Americans have a special relationship with the presidency and their presidents. Americans and American politicians on both sides of the table can disagree with their president on policy and other issues but will always support and honor the figure of the “president” out of respect for the institution of the presidency.
As a result, when a U.S. president’s mandate reaches it finale, the president is converted into an ex-president with all that the new mandate entails. Ex-presidents are honored as elder statesmen, as having served their country, and are bestowed with the enduring title of “President”. Former presidents Bush and Clinton, for example, are still officially called President Clinton and President Bush (respectively). And former presidents continue, for the remainder of their lives, to be representatives of their country.
Nevertheless, in the present elections, we’re seeing some of these traditional notions change. Of course, there is the obvious (and possibly hypothetical question) as to what role a former president may play in the new administration if his spouse becomes president. But there is a much more immediate question, that I believe, should be raised. What is the appropriate behavior of a former president in a presidential campaign? What happens when Bill Clinton acts more like James Carville, the Ragin’ Cajun, than like a dignified statesman? Or said another way, is it ethical for Bill Clinton, with all of the weight of his honorary role of ex-president, to campaign as fervently as he is doing now?
There are many precedents for ex-presidents (no pun intended) and their roles as such in presidential campaigns. It is only natural and understandable that former presidents will endorse the candidates of their party and do limit campaigning for them. For example, Bill Clinton endorsed and moderately campaigned for both Al Gore and John Kerry (remember that after 8 years of Clinton’s presidency, it was considered counter-productive to have Clinton in the forefront due to “Clinton Fatigue”).
In 2000, former president George Bush (Sr.) stood very much in the background and remained fairly clear of the campaign trail during his son’s election. President Bush understood his role and responsibility as a former president and national figure, and elder statesmen. There was also the “image” question in reference to having Daddy Bush campaign for and defend the Junior Bush.
Contrast this with today. Bill is seen screaming furiously at political rallies. He insults and demeans Obama — and Obama is a Democrat and we’re only in the primaries. Bill tells the press and voters a tall tale about how possible Obama campaign irregularities that are both impossible to prove or refute. And he does this as the former president of the United States.
(You could turn things around and say that Bill is not campaign as former president but as Hillary’s husband. But then shouldn’t the feminists get upset that a female candidate needs her tough husband, much like the image of Junior Bush being defended by his daddy, to keep her safe?)
Meanwhile, Bill is going door to door, endorsing his wife’s candidacy, and yet he is the former president of the U.S. As I mentioned, the presidency in the U.S. carries a lot of weight for folks, and I don’t care which side of the fence you’re on, but a former president showing up at your front door has a lot of weight.
Is this appropriate behavior? Of course is it not. Can you imagine a former president saying something like “I have been president, I have represented the American people both at home and abroad, and I know what it means to be president. And I can tell you, with all of my knowledge that candidate John Doe is not qualified for the position.” What would happen if John Doe won? Wouldn’t that be dissing the U.S. presidency and even the American electorate?
Apparently, senior Democrats (including Senator Kennedy) are quietly very concerned with Bill’s extreme advocacy for his wife’s campaign. Many believe that it may backfire. But for the time being, this Good Cop/Bad Cop routine (Hillary being the Good Cop), appears to be working. Furthermore, Obama has to run against two Clintons, not one, to win the elections.
Until then, though, we’ll have to weight until after the elections to remember the old “Former President Clinton” and now see the new Bill – the Ragin’ Arkinsane – Clinton. As Eugene Robinson writes in an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, entitled “What’s gotten into Bill?“:
So forget about the Bill Clinton we’ve known for the past eight years — the one who finds friendship and common ground with fellow former president George H.W. Bush (a Republican, last I heard), who dedicates most of his time and energy to the William J. Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, who speaks eloquently about global citizenship, environmental stewardship and economic empowerment. Forget about the statesman who uses appropriately measured language when talking about transient political events, focusing instead on the broad sweep of human history. Forget about the apostle of brotherhood and understanding whose most recent book is titled, simply, “Giving.” That Bill Clinton has left the building.
With the Clintons, anything goes!