Old friends and longtime aides are wringing their hands over Bill Clinton's post-White House escapades, from the dubious (and secretive) business associations to the media blowups that have bruised his wife's campaign, to the private-jetting around with a skirt-chasing, scandal-tinged posse. Exploring Clintonworld, the author asks if the former president will beconsumed by his own worst self.
Burkle’s usual means of transport is the custom-converted Boeing 757 that Clinton calls “Ron Air” and that Burkle’s own circle of young aides privately refer to as “Air Fuck One.” Clinton himself had arrived on the private plane of another California friend, the real-estate heir, Democratic donor, liberal activist, and sometime movie and music producer Steve Bing, whose colorful private life includes fathering a child out of wedlock with the actress Elizabeth Hurley and suing the billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian for invasion of privacy, alleging that private investigators for Kerkorian swiped Bing’s dental floss out of his trash in a successful effort to prove that Bing’s DNA matched that of a child delivered by Kerkorian’s ex-wife, the former tennis pro Lisa Bonder. (The suit was later settled out of court.)
In fairness, it should be said that Clinton’s entourage that weekend also included his daughter, Chelsea, and her boyfriend, Marc Mezvinsky, and no one who was there has adduced the slightest evidence that Clinton’s behavior was anything other than proper. Nor, indeed, is there any proof of post-presidential sexual indiscretions on Clinton’s part, despite a steady stream of tabloid speculation and Internet intimations that the Big Dog might be up to his old tricks. On any given visit to London, for example, Clinton is as apt to dine with Tony Blair or Kevin Spacey as with anyone who might raise an eyebrow.
But among the not-so-small cadre of Clinton friends and former aides, concern about the company the boss keeps is persistent, palpable, and pained. No former president of the United States has ever traveled with such a fast crowd, and most 61-year-old American men of Clinton’s generation don’t, either. “I just think those guys are radioactive,” one former aide to Clinton who is still in occasional affectionate touch with him told me recently, referring to Burkle and (to a lesser extent) Bing. “I stay far away from them.”
Another former aide, trusted by Clinton for his good judgment, said, “On the sort of money, women, all that stuff … I’m the bad guy. All this stuff is kept away from me. Whatever they’re doing, they definitely view me as somebody you cannot confide in.”
A longtime Clinton-watcher, who has had ties to the former president since his first campaign for governor of Arkansas, said of Clinton’s sometimes questionable associations, “I don’t know what to make of any of that, if it’s a voyeuristic experience, or if he’s participating in it.”
Yet another long-serving Clinton aide said simply, “If you figure it out, would you let me know?”
Bill Clinton’s relevance—and his presence in public life—is as close to permanent as any politician’s can be. Before touching off a string of controversies in his wife’s campaign this year, he was among the most popular figures on the planet, one of only three Democratic presidents in the 20th century to serve two full terms. His looming presence will make him a factor in the Democratic vice-presidential sweepstakes, the fall campaign, and every future presidential election of his lifetime, whatever his wife’s fate.
I have covered Clinton on and off for 16 years, since his 1992 presidential campaign. I first really met him on New Year’s Eve 1994, when he shook my hand on the beach at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and let his eyes travel ever so subtly to the newly issued White House press pass hanging around my neck, so that he could know to say, “I’m glad you’re here, Todd.” As a White House correspondent for The New York Times for more than two years, I spent some part of almost every day watching, thinking about, worrying about, or writing about Clinton and his never-a-dull-moment presidency. I found it hard not to admire his roving intellect, his protean political talents, his outsize personality, and the tactical skill with which he eventually confronted the Republican congressional majority that bedeviled so much of his tenure. Clinton had no use for the string of pure and noble losers that had come to define the Democratic Party’s presidential prospects for so long. He wanted to win, and he knew how. (I should add, by way of disclosure, that my wife, Dee Dee Myers, was Clinton’s first press secretary. They have not been in regular contact since she left the White House, and she has not been a source for this article.)
To know Clinton is, sooner or later, to be exasperated by his indiscipline and disappointed by his shortcomings. But through it all, it has been easy enough to retain an enduring admiration—even affection—for a president whose sins against decorum and the dignity of his office seemed venial in contrast to the systemic indifference, incompetence, corruption, and constitutional predations of his successor’s administration. That is, easy enough until now.
This winter, as Clinton moved with seeming abandon to stain his wife’s presidential campaign in the name of saving it, as disclosures about his dubious associates piled up, as his refusal to disclose the names of donors to his presidential library and foundation and his and his wife’s reluctance to release their income-tax returns created crippling and completely avoidable distractions for Hillary Clinton’s own long-suffering ambition, I found myself asking again and again, What’s the matter with him?
