Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House - Carol Felsenthal (2008)
Chapter 5. CLINTON OPENS HIS LIBRARY IN A DOWNPOUR
ON NOVEMBER 18, 2004, A BIT MORE THAN TWO WEEKS after the Kerry defeat—with some Democrats insisting that they were still paying for Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions—the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum opened in Little Rock on a miserably cold day, rain falling in sheets.
Bill Clinton, a bit more than two months out of bypass surgery, looked gaunt, his hair wet and flat against his head. His signature springy bouffant was replaced by what looked like Ross Perot’s $2 cut on a bad-hair day.
Perhaps figuring that such a downpour couldn’t last long, someone had made the bad decision to keep the festivities, which went on for two and a half hours, outdoors. “I’ve never been that wet with my clothes on,” says Lynn Cutler.1
Clinton “had no business being there,” says Phil Stefani. “He was not ready to be there.”2
“Oh, it rained, and he got sick again after that,” says Janis Kearney, “and I’m saying, my God, the man was sick when he came to the library…. He was sitting out in the rain…. A lot of people thought he wouldn’t be there, but of course he wouldn’t have missed that.”3
President Clinton had selected the New York architects Jim Polshek and Richard Olcott of Polshek Partnership Architects. They designed in an industrial section of Little Rock on twenty-six acres a stark rectangular structure suspended over the Arkansas River, intended to reflect the nearby bridge and railroad trestles. Some compared it to a mobile home and others thought it beautifully fulfilled the bridge-to-the-twenty-first-century idea, so central to Bill Clinton’s rhetoric.4
Kane Webb, then writing editorials for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is in the former group—describing it as “like a trailer on stilts” or like “an old-fashioned telephone booth put on its side.” But on the inside, Webb says, “it is gorgeous because there’s just light everywhere.”5
While still president in 2000, Clinton had persuaded Little Rock mayor Jim Dailey to run for another term so he’d be in the mayor’s chair when the library was dedicated. Dailey remembers the exchange: “‘I don’t want another mayor here when I open my presidential library.’ And I went, ‘Yes sir, Mr. President.’”6
Dailey’s political skills were needed because not all the locals wanted the library. Shortly before he left the White House, Clinton had invited the mayor and his wife to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom. The Daileys would not get much sleep that night, but it was nothing compared with the sleepless nights the mayor endured because of blasts at Clinton in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Dailey worried that the paper’s harsh coverage of the library plans would so offend the president that he would scrap plans to put his library in Little Rock and instead take it up to Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas, or take it to New York or Washington. “We always had that fear that something like that might happen and they would take it out from under us.”
And Dailey fretted particularly about Clinton’s most relentless critic in the local paper, Paul Greenberg, the Democrat-Gazette’s Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist and editorial page editor, who had belittled Clinton for thirty years and who had coined the phrase that Clinton is said to hate most: “Slick Willie.”
Greenberg and his deputy, Kane Webb, took off after Dailey for his decision to provide public land for the library.7 Webb, who has since left the newspaper, says he and Greenberg “did not endorse the way that the city bought the twenty-six acres…, using money from fees from the parks and the zoo without a public vote.” Webb called it “a shell game” that was “rammed down people’s throats.” The editors wanted a referendum, but, Webb claims, Dailey feared the vote would be about Bill Clinton. “This was the period of time…around the Monica Lewinsky scandal…. Bill’s a polarizing figure here in Arkansas and I think they were worried, ‘Oh, my God! What if we had this vote on the Clinton library land and it was voted down.’”8
That afternoon at the White House, the Daileys briefly saw Clinton. He told them he had meetings, but “you-all just hang tight and I’ll drop by and see you later on.” He wanted to show the Daileys the architects’ drawings. That night, they were desperate to go to sleep—and joked about putting a note on the Lincoln Bedroom door telling him they had “hit the sack,” when the president, in jeans and a casual shirt, finally knocked at 11:00 or 11:30. “He has these…architectural renderings and floor plans…. He just plopped down on the edge of the bed, spread all this stuff out, and started talking about various parts of the library and his vision and how excited he was.”9
The day before the dedication had seen glorious late-fall weather. On dedication day, Leon Panetta recalls, the morning “began with the steadiest rain I’ve ever seen.” He says that Clinton’s sad demeanor, much remarked on, was because he was “depressed by the day. You have an event like that once in your lifetime…and you’ve got all these people coming and all of the celebrities that are going to be there and suddenly it’s raining like hell. I’m sure it must have really pissed him off.”10
Susie Tompkins Buell recalls Clinton looking “really sad” on “the last really big occasion before his funeral.”11 Sarah Wilson had the same impression: “One of the first things he said was ‘I can’t see the faces because of all the umbrellas.’”12
An indication of just how “miserable” the day was, says Kane Webb, was that “I left in the middle of U2 playing; that takes a lot for me to do. I couldn’t take anymore.”13 Bono sang “The Hands That Built America.” Lawrence Hamilton, a native Arkansan who sang on Broadway, also performed. (Hollywood celebrities in attendance included Barbra Streisand, Ted Danson, Robin Williams, Kevin Spacey, and Morgan Freeman.)
