Early in Bill Clinton's presidency, Hillary had to leave town to rush to her father's deathbed. Upon her return to Washington, she found the White House in disarray and discovered that Bill had been escorting Barbra Streisand around town, allowing her to stay over in the Lincoln bedroom.
It was hardly a "bimbo eruption", as Streisand's sleepover was with her then fiancé. But when reporters jogged with Bill the next morning they noticed that he had a deep and nasty looking scratch along his jaw. His spokeswoman Dee Dee Meyers blithely explained that he had cut himself shaving. She, like the assembled reporters, would in time come to believe that the wound was caused by Hillary, furious with Bill's insensitivity and celebrity escapades at a time when her father was dying.
Todd Purdum was one of those White House correspondents who covered the Clinton presidency for The New York Times. He also happens to be married to Dee Dee, although he swears that he never spoke to her about the extended hatchet job he has just written in the current issue of Vanity Fair magazine.
Despite leaving Washington under a cloud of impeachment (and the ridicule of the finer points of the Monica Lewinsky scandal), Bill Clinton reinvented himself with his books, his presidential library and above all his global charitable works, going on to become the most popular former president in history. All that is now at risk, following his outburst on his wife's campaign trail and the dubious people with whom he has associated in his business activities. America's high opinion of Bill Clinton seems to be taking a tumble.
Purdum accuses him of being out of control and consumed by a "cavernous narcissism". "[He] is the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral he attends," the Vanity Fair national editor writes in one of the most savage lines of the 10,000-word opus. Most startling among the revelations is that some of Bill's aides believe his heart surgery four years ago fundamentally altered the former president's state of mind. "There's an anger in him that I find surprising," one anonymous senior aide tells Vanity Fair. "There seems to be an abiding anger in him, and not just the summer thunderstorms of old."
There is also a heavy attack on the "decidedly unpresidential company" Bill keeps. "Among the not-so-small cadre of Clinton friends and former aides, concern about the company the boss keeps is persistent, palpable, and pained," Purdum writes. "No former president of the United States has ever travelled with such a fast crowd, and most 61-year-old American men of Clinton's generation don't either."
The author revives stories of Clinton's friendship with a twice-divorced Canadian billionaire car-parts heiress and a member of the Canadian parliament who is 20 years his junior. He repeats recent Hollywood gossip about visits to the actress Gina Gershon in California. He describes sightings of the former president and Steve Bing (the movie and music producer who had an out-of-wedlock child with Elizabeth Hurley) with "a ravishing entourage in a New York elevator". Other aides talk about being concerned a year ago with rumours that Bill was "seeing a lot of women on the road" as Hillary was setting her campaign in motion for the Democratic nomination.
The Vanity Fair piece was so cutting that it provoked an immediate 20-page response from Bill Clinton's office in Harlem. This described the article as "a tawdry, anonymous quote-filled attack piece, [which] repeats many past attacks on him, ignores much prior positive coverage, includes numerous errors, and ultimately breaks no new ground. It is, in short, journalism of personal destruction at its worst." There followed a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges against the former president.
For all the damage-limitation exercises, the article, headlined "The Comeback Id" has once again stoked debate about Bill Clinton's legacy. His hopes of being the first First Gentleman appear to be in tatters, as Hillary's attempts to persuade superdelegates she is winning the popular vote fall on deaf ears. Some say Bill must accept his share of the blame for her failure.
Hillary's has been a hydra-headed campaign in which Bill has always been in the background, somewhat larger than life, mesmerisingly brilliant when he was on-message, but extraordinarily cack-handed when making impromptu remarks to the ever-present miniature cameras of the YouTube generation. At its worst it often seemed as if Bill Clinton himself was running for a third term.
The question that has been on many lips this campaign season is how could a political genius like Bill Clinton so grievously damage Hillary's presidential bid by making racially motivated remarks about Barack Obama? His comments caused once adoring black voters to abandon her campaign en masse.
