Q&A: Joe Conason on Bill Clinton's Remarkable Post-Presidential Career

Joe Conason, a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, has just published Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton, an exploration ofPresident Clinton’s post-presidential career, including the work of the Clinton Foundation.  In researching the book Conason, who has covered the Clintons for decades, conducted multiple interviews with the former President. Conason answered questions from The National’s Jim Swearingen.

Q: You have written two major books on Bill Clinton now. With all of the things to write about in the world, why return to him twice?

A: Clinton is one of the dominant political figures of our time, certainly since the departure of Ronald Reagan. Sixteen years ago, when Gene Lyons and I wrote The Hunting of the President (St. Martins Press, 2000), both of us had been covering the political warfare between the Clintons and their adversaries, including independent counsel Kenneth Starr, for at least six years. We believed that the events culminating in Clinton’s historic impeachment trial demanded deeper scrutiny than the media had provided -- and in the reporting for that book, we learned much that had not been revealed before. I’ve written three books since Hunting that aren’t about Clinton.

My new book, Man of the World, grew out of a profile assigned by Esquire in 2005. While reporting the story of his philanthropic work, his efforts to bring affordable AIDS treatment to Africa, and the new Clinton Global Initiative, I realized there could be a book in his roaming and ambitious post-presidency. The arc of his life after the White House also captured my imagination, as he transcended the ruinous period that followed the Marc Rich pardon to become, once more, a popular and respected global leader. Eventually I persuaded him and his staff to cooperate with this project, even though they would have no control over the book’s content.

Q: Going back to the very beginning of Bill Clinton’s national political career, why does the right so detest him, and Hillary, too, for that matter?

A: You would have to ask them -- but I would observe that, like anybody else, the American right doesn’t like losing. Nearly every time they have confronted Clinton over the past quarter-century, he has won -- in the ’92 and ’96 elections, in his wrangling with the Gingrich Congress, during the impeachment crisis, and even in the aftermath of the pardon uproar. The same might well be said of Hillary Clinton, whose only political defeats have been inflicted by Democrats, not Republicans.

Q: One of the more interesting relationships you write about is between Clinton and George W. Bush — one that was complicated by Clinton’s opposition to the Iraq War, which was of course a high Bush priority.  What do you make of this relationship — and where do you think it stands during this presidential election?

A: The early relationship between Clinton and Bush 43, as he calls himself, was fraught -- reflecting his resentment of Clinton’s electoral defeat of his father, Bush 41. But Bush 41 later developed an almost paternal friendship with Clinton, when they toured the devastated tsunami region — in Southern Asia in 2005 — together. Although that trip took less than a week, it was a searing experience for both of them and created a powerful bond.

Concerning Iraq, Clinton didn’t realize then that Bush probably knew about his secret lobbying in the UN Security Council to prevent the war, in real time. If they’ve spoken about it since then, Clinton has kept those conversations to himself.

Both Bush and his father are fond of Bill Clinton, but they’re not especially close to Hillary -- who didn’t hesitate to criticize Bush 43 when she served in the Senate. I suspect that their dislike and disdain for Donald Trump will overcome any ideological or political qualms they may have about her, though.

Q: You write a good bit about Clinton’s role in working with Haiti to overcome the devastation of the hurricanes and earthquake that struck there.  The overwhelmed Haitian government ceded tremendous authority over the country’s infrastructure and rebuilding efforts to the IHRC (Interim Haiti Recovery Commission), which was co-chaired by Haiti’s prime minister — and Bill Clinton. It sounds from your account that Clinton, for a time, became one of the most prominent political leaders of a foreign country. How true is that assessment — and how appropriate do you think that was?

A: It was certainly true that the IHRC wielded substantial power in Haiti -- on paper and, up to a point, in practice. But the IHRC was greatly hindered by the dysfunction and disunity of the Haitian government, which could still veto -- or simply stall -- any of the commission’s decisions. Many Haitians, who felt oppressed by foreign elites, nongovernmental organizations, and the United Nations, also believed that the IHRC violated their national sovereignty.

Anticipating such difficulties, Clinton’s aides pleaded with him -- on the day after the earthquake -- not to shoulder any further responsibility for the fate of Haiti. They knew, and he did too, that taking a prominent role in relief and recovery there would inevitably bring angry criticism, not praise. But those same aides told me they knew he wouldn’t turn away at that terrible moment.

Q: You recount a speech that Bill Clinton gave in Melbourne on Sept. 10, 2001, a scant 24 hours before the 9/11 attacks, in which he said that he refrained from launching a military strike on Kandahar that, in addition to targeting Osama bin Laden, would likely have killed 300 women and children. You characterize Clinton’s failure to kill bin Laden as “a problem of luck rather than will.” Was it a lack of will or luck that Clinton passed on the Kandahar strike?

A: As President, Clinton wasn’t lucky enough to get what he considered a clean shot at Osama bin Laden. In Kandahar, a missile strike would have incurred hundreds of civilian casualties, without any guarantee of getting the Al Qaeda leader. On another occasion in the desert, a missile strike that might have taken out bin Laden would also have killed visiting dignitaries from the United Arab Emirates.

Yet Clinton had issued clear orders to capture or kill bin Laden, and also developed a substantial counter-terror apparatus within the US government at a time, well before 9/11, when very few politicians or commentators devoted much attention to that threat. So I don’t see his failure to take out bin Laden, which he has acknowledged, as stemming from any lack of will.

Q: Given how active he has been since his own Presidency ended, what role do you think Bill Clinton would play in a Hillary Clinton Administration?

A: I can’t predict how he might fill the role of the first “First Gentleman.” But his interests and experience suggest at least two possibilities. He is deeply alarmed by climate change, and fascinated by the economic potential of a transition to clean energy; several years ago, he tried to persuade President Obama to undertake a major energy conservation program that would have created at least a million jobs. So I can imagine him spearheading the very ambitious clean energy agenda that Secretary Clinton has promised in her campaign.

And while the generation of world leaders whom he knew best as president and even in his post-presidency has largely passed from the scene, he still knows important political figures on every continent. He remains skilled in diplomacy and knows how to draw on those relationships, as he showed on more than one occasion during his post-presidency. I expect that if she wins the election, his wife will find ways to employ his talents and relationships.