Richard Reeves

The Next Age of Bill Clinton

WASHINGTON -- In a novel with an always useful title, "The White House Mess," Christopher Buckley wrote a wonderful opening scene set on Jan. 20, 1989, when the newly inaugurated president of the United States was met at the door by Ronald Reagan in a bathrobe. "What are you doing here at my house?" said a sleepy Reagan -- or something like that.

Sounds like Bill Clinton to me. In fact, on the day after New Year's, the White House actually had to officially respond to questions about when and where ex-President Clinton was going, saying he did intend to leave and was heading in the general direction of Chappaqua, N.Y., where his wife lives. Or so they say. She was last seen picking curtains for another house around here.

Bill Clinton, the youngest ex-president since Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, is not going anywhere. Teddy went big-game hunting in Africa to stay out of the way of William Howard Taft. Unless I miss my guess, Bill is going to be in George W. Bush's face.

I, for one, am glad. It would be like Michael Jordan retiring early. Every American should have the right to watch Clinton at the top of his game. At the moment, he is wandering the executive branch placing land mines and trip wires in the paths of Bush and his new Republican Congress. In the last few days, while everyone else vacationed, he was:

Naming the first black federal judge to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, the most heavily black region of the country, and daring the Republicans to throw out the guy; vetoing a favorite Republican bill to make it harder for individuals to go bankrupt without turning over their firstborn and organs to the credit-card companies; and signing the bill authorizing American participation in a United Nations international war crimes court, which Republicans think is a cover for invasions by black helicopters and flying saucers.

All the while, of course, he has been keeping busy by continuing to try to make peace in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, figuring that his successor doesn't know where those places are. He has also taken time for exit interviews, casually dropping hints that perhaps the press should take a close look at such things as what hero-turned-secretary of state Colin Powell really did in places like Somalia.

And to show he can make bipartisan political mischief, the incumbent rolled over his designated but incapable chosen successor, the vice president, by pushing in his buddy Terry McAuliffe as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

"Retirement" means Clinton can let Clinton be Clinton. This is what I think he will do:

-- Work as president-for-hire in ways great and small. On the high road he will follow what Jimmy Carter has done but do it officially, seeking mediating or peacekeeping appointments from other governments or factions -- say, in Ireland or the Middle East, even the Balkans -- representing not the United States but the parties themselves. In between Nobel Prize reaches, he can make speeches and run conferences and town meetings at prices high enough to pay all those family mortgages.

-- Manage his wife's pre-presidential campaign as she moves toward her 2004 confrontation with Gov. Gray Davis of California for the Democratic nomination to face George W. If revenge is fair for the Bushes, so is it fair for the Clintons.

-- Write his memoirs -- and not for the money. This is a tough one for him, because writing is a lonely business, and he is a man who does not like to be alone.

That last one is far and away the most important. Instead of saving the world or driving George W. Bush into the ground like a tent peg, ex-President Clinton's first and biggest job is going to be finding a writer to work with, no easy thing. His first choice, I know, is his old friend Taylor Branch, but Branch, the talented biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., wants to do his own thing. His next choices, I would guess, might be Michael Beschloss and Douglas Brinkley.

Finding the right one is going to make all the difference for the rest of his life. He is a man smart enough to know what Winston Churchill or Charles de Gaulle or Henry Kissinger knew: The way to control history is to make it yourself and then write it yourself -- before others tell it their way.

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