On Top of the World


Clinton In Exile

By: Carol Felsenthal

Carol Felsenthal is a journalist who writes magazine articles about numerous political figures. She is also the author of several biographies, such as The Katharine Graham Story and Princess Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

The Most Popular Man in the World

By: Justin Tran

The Monica Lewinsky scandal and his humiliating impeachment ultimately undermined Clinton’s presidency. Surviving the scandal, during his improbable run in the White House, when his second term ended in 2001, “his approval ratings hit 66 percent.”1 His passion and love for being president and pleasing the American people overshadowed the consequences of his actions. Based on interviews with Clinton’s friends, associates, and enemies, Carol Felsenthal discusses the former president’s final moments in office, his personal life, public efforts, and coordination of his wife’s presidential campaign in her book, Clinton In Exile.

Felsenthal begins her biography on Bill Clinton by posing a question: why did he not run for a third term? She responds to her own question by stating: “He would most certainly have run for the presidency again—if it weren’t for the constitutional ban on third terms.”1 Evident of his determination, Clinton stayed in office in spite of the impeachment that the right-wingers tried to force upon him. Demonstrating his resolve, he held his ground and would serve until the final day of his last term. Nearing the end of Clinton’s administration, the question of pardons and who should get them elicited political repercussions from the framers and controversy from public opinion. Furthermore, Clinton was blamed for stealing the 2000 election from Al Gore. The issue was amplified because of the relationship between Clinton and Gore.

The difference between Clinton’s exit and that of George H. W. Bush was in their style. When Bush left the White House, hundreds of Bush supporters gathered to see him off. Ron Kaufman, who had worked for Bush since 1978, choreographed his run in 1988, and served as his political director in the White House, recalls that Bush wanted no one there to see them off because he wished to “downplay the whole thing, … and wanted it as low key as humanly possible.”2 Bush addressed the crowd in a hurried manner. Clinton’s plans during his personal life included “work on his presidential library (i.e., on his legacy) and vague plans to show up the knaves who had hunted him nearly every day of his presidency.”2 Clinton then compares the miniscule Lewinsky scandal to his huge successes, including a bombing campaign in Bosnia that toppled a dictator from power and resulted in zero casualties. This fantasy was interrupted when the Clintons were charged for stealing furniture and other items from the White House. Although the Clintons did return $28,000 worth of furniture to the White House, the consequences could not be reversed. Because of this, the Clintons were depicted as “the sort of lowlifes who steal towels from hotels.”3 Clinton’s personal life was marred by negative stories about his pardon of Marc Rich, who was indicted in the United States on federal charges of tax evasion and made controversial oil deals with Iran during the Iran hostage crisis. Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich caused many politicians and editorial writers to view the president as unethical, unpatriotic, and corrupt. As Clinton prepared to take his personal life out of public eye, they claimed his physical and emotional state took a toll on his decisions and judgement. Even sitting in Chappaqua—his home after leaving office—did not settle him, as Clinton’s reputation received a beating. Clinton could not accept that his pardons had sparked such outrage. Life after his presidency was hard to adjust to, evident by the public reactions to his pardons. Misery and depression were some after-effects of other presidents, such as Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, and Jimmy Carter.

Despite the criticism he received for his works in office, Clinton began to gravitate to an issue that would come to define his postpresidency work. After he left office, he began to focus on helping the poor and those with AIDS. This issue first became relevant with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa in 2001. Some claimed that Clinton had done little as president and was consequently blamed that he could have more. Others defended him by saying that Clinton had an “extraordinary impact when he said for the first time that HIV/AIDS is a national security problem.”4 Furthermore, Clinton established the Clinton Foundation and managed Hillary’s failed universal health-care plan. In addition to his addressing of the AIDS issue, Clinton’s library served as a place to praise himself and as an “economic engine.”5 As long as Clinton remained involved nationally and internationally, his library would “pay dividends.”6 Clinton’s library was an influential part of his postpresidency work.

Bill Clinton’s first step in coordinating Hillary’s presidential campaign was advising Hillary’s advisers to attack Obama before he reached his iconic status. Clinton gave her national health-care reform to run to pay for his debt to Hillary. According to Bill Bradley, former senator and presidential candidate, the administration’s health-care initiative failed because “Hillary Clinton’s political skills were not well honed” and “mistakes of conception, consultation, pace, and strategy” were made.7 Thus, Bill Clinton’s attempt to coordinate Hillary’s presidential campaign was his chance to redeem his legacy and to prove that the American people would love him again. He believed they would vote for Hillary to keep Bill in public life and, ultimately, return him to the White House. Bill Clinton was doing everything he could to support Hillary in the race. Despite his attempts however, the idea of the first African American president attracted the interests of the public more than that of the first female president. Still, Bill Clinton continued his support by dropping her name publicly whenever he could. Obama seemed the likelier candidate as Hillary was losing some support to him. When Bill Clinton began campaigning with Hillary, she began to surge in the polls. Bill Clinton began playing the ugliest kind of racial politics in a desperate effort to gain support for Hillary. He also misrepresented Obama’s statements. One poll showed that 44 percent of Democrats named Bill as the reason they would be more likely to support Hillary, supporting her belief that significant numbers of primary voters would vote for her. Hillary’s race for the White House changed everything for Bill Clinton by cleaning and enhancing his legacy.

