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“I don’t like that term. I’ve never used that term,” Bruce Lindsey says. “I’ve known him for a long time, and I know him well. He knew I was trustworthy, and I gave him good advice. Straight advice.”
We were talking about the word “consigliere,” the Italian term for advisor that entered the popular lexicon through the “Godfather” films. As Tom Hagen, Robert Duvall was a quiet, rational counselor to Marlon Brando’s mafia don, preferring to exert influence behind the scenes.
With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why political observers might think of Lindsey as Bill Clinton’s consigliere. He rarely speaks publicly about his relationship with the former president, and during a 90-minute interview over breakfast at Little Rock’s Satellite Cafe, he was recognized and greeted by only three close friends.
This, despite the fact that Lindsey spent more time with Clinton than any administration official during the course of his presidency, and slowly has assumed the lead role in directing Clinton’s affairs since then. Of course, Lindsey’s unusual prominence in the Clinton sphere can be directly attributed to his natural inclination to avoid the spotlight.
Lindsey and Clinton first met in the late 1960s, when both men were working for U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, and as they stayed involved in Arkansas politics during the 1970s – Lindsey as an aide to Gov. David Pryor, Clinton as a candidate and elected official – they were often in the same places.
“We would see each other at events and visit,” Lindsey recalled. “We weren’t close.”
When Pryor was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976, Lindsey moved to Washington to be Pryor’s legislative director. After a few years there, he decided to move back to Little Rock to join his father’s law firm, Wright Lindsey & Jennings. It was 1981, and Clinton joined the firm at the same time, having just lost his bid for re-election as governor. In retrospect, it was clear that Clinton was wasting no time in mounting his comeback.
“He would stop by my office at 4:30 p.m., saying he had to give a speech to the Dumas Rotary Club,” Lindsey said. “He would ask, ‘Do you want to drive down with me?’ Slowly, over the next year, year and a half, we got to know each other better.”
Clinton won the gubernatorial election in 1982, but Lindsey remained in private practice. Ironically, it was his position outside the Clinton orbit that led to his ascension to top Clinton advisor.
“Starting in 1987, he began to think about his national ambitions,” Lindsey said. “[Clinton chief of staff] Betsey Wright made the judgment that no one from the governor’s staff should staff him on those issues, since there was not a direct relationship to being governor of Arkansas. So she talked to me about staffing him on his visits with national groups.”
For the next four years, Lindsey spent most weekends shuttling around the country with Clinton as he gave Jefferson-Jackson Day speeches and chaired meetings of the Democratic Leadership Council and the Democratic Governors Association. When Clinton announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee in Sept. 1991, Lindsey took a leave of absence from his law practice and traveled full time with Clinton. This continued until Nov. 3, 1992, when Clinton was elected president of the United States.
“Initially, my job was undefined,” Lindsey said. “My title was senior advisor to the president, and I thought my role would be similar to years past, sitting in meetings with him, picking and choosing.”
That is how it worked for the most part, although Lindsey often was called upon for special missions, usually in sensitive situations. For the first year of Clinton’s first term, Lindsey stepped in to direct the presidential personnel office, which handles most presidential appointments. After White House counsel Vince Foster died, Lindsey assumed responsibility for the growing Whitewater affair. In addition, Lindsey became the point person for judicial appointments and reform, as well as national labor disputes; he settled strikes involving airline workers, United Parcel Service, and Major League Baseball.
“I still traveled on all trips, foreign and domestic,” Lindsey said. “And to the consternation of the structure of the White House, I still had walk-in privileges to all meetings because of my relationship with the president.”
It’s no wonder, then, that when Clinton left the White House in 2001, it would be difficult for the two men to simply go their separate ways.
“Like Clinton, I had to figure out how to make a living after the White House,” Lindsey said.
He joined the Washington office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld as an associate, although he served as an informal advisor to Clinton as the former president began to focus on the work of his foundation. After a little more than a year, Lindsey decided to move back to Little Rock for personal reasons, and he took on a more formal role as general counsel to the Clinton Foundation. Before long, he became intimately involved in all of the decision making there, and when Maggie Williams, the chief of staff in Clinton’s Harlem office, left her post in August, Lindsey started to supervise the overall operations.
The William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, as it is officially known, was founded in Little Rock in 1997 as the organization through which Clinton would construct his presidential library. Since that time, its mission has evolved to include policy initiatives and other projects, and it employs some staff members in Clinton’s Harlem office, as well as in Quincy, Mass., where the Clinton Foundation’s HIV/AIDS initiative is based.
