A flight to Asia that altered the U.S. political map

The diplomatic mission to rescue two American TV journalists jailed in North Korea lasted less than two days.

But in the brief time that it took former President Clinton to fly to the North Korean capital and back this week, it redefined -- and in some cases, reinvigorated -- several relationships at the heart of American politics.

It once again led to him overshadowing his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, even as she is on her own diplomatic trip to Africa. It served as a pleasant, and public, reunion with his old second-in-command, former Vice President Al Gore. And it marked a coming in from the cold of sorts for a man who has had a fractious relationship with the current president.

“I want to thank President Bill Clinton -- I had a chance to talk to him -- for the extraordinary humanitarian effort that resulted in the release of the two journalists,” President Obama said in a short statement on the South Lawn of the White House.

Obama’s praise surely comes as music to the ears of a man who associates say has recently been eager to take on a new public role.


A former Clinton administration official and political associate said the former president was “playing the kind of role he has been eager to play -- an elder statesman, respected around the world, a guy who can make things happen.”

He said the high point for Clinton was the moment Wednesday morning at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank when one of the freed journalists, Laura Ling, told reporters of first seeing Clinton, the agent of her deliverance, at a North Korean prison.

“When we walked through the doors,” she said, her voice breaking, “we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton. We were shocked, but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was coming to an end.”

For Clinton, “it doesn’t get any better than that,” the former official said. “Talk about affirmation. This is the love he needs.”

It also appeared to be an early diplomatic success for the Obama administration, and it put a new gloss on a post-presidential career that has brought Clinton generous praise but also some criticism.

“This is really going to help consolidate his role as an elder statesman,” said Ross Baker, a political analyst at Rutgers University. “It almost gave him a kind of heroic tint.”

Obama administration officials acknowledge that Clinton’s tasks during the visit to Pyongyang were limited. He didn’t need to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during the visit, because the release had been worked out in advance by officials of the two countries.

Yet Clinton had to take care not to veer too far from the script with the touchy North Koreans.

In his three-hour encounter with Kim, he may even have been able to pick up some valuable intelligence for an administration that has little insight into what’s going on in Pyongyang.

The result was a role for Clinton with the Obama administration, after a presidential primary campaign last year in which his relationship with Obama was severely strained with the heated competition between the eventual winner and Clinton’s wife.

Later, when Obama chose Hillary Clinton as secretary of State, some of his aides speculated that her husband might occasionally take on a troubleshooting role for the administration. That prospect was cheered in some quarters, and viewed with apprehension in others, as some feared that the former president’s high-powered business contacts could create conflicts of interest.

Obama has had reason to want to work out a harmonious relationship with the former president, said another former Clinton aide, noting that ex-presidents pose a constant threat to their successors.

“Jimmy Carter has been a former president for almost 30 years, and he’s been a big help and a big hindrance for every sitting president who’s followed him,” this associate said. For presidents, “it pays to develop a good relationship with these permanent fixtures.”

The former aide said the most important development in the mission for Clinton was that he “is now beginning to find a place in the Obama world.”

Indeed, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that Obama and Clinton planned to get together “sometime soon.” Gibbs also hinted that more assignments could be ahead.

“If the president is ever looking for people to help, former presidents are a pretty good place to look,” he said.

At the same time, the trip left some uncertainty about how Clinton’s new diplomatic career is fitting in with that of his wife, America’s chief diplomat. While Bill Clinton was in a worldwide spotlight, the debut of Hillary Clinton’s 11-day trip to Africa received scant attention. She has been trying to raise her visibility in an administration stocked full of capable diplomats and influential White House foreign policy aides. The Africa trip, including stops in Kenya -- Obama’s father’s homeland -- and several longtime hot spots, was meant to help her raise her own profile.

In an NBC interview Wednesday, the secretary of State said that though she had originally favored Gore for the North Korea assignment, she was “very much in favor” of sending her husband once the North Koreans requested it.

Bill Clinton, she told NBC, was “so happy to be bringing these women home.”

The mission seemed to clearly improve the relationship between the former president and his vice president, a co-founder of the media company that employs Ling and fellow journalist Euna Lee, who were sentenced to 12 years in prison for illegally entering North Korea in March while on assignment.

Clinton and Gore, close partners after their 1992 White House victory but estranged by the end of the decade, have seen little of each other in recent years. The fact that Clinton was chosen for this trip, though Gore had volunteered to go, stirred speculation that tensions would deepen.

But as they met on the tarmac Wednesday, beaming with the success of the women’s return, it appeared all was well between them. The two men locked in a long bear hug before Gore praised Clinton’s effort.

Clinton courteously shared the spotlight with his former partner. And as the women and Gore spoke emotionally of the ordeal, Clinton stood by without saying a word.