As I sought to answer that question for myself, in conversations with dozens of current and onetime Clinton aides, many of whom I have known all these years (Clinton himself declined to be interviewed), I realized just how much about the former president is not known, and not knowable, at the moment, mostly because of his unapologetic stonewalling. Virtually no one, except Ron Burkle, knows just what Clinton put into Burkle’s investment business, or just what he has done since to earn millions of dollars, with the prospect of reaping millions more. Most of the names of the donors who have contributed some $500 million to Clinton’s library and foundation over the past decade are not known, either. Virtually no one, except his doctors and family, knows the precise state of Clinton’s health. Virtually no one really knows what strategic role he has played in his wife’s campaign.
BUSINESS WITH BURKLE
In his book Giving, an extended Hallmark hymn to the virtues of venture philanthropy, Clinton writes that Burkle’s provision of post–White House work was the “only private sector offer I accepted” upon leaving office. In fact, that is not true: Clinton has also collected more than $3 million in consulting fees from InfoUSA, a data-mining company headed by a longtime contributor, Vinod Gupta, a Nebraska multi-millionaire who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Clintons’ campaigns. The company has drawn media scrutiny for allegedly selling consumer data about vulnerable senior citizens to unscrupulous telemarketers, and some shareholders once sued InfoUSA, charging that Gupta wasted nearly $1 million in company funds flying the Clintons around the world. (InfoUSA did not respond to a request for comment.)
But Clinton’s business relationship with Burkle is far and away his largest source of income after books and speeches: $15.4 million between 2003 and 2007, according to the Clintons’ recently released tax returns. That amounts to about 20 percent of all the income that Clinton earned in those years. Until the release of the tax returns this year, Hillary Clinton’s Senate financial-disclosure forms had revealed only that Clinton earned “more than $1,000” a year from his partnerships with Burkle.
Burkle is perhaps the single best example of the self-reinforcing network of rich personal, charitable, political, and business supporters Clinton has built since his White House years. For Clinton’s re-election campaign Burkle held regular fund-raisers at Green Acres, his sprawling estate in Beverly Hills, which once belonged to the silent-film star Harold Lloyd, and Burkle has also raised millions of dollars for Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. What has Clinton done in return? Burkle himself has said that Clinton has provided invaluable introductions and entrée to potential investors, including the Teamsters union. (A spokesman for Burkle’s companies did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment.) When the tax returns were made public this spring, Jay Carson issued a statement saying that “the president provides his best advice on potential investments, advocates generally on behalf of the funds, and seeks to create opportunities for investors to consider investing in these funds or in the investments the funds make.”
The Burkle partnership carries ample potential for conflicts—real and perceived—whether or not Hillary Clinton is ever president. For one thing, she lent her campaign $11.4 million this year, and because the Clintons’ finances are commingled, it would be difficult to discern whether money from Burkle-related ventures (or other potentially controversial sources of income) made its way into Clinton campaign coffers. Burkle’s other investors include an entity connected to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, whose regime has been cited for human-rights violations by the State Department. (Two years ago, Senator Clinton nevertheless opposed a Dubai-based company’s efforts to acquire control over the management of six United States ports.)
Over the years, Clinton has had three main business involvements with Burkle. The first is a broad advisory capacity, for which Clinton has been paid flat fees for work as a rainmaker and liaison between Burkle and various potential investors. In fact, a Clinton aide says, this accounts for all the money that Burkle has paid Clinton to date. As part of the advisory arrangement, Clinton received a stake—of unknown size—in two Burkle domestic investment funds, for which Clinton will see a profit only if annual returns exceed a certain threshold. They appear on track to do so, the aide says, but have so far not produced a payout for Clinton. The third strand is an international investment fund (which has also yet to generate cash returns for Clinton) in which the former president invested an undisclosed amount of his own money, along with Burkle and the same entity connected to Sheikh Mohammed. Clinton has the right to opt out of any controversial investments by this fund, as he recently did with an investment in China.
Doug Band, though not Clinton himself, was involved in another Burkle investment that produced embarrassment. As The Wall Street Journal reported last fall, Band helped introduce Burkle to Raffaello Follieri (an Italian entrepreneur and the boyfriend of the actress Anne Hathaway), who had a proposal to buy and develop properties being sold off by the Catholic Church. Band received a $400,000 finder’s fee for the transaction (which he has said he passed on to others involved). Burkle later sued Follieri for allegedly misappropriating funds to pay expenses. (The dispute was settled out of court.) A Clinton adviser told me that Follieri (who was recently charged with attempting to pass a bad check for $215,000 in New York; the charge was later dropped) had come with good references. (Attempts to reach Follieri were unsuccessful.)
This winter a Clinton spokesman announced that Clinton was moving to sever his ties with Burkle to avoid potential conflicts should Hillary Clinton become the Democratic nominee. But in fact, one Clinton aide told me, severing the ties is complicated because putting a value on the partnerships is difficult.
Bill Clinton, with Hillary and daughter Chelsea, braves the downpour that marred the 2004 dedication ceremony for the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
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