June 11, 2021

Bill Clinton is a peculiar figure on the landscape of American ex-presidents — a fact of which we’ve been reminded this week, with the release of his newest book. The existence of a book is not unusual, granted; most former occupants of the Oval Office write memoirs after they’ve left, to the point that it’s practically a requirement. But Clinton’s 2018 offering, The President Is Missing, and his latest, The President’s Daughter are not tell-alls about his time at the top; they are the sort of ridiculous thriller in which the President of the United States would call up an overseas SEAL team, mid-operation and against protocol, to give them the following order in a motivational growl: “Now you squids body-bag that son of a bitch for the country.”

These books are a sort of ultra-niche entry into the “own voices” category of fiction: written by an author (in this case, a President) who shares key identity characteristics with his characters (also Presidents.) In fact, the president in Clinton’s new book, Matthew Keating, becomes an ex-president himself just 60 pages in, after his power-hungry VP, Pamela Barnes, leverages the fallout from a botched kill operation in Afghanistan to defeat Keating in the Democratic primary.

Keating is understandably demoralised by this experience; on the eve of Barnes’ inauguration, we find him standing morosely on a snowy tarmac, lamenting his one-term presidency while his wife attempts to comfort him: “Matt, you could have done so much more if the entire system hadn’t been crippled long before you entered the Oval Office,” she says. “From Twitter mobs to focus groups, nothing can get done anymore.”

Ah, Twitter: a destructive force capable of crippling democracy itself! But when the narrative jumps ahead by two years, Keating remains at loose ends: procrastinating on his memoirs, and filling the hours by challenging his long-suffering security agent to canoe-racing competitions. (In what is perhaps a bit of wish-fulfilment on the part of the book’s author, Keating is the repeated winner of these races. He is also, he makes sure to tell us, not wearing a shirt.)

Needless to say, these books are not great works of literature. The President’s Daughter is in many cases profoundly silly. Barnes, in particular, is a Machiavellian caricature whose nightly routine involves sipping Scotch like a James Bond villain while her wormy husband massages lotion into her cracked and aching feet — “a constant irritant since she stood up for herself and others and entered politics years back.” It is representative of the overall writing quality that one cannot tell if this is simply a clunky accident of sentence construction, or if we are meant to believe that Barnes’ feet literally hurt from figuratively standing up.

But choppy writing and crappy character development aside, Bill Clinton’s little renaissance as a co-writer of pulpy political thrillers is fascinating for what it reveals about the unique conundrum faced by the men who used to be President — and, per American tradition, retain the title for life — but are now, alas, just men.

There’s a certain expectation, or at least a desire, that American presidents step back from public life after they leave office. George Washington set this bar when he retired to his farm in Mount Vernon in 1797, expressing “a determination not to intermeddle in any public matter” for the rest of his life. It’s an example that has proved inspirational: when Barack Obama left office, he too referenced the “wise American tradition of ex-presidents gracefully exiting the political stage and making room for new voices.”

Obviously, this tradition is not being observed in our present moment. America’s most recent ex-president not only eschewed the graceful exit, but is reportedly expecting to be declared the real winner and reinstalled in office any day now.

But it’s also never really been a tradition, or at least not a universally popular one. For every George Washington, there’s a John Quincy Adams, who not only refused to retire from public life but ran for Congress and served nine terms in the House of Representatives (a politician to the end, he collapsed on the House floor during a heated debate over the Mexican-American War and died two days later.) William Taft advised his successor on foreign policy and eventually lobbied his way into a supreme court appointment. Herbert Hoover left office only to spend the rest of his life bitching furiously about Franklin Roosevelt to anyone who would listen.

Some of this behaviour may stem from a lack of examples to follow. Hoover, for instance, was the sole living ex-president for a full twenty years after he left office in 1933, and perhaps felt a special obligation (or at least no particular compunction) when it came to being a thorn in the side of his successors. But in recent decades, the field of former presidents has become much more crowded, with up to half a dozen of them milling around at any given time.