For the Clinton loyalists this was a reunion—a plane was chartered to take former White House staffers from Washington to Little Rock—a chance to see people they might have last seen on inauguration day 2001. John Emerson calls it “our version of an inauguration party.”14
Plenty of Republicans were there, including the most hated, Karl Rove, still riding high after being hailed by Bush as “the architect” of his victory over Kerry. Some Democrats, Susie Tompkins Buell, for example, thought that the Republicans were “showing off…. It was like gloating to come down like that so close after the election.”15
Besides Clinton, two other former presidents, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, were in attendance. (Carter offered a belated apology to Clinton for contributing to his gubernatorial defeat in 1980 by sending those Cuban refugees to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas.)16
His friends were relieved to see that when Clinton rose to speak, the spark and some of the color returned. Mickey Ibarra, who was there with his mother, describes the former president as “undaunted.” Clinton led with a nod to his mother: “I’m thinking of my mother, Virginia Kelley, right now. She used to say rain is just liquid sunshine.”17
Clinton seemed to catch a second wind and attended one party after another over the next couple of nights. Susie and Mark Buell hosted one at a bar, but left at ten. Clinton showed up at 10:30 “raring to go,” says Mark Buell.18 Lynn Cutler says the event was “hard on him,” because even when feeling ill, “it’s not like he’s a guy who’s going to leave the party early.”19
He was delighted with his first-rate, cut-no-corners library. Jimmy Carter’s center cost $26 million to build, Ronald Reagan’s library cost $57 million, and George H. W. Bush’s cost $83 million. Bill Clinton’s cost $165 million and includes offices for his foundation and a luxurious apartment for him at the top of the building—decorated to the nines by Little Rock resident and Clinton friend Kaki Hockersmith*—complete with an ecologically correct roof garden.20
Clinton was also delighted with the museum’s exhibits. Paul Greenberg offers the other side of the assessment: “The Monica Lewinsky affair is almost hidden at the Clinton library; it’s portrayed as just a right-wing conspiracy because of Bill Clinton’s great accomplishments. The Clinton library overdoes the praise of Clinton even for a presidential library.” He does give the library its due “as a great place to listen to chamber music.”22
It was also great—an “economic engine”—for the down-at-the-heels warehouse and rail yards district in which it was built. Kane Webb credits it for “opening up that end of the city…that used to be kind of a wasteland.” Webb also calls it “a huge attraction for tourists”—according to the library’s own count, 279,278 in 2006. (Only the Reagan library gets more visitors.)23
As soon as ground was broken, says Jim Dailey, “that was when we started to see things just absolutely take off”—loft apartments; a major international organization considering a move to Chicago, which stayed and built on twenty-five acres next to the Clinton library; more conventions attracted to Little Rock because of the library; and speakers such as Bill Gates Sr., Ted Turner, Michael Bloomberg, who, as Dailey puts it, “get to see that we’re not just, as some politician said years ago, barefoot and pregnant; we have a city with high-rise buildings and obviously a city that’s on the move.” Dailey estimates that since the announcement of the library, “just in the downtown area alone public and private investment [is] probably pushing a billion and a half to two billion dollars.”24
As long as Clinton remains involved nationally and internationally, says Dailey, as long as he is strongly identified with Arkansas—even though he has become the proverbial citizen of the world—his library will “pay dividends.” Clinton visits about once a month, sometimes staying overnight in his apartment, sometimes staying with friends, and sometimes not staying over at all but flying to his next destination here or abroad.25
Kane Webb says he knows when Clinton is in Little Rock because there’s usually a story in the paper. “Bill’s definitely an Arkansas boy. I think he has a true love of the state, but there’s not much here for him anymore. His life is elsewhere.” The locals, Webb adds, “were soon disabused of the notion that when he put his library in Little Rock that…somehow it would be like it was when he was governor and he’d be in and out of the McDonald’s on Broadway.”26
THAT DAY of the library dedication produced something of lasting value—the roots of a friendship between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, the man Clinton beat in the 1992 election. H. W. Bush aide Ron Kaufman recalls “this strange” relationship started when the former president Bush—his son George W. Bush was also present—rose to speak; he ended up paying tribute to his successor and, Kaufman says, had the audience of mostly Clinton fans in tears.27
“Bill Clinton showed himself to be more than a good politician,” former president Bush said. “In the White House, the whole nation witnessed his brilliance…. The president was not the kind to give up a fight. His staffers were known to say that if Clinton were the Titanic, the iceberg would sink.
“Trust me,” Bush 41 continued, “I learned this the hard way. Here in Arkansas you might say he learned how to be the Sam Walton of retail politics.”
Bush evoked much laughter when he added, “In the spirit of being kinder and gentler, I’ve long since forgiven him. After you leave the White House, a number of things happen to you. First of all, the crowds of protesters get smaller—disappointing, really. One-time political adversaries have a tendency to become friends. There is an inescapable bond that binds together all who live in the White House.”28
Kaufman credits Clinton with most of the work of transforming the relationship: “Bill Clinton worked the relationship hard.” After the event, the first President Bush would tell Kaufman that “Clinton was exceptionally warm and gracious and that he was received exceptionally well by everyone down there.”29
The two former presidents, says John Emerson, spent time during the dedication days “talking to all hours” and “hanging out at the library.”30 Kane Webb attributes the friendship to H. W. Bush having reached a stage in his life “where he just didn’t seem to give a damn anymore what people thought of him.”31
EVEN THOSE watching the opening of Bill Clinton’s library on C-SPAN could see that something was wrong with the former president. That Thankgiving, 2004, Hillary invited Terry McAuliffe and his family to join her and Bill at Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, where the Clintons had been offered the use of Julio Iglesias’s oceanfront estate. In his memoir, McAuliffe describes “Oscar,” as in Oscar de la Renta, driving over for a visit in his golf cart and the Clintons and McAuliffes visiting Mikhail Baryshnikov in his beach villa. McAuliffe knew that something was wrong with his friend when he quit after twelve holes of golf to take a nap and got winded and chilled from a walk on the beach.32
WHEN GEORGE W. BUSH spoke at the dedication of the Clinton library, he had paid joking tribute to his predecessor, a month younger than he, as “the elder statesman.” Bush also noted that Clinton’s “service to America has not ended.”33
On December 26, 2004, a tsunami, a giant tidal wave in the Indian Ocean, struck parts of Asia and Africa, battering sections of twelve countries, exacerbated by the most powerful earthquake to strike that region in forty years. President George W. Bush asked his father and Bill Clinton to lead a fund-raising campaign to help the victims—275,000 people dead and another 1,000,000 homeless.34 The two presidents were to proselytize for the NGOs—nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross—that were working on the ground in the awful devastation left behind.
Hillary insisted that Bill see his doctors before he agreed to go. They found impairment in the lower half of his left lung. His friend John Emerson said that Clinton told him that the problem was “fluid buildup the size of his fist…near the heart and the lungs that needed to be released.”35 His bypass surgeon described Clinton’s condition as “a trapped lung encased in inflammatory scar tissue.” It sounded alarming, but Clinton wanted to take on this assignment with former president Bush, and his doctors agreed that he could postpone the surgery until his return.36
Clinton, feeling tired, and the older Bush, healthy and energetic, but eighty years old, went to the White House to meet with the current president, and then Bush and Clinton went together to the embassies of the affected countries to sign their condolence books and express their hopes for the future.
