Bill Clinton, Stumping and Simmering
By PATRICK HEALY
Published: January 18, 2008
Hillary Rodham Clinton may be the spouse running for office, but it is more Bill Clinton who appears to be feeling the heat.
After weeks of complaining publicly about Barack Obama’s record, the news media’s coverage of the Democratic presidential race, or both, Mr. Clinton on Wednesday ripped into a television reporter who had asked him about a Nevada lawsuit concerning participation in the state’s caucuses this Saturday. Mr. Clinton believed the question had seemed sympathetic to Mr. Obama’s stakes in the suit, Clinton campaign officials said.
A federal judge in Las Vegas ruled in the case Thursday, with a decision that will apparently benefit the Obama campaign. The judge, James C. Mahan, held that some hotel-casinos, as arranged by the Nevada Democratic Party, would be permitted to set up caucus precincts on site so employees who work Saturday can participate. Many of those Nevadans are members of Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which has endorsed Mr. Obama, and their votes on Saturday could help him significantly against Mrs. Clinton.
The suit was brought by the state teachers’ union, which maintained that the arrangement gave the hotel employees an advantage that others working Saturday did not have. Some of this union’s top officials have endorsed Mrs. Clinton. But her campaign has denied involvement in the suit, and when the television reporter suggested a connection between it and her supporters, the former president, stumping for her in Oakland, Calif., narrowed his eyes. As his aides looked on with concern, Mr. Clinton’s voice took on an edge.
“When you ask me that question, your position is that you think that the culinary workers’ vote should be easier” than those of other Nevada workers, Mr. Clinton told the reporter, Mark Matthews of KGO-TV in Oakland. “If you want to take that position, get on the television and take it. Don’t be accusatory with me.”
Mr. Clinton’s temper has been an issue for him as long as he has been in public life. But it has played an unusual role during the current campaign, his face turning red in public nearly every week, often making headlines as he defends his wife and injects himself, whether or not intentionally, into her race in sometimes distracting ways.
Some Clinton advisers say the campaign is trying to rein him in somewhat, so that his outbursts become less of a factor to reporters, but his flashes of anger only seem to be growing. Last week, for instance, a clearly agitated Mr. Clinton told Dartmouth students that it was a “fairy tale” for Mr. Obama to contend that he had been consistently against the war in Iraq. And in December he said that voters supporting Mr. Obama were willing to “roll the dice” on the presidency.
“The bottom line is, his outbursts don’t help the campaign,” said James A. Thurber of American University, an analyst of the presidency and Congress. “They become an issue, and it can grow into a real problem. I think the campaign is worried about him right now.”
But some advisers say a former president at times prone to outrage can draw attention to issues as no one else can. They say Mr. Clinton’s “roll the dice” comment, made on the PBS television program “Charlie Rose,” helped focus public and media attention on Mr. Obama’s scarce experience relative to Mrs. Clinton’s, a factor that her campaign saw as contributing to her victory in the New Hampshire primary.
At the same time, Mr. Clinton was releasing steam that had built up within the campaign over news coverage.
“Bubbling just below the surface is a deep resentment on his part against the press about the way he feels she is portrayed against Barack,” said David R. Gergen, a Harvard professor of public service who has been an adviser to presidents of both parties, including Mr. Clinton. “He is a bit like Mount Vesuvius: he’ll just erupt, but then it’s over, because the good thing about his temper is that he doesn’t bear grudges.”
Aides and advisers to both Clintons say he tends to explode in anger more often and more fiercely than his wife, whose temper is usually described as that of a slow-burn and clipped-tone variety.
His so-called “purple fits” and “earthquakes” have been a constant to those who have worked with him. Some have dealt with it by avoiding him, others by simply responding with silence. One senior White House aide, George Stephanopoulos, who was often a target of Mr. Clinton’s fury, has written of taking an antidepressant because the vicissitudes of the job were so intense.
Mr. Clinton has reflected on his temper over the years, perhaps most revealingly in his autobiography. At one point in it, he recalls a day in junior high school when he hit a boy who had been taunting him. It was a moment from which he came to draw lessons.
“I was a little disturbed by my anger, the currents of which would prove deeper and stronger in the years ahead,” Mr. Clinton wrote. “Because of the way Daddy behaved when he was angry and drunk, I associated anger with being out of control and I was determined not to lose control. Doing so could unleash the deeper, constant anger I kept locked away because I didn’t know where it came from.”
Steve Friess contributed reporting from Las Vegas