Salena Zito

Former President Bill Clinton quipped to a couple thousand liberal bloggers in Pittsburgh last week that the great thing about being a former president is that you can say whatever you want. The terrible thing is, nobody cares what you have to say anymore.

“Unless, of course, your wife is the secretary of state, and then they really only care if you screw up,” he added after a generous pause.

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A brilliant observation from a man trying to explain how he can make a difference in the world, now that his political party is in power with his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as one of the powerbrokers.

In the fertile but ill-defined land of ex-presidents, Clinton stands on the precipice of being able to do the most harm or the most good.

For the most part, he is in a league of his own. Not counting the recently exited George W. Bush and the shamed Richard Nixon, no former two-termer has lived long enough to have an impact since Andrew Johnson became a U.S. senator in his post-presidency.

Clinton proved his vitality earlier this month when he became the catalyst in North Korea’s release of two imprisoned American journalists.

Via the emerging voice of Twitter and Facebook, his diplomatic rescue became the most-chatted-about event in cyberspace. Cable news networks gave live coverage to the journalists’ and Clinton’s homecoming.

The accolades from the administration were more muted.

Clearly, his wife was proud but a hint of her feeling overshadowed showed at a subsequent news conference, when she thought she was being asked what her husband thought about an issue.

And the White House’s welcome-back reception was crisp and business-like. The administration initially invited the former president to the Situation Room for a briefing, an interesting choice for a chat. Perhaps sensing curiosity brewing in the press, the meeting moved to the more appropriate Oval Office.

That speaks to the larger question: When and how can Clinton move forward to have an impact?

He is a man who is gratified with his role, but not satisfied. Yet the signals coming from the White House seem to say, “We are not quite sure what we want to do with him yet, and we are sort of trying to figure that out.”

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.