“I think he knew what he wanted to accomplish,” Lindsey said in reference to Clinton’s plans before leaving the White House. “He spent a good bit of time in the latter part of his term negotiating his book contract, because he knew he would have to spend a couple of years focusing on his financial obligations, to pay the lawyers from the independent counsel investigations. He was committed to writing the book himself, without the help of a ghostwriter, and he knew that would be time consuming. Once he could see to his family’s future, and pay his obligations, he would dedicate the majority of his life to continuing public service.”
That is basically how it worked out. Clinton spent the first couple of years of his post-presidency delivering speeches for fees as high as $400,000. In 2001, he earned $9.2 million from speaking engagements alone, and he topped that in 2002, receiving $9.5 million on the speaking circuit. Together with his book advance, which netted him $10 million, Clinton should be out of debt and enjoying a comfortable lifestyle.
With this financial security, Clinton is turning more of his attention toward the policy work of his foundation.
“The mission of the Clinton Foundation is to strengthen the capacity of individuals to meet the challenges of global interdependence,” Lindsey said without skipping a beat. Lindsey says that even though this mission was created before Clinton left office, some of the specific initiatives were the result of circumstance. For instance, the decision to locate Clinton’s office in Harlem was made at the last minute (he originally intended to lease space in midtown Manhattan). And it was his presence in Harlem that led to the Clinton Foundation’s first policy project, the Harlem Small Business Initiative.
Clinton’s work to fight HIV/AIDS started in 2002 after he addressed the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, and he formalized a relationship with the American India Foundation after visiting victims of the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat.
“Yes, some of the opportunities have grown out of circumstance,” Lindsey said. “But other opportunities have been turned down because they didn’t fit within the outlines of the foundation. While some individual opportunities are sometimes unforeseen, the mission and the concept have been there from the beginning.”
Looking ahead, Lindsey says that the Clinton Foundation will be able to do a lot more policy work after the presidential library is finished.
“We’re involved in a process of transitioning the foundation from an entity that was mainly raising money for the library and the public policy initiatives were secondary, to one where the primary goal is public policy,” Lindsey said.
That is good news for Clinton, because spending more time with policy is what he enjoys most about his post-presidency, according to Lindsey.
“There is more time to be reflective and long-term thinking,” Lindsey said. “As president, you have initiatives, but you are reacting daily to what is happening in the world. Now, in a reflective, studious way, he is thinking about what he wants to do, and how to go about doing it.
“His recent heart problems caused him to reflect more on life, as opposed to simply rushing through it,” Lindsey continued. “He said to me the other day that people thought he would be miserable sitting at home, because he is a type-A personality, and he would want to be out. But he also enjoys reading, thinking, and reflecting.”
The other big difference between Clinton’s life before and after leaving the White House is that he and his wife, Hillary, have switched roles. She took office as a U.S. senator from New York around the time Clinton was stepping down from his last elective office.
“He is incredibly proud of the job she is doing,” Lindsey said. “While he would probably have stayed involved in public issues anyway, because of her he still feels part of the public debate and public policy of the country. He enjoys the role of supportive spouse, and he loves to go with her to the country fairs in upstate New York the same way he loved doing that in rural Arkansas.”
Lindsey says that the Clintons don’t spend as much time together as they used to, partly because the former president would rather stay away from Washington right now.
“He doesn’t think it is quite right to be there with a president from the other party in office,” Lindsey said. “With the D.C. press, he would constantly be asked to comment on the current president’s performance. He appreciated the former president [George H.W. Bush] not doing that, and so he is avoiding the opportunity to do that.”
Hillary’s job led to the decision to live in New York State, and Clinton spends most of his time there when he is not traveling. However, Lindsey still believes that Clinton’s heart is in Arkansas.
“When we were deciding where to locate the library, we had proposals from New York, Connecticut, D.C.,” Lindsey said. “While we were evaluating them, there was never a doubt in my mind that he would put the library in Arkansas. He is grateful to the state for the opportunities given to him. He is excited about having the library here, spending more time here, and having a home in the library. I expect we will be seeing him more often here.”
As for Lindsey, he says he is back in Little Rock to stay. And even he expresses amazement at the course his life has taken, influenced as it was by one man in particular.
“It’s obviously hard to imagine, as a guy who was born in Little Rock, grew up in Little Rock, who has had the opportunities I have had for the last 12 years,” Lindsey said. “People say they always knew Bill Clinton would be president. I didn’t know that. I’m a pessimist by nature, and even during the presidential campaign, I wasn’t sure he would be president.
“I have had the great fortune to go along for the ride, and it has been a fun ride,” Lindsey added. “I’ve seen places, been involved in decisions, and had opportunities I never could have imagined.”
And it’s not over yet.
“My current role and responsibilities have grown in a way that is typical of Bill Clinton,” Lindsey said. “Once you are a part of his extended family, you are always a part of his extended family.”
Tom Hagen couldn’t have said it better.