Next, on a grueling two-and-one-half-day tour, they assessed the damage firsthand. In Thailand they spent the night at a resort in Phuket—to boost Thai tourism, a booming industry devastated by the tsunami. Then they went to Indonesia, where they visited the province of Aceh and its hard-hit port city of Banda Aceh, with a stop to meet the Indonesian president; then to Sri Lanka, with a stop in Colombo; and finally to the Maldives.37
Their technical adviser and traveling companion was Mark Ward, a senior career officer at USAID (United States Agency for International Development)—a lawyer who gave up a Washington practice to join the Foreign Service. Ward, ten years younger than Clinton, speaks of the experience of guiding the former presidents as the highlight of his twenty years in public service.38
Also along were Ward’s counterpart at the State Department, a couple of journalists, and each former president’s own set of aides. Clinton brought along his friend Ron Burkle and his own photographer.39
They met in the airport in Burbank, California, where a White House jet—one used by the vice president—was waiting. It was “very comfortable,” says Ward, “but it’s not as big as Air Force One…. So it only has one bed and apparently there had been some discussion between the two presidents about who was going to get the bed and President Bush won. Knowing the two of them I’m sure they both offered it to the other one.”
Clinton, just five months out of major surgery, and knowing he would face more surgery on his return, would have had to make do with the equivalent of a reclining business-class seat on the long trip—two fuel stops—between Burbank and Phuket, Thailand. But Bush brought an air mattress—one of his friends is a mattress retailer in Houston—so that President Clinton could lie down. Ward was making his way to the restroom on the first night when he was startled by a Secret Service agent blocking his path, and then he saw the reason: President Clinton sprawled out on the air mattress trying to find a comfortable position.
Ward briefed the two men but spent more time with Bush than with Clinton. “Clinton just seemed to be more familiar with the stops.” On the other hand, says Ward, “what impressed me more than anything else about these guys was, unlike other people in high office in government, they had a lot of questions and knew how to listen and they would seek guidance…. They were both out of office. They were not getting daily briefs on what was going on in the world.”
The scenes of utter wreckage were heart wrenching; the travel, says Ward, was “very brutal.” After each stop on the ground, the weather extremely hot, sunny, and humid, everyone would board the plane and, recalls Ward, “kind of collapse and sleep and just rest.”
But before he got lost in a conversation or a game of hearts, often with Jean Becker, President Bush’s chief of staff, Bill Clinton would always call Hillary; it was the first thing he did when he returned to the plane. “God knows what time it was he was calling her,” says Ward. “We were halfway around the world.”
Everyone on the plane heard Clinton’s end of these conversations. “I guess you could have [had a private conversation],” says Ward, “but he didn’t care…. He was so emotional the way he described it. ‘Hillary, you wouldn’t believe it; it’s much worse when you’re there in person.’”
Ward would express his emotions in a more private manner in letters to his wife. “I knew I’d beat the letters home or I wouldn’t even have a chance to mail them.” It hardly mattered, just so long as the shock of the sights could be shared with someone.
“I had been out there a couple of times so I kind of knew what to expect,” says Ward. But Bush and Clinton were like Ward when he went to inspect the tsunami damage the first time with then deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz—“Everyone was in tears everywhere we went, including…Wolfowitz.”
In Phuket, off the coast of Thailand, they visited a village where USAID was helping fishermen secure financing to buy new fishing boats so they could start making money again. Ward worried about Bush and Clinton after a long night of travel; he made certain that they were getting enough water. Clinton refused entreaties to wear a hat; Bush was happy to wear one.
They were met by the banner “Welcome President Clinton”—Ward wondered what President Bush thought when he saw it—and American college students who had volunteered to help the fishermen rebuild their boats. President Clinton “spent a bunch of time with [the students],” says Ward, “just talking about where they were from, what they were doing.” That evening, still in Phuket, they attended a dinner hosted by the president of Thailand and stayed in one of the island’s resorts.40
It was on that stop that Bush mused to a reporter for his local paper, the Houston Chronicle, about Clinton, “Maybe I’m the father he never had.”41
Early the next morning, they flew from Phuket to Madan, the capital of North Sumatra in Indonesia, where Bush and Clinton met with the president of Indonesia, and then took a flight from Madan to the severely damaged Banda Aceh.
The vista from Banda Aceh was disturbing. “You get down on your haunches,” says Ward, “and you look at the horizon and you can see the horizon because everything’s gone; there’s nothing but foundations, except the mosque.” He describes the Indonesians as “still in shock, and you saw it in their eyes; they didn’t know what to do next. Who would?” Bush and Clinton had to check their emotions because the victims were watching, and, via the international press that followed the presidents’ entourage, so was the world. “These guys have seen disasters before,” says Ward, “and they were going to see more later with Katrina coming. I think they both had a lot of inner strength to deal with it. They knew that at least in the public eye they had to project a very strong image that things are going to get better.”
Next they flew from Banda Aceh to Colombo in Sri Lanka where they had dinner with Sri Lankan president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. She had made the seating plan herself, and the Americans were wondering why the president would tend to such a trivial task, until she gave her opening remarks. “It means so much to me that the two of you who were political rivals in the U.S.…can rise above that to come and help us in this our hour of greatest need, and I’d like to think I can do that too, and that’s why the gentleman sitting…right across from you is the head of the opposition and the former prime minister.”
The next morning, they were aboard helicopters to southern Sri Lanka and the city of Matara, which, Ward says, Bush and Clinton found particularly affecting because they were able to interact with children, most of them orphaned and all of them getting some “very simple counseling to get over what had happened,…to express it mostly through artwork.”
The presidents had been counseled about what not to say. “Don’t ask these kids about the flood, talk about the future…. Are you looking forward to getting back to school?” (Ward says he learned never to ask, “Where is your family?” when one man at the scene of the Pakistan earthquake responded, “You’re standing on them.”)
The children’s artwork was set up outdoors, and it had progressed from the drawings they had done just after the tsunami hit—“all very dark,” says Ward, “lots of storm and rain and clouds and pictures of their families floating in water,…and then slowly, over time, you see the progression, the same kids,…starting to see color, starting to see flowers, starting to see rainbows, starting to see houses that aren’t damaged.”
