Bill Clinton to the rescue

Not since Theodore Roosevelt has a former president enjoyed such a politically relevant post-presidency

Topics: War Room,

Bill Clinton to the rescue (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The high-profile help that he’s lending Barack Obama – starring in a campaign video about Osama bin Laden’s killing, headlining a fundraiser in Virginia last night, plotting campaign strategy with top Obama lieutenants – speaks to Bill Clinton’s unique status among former presidents: Not since Theodore Roosevelt a century ago has one managed to remain such a political force after leaving office.

Clinton is more popular than ever right now, notching a 67-29 percent favorable in one recent poll, which helps explain why Obama is eager to enlist him in what should be a tight general election campaign. There really is no modern precedent for a former president being so actively engaged in a national election so long after leaving the White House.

Part of this is a simple matter of math: Few presidents were as young as Clinton was (54 years old) when he left the White House. Ronald Reagan, for instance, was 78 when his second term ended in 1989, and with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1994, the public phase of his post-presidency lasted just five years.

Reagan was called out of retirement to help the beleaguered George H.W. Bush in the 1992 campaign, delivering a speech at the Republican convention and making a few campaign stops in the fall. But Reagan’s advanced age and declining health limited his activity, and his effectiveness was further compromised by his low public standing in the early years of his post-presidency.  It wasn’t until the mid- to late-1990s, when he was living out his life in seclusion, that the relentless hagiography of his admirers helped restore Reagan’s popularity.

Or there’s (the first) Bush’s story. He was pushing 70 when he left office, but his post-presidential years have been vibrant. To commemorate his 85thbirthday in 2009, Bush jumped out of an airplane and parachuted to the ground 10,500 feet below.

Feats like this have done wonders for his personal popularity, which is much stronger now than it was during his doomed reelection campaign, but Bush has mostly stayed off the national political stage. Four years after leaving office, he spoke at the Republican convention and made a few public appearances with Bob Dole, his party’s presidential nominee (and his one-time nemesis). But in the wake of Dole’s defeat, Bush’s son stepped forward to lead the GOP, and the old man has said little about politics since then.

But even younger ex-presidents haven’t played anything like the role Clinton now enjoys. Some had little choice. Richard Nixon is the obvious example here. There’s also Bush 43, whose invisibility since leaving Washington in 2009 is a result of the broad consensus – even within his party – that his presidency was a failure. Lyndon Johnson, only 60 years old when he retired from the presidency, probably fits in this category too, thanks to Vietnam. LBJ was said to favor Ed Muskie for the 1972 Democratic nomination, but kept quiet for fear that his endorsement would actually make the man from Maine less attractive to Democrats.

With others, it’s more complicated. Gerald Ford, who was never actually elected to the presidency or the vice presidency, remained a heavyweight for the first few years of his post-presidency, flirting with a comeback bid in 1980 and nearly landing on that fall’s Reagan-led ticket. But Reagan’s general election triumph cemented the “New Right’s” takeover of the GOP, leaving Ford, an emblem of the party’s old, less ideological order, to live out his political retirement on America’s golf courses.

Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency is a full three-act drama. He was 56 when he was crushed by Reagan in ’80, his approval rating hovering around 30 percent, about where Bush 43’s was toward the end of his second term. But Carter experienced a remarkable rehabilitation of his image over the next decade. His work with Habitat for Humanity and global advocacy of human rights and democracy lifted his personal popularity, while the early ‘90s recession created a popular – if short-lived – consensus that the Reagan-Bush 41 years had been a failure. In the summer of 1992, polls showed voters were more sentimental for Carter’s presidency than Reagan’s, and Carter delivered a prime-time speech at the Democrats’ New York convention.

But his political relevance peaked there. As Reagan hagiography, which cast the Carter presidency as one of the darkest periods in American history, took hold, Carter became a more polarizing figure, while his outspokenness on foreign policy issues – particularly involving Israel and the Middle East – helped make him persona non grata in establishment Democratic circles. Carter’s has been an active and globally relevant post-presidency, but in domestic politics he’s mostly been marginalized.

Clinton, by contrast, has remained in generally good health – there was heart surgery in 2004, but that didn’t sideline him for long – and in the mainstream of his party. That his successor’s administration is held in such low regard has helped Clinton’s presidency attain “good old days” in the public’s mind, and his wife’s prominence has kept the possibility of a Clinton restoration alive since the day they left the White House.

Plus, Obama’s victory in 2008 prompted the right to refocus its 24-hour attack apparatus on him, leaving the Clintons alone for the first time since they crashed the national political scene in ’92. Conservatives now also speak of the Clinton era as the good old days, a major reason why the former president’s ratings have soared the past few years – and why he’s so valuable to Obama now.

The last ex-president to be in such demand by his party’s candidate was probably Dwight Eisenhower, whose general election blessing Barry Goldwater desperately sought in 1964. But Ike didn’t embrace the spotlight like Clinton, partly because of Goldwater’s far-right views, but also because of his own ill health. (Heart problems had also kept him off the 1960 campaign trail, when his vice president, Nixon, was running against John F. Kennedy.) He ultimately filmed an awkward, unhelpful television ad with Goldwater, and maintained a low profile for the final few years of his life.

You have to go all the way back to Roosevelt to find a comparably vigorous and politically relevant ex-president. Roosevelt opted not to run for another term in 1908, went on an African safari, then came home and returned to the political arena. He tried and failed to grab the 1912 Republican nomination from his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, then bolted the GOP to run as the Progressive Party’s candidate, helping Woodrow Wilson secure an easy general election victory. In 1916, Roosevelt was nominated again by the Progressives, but declined to accept it and returned to the Republican fold, where he began positioning himself for 1920 – only to die a year before the election.

A subsequent constitutional amendment prohibits Clinton from completely mimicking Roosevelt. But between his work for Obama this year and his involvement in his wife’s political career, he’s doing the next best thing.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>