POLITICS
07/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's My Party, I'll Cry If I Want To

"What does Bill Clinton want?"

Barack Obama quickly determined what Hillary Clinton wants in the aftermath of defeat: a major role in the general election campaign, a star turn at the convention, help with her debt, and Obama's support for elected officials who backed her. The big-time holdout turns out to be her husband.

Bill is more complex. He wants respect, absolution and love.

The former president and Obama have not talked, and, by all accounts, the man of the Clinton household remains hurt and resentful. Associates provide a variety of explanations for the Bill Clinton dilemma, none of them mutually exclusive.

Some say Bill Clinton not only wants Obama to reach out to him, but to also promise to lift the cloud of alleged racism -- an accusation that continues to eat at the man once dubbed the nation's "first black president." Clinton, these folks suggest, wants Obama to publicly exonerate him of the charge that he played the race card in the primaries.

Beyond that, some associates say, Bill Clinton wants Obama to reach out to him as a mentor, a guide who can lead Obama through the labyrinth of a tough presidential election. "Bill wants to be honored, to return to the role of Democratic elder statesman, and get rid of this image of him as a pol willing to do anything to win," said one associate.

"He is still bruised from the trail, really hurt about the racist charges leveled against him, and convinced the Obama campaign fomented it," said another source familiar with the former president's attitude. "What he would really like is for Obama to apologize, but on one level he knows that is never going to happen," a third source said.

Another source, in contrast, downgraded the idea that Bill Clinton wants to be personally attended to by Obama. Instead, the source said, "POTUS wants first and foremost that his wife is treated with the respect that she has earned. Secondly, while he does not expect Obama to run for a Clinton third term, he would hope that Obama does not continue to implicitly criticize his eight years in office as he did during the primaries."

Finally, a person close to both Clintons contended that the current impasse between Obama and Bill Clinton "is not a big problem. All Obama has to do is ask, it's his name on the ballot." Once that hurdle is crossed, this friend of the former president and first lady said, "Bill Clinton will end up seducing Obama. Clinton likes to deal with people who have not necessarily treated him well," noting that Clinton and Newt Gingrich had a productive relationship until Gingrich began pressing for impeachment.

The accusation that Bill Clinton pointedly sought to downgrade Obama's success and to aggressively define him as a "black" candidate gained momentum on January 26, 2008 when the former president seemed to dismiss Obama's victory in South Carolina: "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here."

Clinton has not been hesitant to make his feelings about these charges known far and wide.

"I think that they [the Obama campaign] played the race card on me," Clinton told Philadelphia radio station WHYY on April 22. "We now know, from memos from the campaign, that they planned to do it along."

On June 2, Clinton told Huffington Post Off The Bus Reporter Mayhill Fowler:

"They had all these people standing up in this church cheering, calling Hillary a white racist, and he [Obama] didn't do anything about it. The first day he said 'Ah, ah, ah well.' Because that's what they do-- he gets other people to slime her."

During the campaign, Obama, in turn, complained a number of times about Bill Clinton's tactics and comments

"You know the former president, who I think all of us have a lot of regard for, has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling," Obama said on January 21. "He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts....This has become a habit, and one of the things that we're gonna have to do is to directly confront Bill Clinton when he's making statements that are not factually accurate."

Now that he is the nominee, however, Obama has become more generous towards Bill.

"If the question is, do I want Bill Clinton campaigning for us, for the ticket, leading into November, the answer is absolutely yes. I want him involved. He is a brilliant politician. He was an outstanding president. And so, I want his help, not only in campaigning, but also in governing. And I'm confident that I'll get that help," Obama declared on June 25.

While Obama awaits a response from Mr. Clinton, blogger Marc Ambinder has been conducting an on-line poll asking whether 1) Obama should bend over backwards to make sure Bill Clinton campaigns for him in the fall 2) Obama should ignore Bill Clinton entirely or 3) Obama should ask Bill Clinton politely, but if Clinton says no, Obama should ignore him.

With a total of 2,292 votes cast, answer number 3 - "ask politely, if 'no,' ignore Clinton" - was decisively ahead with 1,765 votes, or 77 percent of Ambinder's responses; answers 1 and 2 drew 10% (240 votes) and 13% (287 votes) respectively.