The presidents sat in a semicircle on the ground with the children, and, Ward says, “my impression was [Bush and Clinton] didn’t want to leave. The kids sang to them, did dances, brought pictures to them; and after all the devastation we had seen, particularly the day before in Aceh, we all needed this…because you could see that we were making progress with these kids.”
Damage in Sri Lanka was less severe than in Indonesia because, although the little Sri Lankan communities on the beach were largely washed away by the tidal wave, unlike Indonesia, Sri Lanka did not first endure an earthquake. The bond between Clinton and Bush was strengthened by neither one of them wanting to disengage from this half circle of hope and friendship. “To this day,” says Ward, “they both have in their offices some of the artwork those kids gave them.”
President Clinton seemed to care a lot about Sri Lanka, says Ward. “I know he has been very disappointed that, unlike Aceh, where the tsunami and the world’s reaction to it contributed to peace, it hasn’t worked out in Sri Lanka. And…every time I’ve seen him since, he has pulled me aside and whispered to me how disappointed he is that hostilities are back.”42 (Pre-tsunami there was an insurrection in Aceh and there was civil war in Sri Lanka, making relief efforts far more complicated. A peace accord holds in Aceh, but Sri Lanka continues at war.)43
Later that day, the two presidents met the helicopters at a town called Galle on the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka. To Ward’s surprise, the British singer and bassist Sting (aka Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner) was there. Sting knew both presidents, Ward says, but knew Clinton better. “They had a nice little chat.”
Their last stop was in the Maldives, a group of twenty-six atolls in the Indian Ocean. The Bush/Clinton group flew to the capital, Male. The islands lost a small number of people, about ninety, but the number is large relative to its population, and its main industry, tourism, suffered a big hit. To show the world that the country was ready to receive tourists, Bush and Clinton visited a resort, where they met the country’s president.
Clinton was then met by a friend’s private plane and he flew on to China to promote his memoir. George H. W. Bush flew home to Texas.
As they approached Manila in the Philippines, where Mark Ward was leaving the plane to attend to USAID business, President Bush pulled him aside: “I’ve got some friends who want to give some money, about half a million bucks…. You clearly know what’s going on on the ground…. What do you think they should do?”
Bush’s friends took Ward’s advice and gave a donation to an organization in Indonesia. And so Ward became involved with what became known as the Bush-Clinton Houston Tsunami Fund and continued to work with the two men.
After Bill Clinton returned from China, he and Bush met in Washington to give President George W. Bush a report on their trip. That report, written by staff but approved by the presidents, described how at every stop they saw USAID and NGOs working hard, in dangerous and uncomfortable situations. “There was this line in there,” Ward says, “about, seeing them, we’ve never been so proud to be Americans.” Those words made Ward a fan for life of Bush and Clinton. “We don’t often get that kind of recognition.”44
The two presidents pushed hard for people to give to the NGOs working on the ground. Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, credits this bipartisan approach with inspiring “unprecedented levels of philanthropy…on the scale of which most of us have never seen before…. Many of the private humanitarian organizations like ours and CARE and…Save the Children…and certainly the American Red Cross broke every conceivable record for contribution.”45
Americans donated $1.2 billion for tsunami relief.46 Most had never heard of these places, much less visited them. Ward attributes the success of the fund-raising effort to “the magic” of the two men appearing together. He cites an interview he gave to Time in which he used the example of his own mother who, he says, “doesn’t have that much money, but my mom says, ‘If those two guys could work together, I’ll find a hundred dollars.’ My mom called me after that and complained, ‘It was actually $500; you make me sound cheap.’”47
Soon after they returned, golfer Greg Norman, a friend of both presidents, recruited them for a tsunami relief golf tournament. With Bush representing the Red Cross and Clinton representing UNICEF, they raised $2.1 million.48
The two presidents also quietly worked the fund that had at its foundation Bush’s wealthy Houston friends. It wasn’t until an event at a tennis stadium in Houston in May 2005 that they announced their grants, all the while continuing to encourage people outside their circles to go to USAID’s website and give to the NGOs.49
Eventually they raised some $12–$13 million. They gave some of it to the communities they had visited—$1 million to Phuket to rebuild fishing boats; $500,000 to Lampunk to repair the water system and to rebuild a school, a health clinic, a women’s center, and a market; $1 million to Sri Lankan coastal districts to build children’s playgrounds. Later the Bush-Clinton Houston Tsunami Fund contributed approximately $1 million to the United Nations’ “adopt-an-island” program in the Maldives. The money went to the island of Dhiggaru and was used to help repair its homes, harbor, and water and sanitation systems.50
Ward suggested that money be spent on scholarships in Indonesia. “Let’s get some future leaders of Aceh into some of the best schools in the United States.” Playing to his audience, he sold the idea to the initially skeptical presidents by suggesting Texas A & M and the University of Arkansas as host schools. They decided to target women who have fewer opportunities in that Islamic country. The program, funded with $4–$5 million from the presidents’ fund, is ongoing, managed by the Fulbright Foundation, and brings seventy to seventy-five young Indonesians to pursue advanced degrees in majors important to reconstruction, such as engineering, agriculture, and city planning.51
Ward’s affection continues for Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, whom he sees as bringing out the best in each other and as a model for young people, including his own teenage sons, for what public service and politics can mean.52
IF CLINTON was worried about his second surgery, performed on March 10, 2005, he did not show it and did not complain about his health. USAID’s Mark Ward marveled at “that spring in his step. I don’t know where the energy came from…. People would ask him about [his health] on the trip and he would say he’s feeling great.”53
The procedure, called decortication and performed in the same hospital—New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center—as the bypass, is necessary in a small fraction of 1 percent of patients who have heart bypass surgery. It is done to cure a condition called pleural effusion by removing scar tissue, which, in Clinton’s case, formed on the surface of his lung, as well as fluid, which squeezed the lower section of the left lung and reduced his breathing capacity by more than 25 percent. He remained in the hospital for four days and returned to Chappaqua to recover.54
The late-night comics pounced. Craig Ferguson, host of CBS’s The Late Late Show, quipped a few days after Clinton’s surgery, “When he was asked to describe his symptoms he said, ‘It felt like there were two interns on his chest.’ Maybe it’s just one big one.” Ferguson also listed “Top Ten Things Overheard During Bill Clinton’s Hospital Stay,” among them, “A nurse is coming; put him in the restraints…. For some reason he always forgets the surgical gown opens in the back…. Al Gore! When did you start working as an orderly?…Hillary wants to know if you would neuter him.”55
CLINTON HAD committed to give the opening speech in spring 2005 for a lecture series at Drew University in New Jersey, named in honor of Tom Kean, then about to retire as the university’s president.
