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Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Living Wake at the End of the Road

Inside a three-day party with former staffers in Arkansas, where the Clinton era will never die

A photo illustration of Bill and Hillary Clinton Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In Little Rock, they lit up the bridges in red, white, and blue this month. They gathered friends and family, which is to say colleagues, and they talked about the good old times, which is to say the successful ones. They put out a bin of old campaign pins and ribbons, lapel declarations of belief in a place called Hope. They sold, and sold out of, $42 tickets to a brunch where you could get miniature apple pies, made-to-order omelets, mimosas, and candied bacon so tender and salty-sweet it kept bringing people back for seconds and thirds. They celebrated how much they had done, how glorious this last quarter-century has been.

It has been 25 years since Bill Clinton won the presidency. Between Bill and Hillary, they have spent 20 of those years in national office, as president or senator or secretary of state. In the past 35 years, political strategist and commentator James Carville would claim in a packed auditorium last weekend, one or the other of the Clintons has been up for election 18 times, and gotten more votes than their opponent each and every time. “Someone somewhere out there really loves you guys,” Carville said, to raucous applause. (Of course, depending on whether or not you count Michigan and Florida, Hillary lost the popular vote to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. Carville missed a couple, too: The pair ran in a combined 21 elections, only losing the popular vote in 2008.)

But then, of course, there weren’t enough someones, or at least not someones in the right somewheres, who loved Hillary a year ago. And now the Clintons, Hillary aged 70 and Bill aged 71, are at a place they’ve never been before: the end of the road.

And so they returned to Little Rock, the city where they spent 13 years in the governor’s mansion and where the Clinton Presidential Center opened in 2004. They threw a three-day party—25 YEARS OF PUTTING PEOPLE FIRST, the folios passed out to attendees read—and invited those who worked on the campaigns, in the administration, in the Arkansas State Capitol, at the Clinton Foundation, and all the others who’ve been pulled into their orbit over the years. A few events were open to the public, but most were reserved for Clinton alumni, who came to Little Rock for what amounted to a living wake.

Shuttles trundled through downtown and up President Clinton Avenue to the Clinton Center, where a booth was set up to record interviews with former staff: Share the memories and stories that made the Clinton-Gore campaign inspiring. An invitation-only gala kicked off inside the library itself, where on normal days a picture posing in the cushy armchair behind a replica of Bill’s Oval Office desk starts at $25; the next day, it would host what was billed as a Friends & Family Reunion Picnic. Come Sunday, inside a tent outside the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, a block of ice carved into the number 25 slowly melted.

The worst way it could go is this: Hillary Clinton, remembered above all as the person who gave us President Donald Trump. Whose charisma topped out at a single steely teardrop, whose most notable political opinion was that she should be in charge. Who obsessively sought privacy and guarded those most loyal to her until the two traits collided in front-page news a week before the 2016 election. Who forever traveled beneath a storm cloud marked “scandal,” often—if not always—of her own making, staying a series of doomed courses.

And Bill: schmoozer, adulterer, perhaps much worse. In this great reckoning of powerful men, the allegations of Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and Kathy Shelton, whose stories of sexual harassment and assault by the 42nd president have been widely known, if frequently shrugged off, for years, are being reconsidered. In Little Rock, the subject was sharply avoided. Carville, who moderated a panel with both Clintons on Saturday in front of a crowd of giddy supporters, steered clear of the topic; Paul Begala, a top adviser on the 1992 campaign, told a reporter that the American public had weighed the accusations years ago and “decided they loved Bill Clinton.”

All weekend long, former Clintonites strolled around downtown Little Rock, cheerfully wearing lanyards with CLINTON-GORE credentials the way people in another city might wear Mardi Gras beads. Former staffers gripped one another’s elbows and asked how long it had been, admiring new or newly tall children: “Those are Donna’s boys?” one woman gasped at a quartet of gangly 20-somethings. Packs of chattering Clinton alums reminisced about the twists of the old rivals who failed to gain the 1992 Democratic nomination, the headlines that might otherwise have been Paul Tsongas’s on crucial nights when the young governor of Arkansas just so happened to be introduced first. One former staffer, a Clinton 1992 jacket draped over his arm, recalled having only that for many hours on the Old State House lawn during Election Night, and subsequently coming down with a terrible cold.

“Someone said it was like a high school reunion,” said Kirk Hanlin, who did advance logistics for the 1992 campaign and was such a frequent presence at the president’s rarely changing policy speeches that he says Clinton would quiz him afterward about which words he had switched around in a given appearance. “But I said it isn’t, because a high school reunion is with people who haven’t done much since.”

At Saturday’s panel, Carville led the Clintons through their greatest hits, not so much moderating as listing compliments and asking his subjects to expand on them. The surplus. Medicare. Medicaid. The Brady bill. The assault weapons ban. The—hey, you take this one, Hillary—Children's Health Insurance Program. The assistance with peace in Ireland.