In the racially charged South Carolina primary, a reporter asked Bill to respond to complaints that he was engaging in "the politics of deception," used by the much-hated Republican strategist Lee Atwater. Clinton exploded into a finger-wagging attack on Barack Obama followed with a "shame on you" taunt to the hapless reporter.
Later on, in a calmer, but no less revealing, moment he told the media that it would be a mistake for him to have a specific job in a Hillary Clinton White House. "I'd be like the abominable snowman," he said. "I'd be Bigfooting everybody, even if I tried not to."
As the campaign dragged on, the abominable bit became increasingly prophetic and a special aide was dispatched to keep him company on the campaign trail, playing his favourite card game of Oh Hell, late into the evenings. Purdum accuses the former president of having "stained his wife's campaign in the name of saving it," and he follows this with darker disclosures about Clinton's refusal to come clean about foreign donations to his presidential library and charitable foundation as well as questions about whether some of monies were used to pump up Hillary's bankrupt presidential campaign.
Clinton's rat-pack of dubious billionaires was by his side at the Paris wedding of his close associate Douglas Band, an event described as "straight out of Sex and the City". Band, 35, started his career as a White House intern, where one of his tasks was to escort Monica Lewinsky to parties. During Clinton's White House years he was his "Butt Boy" – in US parlance, the person responsible for making sure the president woke up on time, stayed on schedule and always had everything he needed (socks, golf clubs, tie, speech, etc)
After Clinton left the White House with legal debts to the tune of $12m, Band went with him and in recent years has become a "personal aide, gatekeeper, enforcer, and more recently counsellor in the multifarious business, philanthropic, and political dealings that keep Clinton restlessly circling the globe".
One of those accompanying Clinton to Paris was Ron Burkle, a California supermarket billionaire, who arrived on the custom-built Boeing 757 sometimes called "Ron Air" but which his own circle privately refers to as "Air Fuck One". He was accompanied by a blond guest described by someone in attendance as "not much older than 19, if she was that". Clinton himself came on Steve Bing's jet.
There are other question marks about the former president's judgement. In 2002, for example, he flew to Africa with the New York investor Jeffrey Epstein on his private Boeing 727 on an anti-Aids and economic development mission. (Also along for the ride were Kevin Spacey and the comedian Chris Tucker.) By 2006, Epstein would be up on charges of soliciting prostitution in Palm Beach and he was also investigated by federal authorities following allegations that he hired under-age girls for massages. There are four civil lawsuits outstanding against him from young women and Purdum says he is likely to accept a deal that would see him spend eight months in prison, followed by house arrest, in lieu of a trial which is about to begin.
Some of Clinton's lapses have been ascribed to complications from his quadruple-bypass surgery in 2004 and a follow-up procedure to remove scar tissue from his lung. But the damage he did to Hillary's cause and the deep vein of anger he opened in the Obama camp has also probably doomed any prospect of a "dream ticket" with his wife as the vice-presidential candidate.
If political malpractice was a crime, he would surely have been indicted by now for derisively dismissing Obama's unwavering anti-war stance as a "fairy tale," and his denigrating comparison of the black senator's South Carolina victory to that of the rabble rousing Jesse Jackson 20 years ago.
The remarks backfired spectacularly because the Obama campaign brushed them off, like a piece of fluff off the shoulder, rather than engage in a shouting match with a popular former president. And as the days wore on, the Democratic establishment turned on Mr Clinton, with even his friend of 20 years and former Treasury Secretary Robert Reich calling his attacks "ill-tempered and ill-founded".
Then there was Clinton's old flame Gennifer Flowers, who has endorsed Hillary for president and now refers to the former president as that "idiot husband".
In moments of self-reflection Clinton has apparently told friends his reputation will recover. But as the lights start to go out on his wife's campaign, Clinton is described as "a profoundly solitary man, without any real peers, intellectuals or equals, or genuine friends with whom he can share the sweetest things in life". Hillary is too busy for that right now.
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