Although their relationship would be tested in 2006 over Kean’s role as adviser to a television miniseries, The Path to 9/11—Clinton thought it unfairly blamed his administration for 9/11—there were years of friendship and affection between these two former governors. They were from different parties—Kean a liberal Republican—but they shared a commitment to progressive social policy and a particular interest in improving education.
It would be Clinton’s first speech after his second surgery and his doctors had advised him to cancel. His staffers told Kean that Clinton would have to bow out, “and then I guess he got to them,” Kean says, “and said, ‘We’re friends, I’d like to do it.’”
They came back with a bill of restrictions. He’d speak for fifteen to twenty minutes, would take only three questions, and his staff wanted to know in advance what the questions were. Kean asked professors in the political science department to compose the questions, which Kean assumed were passed on to the former president.
When Clinton arrived, Kean was shocked. “I thought he looked awful. He was pale, thin.” He opened his shirt to show Kean his surgical scars. “I was worried about him; I was thinking to myself, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have pressed this.’”
In passing, Kean mentioned, “We’ve got the three questions.” “What?” Clinton responded, obviously annoyed. He called a member of his staff and let him have it. “I have told you never, ever to do that and I never want to hear that again.” He turned to Kean and said, “Of course any questions you want to ask are fine.”
Kean introduced the former president to a sold-out crowd that greeted him with a standing ovation. “You could see the color come back into his face,” Kean recalls. “It was almost like somebody had done something for him medically. He started to look like the old Bill Clinton. And he talked for fifty minutes…. And then he started taking questions and he didn’t want to stop taking questions.” Then, says Kean, he worked the rope line; students had papers and programs they wanted him to sign, and many had his book. “He didn’t want to leave until every kid had been satisfied…. I got him back where the car was…. There’s a…hill above [it] and…these people were clapping for him on the hill…. ‘Oh, come on down.’…[He] shook all their hands, autographed whatever they had.”56
That night reminded Kean of another time when Bill Clinton was laid low—by the Lewinsky scandal. Kean was at the White House for a meeting at which Clinton was to receive the report of a panel he had appointed to study the question of race. It happened to be the same day that Ken Starr presented his findings to Congress.57 Kean, John Hope Franklin, and the other panel members were sitting with Clinton in the Oval Office. Kean could see that the president was “obviously distracted,” uncharacteristically unfocused. The panel gave its report to Clinton and then walked over with him so he could present it to a group of about 250 civil rights leaders, including Jesse Jackson and Rosa Parks. As Clinton entered the room, “they gave him a standing ovation and the same darn thing happened,” Kean recalls. He got his color back, he focused, “he gave one of those speeches that only Bill Clinton can give, interrupted about six times by applause; another standing ovation when he finished…and he looked great. He needs that, he needs the affirmation. And he needs people to understand where he’s going and to be with him and supportive of him…. That’s the medicine he needs. And that’s better than any doctor for him.”58
IN MAY 2005, Bush and Clinton came to Washington, at the invitation of Richard C. Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for a tsunami-related event in the same building where USAID has its offices. Ward asked them if they would stop by before and thank his people, who, he says, are often dismissed as bureaucrats but were “the folks that were making this tremendous American response possible.” Not only did they come, says Ward, “they just worked the crowd and they completely botched up Holbrooke’s schedule downstairs.” Ward speculates that “people probably decided that day not to retire because it was worth hanging in there to do what we do.”
Ward is often asked if the relationship between Bush and Clinton is sincere. He legitimately claims an insider’s view and has many examples to offer of their easy camaraderie. They loved to talk sports, to revisit the 1992 campaign—including nitty-gritty, precinct-level analysis of that race—to discuss foreign policy as expressed in recollections of major figures “and how they interacted with that person when they were president; always in the most respectful terms…. There was so much they had in common…that they would never run out of positive things they could talk about. They never had to get into anything that they disagreed about.”
Before the Houston event when they announced the recipients of the grants from their private fund, they met at Bush’s office. “Of course, President Clinton was late,” says Ward. “…They couldn’t be more different in that regard…. President Bush is either right on time or early. And they just kidded each other unmercifully about that.” During their tsunami tour, Clinton was always late, says Ward, because “he was working a crowd.” When President Bush’s glance at his watch in 1992 during a debate with Clinton and H. Ross Perot generated harsh criticism, he was simply doing what comes naturally to him. “President Bush is always looking at his watch,” says Ward.59
At that event, Barbara Bush made the introductions and referred to her long-lost son Bill. “All’s forgiven. Welcome home.” Clinton stood up and turned to her: “Thanks, Mom.” Clinton then suggested that the Bush family would do anything to get another Bush into the White House—so if he’s the long-lost son and Hillary wins the White House in 2008, she would be a Bush by marriage.60
Ron Kaufman, the former aide to the first president Bush, says that when he characterizes their relationship as “a love affair,” he puts it in quotes; while they’re not best friends, the relationship is “real and warm,” and, he adds, “I would venture to say that Bill Clinton feels a lot closer to George H. W. than he does to President Carter.” Kaufman says that 41 likes to joke, “The great thing about me and 42 is I say hello and that’s all I have to say, and 42 will carry the conversation from there on. At my age, that’s good.”61
Politicians, all Democrats, who are close to Bill Clinton—Tom Downey, Bob Torricelli, Beryl Anthony, Tim Wirth, Bill White, the mayor of Houston who spearheaded Clinton’s campaign in Houston in 1992—say that the first president Bush, like President Clinton, is a nice guy, an intelligent guy with deep experience, easygoing, decent, idealistic, optimistic, and a reasonable, moderate man. The two presidents also share a sentimental nature and the tendency to tear up or even sob in public.
