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Bill Clinton: The Challenge of the Post-White House Years - 2002-05-07

Former U.S. presidents have done many things in their post-White House years, everything from negotiating peace agreements to accepting millions of dollars in lecture fees. But former President Bill Clinton may be about to break the mold after talks last week with NBC television executives about the possibility of hosting his own talk show.

Bill Clinton remains one of the most divisive American politicians of modern times. Those who love him cite his stewardship of the economy during his eight years in office. Those who loathe him point to his impeachment over the sex and lies scandal involving Monica Lewinsky.

Some recent surveys of historians who rate presidential success indicate that most scholars place Mr. Clinton somewhere in the middle of the pack of the 43 U.S. presidents. That is something that clearly rankled him during a recent interview broadcast on U.S. cable television's the History Channel.

"I think most of those historians that are polled read the press for eight years. And I think, I'll bet you that very few of them could pass a test on what we did," he said "I have actually talked to a few of them and it takes my breath away what influences them. And, you know, I'm very relaxed about that, though. I don't give a rip. I believe that 30 years from now the facts will count for more."

Former U.S. presidents have chosen a variety of paths once they left office.

"There is the political model. A number of presidents have stayed deeply involved in politics, but mostly in the 19th century," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential scholar at the American University here in Washington. "John Quincy Adams served many terms in the Congress of the United States. Millard Fillmore and Martin Van Buren both ran again for president on third party tickets."

Then there is the case of Jimmy Carter, more popular now than during his White House years for the good works he has done.

"The other model is the public service model, and that is really the Jimmy Carter model, who of course has served by building houses for the needy and kind of served in a number of contexts as an ambassador to trouble spots of the world," Mr. Lichtman added.

Bill Clinton could follow the example of former president Gerald Ford who simply retired from public life.

But Professor Lichtman says, don't bet on it. "Clinton, I think, isn't ready to follow any of those models and perhaps is looking for a model that would place him much more in the forefront of our culture than previous ex-presidents," he said.

Beyond that, many analysts and historians believe Bill Clinton cannot resist the urge to try and rewrite his somewhat tarnished political legacy.

But Allan Lichtman says that is a lot tougher than it sounds.

"Presidents have tried to revise and rewrite their legacy, Richard Nixon most arduously," he said. "It is a very difficult thing to do. The legacy is what it is. We are going to get the alpha and the omega of interpretations of Bill Clinton - you know, an utterly corrupt, disreputable president on the one hand, the president who presided over the greatest period of prosperity on the other hand. And while Bill Clinton is someone who truly believes he can control events, I hope he would have learned that even for a president, and certainly for an ex-president, your ability to control things is very limited."

In the meantime, Bill Clinton is focused on raising money for the construction of his presidential library in Arkansas, which is scheduled to open in 2004.