WASHINGTON — Six months ago, Bill Clinton seemed to be settling comfortably into roles befitting a silver-maned former president: statesman, philanthropist, philosopher-king. Now he has put all that high-mindedness on hold — maybe it was never such a great fit, after all — to costar in his wife Hillary’s campaign as a coldblooded political hit man.

No, scratch the “coldblooded” part. At times, in his attempt to cut Barack Obama down to size, Bill Clinton has been red-faced with anger; his rhetoric about voter suppression and a great big “fairy tale” has been way over the top. This doesn’t look and sound like mere politics. It seems awfully personal.

Obama’s candidacy not only threatens to obliterate the dream of a Clinton Restoration. It also fundamentally calls into question the Bill Clinton legacy by making it seem … not really such a big deal.

That, I believe, is the unforgivable insult. The Clintons picked up on this slight well before Obama made it explicit with his observation that Ronald Reagan had “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”

Let’s take a moment to consider that remark. Whether or not it was advisable for Obama to play the role of presidential historian in the midst of a no-holds-barred contest for the Democratic nomination, it’s hard to argue with what he said. I think Bill Clinton was a good president, at times very good. And I wouldn’t have voted for Reagan if you’d held a gun to my head. But even I have to recognize that Reagan — like Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union — was a transformational figure, for better or worse.

Bill Clinton’s brilliance was in the way he surveyed the post-Reagan landscape and figured out how to redefine and reposition the Democratic Party so that it became viable again. All the Democratic candidates who are running this year, including Obama, owe him their gratitude.

But Obama has set his sights higher, and implicit in his campaign is a promise, or a threat, to eclipse Clinton’s accomplishments. Obama doesn’t just want to piece together a 50-plus-1 coalition, he wants to forge a new post-partisan consensus that includes “Obama Republicans” — the equivalent of the Gipper’s “Reagan Democrats.” You can call that overly ambitious or even naive, but you can’t call it timid. Or deferential.

Both Clintons have trouble hiding their annoyance at Obama’s impertinence. Bill, especially, gives the impression that Obama has gotten under his skin. His frequent allegations of media bias in Obama’s favor recall the everybody-against-us feeling of the impeachment drama, when the meaning of the word “is” had to be carefully parsed and the Clinton White House was under siege.

Obama hit back in an interview that aired Monday on “Good Morning America,” saying the former president “has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling” and promising to “directly confront Bill Clinton when he’s not making statements that are factually accurate.”

For Obama, it’s clearly an added burden to have to fight two Clintons instead of one. But at the same time, there may be benefits in having Bill Clinton take such a high-profile role in his wife’s campaign that the missteps and disappointments of the Clinton years are inevitably recalled along with the successes. Whatever the net impact, there appears to be no plan for Bill Clinton to tone it down — not with the nomination still in doubt. The Clintons don’t much like losing.

So forget about the Bill Clinton we’ve known for the past eight years — the one who finds friendship and common ground with fellow former President George H.W. Bush (a Republican, last I heard), who dedicates most of his time and energy to the William J. Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, who speaks eloquently about global citizenship, environmental stewardship and economic empowerment. Forget about the statesman who uses appropriately measured language when talking about transient political events, focusing instead on the broad sweep of human history. Forget about the apostle of brotherhood and understanding whose most recent book is titled, simply, “Giving.” That Bill Clinton has left the building.

There’s a battle to be fought against an upstart challenger who has the audacity to suggest that maybe the Clinton presidency, successful as it was in many ways, didn’t change the world — and that he, given the office, could do better. Some things, I guess, just can’t be allowed. Bill Clinton obviously has decided that history can wait.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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