Saturday, October 15, 2011

Whatever Happened to...

Bill Clinton turned 65 this year. Suddenly hot GOP Presidential candidate Herman Cain is 65. If Mitt Romney has his way, he will have the GOP nomination wrapped up on the day he turns 65 next March. And in 2019, Bill Clinton will be able to fully speak to a question that was debated during his re-election campaign in 1996. He'll finally be the age that Bob Dole was then, so he can talk about whether a 73-year-old can be president.

I'm sure becoming president at 46 felt like a good idea at the time for Clinton, but it has led to an interesting post-presidential dynamic. How does he spend his time now? After being the most important and most scrutinized person in the world for nearly a decade, does he attempt to maintain and command some residual influence and attention? Teddy Roosevelt and JFK may be the only other presidents who were ever positioned to experience what Bill Clinton is going through, but neither of them lived to be 65 (Roosevelt got malaria and died at 60--after a tumultuous post-presidential decade which saw him try to start a third party movement).

One of the pivotal moments of Clinton's rise to prominence was a late night appearance on the once hip but now long-forgotten Arsenio Hall show. Arsenio may be long gone, but David Letterman is still around--and last week the two cultural figures of the 1990s got together. Clinton didn't play the saxophone, but he appeared on Letterman's show to promote a benefit concert this weekend, in which big name performers would be celebrating the 10th anniversary of his charitable foundation. On the bill is U2's Bono, who was at the height of his popularity when Clinton was first elected. Also on the bill is Lady Gaga, who at 6-years-old was too young to vote when Clinton was first elected.

One can follow the concert on Twitter, which of course didn't exist when Clinton was in office. Actually, what makes Clinton's current situation intriguing is that even though relatively little time has passed since he was president, the dramatic ways in which life has changed since the 1990s make his tenure seem longer ago than it was. Even if the economic collapse and the threat of terrorism hadn't happened in the intervening decade, the technological innovations alone would have made the Clinton-era seem quaint in hindsight. Never mind smartphones, cell phones were rare when Clinton first took office. Never mind Facebook or Twitter, there was no Google until late in Clinton's presidency. And the World Wide Web itself was just beginning to catch on during his first term in office. (When Bob Dole announced his campaign's website address during a debate in 1996, it was noted even at the time as a significant moment).

So how has Clinton lived amongst such an odd circumstance? Of course, there was an attempt to return to the White House in 2008 as first gentleman. I'm still struck by how normal everybody (media and voters) treated that situation. I guess people were prepared for a bid by Hillary for a long time which made it seem normal, but would anybody in 1991 have imagined that a former first lady would ever almost win a presidential nomination? But the other way that Bill Clinton has passed his time since leaving the presidency is in doing charitable work. According to the website for the aforementioned concert:

Over the past 10 years, President Clinton's vision and leadership have resulted in nearly 4 million people benefiting from lifesaving HIV/AIDS treatment; more than 12,000 U.S. schools building healthier learning environments; more than 26,000 micro-entrepreneurs, small business owners, and smallholder farmers improving their livelihoods and communities; and more than 2.2 million tons of greenhouse gases cut or abated in some of the world's largest cities. And he has redefined the way we think about giving and philanthropy through his Clinton Global Initiative, whose members have more than 2,000 commitments that have already improved the lives of 300 million people in more than 180 countries. In addition to his Foundation work, President Clinton has served as top United Nations envoy for the Indian Ocean tsunami recovery effort and currently serves as the UN Special Envoy to Haiti and the co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission.

A personal drawback of all this work is that it has made Clinton a worse golfer. He told USA Today: "Haiti just about ruined my golf game. My best year as a golfer was the first year I got out of the White House. I got down to a 10 handicap. But I'm not close to that now. I just don't play enough. President George W. Bush and I were doing this project in Haiti, and he was ragging me. He said. 'I'm down to a 10 now.' I was there my first year after office. I said you're just going to have to resist the temptation to do good if you want to keep playing well. I said you start traveling and it will wreck you."

Clinton undoubtedly had a lot of detractors as president (whether it was a vast right-wing conspiracy or not), but one way to make the detractors go away is to stop being president and committ your life to directly helping others. And given the gridlock and the scandal that enveloped his presidency, one could make a case that as his scrutiny and notoriety have receded, his abilty to actually make a positive impact on the world has increased. And though only he can answer the question, one has to wonder if his mindset, his personal satisfaction, his mental health, and his overall level of happiness are higher now than when he was flying around in Air Force One.

So maybe the presidency is a good way for young people to prepare for a fulfilling career in philanthropy. It will be interesting to see what Barack Obama is up to when he turns 65 in 2026.


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