“Look,” says the retired Morgan Stanley executive Anson Beard, “no one can help but like Bill Clinton and you can’t help but like George H. W. Bush, so why wouldn’t they get along well? Two great American leaders out of office.”62
MARK WARD noticed that when Bill Clinton is in the company of H. W. Bush he usually had something nice to say about George W. Bush, often about something the president had done that had just been in the news. The older Bush would often remark later to Ward, “That really meant a lot to me. He doesn’t have to do that.”63
Clinton’s hands-off stance toward his successor took some discipline. “He’s really tried to stay out of his hair,” says Jake Siewert, “and he probably doesn’t agree with 95 percent of what the guy’s doing…. For a guy who likes to talk as much as he…does,…he’s done a pretty good job of keeping it buttoned up.”64
Clinton’s behavior does seem remarkably gracious, given that George W. Bush had run for president as the anti-Clinton who would restore clean living and fidelity to the White House. When, in 2006, Clinton spoke to a group of left-of-center editors of alternative newspapers, he told them to be open to opposing views and to the people who hold them. He urged them not to turn public figures into “cartoons.” He acknowledged that he disagreed with much of what the current Bush has done as president but he credited him with “an intuitive intelligence.” When the audience erupted in laughter, he appealed again to these editors to “oppose what he is doing rather than ridicule him.” (“I loved it when the Right Wing ridiculed me,” he said. “When you ridicule someone, you underestimate them.”)65
TODAY, WHEN George W. Bush is mired in low ratings and expectations, it is easy to forget that the political skills that brought him to that victory are ones that Bill Clinton admires. Friends say Clinton often mentions how talented, how canny a politician “W” is.66
Not everyone admires Clinton’s kid-glove treatment of George W. Bush, and some of Clinton’s stalwarts in the 1990s wish he would stop being so respectful. And every once in a while, in an unguarded moment, Clinton’s real feelings toward W come to the fore, as they did in 2003 when he unleashed his anger at what he saw as the New York Times’ “willful ignorance of the failings of the Bush administration.” But that tirade was unleashed at a private event, and Clinton’s friends fretted that he would remain above the fray until he had to go to battle to help Hillary win the White House.
Bush the father told Mark Updegrove that his friendship with Clinton would “hit a rocky patch when…Hillary runs for president,” but that in the long run their friendship will survive. (Campaigning in Iowa in November 2007, Hillary said, “As someone said the other day, there seems to be a pattern. It takes a Clinton to clean up after a Bush.” A month later, campaigning in South Carolina, Bill added to the insult, promising that on Hillary’s first day as president she would send him and George H. W. Bush around the world to say that the U.S. is “open for business” and, in effect, that they, 41 and 42, would clean up the mess made by 43. Jean Becker quickly issued a statement that former President Bush would make no such mission, that he “wholeheartedly supports” his son “and his foreign policy…. He is proud of the role America continues to play…as the beacon for freedom and democracy.”)67
Friends knew the relationship was serious when Bush invited Clinton to the family vacation home at Kennebunkport for golf and boating. (Clinton had been there once before, in 1983, when then vice president Bush hosted a governors’ conference and Governor Clinton, with three-year-old Chelsea in tow, attended. When Clinton introduced his daughter to the vice president and his “wonderful home,” Chelsea was not impressed. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she said, and the vice president took her hand and led her there. “It really impressed me,” Clinton told a Houston Chronicle reporter.)68
Once when Bush’s flight was delayed out of New York and he had some hours to kill, his staffer called Clinton’s staffer at the Harlem office and asked if President Bush and his entourage could stop by. They were told that President Clinton was not in the office that day but come along anyway. According to a report in Time, Bush sat in Clinton’s chair, put his feet up on Clinton’s desk, called Clinton on his cell phone, and said, “Bill! It’s George. Nice view! Nice desk!”69
IN 2005, both former presidents accepted special envoy roles, Bush as an envoy to the Pakistan earthquake and Clinton as Kofi Annan’s UN envoy for the tsunami—a role Clinton handled in an admirably hands-on fashion.
The first meeting with CEOs of NGOs on the ground in the tsunami-ravaged areas was at Clinton’s office in Harlem. Ray Offenheiser was there and remembers that the former president was still visibly recovering from his surgery. “He lost weight, he was a different-looking guy than he appeared in his final days in the presidency.”
Offenheiser was impressed, as was every other CEO “to a person.” Clinton was able to understand and enumerate “the core problems,” and to describe them “in considerable detail, right from the hip without any notes, and basically said to us, ‘Have I got this right?’ And everyone around the table said, ‘You’ve got it absolutely right, and if this is the agenda we can work on, we’re with you.’” Erskine Bowles was there, Clinton having asked him, says Offenheiser, to “come in to help him get this thing jump-started.”70
As Bill Clinton took off on his UN envoy role, George H. W. Bush was vitally interested in his friend’s latest assessments of the area they had visited together, and Clinton eagerly shared his observations. Bush’s chief of staff Jean Becker called Ward from time to time to report, “42 just called us with another trip report today.” Ward was once at Kennebunkport meeting with Bush, when Clinton called: “President Bush put it on the speaker and we all heard the report because President Clinton had just gotten back from one of the countries in the tsunami area.”
