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When Bill Clinton Left the White House

Carol Felsenthal 22 January 2009 9 Comments

If George W. Bush’s approval ratings are any indication, the vast majority of Americans could not wait to see him go.  But that said, at least he left in a quiet, dignified manner; nothing like the circus surrounding the White House exit of Bill Clinton eight years earlier.  (I tracked Bill’s painfully long goodbye in the opening pages of my book, Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House.)

Impeached and lonely–Al Gore didn’t want Bill to campaign for him fearing the stain of Monica, and Hillary, headed to Washington to be the junior senator from New York, did not want Bill to join her, and that was before the Marc Rich pardon hit the air waves.    Senator Hillary would quickly move into what was already known as “Hillary’s house” in Washington’s Kalorama Circle, and former President Bill would live in the house in suburban Chappaqua that they had purchased solely so that Hillary could claim a New York address.

On inauguration morning, January 20, 2001, Clinton awoke to a headline in the Washington Post: “In a Deal, Clinton Avoids Indictment; President Admits False Testimony.”  “Awoke,” actually, is the wrong word because he never went to bed the night before, enjoying a White House sleepover with his friends, Terry McAuliffe, the master fundraiser, and Hollywood producer Harry Thomason.  On the morning of the 20th, Clinton formally issued  the pardons, including the toxic one  to Marc Rich, and awaited the arrival of the Bushes, the Cheneys and the Gores.

The meeting was awkward because, in Gore’s mind, his victory had been stolen by both Bush and, in a sense, by Clinton.

Not surprisingly, during W’s inaugural address,  Clinton briefly dozed off, missing words clearly aimed at him: “America at its best is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected” and “Our public interest depends on private character.”

Nasty weather forced the Clintons to travel by limousine—rather than the customary helicopter–to Andrews Air Force Base where the plane that would take them to Chappaqua awaited.

Clinton arrived at Andrews at 1:15 pm but showed no urgency about boarding the plane for Chappaqua, thereby pulling media attention from Bush’s inaugural parade . “When you leave the White House you wonder if you’ll ever draw a crowd again,” Clinton told supporters gathered to see him off.   “He’s doing more encores than his friend Barbra Streisand,” joked the Washington Post’s television critic Tom Shales, who predicted that Clinton would “pop up on `Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ or `Who Wants to Marry an Ex-President.’”

Bill shook every last hand in the heated, covered hangar, while  his cabinet secretaries waited in the freezing rain, positioned there to shake their former boss’s hand as he boarded Special Air Mission 2800—once Bush was sworn in, the plane carrying Clinton could no longer be called Air Force One.  Larry Summers, who had been Clinton’s Treasury Secretary,  hadn’t brought a coat and shivered outside with a muffler around his neck waiting for Bill.

The plane took off at 2:57 pm.  One of Hillary’s aides who was on board—they would gather at a restaurant in Chappaqua that night—described Clinton as “almost asleep standing up on the plane.”

It was the next day when the New York tabloids realized the significance of the Rich pardon.  The explosion of outrage turned Clinton’s exit into a nightmare.  He regained respectability, but for several weeks he was virtually a prisoner in Chappaqua, the press camped outside waiting to pounce with questions and cameras if he ventured out.  The  financial services company sponsoring his first post-White House speech seriously contemplated canceling it.  Members of Congress threatened to haul the former president in front of a congressional committee to testify under oath; editorial page writers portrayed Bill Clinton as unethical, unpatriotic, and sleazy.

The media frenzy over the pardon was heightened by reports that the Clintons  had filched furniture from the White House. The reports turned out to be exaggerated, although the Clintons did return $28,000 worth of furniture, lamps, and rugs from the White House collection.  Next came reports that on the flight to Chappaqua, the Clintons and their friends had stripped the plane bare. Those reports too were eventually debunked.  Finally came the stories of the trashing of government offices and equipment—pulling the “W’s” off computer keyboards–also mostly exaggerated.

Five days after Clinton left office, the late Mary McGrory, a liberal Washington Post columnist wrote that “The Clinton exit was …a script that would have made `Saturday Night Live’ blush.”  University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who has made a specialty of writing about political scandals, told me that it hardly mattered whether these reports were true, false, or exaggerated: “Those last scandalous developments….just underlined some of the worst parts of the Clinton presidency.”

