Image: Bill Clinton, Dorothy Rodham, Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton
Jim Bourg  /  Reuters
Former President Bill Clinton, left, seen with his mother-in-law Dorothy Rodham, wife Senator Hillary Clinton, D-NY, and daughter, Chelsea remains popular with the public despite questionable comments made during his wife's campaign.
By NBC/National Journal Reporter
updated 6/20/2008 12:58:48 PM ET 2008-06-20T16:58:48

Clad in jeans and a loose-fitting black T-shirt, Bill Clinton looked decisively unpresidential squatting in an Oregon schoolyard garden last month and planting tomatoes with children. But he also looked completely in his element.

Clinton and daughter Chelsea were making a pitch for school-based community-service projects like the kind that Portland's Woodlawn Elementary School had crafted with the "I Have a Dream" Foundation. But a week before the state's primary, few people in the crowd--and certainly none of the reporters or cameras that followed the former president--showed much interest in the garden or the mural he painted on the wall. They were not there to see "Bill Clinton, humanitarian." They were watching "Bill Clinton, political spouse" and wondering what he would say next.

Hitting the road for his wife's presidential campaign this year, President Clinton largely walked away from the humanitarian work he had become known for since leaving office. Through his advocacy of HIV/AIDS treatment programs in Africa and environmental projects in the United States, Clinton had burnished his image, arguably becoming the most popular Democrat in America.

But with his no-holds-barred style of campaigning for Hillary Rodham Clinton--and of lashing out against the new media, the Democratic Party, and his wife's chief rival, Barack Obama--Clinton lost some of his luster, many observers say. "He did at times get over-emotionally involved and did at times prove to be a distraction," said Lanny Davis, a longtime Clinton associate who served as special counsel in the Clinton White House.

Resuming public services will help, Dems predict
Political insiders and the ex-president's associates said they do not think his behavior during the primary season will leave a lasting stain on his reputation. That's especially true abroad, where he is almost universally praised for his good works, analysts say.

"Bill Clinton is, in his own way, a rock star. And, like a rock star, things can happen that take you through the ups and downs in life, but you continue to remain pretty popular with the public," said Leon Panetta, who was Clinton's White House chief of staff from 1994 to 1997.

Resuming the public service that has won him accolades as an ex-president will soon return him to the country's good graces, many fellow Democrats predict. "Clinton's legacy as a gifted policy wonk and political strategist, not to mention a global philanthropist, will be restored once he gets back to his day jobs," said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist.

Video: Bill Clinton calls reporter 'a scumbag' Clinton first became a lightning rod in January, while campaigning in South Carolina. He called Obama's depiction of himself as a consistent foe of the war in Iraq a "fairy tale" and dismissed Obama's South Carolina win by noting that Jesse Jackson carried the state in 1984 and 1988 primaries. The comments infuriated many African-American voters, once a strong part of both Clintons' base.

Wagging a finger and saying, "Shame on you," Clinton scolded reporters for not focusing on what he considered voters' real concerns. Later, he resurrected questions about his wife's claim to have come under sniper fire in Bosnia when she was first lady by suggesting that she was tired when she made the comment. The former president's remarks drew a sharp rebuke from the candidate. "Hillary called me and said, 'You don't remember this; you weren't there. Let me handle it.' And I said, 'Yes, ma'am,'" he sheepishly said on April 11.

And as his wife's campaign neared its end, Bill Clinton grabbed attention again by calling a Vanity Fair reporter "sleazy" and a "scumbag" for an article that suggested the former president was showing poor judgment.

While reminding people of his less refined, more spontaneous days, Clinton also created real rifts. "He went out on a limb. He lost a certain bit of credibility. He's been seen as sort of excessive in his rhetoric," said presidential historian Robert Dallek.

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But, Dallek said, that impression will fade as the primary season recedes. And, he added, "if the Democrats win a big victory and Bill Clinton is given some role as a statesman, it will quickly change the current feeling about him."

As the most recent Democrat to occupy the White House, Clinton has remained the spiritual leader of his party. But he ran afoul of some of its current leaders by criticizing their initial refusal to seat delegates from Florida and Michigan. He repeatedly questioned whether the party would be reacting the same way if Obama had won the states.

But Democratic insiders said they still consider him an important Democratic asset. "Bill Clinton still has the Midas touch with many Democratic voters, who will welcome any opportunity to listen to his sage advice," said Brazile, who remained neutral during the primary.

Certainly, Clinton was in a unique position because he wasn't just campaigning for a political ally but for his wife. "The reason I am so convinced he will be forgiven or the voters will get over it is because it can all be attributed to one thing--campaigning for his wife, believing in his wife," Davis said.

But he noted that Clinton had been in an awkward position because he was not a candidate for office yet was being treated like one. "As a former president, he had such power and such ability to generate headlines, he needed to be more careful," Davis said. "But he was almost defenseless. He couldn't attack [House Majority Whip] James Clyburn [D-S.C.] or [Sen.] Ted Kennedy [D-Mass.], because it would have been a distraction. If [he] had been [the candidate], he could have."

Clinton associates say that the primary campaign brought out the political animal they remember from the 1992 presidential campaign and the White House. "There's no question that Bill Clinton's first love is politics," Panetta said. "He clearly rolled up his sleeves and got involved in this campaign 1,000 percent. And people recognize that in him. That's who he was as president, someone who truly committed himself to the political process."

Writing his own book
It was a side of him the nation had not seen in a while. He did not actively campaign for Al Gore in 2000, because the vice president wanted to distance himself from Clinton's problems. And heart surgery limited his activity on John Kerry's behalf in 2004.

As a rule, former presidents are rarely seen on the stump. Even former President George H.W. Bush did not campaign actively for his own son. But, Dallek noted, in 2000 the elder Bush was not as popular as Clinton was at the start of the 2008 campaign.

Panetta said that Clinton sets his own standard. "The one thing I've always learned with Bill Clinton is, he didn't follow the book on former presidents and how they're supposed to behave," he said. "He's writing his own book."

Clinton left the White House with accolades for a strong economy, but also damaged by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the last-minute controversial pardon of financier Marc Rich. The ex-president's approval ratings dipped to their lowest--34 percent--in March 2001, two months after his administration ended.

Video: Bill Clinton: ‘This has been a great thing for women’ But in the past five years, Clinton has focused on national and international good works, traveling the world for his foundation and writing two best-sellers. Also, he forged a remarkable friendship with George H.W. Bush to raise funds to aid victims of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Clinton's approval rating peaked at 53 percent in November 2007, shortly before he began campaigning for Hillary.

His approval rating in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was just 40 percent. The morning after the last two primaries, Clinton officially returned to his day job, speaking in New York on corporate philanthropy. Within a week, he had booked similar speeches in Boston and at the United Nations. Gone was any of the vitriol that had become a daily staple on the campaign trial. And he barely mentioned his wife's candidacy or his time as a candidate's spouse.

"I don't think it was as much [about] creating an image as getting back to business," one of his advisers said. "That will be perceived 19 different ways."

Clinton associates said they expect him to dive back into Clinton Foundation work, highlighted by his annual summer trip to Africa. The adviser noted, "There's no shortage of requests for his time or projects for his help."

"It's all fresh in people's minds," the aide continued. "History will remember him as someone who was an impassioned advocate for the candidate he believed in most, which is his wife."

And Panetta said, "I think he has to fix this the way he has always fixed the problems he's run into. Roll up his sleeves and do whatever is necessary to help the party. Bill Clinton can help his image by getting involved."

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