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Former Presidents and the Press

There is no set pattern to the lives led by former presidents, but there is arguably a pattern to the way they relate to the press.

It goes roughly like this: either 1) they avoid reporters, and are happy to be out of the limelight; 2) they want occasionally to talk to the news media about a project they’re working on or a book they’ve written, and reporters politely oblige them; 3) the press wants to talk to them about a controversy, which they’re not eager to discuss; or 4) their opinions are heatedly sought after and they’re pleased to make themselves available.

Former President George W. Bush fits category No. 1. And former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have mainly moved back and forth between categories No. 3 and 4, with an occasional stop in category No. 2.

At the moment, Jimmy Carter is winning press attention because of a new book with some juicy anecdotes from his presidency. And Bill Clinton is most in media demand because Democratic congressional and Senate candidates are after him to appear with them on the campaign trail this fall, and frankly, because he’s “married into” the Obama administration.

Mr. Clinton also earns attention for the work he’s done on global poverty in countries like Haiti and through the Clinton Global Initiative, the organization he created to engage commitments by businesses, non-profits and individuals to help governments address the world’s most-pressing problems, especially among “have-not” nations. Ironically, the “have-nots” now include citizens of the U.S. who are struggling to make ends meet in the economic recovery that feels more like a continuation of the recession. Mr. Clinton told me when I interviewed him Wednesday that his CGI “members,” or donors, wanted to do something for Americans suffering without a job, so they are coming up with programs, for example, to employ young people in New York City to paint blacktop roofs white in a bid to save energy.

But the main thing reporters — me included — want to ask former President Clinton is why he thinks Democrats appear to be in big trouble in this fall’s elections, and what they need to do to turn their fortunes around. It’s a topic Clinton could wax upon at great length.

And it’s a very different dynamic from just two years ago when Mr. Clinton was on the campaign trail non-stop for his wife, then-presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. He was also under fire for some critical statements he’d made about her opponent, then-Sen. Barack Obama.

I recall vividly an early 2008 campaign stop in South Carolina where a couple of other reporters and I chased the former president around a coffee shop while he shook hands with customers because his staff said he no time for an interview.

How times change: today, Bill Clinton is the man in demand by many Democrats, including some who reportedly don’t want to appear in public with President Obama.
And so it was that a NewsHour camera crew, producer Lee Koromvokis and I waited patiently this morning in New York for a conversation with the man from Hope, Ark. He was squeezing us in between a CGI plenary session attended by several thousand people, and meetings with several heads of state.

The former president was running late, with another appointment right after us, but after our interview ended, he lingered to talk in an animated way about an issue long identified with him — health care reform — and about how Democrats need to do a better job defending themselves against Republican misrepresentations and attacks. He insisted health care costs continue to rise at an unsustainable rate, because consumers aren’t being told the whole story, and thus aren’t protesting.

It was part of his overall argument that Democrats need to speak up more effectively, to make their case to voters for re-election. He believes the main thrust should be: “You gave the Republicans eight years to dig this hole the economy’s in; just give us two more years, give us four years (total) to dig out of it — just half what you gave them, and if it’s not better, you can throw us all out in 2012.”

If there’s such a thing as the fountain of youth and energy, Clinton and Carter seem to have found it. Former President Clinton, at age 63, and President Carter, at age 85, show no signs of slowing down — whether they’re happy to talk to the press, or not.

Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.

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