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Clinton embraces return to ambassador role

In his first extended interview since his wife exited the presidential campaign in defeat, Bill Clinton says he is glad to be back doing international foundation work in Africa.
Image: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton smiles as he meets with local coffee growers at the Kigali Serena Hotel
Former President Bill Clinton meets with local coffee growers at the Kigali Serena Hotel, Friday, Aug. 1, in Kigali, Rawanda.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

There will be no Clinton restoration -- not this year, at least. But the rehabilitation of Bill Clinton has begun.

The former president in many ways ended the Democratic primary campaign more isolated than his wife, with his own friends and allies unhappy with his flashes of anger and ill-chosen words and blaming him in part for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's defeat. With a negligible relationship with Sen. Barack Obama -- he has spoken to him just once since the primaries -- Clinton has been shut out of the Obama campaign almost entirely and does not know even basic things, such as the role he will play at the Democratic convention.

It is uncharted territory for the most successful Democratic politician of his generation, and part of the reason he was in Kigali on Saturday, the latest stop in a grueling journey across Africa to visit some of the places where his charitable foundation has been active -- and in the process re-establish his role as a global elder statesman. At the same time, Clinton began, slowly, to discuss the bruising Democratic primary season that ended two months earlier.

In his first extended interview since his wife exited the campaign in defeat, Clinton said he was glad to be back doing international foundation work. "This is my life now, and I was eager to get back to it, and I couldn't be happier," Clinton said in a hotel suite, with three aides looking on.

In a session that lasted more than 45 minutes, Clinton described his role in the 2008 campaign as "a privilege, an honor," and said, "I loved it," but he declined to discuss any of his own possible mistakes, describing them as a distraction. "Next year, you and I and everybody else will be freer and have more space to say what we believe to be the truth" about the primaries, he said.

Clinton volunteered very little praise of Obama, beyond describing him as "smart" and "a good politician" when asked about him toward the end of the interview. He did, however, muse at length about the role that race could play in the general election -- the issue that some of his former black allies angrily accused him of introducing in the Democratic primaries -- as a factor, if not a decisive one.

Clinton appeared at ease, in a yellow button-down shirt and green khakis, an unlighted cigar in his hand, after a long day in which he had visited a remote town in eastern Rwanda to meet with local farmers growing cassava, a sturdy root plant, with assistance from his foundation.

He worked his way up into a village on foot, meeting a 14-year-old boy with AIDS who is receiving care from a local health provider allied with the Clinton health initiative. Then, after having lunch with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, he took a helicopter to just south of the Ugandan border to break ground on a new, advanced hospital -- digging a shovel into the ground and declaring the space as one that "symbolizes health and hope and peace and unity."

He was, along the way, classic Clinton: nodding attentively as villagers described the impact his nonprofits are having, interrogating participants about what they needed, showing off his range of expertise on topics including gorilla preservation and pediatric AIDS care.

Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who with his wife, Christie, accompanied Clinton on the trip, pointed to the stops as part of the way the former president is still helping set an example without making policy outright.

"The lesson here is that this is what foreign policy ought to be about," Vilsack said.

Yet the sight of the Vilsacks trekking down a dusty road in rural Rwanda with Clinton -- with Terry McAuliffe, the ubiquitous Clinton cheerleader and former Democratic National Committee chairman, bounding along close behind -- offered a snapshot of how remote the former president's orbit has become. Vilsack was one of Hillary Clinton's most dogged backers after his own presidential bid faltered, and he remains a Clinton ally now, when it is less fashionable.

Back home, even unwavering allies acknowledge that Clinton is now in a period of recovery. "They don't call him the comeback kid for nothing," Mark Penn, the chief strategist for much of the campaign, said -- implicitly acknowledging Clinton has something to come back from.

"If there's one thing that we've learned in the last 20 years, it's never to count Bill Clinton out," said Howard Wolfson, the senior communications adviser to Hillary Clinton's primary campaign. "And I think this trip is a very powerful reminder of the really extraordinary work that he has done around the world over the last eight years and he will continue to do. And in the end, his work on behalf of people and the substance of that work will trump the YouTube moments that came to characterize some of the last 18 months for him."

Perhaps mindful of the way former vice president Al Gore reversed his downward trajectory after losing in 2000, Clinton has brought along a documentary film crew, sponsored by his Hollywood friend Steve Bing, to chronicle his trip. And two months after his last campaign appearance for his wife, on the eve of the South Dakota primary, Clinton started to talk again to reporters, a species he came to especially resent during the course of the campaign after what he and aides felt was a raft of unfair coverage.

Clinton said that even if Obama wins, people who voted for him will still have immense work to do.

"What we Democrats can't afford to do, even as we support Senator Obama, is try to build one America on the cheap," Clinton said, explaining that people could not tell themselves, " 'I voted across the racial divide; I have no obligations to do something in my community or around the world.' In other words, if he wins . . . we've still got a lot of problems. We've got to heave-to here. We've got to show up."

Asked his view of Obama's high-profile overseas trip, Clinton said it could wind up helping him in the long term if not right away. "I think that the benefit Senator Obama may get out of that trip may come later in the course of this campaign in ways that aren't as obvious as having however many people -- 200,000 people or however many people -- showed up in Berlin."

Obama might be helped, Clinton said, "in some debate when he can say, 'You know, a captain I met in Iraq said this to me,' or, 'I observed this in Afghanistan' -- and I don't mean in a phony, showy way. I mean you want your president to have a feel for this. . . . It's like everything else. You just learn it. You absorb it, so every time you do it, your comfort level goes up."

Clinton said it is an open question whether Obama's big events overseas ultimately helped or hurt politically. But, he said: "He should not be either discouraged or encouraged by the reaction of that trip. He should internalize it. It should be a thing that had merit for him in and of itself. And the fact that it had very little political impact in the short run should be of no concern to anybody. Most voters don't have the space for it right now."

Still, there is a new world order for Clinton, even half a planet away. His trip has drawn large crowds in the places he has gone but has been little more than a blip on the global radar screen, low-key compared with what a Clinton international visit once was and almost invisible compared with the journey Obama made just a week earlier.

Even in Africa, the continent to which Clinton has devoted so much energy, the enthrallment with Obama, the son of an African father, is evident: Before dawn Saturday at the Kigali airport, where Clinton was to arrive to take a helicopter ride out into the country, workers gathered around a television to watch a story about Obama, who was thousands of miles away. At a hotel later, local workers asked reporters if they knew Obama. An African guest wore an "Obama '08" T-shirt.

Clinton is on a characteristically whirlwind journey: After starting out in Ethiopia, he flew to Rwanda on Friday. He travels to Liberia and Senegal on Sunday, making announcements on work his foundation has done on malaria drug price reductions and HIV, and then, without even an overnight stop, he will travel back across time zones to Mexico City to deliver the keynote address at an international AIDS conference on Monday.

His daughter, Chelsea, who took a leave of absence from her job to campaign for her mother, joined her father at every stop, asking questions of local officials and posing for photographs.

And McAuliffe, the over-the-top advocate who introduced Hillary Clinton as "the next president of the United States" on June 3, the night she effectively lost the nomination, brought his exuberance to the small villages along the route as if it were a campaign trail.

As Clinton strolled through a rural town Saturday morning, McAuliffe, running ahead, spotted a group of young children and local villagers waiting to meet the former president. He ran up with his arms outstretched. "How we all doing? Good?" McAuliffe shouted at the bewildered crowd. He waved the Vilsacks over and ordered up a photograph of the moment, and soon the entourage was on to the next stop.