NEW YORK One year ago today, William Jefferson Clinton said goodbye to the job he loved so well and embarked on life as a private citizen a low-profile state for most ex-presidents and a restless odyssey for Mr. Clinton, who has wandered the world trying to shape his place in history.
Fifty-five years old and still diving into crowds to press the flesh, the nation’s 42nd president divides his time between making a good deal of money getting as much as $200,000 per lecture here and abroad and seeking opportunities to burnish the legacy of his scandal-scarred presidency. After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Mr. Clinton’s frustration with being a private citizen was occasionally evident in his attempts to share the media spotlight that centered on the wreckage of lower Manhattan. He jumped into the national debate on terrorism, repeatedly defending his administration’s record in public interviews and private social conversation.
He called a meeting last month in his Harlem office to seek advice from former aides on how to repair his reputation, damaged by scandal and impeachment. Frustrated by criticism that he failed to destroy terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, Mr. Clinton was said to have complained that Democratic leaders had not spoken up for his policies. Aides at the meeting compiled “talking points” to promote their former boss on the lecture circuit.
“Since he left office, we’ve spent too much time on the defensive,” said former economic aide Gene Sperling.
The record is replete with things to be defensive about. The Monica Lewinsky affair continues to reverberate; the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich is still under investigation; and news stories, hotly denied, that his staff trashed the White House and Air Force One on the last day in office, were widely reported. He and his wife, Hillary, were also accused of taking White House art and furniture and sending it to their home in Chappequa, N.Y., and to storage for the presidential museum under construction in Little Rock. Suspended from practicing law, he faced legal bills in the millions.
If that were not enough to keep him in the public eye, Mr. Clinton’s choice for a post-presidential office a penthouse in a prime skyscraper on Manhattan’s West 57th Street set off a furor once taxpayers learned the lease would cost them $800,000 a year. But by summer, he was headed uptown, moving into a more modest building in Harlem at an annual cost of $354,000.
There was some good news for him. He was said to have pocketed a million dollars for one two-week European speech-making trip. By summer’s end, Mr. Clinton had landed a $10 million book contract to write his memoirs, topping the $8 million deal his wife had already signed. He told Alfred A. Knopf, his publisher, that the book would be “comprehensive and candid.” A British newspaper reported that the former president was looking for a home in Ireland where he could write, be nearer to his daughter, Chelsea, a student at Oxford University, and be close to Ireland’s famous golf courses.
The president has had to deal with criticism that he did little to fight terrorism, letting slip opportunities to deal with bin Laden. But at a recent party at a Manhattan restaurant he told his tablemates that he did not think Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the September 11th attack, but that the Republicans would probably take the war to Iraq because “they knew they screwed up by not doing it 10 years ago.”
The true goal of bin Laden, he said, was to overthrow the House of Saud in concert with a campaign to bring around all the regimes in the Middle East to his way of thinking.
Mr. Clinton’s transitional efforts have not gone smoothly. Mark Green, the Democrat he backed and campaigned with in the mayoral race, lost the election; the White House rebuffed his offer to act as a Northern Ireland peace mediator; an audience of firemen roundly booed his wife when she took the stage at a Madison Square Garden concert; and his visits to New York’s ground zero, where he hugged firemen and grieving relatives, were in some places reported as seeking publicity under tragic circumstances.
Rested and tan after spending a holiday with a billionaire TV mogul in Acapulco, Mexico, Mr. Clinton set off for the Middle East last week. His next project is a conference on Thursday at New York University titled “Islam and America in a Global World.”
Meanwhile, two of Mr. Clinton’s old friends have made solid career moves in recent weeks. Gennifer Flowers has become a popular saloon singer in New Orleans, and Miss Lewinsky is promoting an HBO TV documentary of her White House memories “Monica in Black and White,” which airs March 3. The former White House intern, who now has her own line of handbags, says she wants to correct the record even though she expects to be “a small footnote in history.”