Ex-president supportive to a fault?

Times Staff Writer

From Washington to Sacramento, a generation of Democrats enjoys power and prosperity thanks to Bill Clinton, who ran for president as a fresh face representing hope and change.

A number of those graying Clintonites are now rallying behind Barack Obama, another national newcomer, who offers youth, optimism and an echo of that promise to upend the status quo.

Thus, many find it more than a little unsettling -- and dismaying -- that the former president is targeting the Illinois senator with the same kind of criticism that Clinton faced in 1992.


Reed Hundt, who attended law school with Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, said he admired them both even though he was not supporting the New York senator’s White House bid.

But he questioned some of the ex-president’s recent statements, including a suggestion that a vote for the Illinois senator was like rolling the dice.

“President Clinton is going way too far -- too far into the politics of personal attack, which he knows is bad for the country,” Hundt said. “It’s not right for a former president to get out there and be demeaning any of our candidates.

“Calling Barack Obama ‘a symbol’ is not acceptable discourse,” Hundt went on, referring to Clinton’s comments in a recent interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose. “Likening him to a TV commentator is an insult.”

Hundt, who is supporting Obama but not working for his campaign, was Clinton’s appointee to head the Federal Communications Commission during his first term.

Susan Rice, assistant secretary of State in the Clinton administration and an Obama advisor, said she was not surprised the Clintons were waging such a pugnacious campaign, particularly as the Democratic race tightened.

“It’s politics as usual, and it’s unfortunate,” Rice said in Des Moines, where she traveled this week for an Obama speech on foreign policy. “. . . There are enormous challenges that we’re facing in the world. To the extent that the debate can remain focused on the substance and the policy . . . we’ll be better off.”

Even some supporters of Sen. Clinton question her husband’s turn to negative campaigning.

“He’s got to take the high road,” said Leon E. Panetta, chief of staff in President Clinton’s first term. “He’s strongest when he praises Hillary. He’s weakest when he comes out as the attack dog.”

President Clinton did not respond directly to the criticism. A spokesman, Matt McKenna, said the former president “feels strongly there’s only one candidate with the strength and experience to lead on Day 1 and deliver the change America needs.”

Bill Clinton remains a much-beloved figure among Democrats as the candidate who won the White House, held it for two terms and introduced a new vocabulary, with words like responsibility, community service and reform, that helped remake the party’s losing image.

For some who worked to elect Clinton or served in his administration, having to choose between their old boss (or, more precisely, his wife) and Obama is almost like having to choose between Mom and Dad.

“I love the guy; I really do,” said Mitchell Schwartz, who helped engineer Clinton’s pivotal 1992 win in New Hampshire and now runs Obama’s California campaign. He shrugs off the former president’s criticism of his candidate.

“He’s a political animal, and he’s doing what he can to try to help his wife to win,” Schwartz said, though he suggested it could hurt Clinton’s legacy. “We like to exalt our ex-presidents because they stay out of the political ring. You jump back in, you’re not in that exalted position.”

But others expressed surprise and disappointment that Clinton, given his elder-statesman status, would engage Obama as if he were the one seeking office. Many of Obama’s backers did not want to be quoted by name, out of loyalty to the former president or fearing retribution if Sen. Clinton wins the White House.

They suggested the former president had not only hurt his stature by stooping to attack Obama, but said he may be hurting his wife’s candidacy. “I don’t think he’s been helpful by taking the campaign off message and reminding people about why they might not want him back in the White House,” said a former administration strategist. “I have a lot of respect for Bill Clinton’s policy and political skills . . . but I don’t really want to see him back in.”

Panetta said Clinton needed to keep at least one eye on history.

“As someone respected around the world and respected at home, he’s got to be careful he doesn’t act like a campaign manager and wind up getting into the kind of mud fights you’re going to get into if you run the campaign rather than be a part of the campaign,” said Panetta, a former congressman who directs the Panetta Institute at Cal State Monterey Bay. “He’s got to be careful he’s not the lightning rod making all these attacks.”

The former president is turning new ground each day he spends on the campaign trail. While fathers have campaigned for sons, and wives stump for their husbands, there has never been a former first lady seeking her husband’s old office.

Given Clinton’s love of campaigning and support for his wife, his involvement is “perfectly understandable,” said Charles O. Jones, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin. “What’s questioned is the extent to which he’s getting involved.”

That, in turn, raises further questions about Clinton’s intentions should his wife win in 2008, Jones said. “If she becomes president and runs into difficulty with Congress . . . then does President Clinton move in, influencing the decision-making process?” asked Jones. “It’s got to be part of the debate at some time.”

Few questioned the former president’s behind-the-scenes role as a top campaign advisor, which goes back to his wife’s first Senate run in 2000, when both were still in the White House.

Early on, he also drew favorable notice in the presidential campaign when he began appearing alongside his wife as a draw in Iowa, New Hampshire and the South (although some accounts noted Clinton’s tendency to outshine his wife, wittingly or not).

More recently, however, a series of missteps -- including an erroneous assertion that he had publicly opposed the Iraq war from the start -- left some inside Sen. Clinton’s campaign cringing at her husband’s heightened profile, which brought back memories of the former president’s well-known penchant for parsing.

And as he began jabbing at Obama, some could not help but notice the parallels between this campaign and 1992, when Clinton was accused of being too green for the presidency. Clinton, 45 when he declared his candidacy, served 12 years as Arkansas governor. Obama, 46, spent eight years as a state legislator before his 2004 election to the U.S. Senate.

Appearing last week on “The Charlie Rose Show,” Clinton addressed the experience issue in blunt terms. “When is the last time we elected a president based on one year of service in the Senate before he started running?” Clinton said.

“In theory,” he suggested at one point, “we could find someone who is a gifted television commentator . . . and let them run.”

Obama was asked about Clinton’s comment the next day at a campaign stop in Waterloo, Iowa. He was clearly prepared. Bowing his head over the lectern, he read a quote: “ ‘The same old experience is irrelevant. You can have the right kind of experience or the wrong kind of experience. And mine is more rooted in the real lives of real people and it will bring real results if we have the courage to change.’

“And that,” Obama concluded, looking up, “was Bill Clinton in 1992.”


Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga contributed to this report.