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How Bill Clinton, improbably, became America's favorite politician

How Bill Clinton, improbably, became America's favorite politician
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush during a joint appearance in Washington. Clinton, improbably, has emerged as arguably the most popular political figure in America. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

When Bill Clinton left the White House in January 2001, Americans had experienced quite enough of the boisterous Big Dog and his unending dramas, both personal and political.

Republican George W. Bush defeated Clinton's vice president and preferred successor, fellow Democrat Al Gore, in no small part due to an enervating electoral affliction known as Clinton fatigue.

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It hardly mattered that the incumbent was nowhere on the ballot. When Bush solemnly pledged to "restore honor and dignity" to the Oval Office, it was widely accepted as a not-terribly-veiled dig at the adulterous Clinton and his carryings-on with the pizza-delivering intern Monica Lewinsky.‎

In 1998, the Democrats had managed the rare feat of gaining congressional seats in a midterm election. But that was more a testament to Republican overreach than a tribute to the soon-to-be-impeached president.

When he wasn't battling to stay in office, Clinton raised money for Democrats but was otherwise of little political utility -- in much the same way President Obama finds himself battered and belittled at this unhappy midpoint of his second term.

All of which makes it rather remarkable that today Clinton, among the most reviled figures to ever serve in the White House, stands as arguably the most popular political figure in America.

It's not just his desirability to campaign for Democrats who, apart from distant fundraising assistance, want absolutely nothing to do with the current occupant of the White House. (First Lady Michelle Obama, however, is still OK to visit.)

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that, alone among today's major political figures, Clinton is seen in an overwhelmingly positive light, with 56% approving of the former president compared to 21% who disapprove.

Those handsome numbers compare to Bush's middling 37% to 38% rating--though he, too, has been rising in the public's estimation since leaving office--Obama's dismal 42% to 46% rating and overall disapproval of a pair of potential 2016 Republican contestants, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, seen favorably by 23% and unfavorably by 27% of those asked, and Bush's younger brother, Jeb, a former Florida governor, with a 22% favorable to 30% unfavorable rating.

Granted, Clinton is the most spectacularly gifted politician of his generation and the economic boom years coinciding with his time in office make him look, in the roseate rear view, all the better and more accomplished.

His globe-hopping good works, doting fatherhood and distinguished corona of white hair all give off the rarified air of a statesman and that, too, serves to enhance his stature.

But in great part the Clinton revival and continued rise in the public's esteem speaks to the way Americans prefer their politicians, which is to say retired and no longer grasping for higher office or mucking about in partisan matters.

Look no further than Clinton's spouse, the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of State, whose poll standing has headed steadlily southward the closer she edges to her own expected bid for president in 2016.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found those interviewed were roughly split, 43% favorable and 41% unfavorable, in their estimation of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

That so-so assessment compares to a 56% to 25% approval rating when she ended her time as secretary of State in early 2013 and 51% to 31% a year ago, before she embarked on a rocky book tour, began weighing in on developments like Ferguson, Mo., and began other conspicuous moves toward a second try for president.

It is not just Hillary Clinton, though.

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Much of the sentiment behind a third Mitt Romney try for the White House rests on his emergence in the last year or so as a kind of jolly-good-Republican, showing up to endorse GOP candidates with a gleaming smile and self-deprecating his way through interviews while disavowing any interest in another run in 2016.

That's far different from the rough and tumble of a campaign, and it's why people come off so much better when they're not actually running for office. It's like a new car, which begins losing value the instant it's driven off the lot; the moment someone declares their desire to win office, everything they do and say is freighted with personal ambition and weighed on the scale of political calculation.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made a joint appearance this week in Washington, laughing and joshing like two old pals -- Clinton actually has grown close to the Bush family in one of the more improbable post-presidential alliances -- and the audience loved them for their bipartisan show of bonhomie.

All of which offers a glint of hope for the embattled incumbent hunkered down in the White House this sour election season.

In a column last spring, Yahoo's Matt Bai noted the kindlier light being shed these days on the second Bush presidency and suggested Obama take heart. "One day in 2022 or thereabout, he will get out of bed in Chicago or Honolulu to discover that even those who grew disillusioned now remember why they found him compelling in the first place," Bai wrote. "There will be the inevitable chorus of, "Say what you want about Obama, but at least he wasn't…"

Just ask Bill Clinton, who proves there is such a thing as a sixth, seventh--or is it eighth or ninth?--act in American politics.

No one's ever polled my approve/disapprove but you can follow Mark Barabak on Twitter for more on national politics

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