The Two Bill Clintons

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Lee Celano / Reuters

Former President Bill Clinton and actor Brad Pitt greet volunteers from the Clinton Global Initiative before a groundbreaking ceremony for Pitt's "Make it Right" construction project in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans March 16, 2008.

Bill Clinton knew he was walking a fine line in New Orleans over St. Patrick's Day weekend, when his dual roles — philanthropic ex-President and attack dog for his wife's campaign — seemed at odds. "Since my foundation is a 501(c)3, I don't want to be monitored for violation of crossing the line," Clinton told a group of reporters Saturday at Tulane University, where the nonprofit Clinton Global Initiative had just kicked off the first meeting of CGI U, a branch of the organization that encourages college students to get involved in environmental, social justice and other pressing global issues.

But the master of triangulation is no stranger to balancing acts. And for most of the weekend, the former President managed to avoid the increasingly contentious battle for delegates between Senators Clinton and Barack Obama. He got a standing ovation when he took the stage before some 700 college students — many, no doubt, Obama supporters — and Clinton was clearly relishing being back in the spotlight.

"Jimmy Carter raised the bar on what an ex-President can do, and Bill Clinton is trying to meet it or exceed it," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, whose book The Unfinished Presidency documents Carter's post-White House years. "He's not just playing on the cult of his celebrity," said Brinkley. "He's built a sophisticated nongovernmental organization that is getting real results, and raising untold amounts of money for causes." Says Brinkley, "It's pretty hard to argue with his success. Even his worst critics would have to say he's been an extraordinary ex-President." But, Brinkley told TIME, "there's a fear now that, by being the pit bull for Hillary Clinton on a few occasions, he's doing some damage, particularly in the African-American community, where he has lost some stature. He really seemed to have a feel for the plight of the African-American community, and a lot of that has been watered down in the wake of his campaign role of attacking Obama."

In New Orleans, Clinton took issue with that impression. In an interview with college journalists to be broadcast March 26 on mtvU, an offshoot of the MTV Network that reaches 750 campuses nationwide, Clinton reminded his questioners that he has his offices in Harlem — in a district his wife carried — and that accusations that his remarks were racially motivated were unfounded. "The minute it became possible that [Obama] could be the nominee, he was going to win the lion's share of the African-American vote," he said. "And I never begrudged it. Contrary to the myth, I went through South Carolina and never said a bad word about Senator Obama. Not one.

"You can't blame the African-American community for being proud of having a candidate who's immensely impressive, who has had a lot of support in the North among non-African-Americans, and has generated all this excitement among young people. I don't think it's rocket science."

Clinton then went on to criticize Obama for not shutting down his political action committee, as other presidential hopefuls had done, and rattled off with wonkish glee a list of things accomplished during his eight-year reign — 22.9 million new jobs, eight million people moved from poverty to the middle class, and so on — and, pointedly, contrasted the numbers with those of the current Administration. "He's run a very impressive campaign," he said of Obama. But the Illinois Senator is arguing, Clinton said, that "if you were part of making good things happen in the '90s, and stopping bad things from happening in this decade... then you are part of a culture of conflict, and you are so yesterday. So the only way we can have a good President is to make a completely new beginning."

"This is the first election in history, that I can remember, where experience, and having experience as a change maker — as a change maker — should be a disability for being elected."

It sounded as much like a rationale for a third term as a pitch for his wife. But whether the next few months lead to another Clinton White House or back to the office in Harlem, no one expects Bill Clinton to fade away. The question is how he will reconcile his two sides — political animal v. global humanitarian — once the campaign ends.