Friday, Jan. 09, 2009

Bill Clinton

Then: It's hard to believe the leader of the free world was nearly dislodged from the Oval Office by a plucky intern, but then again, one should never underestimate the aphrodisiac qualities of success, the megalomania bred by high office or the seductive power of showing one's thong. Lewinsky's suggestive gesture on Nov. 15, 1995 kicked off a sexual relationship — though not by Clinton's original definition — that culminated in the Man from Hope becoming only the second sitting president to suffer the indignity of impeachment by the House of Representatives. (He was acquitted by the Senate after a five-week trial that concluded Feb. 12, 1999.)

Clinton vehemently denied having an affair with Lewinsky when the allegations came to light in January, 1998, telling a national audience, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." After some audacious attempts at linguistic hairsplitting — "it depends what the meaning of 'is' is" — Clinton finally came clean about the relationship. But despite the impeachment scandal, Clinton's popularity was unsinkable. He exited the Oval Office with a lofty approval rating of 65%.

Now: Even after his ignominious exit from politics, Clinton was the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party for much of the new millennium. His William J. Clinton Foundation has evolved into a nonprofit behemoth, with more than 1,100 employees tackling issues that range from climate change and economic development to childhood obesity and malaria. Still renowned for his personal magnetism, Clinton has raked in more than $51 million in public speaking fees since leaving office.

Though the staggering sum attests to his stature as one of the world's most sought-after speakers, the former President was, at times, an albatross on his wife's own presidential campaign in 2008. His popularity in the black community — author Toni Morrison once famously called him "the first black president" — was fractured by a series of spats with Barack Obama's camp, which grew intense enough that Clinton felt compelled to declare last August that he was "not a racist." That charge didn't stick, but lingering animosity from the heated primary battle and concerns over his tangled finances didn't help his wife's chances to be tapped for the Obama ticket. Senator Hillary Clinton would later be picked as Obama's Secretary of State, but only after her husband agreed to disclose the identity of many of the private donors who had contributed to his foundations.