Felsenthal argues that the beginning of Clinton’s postpresidency marked years of bad reputation for scandals and impeachment followed by a sudden revival of his legacy and popularity during Hillary’s presidential race. Clinton was marred by the Lewinsky scandal, impeachment, and “charged with filching furniture and other items from the White House…”3 After Hillary’s handlers asked Bill to campaign with her, Bill Clinton “enjoyed huge popularity.”8 From being a punching bag to earning the nickname “Comeback Kid,” Clinton took over Hillary’s campaign, despite the damage done to his reputation.

Carol Felsenthal is a notable biographer and journalist who spent two years investigating the life of Bill Clinton, which gives her credibility in writing Clinton In Exile. In 2005 and 2006 she taught “Writing Profiles” at the University of Chicago, a course that drew on her experience writing magazine profiles of people ranging from Ann Landers to Don Rumsfeld to Michelle Obama. She has also given speeches around the country and abroad and appeared on scores of television and radio shows to talk about her experiences writing unauthorized biographies of some of the country’s most powerful people. Felsenthal wrote Clinton In Exile during George H. W. Bush’s presidency and preceding Obama’s presidency. In Clinton In Exile, Felsenthal describes the nature of Clinton’s relationship with George H. W. Bush and explains how Clinton supported Hillary in her presidential race against Obama. The general attitudes from that time were mainly influenced by the media and the sentiments of the public. Evidently, reporters deliberately “made the Clintons look like trailer trash.”3 Felsenthal’s husband greatly influenced her in writing Clinton In Exile by having confidence in her and sacrificing their time together and vacations. Her children supported her by spending time with her and making her feel that she was embarking on something worthy and that the anecdotes she was pulling from interviews were interesting to them and thus, be interesting to readers as well. Felsenthal is a compulsive follower of politics and of selected American presidents. She desired to cover one segment of Bill Clinton’s life: “the years after he left the White House on January 20, 2001, trailing controversy, scandal, misunderstanding, and, typically, drama, both high and low.”13 Felsenthal worked under the guidance of Henry Ferris, a passionate editor who insisted that she stick to the postpresidency years and kept her to the point. Ferris’s assistant, Peter Hubbard, Felsenthal’s friends and editors at Chicago magazine, Flip Brophy and Chris Newman, Brittney Blair, Richard Babcock, Randi Shepard, Cid Nowosad, and Laurie McGee gave her advice and support. The interviews she conducted contributed to the sources, concerned about the reaction of Bill and Hillary.

In a New York Times book review of Clinton In Exile, Janet Maslin argues that Clinton In Exile “has ample occasions for gossip and malice, above and beyond the biographer’s legitimate concerns.”11 Maslin claims that Clinton In Exile did not need punch lines and loaded subjects. Maslin also explains that because Felsenthal spent two years of reporting on Clinton’s life, the opportunity was worthwhile. Maslin states, “a postpresidency is of great historical interest,” as she compares Clinton’s to that of Theodore Roosevelt.9 Furthermore, Maslin claims, “Ms. Felsenthal often relies on catty, unidentified sources” and “makes a few stingingly substantial claims.”9 Maslin questions how Clinton’s undertakings, such as his heart surgery, shaped his legacy. Thus, Maslin believes Felsenthal missed her opportunity in evaluating Clinton’s reputation.

