Will Bill Clinton Become Hillary's Eleanor Roosevelt?
As the former president sheds his ties he built up in his post-presidential years, many wonder about what role he will play if his wife is elected president.
It’s been the hottest ticket in town, an invite to attend CGI, the annual gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative, a fundraising behemoth that President Bill Clinton hosted for the last time this week. But as the spouse of a likely next president, Clinton has been shedding potential conflicts with CGI and with the Foundation he established after leaving the White House in 2001.
In a recent interview with NPR, the former president sounded nostalgic. He said it was hard to walk away from CGI, a job he has held longer than any other, and that he loves, but if Hillary is elected, he will do whatever she wants him to do, and then he expanded on what that might be, and where he could be helpful.
Going to coal country, Indian country, rural communities, urban pockets, helping them think through how to grow economically, digging deeper into their hopes and fears than a president has the time and band width to do. And while he said it’s up to the president to get legislation through Congress, he might be able to help with that.
How Clinton sketches out his future role brings to mind Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 tour of Appalachia, where he introduced America to rural poverty. But the truer model is Eleanor Roosevelt, who for more than a decade served as the “eyes and ears” for FDR. Confined to a wheelchair after being stricken with polio, he couldn’t easily get around the country and relied on Eleanor to bring him information.
What she saw and heard shaped New Deal policy, and seventy years later, we continue to learn more about her influence. A new book titled “Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady,” describes her close relationship with Lorena Hickok, a journalist with the Associated Press who then went to work for the administration, traveling widely and using her reporting skills to file reports to Eleanor, top advisor Harry Hopkins, and of course FDR himself.
“He really respected her and listened to her and she was able to push him on issues,” says Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at George Washington University. “They didn’t sleep together but they talked together (they had separate bedrooms in the White House). She was a close personal advisor and he listened to her.”
Eleanor remains the gold standard for activist first ladies, with admirers from both sides of the aisle. It will be tempting for Bill Clinton to forge an equally formidable legacy as the first man, and the first ex-president, to occupy the role the Founding Fathers could not have imagined would involve gender fluidity.
We’ve never had a two-term president serving in the spousal role, who understands government as well as Clinton does, along with the complexities of politics. He has said repeatedly he doesn’t want to be in the way, and the ER model seems to satisfy that requirement, giving him a framework for something he’d like to do, and that he’d be good at.
“He’s going to be restless, and I think it’s smart of him not to say he’ll be ambassador at large roaming the globe,” says Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. Shining a light on domestic issues wouldn’t pose conflicts, and could amplify the administration’s agenda. “Nobody in the Cabinet would be getting their feelings hurt,” says Bennett.
With polls showing that even if Clinton wins, she could face a Republican Senate or at best a very narrow Democratic majority, marshaling support on Capitol Hill has to be a priority. That’s where Bill Clinton could help, says Wayne, who predicts the Clinton administration will have a lot more social functions with members of Congress. “They’ll invite them over when there’s work to be done. Clinton is an extrovert. He likes to schmooze. He’ll be a behind the scenes advisor and there will be a lot more social interaction – and that would be different” certainly from the last eight years, when President Obama’s aversion to playing golf with lawmakers was obvious.
As the founding editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt papers at George Washington University, Allida Black says she is not a fan of the “eyes and ears” analogy for ER because she did so much more. “I’m not saying she wrote policy. But she knew how to advance policy, and she knew who to call to get changes in policy.”
When letters between Eleanor and Lorena Hickok were first made public in 1998, the implication that they might have been in a lesbian relationship was shocking at the time. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they loved each other, I don’t know that I would call it an affair,” says Black.
Let’s call it complicated. When FDR died, Hickok was living with another woman when she wrote a 4-page memo outlining options for Eleanor. Their friendship took many forms, enduring through several life changes. Revelations a decade ago that were seen as tarnishing Eleanor’s sainted image as a humanitarian are seen in a different light today.
She was also a very visible symbol of her husband’s administration, says Black. But there’s a big difference between a woman supporting her husband the president and Bill Clinton potentially overshadowing his wife. “It goes into that godawful narrative, buy one, get one free,” says Black. “This is Hillary’s administration not Bill’s, and they don’t always agree.”
For now, getting to the White House is what matters. Figuring out what comes next shouldn’t be that hard for Clinton, who is eager to apply what he’s learned over the last sixteen years to the next chapter, if the voters give him the chance.