“And President Bush just loves it,” Ward says, “because he feels like he’s still part of it.” Realizing that, Clinton seldom missed calling his predecessor first thing: “I know that Bill’s coming back,” Bush would say. “I know he’s going to call me.”71
Chris Stamos, a partner in the money management firm Sterling Stamos and president of the firm’s philanthropy arm—he is involved with Bill Clinton in his work in Africa—witnessed the calls going in the other direction. He was at a reception with Clinton when his cell phone rang and it was Bush. “They’d be talking about something they could work together on, real friendship.”72 On occasion, says Clinton friend John Emerson, Bush takes on a paternal role, asking Clinton if he’s doing his exercise and watching his diet.73
As for the more caustic Barbara Bush, “I think she genuinely likes Bill,” says Mark Updegrove. “He’s a charming, albeit rakish character, and it’s not hard to be charmed by Bill Clinton.”74 No one claims that she started out liking him, but, as Larry King assesses it, “I think Barbara ruefully likes him.”75 When, in 2005, King asked her directly on air, “Are you fond of him?” she stumbled. “Yes. All right. Yes, no, I like him.”76
It was Barbara who borrowed a phrase to describe them: “the odd couple.”77
Some argue that Barbara is irritated with her eldest son, George, for not giving his father more to do, and that she’s grateful that George and Bill have found common ground and have taken their show on the road. As Tony Coelho puts it, “W doesn’t deal much with Papa Bush, and so Papa Bush and his team enjoy Papa Bush being onstage, so it’s a marriage of convenience for Papa Bush…a very good thing for Papa Bush and for Clinton to be out there.” From Barbara’s perspective, Coelho speculates, “George deserves it.”78
Mark Ward once asked Barbara if she was tempted to join her husband on the tsunami travel, “and she said absolutely not. That was the right thing for the two presidents to do.”79
Tom Kean, a close personal friend of the Bushes, suggests not getting carried away by testimonials to Barbara’s warm feelings for Bill; she is not likely to forget the past or ignore the brickbats that will emerge from a Hillary run for the White House. “I know Barbara very well, and her feeling isn’t always as charitable as the president’s to a lot of people…. He can be very charitable and she isn’t, as far as people who criticize the Bushes.”80Republican strategist Scott Reed says of Barbara, “She’s a rememberer; 41 is more of a forgiver.”81 “Spouses tend to hold a grudge,” says Ron Kaufman. On the other hand, Kaufman adds, Clinton does not need a “food taster” when he visits Kennebunkport.82
Bush publicly recalled a political cartoon depicting his son, the president, opposing gay marriage and then walking into a room and finding his father on a sofa with Clinton’s arm around him, prompting him to shout, “Dad! What are you doing?”
Clinton clipped it and sent it to Bush: “Don’t you think we ought to cool it, George?”83 In an interview with ABC anchor Charles Gibson in late September 2007, Clinton said of Bush, “I truly love him.”84
It also would be a mistake, argues Tom Kean, to buy into the idea that Bush has become closer to Clinton than to his own son. “Knowing the Bush family, that’s just not true.” He calls them “a very, very close family…. He feels very, very strongly about his son and wants to support him in every way he can. I just don’t think he likes people to criticize his son.”85
WHEN HURRICANE Katrina struck in August 2005, George W. Bush asked his father and Bill Clinton to go to work again.
On September 4, 2005, six days after Katrina laid waste to New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast, Bill Clinton was chatting in his backyard in Chappaqua with Paul Orfalea (aka Kinko because of his once full head of kinky hair), the brilliantly intuitive businessman who had built Kinko’s from one sidewalk copier at the University of California in Santa Barbara to a powerhouse chain and then reaped his fortune by selling it to Federal Express. Clinton had targeted Orfalea as a contributor to his foundation and to the upcoming Clinton Global Initiative and had invited him to Chappaqua that Labor Day weekend. Hillary wasn’t there. Orfalea, who had his teenaged son with him, was told that the meeting with the former president would last about fifteen to twenty minutes; they ended up talking for two to three hours.86
The next day, Labor Day, Bill and Hillary arrived before dawn at the airport in Westchester County to board a plane loaned to them by John Catsimatidis for a flight to Houston and the Astrodome where many of Katrina’s victims had been evacuated—in the weeks following the hurricane, there were more than 250,000 evacuees in Houston. Clinton met his friend George H. W. Bush there and they announced a campaign to raise money for the victims of Katrina.87 They would ultimately raise more than $130 million.88
For their work on the tsunami, the former presidents reaped nothing but praise; on Katrina, because it hit at home, President Clinton caught some criticism. Douglas Brinkley, who wrote a book about Katrina in which he graphically described what he considered a colossally incompetent response by the Bush administration, faults Clinton for providing a “fig leaf” for the administration; for “sugarcoating the failed government response.” While agreeing that the “bipartisan spirit” is nice and that “the Bush/Clinton road show is constantly raising money for good causes,” Brinkley argues that Clinton needed to “come out of the box and talk straight about…the utterly disastrous…handling of Katrina.” When Clinton and Bush again grabbed center stage, and Clinton said that “‘this isn’t the time to place blame,’” he was, says Brinkley, “actually aiding and abetting the spin of the Bush White House.”89
The tsunami work was winding down, as the media spotlight turned to Katrina, and Mark Ward’s exposure to the two presidents lessened significantly. But Ward wasn’t finished with them yet. Learning that the pair was going to deliver a joint commencement address in May 2006 at Tulane University, which had been closed after the hurricane struck, Ward asked Clinton if he could grab fifteen minutes of their time and the last piece of money in the Bush/Clinton tsunami fund. Would they meet with six or seven young Sri Lankan American professionals, in their twenties and thirties, who were trying to build a pediatric hospital in their home country?
Clinton and Bush agreed to give the money and to meet with the group in New Orleans before the speech. The Sri Lankans, all well educated and working in good jobs, all American citizens, flew to New Orleans and met with the presidents in a room in a downtown hotel. They met privately, no press coverage. Ward had promised them, “You’re not going to forget these guys. Some are Tamil and some Sinhalese. They’ve put all that behind them and they’re working together to build this hospital.” They had blueprints with them, and, Ward says, the presidents were studying them and talking to the young people and did not want to leave. “And the Secret Service just kept grabbing them—‘We’re late, we’re late.’ They didn’t want to go.”
President Bush was not feeling well that day but seemed to gain strength from the young people and their project and started to ask specific questions. He also said to Clinton, “Let’s go back, Bill; let’s go back.” Clinton was advising them on fund-raising strategies: “Let me tell you about this guy; let me tell you about this guy,” giving them names.