According to Juliet Lapidos, Felsenthal’s Clinton In Exile is “often catty, occasionally malicious, and overly reliant on unnamed sources.”15 Also Lapidos argues: “It’s also pretty boring; when Felsenthal’s not muckraking, she’s content to trot out newspaper accounts of Clinton’s foundation work and his appearances on the guest-speaker circuit.”15 Felsenthal’s reliance on unnamed sources is evident when she states, “Some say that Burkle and Clinton are also partners in philandering.”16 She also quotes an unnamed source saying that “Burkle and Clinton spend time together doing things that Hillary would not want made public.”16 In addition to Burkle, an unnamed source explained to Felsenthal, “Stephen Bing epitomizes that crowd. Clinton’s still very much a skirt chaser and these guys in Hollywood are movers and shakers. Stephen Bing [is a] rich, young guy on the loose with power … who is bedding every broad. … That really appeals to Clinton.”17 Stephen Bing is a movie producer whom Clinton spends much of his downtime with. Felsenthal’s sources creates bias against Terry McAuliffe, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. An unnamed Clinton supporter wonders why 42 “would want to spend so much time with a man who may be shrewd but seems limited intellectually and whose adoration for Bill and Hillary is creepy.”20 Don Fowler, another former DNC head, claims McAuliffe “lives off” his close relationship with the power couple. Felsenthal spends a lot of time discussing whether Clinton cheats at golf. As she interviews people who say he does not and people who say he does, she creates bias toward Clinton because it validates her argument that the president cheating, in the case of a game of golf, should be treated as an exception. Evidence of this bias is the quote “Clinton cheated ‘pretty much on every hole. … If there was a bad shot, he’d drop two or three balls and hit them all and play the best shot. … On any given hole he might have seven, eight, nine shots and counted it as four or five,’” according to Robert “Buzz” Patterson, a former military aide.21 Felsenthal also proves that Clinton fools around even off the golf course. Another unnamed source claims that Clinton “has done some things that are wildly inappropriate, even after Monica Lewinsky, even after he’s trying to become this venerable sage of American politics, he still does it. He’s just fundamentally flawed.”17 According to Lapidos, Felsenthal excessively “repeats the tabloid rumor that Clinton dated Belinda Stronach, a Canadian heiress and former member of the Canadian parliament. Clinton was attracted to Stronach because she was rich, attractive, and at one point had a chance to become prime minister of Canada.”15 Juliet argues that Felsenthal did not have any irrefutable evidence as she quotes Eric Reguly of the Globe and Mail saying, “Bill Clinton was very much a part of [Stronach’s] life.”18 Felsenthal blatantly spreads unsubstantiated gossip as well: “Closer to home, rumors [have] persisted about a married woman, a neighbor in a woodsy, hilly village north of Chappaqua.”19

Clinton In Exile is a moderate evaluation of Clinton’s postpresidency, given the time Felsenthal took to research. Felsenthal uses informal diction with inappropriate slang and creates bias, which are unnecessary. She also goes on with excessive details, such as the pardons, Clinton’s legacy, and flashy business connections. Felsenthal focuses too much on the details of Hillary’s presidential race and less on the scandals and impeachment. Felsenthal writes of Bill Clinton and Hillary, “So much thought had been given to Hillary’s life after the White House and so little thought to Bill’s that he had not bothered to hire a postpresidency press secretary or to line up a staff.”10 Clinton In Exile exemplifies the news reports that Bill Clinton wanted to dismiss.

Clinton In Exile addresses the effects of the changes that have come to America as a result of the end of the Cold War and the rise of fears about terrorism. According to Sandy Berger, one of the areas that continues to plague Clinton is the many issues surrounding 9/11, especially the “effort on the part of the White House in the early days after 9/11 to shift responsibility backwards to the Clinton administration when the fact is that we actually were doing…a great deal before we left and they really dropped the ball.”11 According to 9/11 Commission member Bob Kerrey, Clinton made an impressive witness, offering “a brilliant insight” that Americans were “so busy celebrating the end of the Cold War that we didn’t make a good inventory of problems that we were going to be facing…. And one of the most important ones that we missed was the rise of…the capacity of radical Islam with relatively small actions to do a great deal of damage to us.”12 Clinton argues his administration properly handled the issue of terrorism. Consequently, he also blames the Bush administration for not focusing on terrorist groups.

Clinton’s low point of his presidency was marred by scandals and impeachment. According to Felsenthal, “Bill Clinton will continue to be, as he is so often called, ‘the most popular man in the world,” and Hillary will never abandon her plan, this time or next, to become the first female president.”14 In Clinton’s high point, he achieved feats, such as eliminating the deficit, coaxing through welfare reform, and presiding over years of peace and prosperity.

[1] Felsenthal, Carol. Clinton In Exile: A President out of the White House. New York: Harper, 2009. 1.
[2] Felsenthal, Carol. 22.
[3] Felsenthal, Carol. 23.
[4] Felsenthal, Carol. 85.
[5] Felsenthal, Carol. 132.
[6] Felsenthal, Carol. 133.
[7] Felsenthal, Carol. 233.
[8] Felsenthal, Carol. 241.
[9] Maslin, Janet. “After Life in White House, No Place Feels Like Home.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Apr. 2008.
[10] Felsenthal, Carol. 110
[11] Felsenthal, Carol. 181.
[12] Felsenthal, Carol. 183.
[13] Felsenthal, Carol. 316.
[14] Felsenthal, Carol. 317.
[15] Lapidos, Juliet. “Bill Clinton’s Post-Presidential Life.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 05 May 2008. Web.
[16] Felsenthal, Carol. 103.
[17] Felsenthal, Carol. 109.
[18] Felsenthal, Carol. 224.
[19] Felsenthal, Carol. 226.
[20] Felsenthal, Carol. 110.
[21] Felsenthal, Carol. 76.