And while it was once possible to imagine these men as toothless entities, politically neutered and doddering away at some pet humanitarian project or hobby for their remaining years, being a public figure is a different thing in 2021 than it was a few decades ago. In the age of the influencer, anyone who’s ever occupied the public stage of the American presidency is granted a degree of permanent cultural power that can’t be simply shrugged off. Social media makes it much easier for ordinary people to become famous; it also makes it much harder for a prominent person to step back, to disappear. Even Obama, who has more or less kept his promise to stay out of politics after his presidency, is still wielding influence in the form of a massive Netflix deal that has expanded to include podcasts.

It’s no surprise, then, given how difficult it is for presidents to fade away, that our political parties’ relationship with their one-time leadership has gotten complicated. The past ten years have seen the emergence of an especially strange alchemy, whereby former presidents lose their own party support while gaining it across the aisle.

George W. Bush, for instance, was reviled by the left when he was still in office: we called him the “worst president ever”, we were immensely relieved when his second term came to an end, and we were delighted when he kept a relatively low profile in the years that followed. But then, in 2016, Bush was suddenly back on our radar — when he reportedly walked away from Trump’s inauguration speech saying, “That was some weird shit.”

It was the start of a transformation: the so-called worst president ever suddenly seemed more like a benign uncle, one with a cute painting hobby and a bleeding heart for immigrants. The GOP rejected Bush as a traitor to the cause, but on the Left? Some hated to see it, but an undeniable rehabilitation was occurring in the form of internet memes, political nostalgia, and even praise from his Democratic successor.

Meanwhile, a version of this same phenomenon can be seen playing out in the opposite direction with Barack Obama, who has lately riled the radical Left (and delighted the folks at Fox News) by coming out against the excesses of progressive orthodoxy. “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly,” he said, addressing an audience of young people in 2019 — and then, just days ago, reiterated his concerns in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. But while these comments play well among Right-wingers, who commend Obama’s reasonableness, they irk many of his former supporters. In one representative article, a writer bemoaned the former president for “yet another needless prescription of acquiescence to a bloc of Americans on the wrong side of history.”

Which brings us to Bill Clinton and his complicated legacy. Even if he’d wanted to, this is one ex-president who couldn’t just disappear into the ether once his White House tenure was up. He’d had his turn, but now it was hers — and as a former president-turned-political spouse, Bill was obligated to stand dutifully by Hillary’s side while she climbed the ladder of power, up to and including a quest to hold the same office he’d vacated sixteen years previous.

It was hard to fully appreciate the cascading series of absurdities that surrounded Bill Clinton’s new role in public life: that the President who’d been impeached over a sex scandal was now expected to play, of all things, a devoted and supportive husband. That his presence was required on Hillary’s campaign trail because, despite everything, people still liked him better than her. That his wife somehow ended up running against the only guy in the world whose vulgar and boorish behaviour could make Bill — the alleged rapist, the intern defiler — look positively genteel by comparison. That a mere fifteen months before #MeToo became a decade-defining movement and media obsession, the biggest Bill Clinton story of the year was that he had frolicked with balloons at the 2016 Democratic National Convention like an adorable, demented child. (The second biggest was Trump’s press conference just before the October 9, 2016 presidential debate, featuring three women who’d accused Clinton of sexual assault.)

Could this have been a new way forward for a former American president? Might Bill Clinton have enjoyed a reputational renaissance as First Gentleman to Hillary’s Commander-in-Chief, at least until the #MeToo movement came along to make things awkward? It’s possible, but since Hillary lost that race, we’ll never know — and we’d also rather not talk about it.

In a party that aims to position itself as the safest space for women, to make no apologies for abuse or assault, the lingering presence of a confirmed-pervert-maybe-worse is a terrible liability. Sure, we were willing to pretend we’d forgotten about all that, back when Bill Clinton was the grimy ribbon wrapped around a package marked “important” and “historic,” a package that contained the first female U.S. President. But now, we’d rather he just went away.

And while co-writing pulpy thrillers with James Patterson isn’t quite retiring to a Mount Vernon farm, it does give the man a way to occupy himself, and to garner attention on a different, non-political stage. A Clinton who is ensconced in a fictional world full of kidnappings, terror plots, and shirtless canoe races is a Clinton who won’t get in the way of Democratic policy-making or interrupt the long march toward progress.

Unless, of course, “The President’s Daughter” turns out to be Chelsea’s 2024 campaign slogan.