August 5, 2009 The Answer Man: Bill Clinton's Comeback
It's becoming increasingly clear that Bill Clinton can't function without Hillary Clinton. Nor can Hillary Clinton function without Bill Clinton. When Barack Obama signed up Hillary for Secretary of State, he knew that he was getting a twofer. Now that Bill has successfully completed his North Korea mission, he is sure to play an increasingly prominent role in foreign affairs.
The trick for Hillary will be to use him to solidify rather than undermine her position as Secretary of State. Her husband solved a thorny problem in helping to liberate two American journalists who either strayed into North Korean territory or were seized in China by border guards. The episode earns him some plaudits, allowing him to burnish his reputation as well as his wife's.
So far, so good. But will Obama use Bill as the magic bullet in the future to deflect, or solve, crises? Or will he find that Bill becomes a freelancer, exceeding his mandate? It will be interesting to learn, for example, if Clinton confined himself to his mandate of extricating the two women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, from the North Korean Gulag or whether he broached the subject of nuclear weapons in meeting with Kim Jong Il. At a minimum, he did accomplish something else -- a fresh photo of the frail dear leader, sitting next to a former president, the kind of homage and fealty that the North Koreans crave. For make no mistake: Clinton was paying court to Kim. Conservatives will remonstrate that Clinton and, by extension, Obama were extending feckless apologies that will only prompt the North Korean despot to engage in further shenanigans.
For Obama, however, the hostage crisis -- which is what it really was -- will have to prompt him to further mull over the use of Bill Clinton as an informal representative. For Hillary, there is only an upside; as long as the White House assents, she can tap Bill as her troubleshooter of troubleshooters. She has a whole battery of them, after all, beginning with Richard Holbrooke, who is supposed to pacify Afghanistan and Pakistan. For now, Bill has emerged in a new incarnation -- as a statesman.
It's a role that he tried to play as president, but always slipped from his grasp, whether it was the refusal of the Palestinians to reach a lasting peace with the Israelis or his own sexual peccadilloes or his pardoning of Marc Rich. Now both Bill and Hillary have left behind politics to become emissaries to the world and begin their latest comeback together.