WASHINGTON – The diplomatic mission to rescue two American TV journalists jailed in North Korea lasted less than two days.
But in the brief time that former President Bill Clinton flew back and forth to Pyongyang this week, it redefined – and in some cases, reinvigorated – several relationships at the heart of American politics.
It once again led to him overshadowing his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, even as she is in the midst of her own diplomatic trip to Africa. It served as a pleasant, and public, reunion with his old second-in-command, former vice president Al Gore. And it marked a “coming in from the cold” of sorts for a man who has had a fractious relationship with the current holder of his old office, Barack Obama.
“I want to thank President Bill Clinton – I had a chance to talk to him – for the extraordinary humanitarian effort that resulted in the release of the two journalists,” said Obama, in a short statement on the south lawn of the White House.
The president’s praise surely will have come as music to the ears of a man who associates say has recently been eager to take on a new public role.
A former Clinton administration official and political associate said Clinton was “playing the kind of role he has been eager to play – an elder statesman, respected around the world, a guy who can make things happen.”
He said the high point for Clinton was the moment at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif., Wednesday morning when freed TV journalist Laura Ling, her voice breaking, told reporters of first seeing Clinton, the agent of her deliverance, at a North Korean prison.
“When we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton. We were shocked. But we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was coming to an end.”
For Clinton “it doesn’t get any better than that,” the former official said. “Talk about affirmation. This is the love he needs.”
It also appeared to be an early diplomatic success for the Obama administration, and it put a new gloss on a post-presidential career that has brought Clinton generous praise but also some criticism.
“This is really going to help consolidate his role as an elder statesman,” said Ross K. Baker, a political analyst at Rutgers University. “It almost gave him a kind of heroic tint.”
Administration officials acknowledge that Clinton’s tasks during the visit were limited. He did not need to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during the visit, since the release had been worked out well in advance by officials of the two countries.
Yet Clinton had to take care not to veer too far from the scripts with the touchy North Koreans.
In his three-hour encounter with Kim, he may even have been able to pick up some valuable intelligence for an administration that has little insight into what’s going on in Pyongyang.
The result was a new role for Clinton with the Obama administration, after a presidential primary campaign last year in which the relationship between the pair was severely strained with the heated competition between the eventual winner and Clinton’s wife.
Later, when Obama chose Hillary Clinton as secretary of State, some administration officials speculated that her husband might occasionally take on a troubleshooting role for the administration. That prospect was cheered in some quarters and viewed with apprehension from others, who feared that his high-powered business contacts could create conflicts of interests.
Obama has had reason to want to work out a harmonious relationship with the former president, said another former Clinton aide, noting that former presidents pose a constant threat to their successors.
“Jimmy Carter has been a former president for almost 30 years, and he’s been a big help and a big hindrance for every sitting president who’s followed him,” said this associate. For presidents, “it pays to develop a good relationship with these permanent fixtures.”
The former aide said the most important development in the mission for Clinton was that he “is now beginning to find a place in Obama world.”
Indeed, Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said the pair plan to get together “sometime soon.” Gibbs also hinted that more assignments could be ahead.
“If the president is ever looking for people to help, former presidents are a pretty good place to look,” he said.