- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

When Bill Clinton landed on American soil Wednesday after completing his secret mission to North Korea, he had not only secured the release of two American captives, but he also had opened a new chapter of his post-presidency.

To his friends and longtime supporters, the successful mission put an end to a political purgatory Mr. Clinton has occupied since the darkest hours of the 2008 presidential primaries. It provided proof that he could make a disciplined return to the global stage in a deferential role. And his understated handling of the journey, during which he issued only a brief written statement saying he was “very happy” with the outcome, has led some of his close friends to speculate about his re-emergence, perhaps as the ultimate American diplomatic envoy.

“I think the real story here is, quite apart from the media speculation that he would be difficult to deal with, his actions have proven that he has been quite the opposite,” said Hassan Nemazee, a friend and longtime Clinton supporter. “The fact that the president went there, and carried off a successful trip, I think this has had a very profound impact.”

The idea of involving Mr. Clinton in securing the freedom of the two captured journalists first surfaced in mid-July. Former Vice President Al Gore, who employed the women at his cable television network, reached out to Mr. Clinton after the North Koreans had floated his name as an envoy. The appropriateness of dispatching someone of Mr. Clinton’s stature quickly became the subject of intense discussion inside the administration. On Aug. 1, Mr. Clinton received a more detailed briefing from National Security Adviser James L. Jones.

With a plan in place, Mr. Clinton turned to one of his top political patrons, Hollywood film producer Steve Bing, to supply the aircraft for the mission. He also enlisted help from top former advisers, including John D. Podesta and Doug Band. On Wednesday, he deplaned in Burbank, Calif., to applause and an embrace from Mr. Gore.

The notion of yet another high-profile comeback for Mr. Clinton may have seemed unthinkable in the days immediately after his wife’s bruising presidential primaries against Barack Obama.

His finger-wagging flashes of anger, and the suggestion by many Obama supporters that Mr. Clinton had introduced the incendiary topic of race during the South Carolina primary campaign, had left deep wounds.

For the first six months of the Obama presidency, Mr. Clinton maintained a low-key presence, emerging only once to accept a diplomatic role in trying to resolve the profound economic problems and environmental decay in Haiti. When asked Wednesday whether President Obama would be deploying Mr. Clinton to other global hot spots, press secretary Robert Gibbs demurred.

“Well, you know, this was a private mission that President Clinton did, and I know the president is enormously thankful for his service,” Mr. Gibbs told reporters.” And, look, I think if the president is ever looking for people to help, former presidents are always a pretty good group to try.”

Mr. Clinton began laying the groundwork for a revival days after his wife’s concession, heading to Florida to campaign for Mr. Obama. One faction in the Obama camp continued to harbor deep suspicions, though, and resisted any move to provide the Clintons a fresh political platform. Before settling on Hillary Rodham Clinton as the choice for the nation’s top diplomatic post, Mr. Obama’s team insisted that her husband submit to an extensive vetting. They asked him to disclose donor lists for his foundation and library that had long been kept confidential.

“Postelection, what does he do? He opens up his whole life,” said Lanny Davis, a longtime friend and adviser who writes a column for The Washington Times.

Mr. Obama’s supporters said they grew increasingly confident with the Clintons’ new role after the general election. Kirk Dornbush, a Georgia fundraiser for Mr. Obama, said he now considers the period of unsettled relations with the Clintons as “a spectacularly distant memory.”

Mr. Dornbush said the idea of calling on the former president under these circumstances made perfect sense: Here is a man with immense stature. He has the trust of the secretary of state. The two women being imprisoned are journalists working for Al Gore, his former vice president.

“It was like the stars aligned,” Mr. Dornbush said. “The fact is you had the opportunity to bring in someone perfectly situated and skilled to deal with one of the most delicate, unpredictable situations. President Clinton was clearly the right man for this job.”

More importantly, perhaps, was that North Korean officials had sent word that they wanted Mr. Clinton to come.

A senior administration official said Tuesday night that the two women being held, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, told relatives during telephone calls that the North Koreans “would be willing to grant them amnesty and release the two Americans if an envoy in the person of President Clinton would agree to come to Pyongyang and seek their release.”

Han Shik Park, director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues at the University of Georgia, who visited North Korea last month and discussed the case of the two women with North Korean officials, told The Times that this was a face-saving measure for North Korea.

The North Korean government “wasn’t interested in implementing the sentence” of 12 years hard labor against the women, Mr. Park said. “They wanted something that would make them seem respectable in the world and within North Korea.”

In the hours before Mr. Clinton was briefed at his home about making the private trip, the former president was speaking at Weight of the Nation, a national conference on the nation’s problem with obesity. Mr. Nemazee said the former president was not “lobbying for things to be put on his plate.”

“But in the case of this situation, you had two Americans being held against their will in a country that has been, to say the least, difficult to communicate with, let alone negotiate with,” he said. There was little question but that Mr. Clinton would go.

Whether the success of the trip will lead the former president to consider a new role as crises emerge around the globe remains unclear. But Mr. Davis, for one, is convinced that the episode could change the dynamics for this stage of Mr. Clinton’s post-presidency.

“He has now proven he can be a tremendous help to the secretary of state and the president,” Mr. Davis said. “He is a super envoy, a transcendent planetary personality who also knows his place, who wont step out of line, and who has shown he can be respectful of those who are above him.”

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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