But even as Hillary dominated that session, and even as Bill so frequently speaks now about his actions in the White House with the preface HillreeandI, there was a strangeness to the cheerful duality. The Clinton Center refers to him, not her; a month after Trump’s inauguration, an Arkansas state senator petitioned for the Bill and Hillary Clinton Airport to be renamed. Famously, she tacked Clinton onto her maiden name, Rodham, seven years into her marriage, and only when it became an issue in her husband’s campaign to retake the Arkansas governor’s seat in 1982. She lost Arkansas in 2016 by a margin of 27 points—she “got whacked,” in her words—and carried only eight of the state’s 75 counties. After the election, a billboard appeared over a highway leading into the capital: “The Witch is Dead. Establishment Fired. Time to drain the swamp.”

On Saturday morning, Hillary, still touring with her campaign postmortem What Happened, held a signing downtown on, as luck would have it, President Clinton Avenue. Visitors stood in line for upwards of four hours for their autographed copy and a chance for a handshake; since so many of those present had once been under her employ, the quick hellos had a way of dragging on. “You practicing law up there?” she asked warmly of a recent Arkansas grad. There were, predictably, topical T-shirts in heavy rotation: HILL YES and NASTY WOMAN and WE’RE THE MAJORITY AND WE’RE STILL WITH HER. The line’s progress paused from time to time. “She gets tired from all the signing,” a minder explained. “She has to take a break.”

Two days earlier, someone, or more specifically a collection of someones, pulled up outside the Arkansas governor’s mansion, where the Clintons lived for 12 years and where Chelsea was raised, in a dark SUV with tinted windows. The car stopped just feet from a bust of the only Arkansan ever to win the White House, where a reporter stood, and for a minute the occupants sat at the edge of the mansion’s gated driveway and gazed through the fence. And then, reminiscence accomplished, the SUV pulled away, a figure in the back seat gesticulating directions to the driver. These were familiar roads.

On Sunday afternoon, the Clinton Airport filled with former staffers, strands of D.C. conversation—“Schumer” and “cost him the primary” and “marijuana industry”—bouncing out of cafes. The tiny airport’s only bar wasn’t prepared for the weekend that came and went. “I’m sorry, ladies, but I’m out of food,” the bartender explained to disappointed arrivals in the late afternoon. “It’s been a busy day.”

The prevailing farewell was see you next time. See you next when? At the 30-year reunion, everyone’s heads a little barer and hips a little creakier? At the next election? Which one would that be, the guiding stars of the past quarter-century of Democratic politics suddenly and definitively extinguished? The Clintons came to Little Rock to try to give a shape to the way we remember them other than the last and stinging memory. Their rings of associates followed them back to where it all began for a weekend of clinking glasses and eulogizing. But what was meant to be a celebration of what was couldn’t block out the inevitable speculation of what could’ve been. As one staffer remarked, “Think how much easier our jobs would have been if we could have made up facts.”

“Some say the wrong Clinton is in the statehouse,” Bill Clinton once said, joking at fundraisers that his election was “buy one, get one free.” Years later, he would expand on this to Vanity Fair’s Gail Sheehy. “It doesn’t bother me for people to see her and get excited and say she could be president,” he said. “I always say she could be president, too.” In private, Hillary was said to describe the couple’s plan as “eight years of Bill, eight years of Hill.”

“I think there’s an elephant in the room,” Carville said Saturday, before leading gently into the 2016 election. It was an invitation for Hillary to land some barbs, which she readily did: “Apparently, you know, my former opponent is obsessed with my speaking out,” she said before acknowledging that she had seen that he tweeted about her that morning, but only because someone else had told her about it. That tweet, unremarkable at this point for its use of “Crooked Hillary” and declaration that the former first lady, senator, and secretary of state was “the worst (and biggest) loser of all time,” ended on a surprising note: “Hillary,” wrote Trump, “get on with your life and give it another try in three years!”

But both her and her husband’s time of giving it a try is over now. Chelsea, who was not present at the weekend’s events, has shown little inclination to follow her parents into politics, and while the Clinton Foundation will endure beyond them, the dynasty they had intended didn’t come to pass. “I’m proud of her for getting caught trying to put people first,” the former president said of his wife, prompting the audience of supporters and aides and canvassers and advisers to rise to their feet and applaud.

“Wasn’t that inspirational?” gushed a woman in her 80s afterward. “I want to go knock on some doors!” replied her friend, a veteran of knocking on many doors in Texas. In the meantime, or instead, or in light of all the doors knocked on and the 20 or 21 times the Clinton tally has been greater and yet still, most recently, not great enough, they got in line to get coffee.