In a sense, Sabato added, Clinton was in worse shape when he left office after two terms, than was Nixon when he was forced out during his second turn.  “Unlike Nixon, Clinton had just become a joke.  Nixon was roundly condemned and was despised but he was taken seriously.”

This, despite the fact that when Clinton left Washington on January 20, 2001, he left with a 62 percent approval rating, 40 points higher than George W. Bush’s.

Many of the two million people who  came out for Obama’s inauguration were part of the 78 percent who did not approve of Bush, and he and Laura who were pelted with boos when they took their places to view Obama’s swearing in and speech.

The Bushes had  been unfailingly gracious to the Obamas during the transition,  and Michelle and Barack gave George and Laura a respectful and warm sendoff. The Obamas walked the Bushes to the helicopter and hugged them goodbye.  Michelle had earlier given Laura a journal and a pen to use in writing her memoir.

On a cold but clear day, as the Marine helicopter carried the Bushes to Andrews Air Force Base for their flight to Midland, Texas, people in the Obama crowd roared “good riddance!” and “Get Out!”    As the copter flew over the Mall, some sang, “Na, Na, Hey Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye.”

Once in Midland, the West Texas oil town in which Bush grew up and met and married Laura, he told more than 20,000 people who turned out to greet him that he was “thankful to now be known as Citizen Bush.”  And so are many Americans who are relieved that Bush no longer has his hands on the levers of power, domestic or foreign.

The chances of Bush in the headlines in the weeks and months to come are slim—especially in light of Obama saying he wants to look forward, not back.  Obama seemed to promise that he would not join with those who want to investigate or prosecute Bush. While Clinton sucked up the headlines in the first weeks of  Bush’s first term, Bush is almost certain to stay quiet at his ranch in Crawford, riding his bike and clearing the brush.

The focus thus will remain on Obama and his ability to lead the nation out of a crisis that Obama’s supporters see as manmade by one man—George W. Bush.  Clinton’s escapades eight years ago gave Bush a chance to find his footing.  Obama will not have that luxury.


Carol Felsenthal’s latest magazine profile, “The Making of a First Lady,” is
the cover of the Chicago magazine’s February issue.


  • Lynn Straus said:

    Interesting summation of the two transitions, Carol. What a difference eight years make!

  • Joan Volkmann said:

    Thanks for demonstrating this contrast, Carol; it’s so nice to have a sane leader who is not still fighting his own demons and acting like a child.

  • Tom Mannis said:

    Excellent piece, Carol. I’ve had many Democrat friends tell me, since Tuesday, that they’ve had a sudden change of heart about Bush. Why? As he and Laura were about to get onto the helicopter outside the Capitol, the Bushes and the Obamas parted warmly, cordially. At the last moment, Bush leaned close to Michelle and we could plainly read his lips: “If you have any problems call me,” he said to her. Such a warm, human side from a man who has been grotesquely villified for eight years suddenly cracked some of the ice that has encased so many of the people who have hated him so disproportionately for so long. How different would society be today if more people looked for the good in others, rather than seeing only the bad (and exaggerating it beyond reason)?

  • Viola said:

    Clinton has NOT regained respectability. He is the butt of never-ending sexual jokes and dry-cleaning
    scenarios……..Bush, on the other hand is a man of honor and MORALS. CLinton does not know the meaning of the word……….

  • Tambra Jarvis-Stout said:

    As always, Actions speak louder than words.

    Mr. and Mrs. Bush conduct themselves with dignity and grace.

    Mr. Bush while shouldering massive negativity, never wavered when making a decision.

  • Ray Stewart said:

    A Metaphor for our times. The Grinch as The Prodigal Son. After taking all the joy out of Whoville, does one good deed by returning toa lovng Texas without any O’s from the White House keyboards.

  • j reed said:

    Carol– It’s time to give up the ghost on Clinton. It’s beginning to sound like you have a personal vendetta. And when your writing starts eliciting comments like “Bush is a man of honor and morals,” you better wonder who you’re helping.

  • shaylyn said:

    why would you want to leave the white house it everyone want to live there?

  • Avinash Machado said:

    Nice article. As for the Clinton-Nixon comparison Nixon gained respect as a statesman after his presidency. He is still respected today despite the Watergate scandal. Clinton seems to have become more of a joke and fodder for comedians.

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