They had to reach back generations to find a few lonely examples of ex-presidents waging political warfare, such as when Harry Truman opposed John F. Kennedy's nomination or when John Quincy Adams won election to Congress after losing the presidency to Andrew Jackson. While Jimmy Carter remains vocal with his opinions, they say, he has steered clear of internal Democratic Party politics.

"Bill Clinton, I think characteristically, thinks he can wear more than one hat, that of the elder statesman who runs a foundation, and that of an advocate for his wife's campaign," said Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University. "Like so many things about the Clintons, this is unique."

As Hillary Clinton's most prominent surrogate, Bill Clinton is not only extolling her readiness to be president, he is aggressively defending her and hitting her rivals.

Bill Clinton is accusing Obama's union supporters in Nevada of intimidating workers who wanted to caucus for his wife. He said this week that Obama had praised Republican Ronald Reagan's presidency over his. He has called Obama's assertion of superior foresight on the Iraq war a "fairy tale." And while Hillary Clinton spent two days this week campaigning in states that are part of Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, her husband has been crisscrossing South Carolina. Today, as she gives what her campaign is billing as a major economic speech in Greenville, S.C., he plans to make stops in four cities and towns on his own.

Former senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who is backing Obama, condemned Bill Clinton's attacks as "not presidential." Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus and the third-ranking Democrat in the House, who is neutral in the race, told CNN this week that the 42d president "needs to chill a little bit."

"I can understand him wanting to defend his wife's honor and his own record," he said. "But you can't do that in a way that won't engender the kind of feelings that seem to be bubbling up as a result of this."

Clyburn appeared to be referring to racial divisions in the Palmetto State, where half of the Democratic electorate is African-American and where Obama has a strong lead in the polls. A Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby tracking poll released yesterday indicated Obama was leading Clinton 43 percent to 25 percent, with John Edwards a distant third at 15 percent.

Yesterday, Bill Clinton called Obama's lead "understandable because people are proud when someone who they identify with emerges for the first time." He appeared to be lowering expectations, telling one crowd that "people tell me Hillary doesn't have a chance of winning here."

But some commentators have suggested a more cynical tactic: The Clintons are trying to put Obama in a racial box to strengthen her appeal to white and Hispanic voters in future contests.

Dick Harpootlian, an Obama supporter and prominent South Carolina Democrat, told CNN that the former president is exploiting race. Harpootlian went so far as to compare Clinton to Lee Atwater, the South Carolina native who mastered negative politics for Republicans, including the Willie Horton ad campaign that helped George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988.

That set off Clinton, who told a CNN reporter yesterday that the media are trying to take the election away from voters by focusing on race. "This rhetoric is getting a little carried away here," he complained. "This is almost like once you accuse somebody of racism or bigotry, or something, the facts become irrelevant."

Yet, even as he attracts fire from many quarters, there are signs that Clinton has done his wife a big favor.

She appeared on the verge of losing in New Hampshire when he went on his fiery "fairy tale" rant, and she was teetering in Nevada, from the key casino workers' union endorsement that Obama secured, when he lashed out there. He has provoked the senator from Illinois to fight back, a departure from Obama's optimistic pitch.

Before the New Hampshire victory, Hillary Clinton's aides worried that her husband's periodic outbursts were making him a liability. But they have clearly decided that he helps her more than he hurts her.

"They are not shying away from dynastic politics," said Boston University historian Bruce Schulman.

Bill Clinton has offered a simple defense of his role. "I don't have any problem advocating for what I think would be best," he said in Greenville when asked if he'd "be OK" with having stood in the way of the first black president.

And often, this veteran political combatant seems to love the fight and seems to suggest that his presidential legacy is at stake. In Greenville on Tuesday, he asserted Obama had been the favorite in New Hampshire and Nevada, but the words he chose were: "We ran as the underdog."

He later added, "You'll think it's crazy, but I kind of liked seeing Barack and Hillary fight" at Monday night's debate. "They are real people. Neither of them is supposed to be this wind-up doll."

After his speech in Greenville, Jenna Robinson, a former human resources manager currently out of a job, said she was still undecided on whom to support. The former president's attacks on Obama are unfair, she said, because Hillary Clinton can claim to stand apart from what her husband says.

"It's sort of like going to trial without facing your accuser," said Robinson, 56.

She also said that Hillary Clinton's absence from the state for much of this week will hurt her at the polls on Saturday.

And yet, she said, "I'd rather see Bill."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at

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