Bill's back, and diplomacy goes into showbusiness

David Usborne
Sunday 09 August 2009 00:00 BST

Jon Stewart, the master of the satirical newscast, teased viewers on Wednesday on the Comedy Central channel. Was the big story of the night the safe return home of two US reporters after their nightmare incarceration in North Korea? "No!" he yelled. "Our big story tonight is: the Big Dog is back!"

That would be Bill Clinton, who has had a good week. In a span of 20 hours, he shook up the world of international diplomacy by jetting into Pyongyang, dining and conversing with the most elusive leader on the planet, Kim Jong-Il, then returning with the pardoned correspondents, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, in tow.

It seems as if the former president found his old Superman suit all of a sudden. It was his most flamboyant contribution to public service since he left office in 2000. Not that he has been idle, of course. Indeed, on Thursday, he was already back at his day job, unveiling in New York an initiative by his charitable foundation to provide below-cost HIV/Aids drugs to patients in developing countries.

That was his occasion to peddle some aw-shucks, down-South humility about the affair. Flat palm on chest, chin a tiny bit a-quiver, he averred: "My job was to do one thing, which I was honoured to do, as an American and as a father... I wanted those young women to be able to come home."

He knows well, however, that the nature of his trip as well as the details about how it was thrown together raised a host of other questions. Should we now see him as emissary extraordinaire for Barack Obama and the US Secretary of State, also his wife, Hillary Clinton, when things get sticky overseas? Does President No 41 fancy himself more as 007 these days?

Some released a knowing sigh when it emerged that the trip had been made possible by the services of Shangri-La Entertainment. The very name seems to devalue the accomplishment. How very Bill. Even more so, because the firm is run by Steve Bing, his old buddy with a wallet as large as his reputation for playboy living. Bing, you remember, was found out as father to Elizabeth Hurley's baby.

It is only a few months back that Democrats were quietly fretting about the appointment of Mrs Clinton as America's top diplomat because of the problems that might arise from all the connections of her husband. They were even more worried when she was shooting for President. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd famously speculated then about Hillary telling Bill he could expect to be called "First Lad". But then, referring to two big FOBs (Friends of Bill) with allegedly large appetites for living, Bing and supermarket tycoon Ron Burkle, she warns: "You promised me two terms after your two terms, and I'm not going to get that if you're caught Burkling or Binging."

Yet for a few days last week, all reservations about Bill and his post-presidential dealings – dodgy, saintly, or both – were put aside as the marvel of his mission was digested. For all the efforts by the White House to put distance between itself and the former president, it was clear it had been closely involved. Mr Clinton is due this week to visit Mr Obama in the White House to relay his impressions from Pyongyang.

But for now, Mr Clinton, at least, is playing down any notion of his regularly swooping in when the telephone starts ringing in the National Security Council or on his wife's side of the bed. "I am not a policy-maker any more," he said on Thursday. And the White House knows that if Mr Clinton does prove himself a precious commodity in times of crisis, he had better be used sparingly.

As Sybil Adelman Sage writes on the Huffington Post blog page, sending in Clinton could rapidly become a cliché. In a humorous take, she offers a number of increasingly ridiculous call-for-Bill scenarios, including: "Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad agreed to ease up attacks on the protesters and replace his beige jacket providing Bill Clinton comes to Iran and accepts him as a friend on Facebook."

Whatever works.

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