WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton tells audiences that having lived in the White House for eight eventful years, she’s eager to take charge as president on “day one.” Apparently, though, so is Bill.

Before the Clinton campaign’s recent shift to themes of warmth and approachability, a major weapon against the Barack Obama insurgency was the argument that Hillary could move right in and get to work on reforming health care or restructuring foreign policy. She wouldn’t need to spend months learning how to work the buttons on the Oval Office telephone.

It’s true that Obama, like almost all presidents, would face a steep learning curve as he worked to master the arcane procedures and perquisites of life inside the White House bubble. So would any of the other contenders from either party, except Clinton. The learning-curve issue for her — and it has no precedent in American history — would be figuring out how to deal with a husband who was very good at being president but shows little talent or motivation for being a president’s spouse.

Sexism might have something to do with the fact that Hillary Clinton has to answer questions about her husband that the other candidates never get asked about their wives. But Bill Clinton has always had a way of making himself the story, and he’s at it again.

When the Clintons made a campaign stop at an Iowa grocery store Tuesday, Hillary’s face said it all. She realized that Bill had departed from the script and wandered off to another part of the store, and cameras caught her scanning the aisles with a look of sheer terror. Bill was supposed to be at Hillary’s side; instead he was way over yonder, giving an interview to “Entertainment Tonight.” What was supposed to be a controlled photo op had suddenly turned into a happening.

Spontaneity gives ulcers to campaign staffers, but the supermarket stop got much more coverage than it would have if Bill had followed the script. He ended up drawing more attention to himself than the candidate — which is in keeping with his formal campaign speeches. On the stump, he draws big crowds and comes off as charming, eloquent and persuasive. But reporters who have tallied his words say he talks more about himself than about his wife — at a ratio of about 9 to 1.

The real problem comes when Bill goes off-message. Campaigning in South Carolina on Monday, he said that Hillary’s “No. 1 priority” as president would be to send a group of notables — including himself and former President George Bush the Elder — on an around-the-world mission to repair America’s image.

As one might expect, Poppy didn’t react well at all to the implication that his son, George Bush the Younger, had sullied that image. He issued a frosty statement saying no one had ever talked to him about any such mission, and that anyway no such thing was needed, and that besides — remember? — he’s a Republican.

That episode shows what Hillary Clinton might face in the White House. After his eight years as president, and nearly seven as a millionaire statesman/philanthropist/philosopher, is Bill Clinton capable of following any script? He’s used to saying whatever he wants to say, whenever he wants to say it. And he’s a talented improviser, always overflowing with ideas — some of them brilliant, some half-baked — that he can’t wait to share with his listeners.

Does anyone think that William Jefferson Clinton would confine himself to the bland, inoffensive pronouncements we’ve come to expect from presidential spouses? I’d give him two weeks of ribbon-cuttings and ceremonial visits before he felt compelled — and perhaps entitled — to jump into policy. Clearly, the smart thing would be to give him a portfolio of his own rather than let him play hopscotch.

But how would anyone keep him on the reservation? How would anyone tone down his charisma? And what would happen if a new Clinton administration gutted one of the accomplishments of the old Clinton administration? One potential case in point is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Hillary now says has to be modified. If she were to keep that campaign promise, would Bill just smile sweetly on his way to the next East Room reception?

What people think of Bill Clinton and his presidency is grist for other columns. For now, I’m asking a simpler question: Since the Constitution provides for one president, not two, could he find a way to live in a White House that wasn’t all about him?

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

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.