The Sri Lankan Americans followed up on Clinton’s leads and soon will be breaking ground on the hospital in Matara, the city in which the two presidents had met with the children. “My hope,” says Ward, “and I think this will happen, is that one or both of the presidents will be able to go someday and say, ‘That’s the hospital we got off the ground.’”90
George H. W. Bush would later tell Houston mayor Bill White how much fun it was to give the Tulane commencement speech with “Bubba,” as he sometimes calls Bill Clinton, and how much he enjoyed going with his friend, on the spur of the moment, to a restaurant in the French Quarter.91 A client of Ron Kaufman’s provided a plane and they flew back together, Bush to Maine and Clinton to Boston.92
CLINTON WENT directly to a Boston hotel to appear at the Heart Ball—seeing his appearance as an important way to boost fund-raising and also to get out his message about fighting childhood obesity, which would become one of the major domestic planks of the Clinton Foundation. Steve Grossman, who persuaded Clinton to be there, says that the former president is a perfect spokesman because he has admitted his own unhealthy eating habits, as a boy and as a man.93
Clinton’s foundation, set up on leaving the White House, featured two issues on the domestic side: global warming, specifically a green buildings initiative, and an initiative to reduce the incidence of childhood obesity.
Many were making their names on global warming, most notably Al Gore, who had become the rock star of that issue; Clinton knew he’d never be able to compete. But the childhood obesity issue was one that he could make his own. “It’s such a horrible problem,” Clinton said in a speech. “Adult-onset diabetes type two showing up in kids for the first time,…is going to shorten too many kids’ lives.” Childhood obesity, he added, “scares me every single day.” Clinton, who volunteered that he had been fat as a boy,94 knew that taking on that cause would not make his legacy and certainly not win him the Nobel Peace Prize, not when third world children were dying from malnutrition. Childhood obesity took lives but only after years of bad habits; it lacked urgency; it did not move people.
Bill Clinton had been out of the White House for more than four years. Although he had some accomplishments—the tsunami work, for example—he had not yet figured out his legacy. He knew that people whose good opinion he craved were still waiting. “I was concerned at first that the postpresidency was going to consist of very little other than going around and making speeches in all parts of the world for very fat fees,” says Ted Sorensen.95
Clinton’s latest surgery reminded him that if he was to be placed in the top ranks of American presidents, he’d better get going on some major, media-attracting good works. Some historians and journalists argued that he had wasted three-quarters of his second term on a sex scandal, and that he would be lucky if his presidency was judged much more than middling.
At the same time, his unusual circumstances—his marriage to a woman who was intent on becoming president, and even his valuable friendship with H. W. Bush—meant that his work had to be mostly outside the United States. One journalist who knows him well says Bill Clinton “is now in some ways a man without a country.”96 Others would more accurately call him a “citizen of the world.”
It was precisely the latter—“elevate yourself above American politics”—that Tony Coelho had urged on Clinton when he was still in the White House. On the practical side, Coelho reminded Clinton that people internationally “didn’t really give a damn about the Monica issue and they felt it was idiotic the way it was played up here.”97
In early 2005, Clinton and a group of his wealthy, politically connected friends invited Jim Wallis—editor in chief of the liberal Christian magazine Sojourners and author of the bestseller God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It—to dinner at the Manhattan home of investment banker Roger Altman, undersecretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration. Wallis, a progressive clergyman, who knew the Clintons from Renaissance Weekends—fashionable New Year’s retreats for progressives in government, business, the arts—was invited so that the assembled insiders could, as Wallis puts it, “pick my brain…about how Democrats should…take back the faith…from the religious right.” Among those present were Clinton’s Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, Congressman Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee, Terry McAuliffe, James Carville, the late Texas governor Ann Richards, and John Podesta.98
No one mentioned Wallis’s harsh criticism of President Clinton over welfare reform or his even harsher criticism of Clinton over Lewinsky. On the latter, Wallis publicly made the connection “between personal and public integrity.”99 He was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Clinton’s completely out of the game”; he no longer had the moral podium from which to address such issues as race and poverty.100
Wallis had changed his mind about Clinton, whom he told, privately, after dinner, “You could provide a significant leadership role around some of the biggest issues the world faces that politics is failing to deal with.” Wallis likely won no points with Clinton when he held up Jimmy Carter as a model by describing him as a “much more effective ex-president than president.” Was Clinton offended at the comparison of his presidency with Carter’s? “Bill Clinton knows as well as anybody else,” Wallis says, “that his presidency was very mixed, great highs and great lows and…opportunities that were met and others that were missed.”
Clinton told Wallis that night that he was “wrestling” with an idea for an annual meeting whose participants would identify and find the money to help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems. Wallis stops short of claiming that he planted the idea in the former president’s head for what became the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). “I didn’t lay out his plan for CGI,…but I was…encouraging him in the role. And when…I saw the initiative emerging, I thought, ‘Boy, that’s exactly what I hoped he would do.’”101
Clinton knew that his foundation was tiny compared with the Gates Foundation and many others; it was doing one thing here and one thing there, but there was no particular theme and it wasn’t attracting much media attention.102 It could not be the base on which he built his lasting legacy. But this concept that he had been discussing with people close to him that depended on his supremely charismatic personality to raise money and inspire good works sounded right. Vartan Gregorian, who describes Clinton as having a personality so potent that he “sucks all the oxygen out of the room,” says that 99 percent of CGI depends on Clinton’s personality, on the response he generates when he strides onstage to greet and exhort the assembled.103
Clinton knew that he had what his friends call “convening power.” As Jake Siewert puts it, “It made sense for him to kind of figure out how to leverage his convening power.”104 But Clinton also knew that if he tried to present another all-talk, little-action venue like Davos, which carries the airy subtitle “committed to improving the state of the world”—but in certain circles is ridiculed as bloviating on the Swiss ski slopes—it would move him no closer to achieving his legacy.
He quickly nailed down the details of CGI. It would be a three-day conference every September in New York organized around four big issues—energy and climate change, global health, poverty alleviation, and mitigating religious and ethnic conflict. CGI would have the same elite feel as Davos; but, instead of the Davos style of a floating agenda, the buffet of discussion groups on which to nibble and then not think much about until Davos rolled around again a year later, Clinton’s CGI would be limited to those four tracks and they would remain constant year to year. Participants would have to pledge money or time or programs and if they didn’t make good on those pledges, they would not be invited back the next year. At the first session on the first day of the second CGI in September 2006, Clinton announced that there were about twenty people from the last conference who didn’t meet their commitments so they were not invited back.105
The guest roster—domestic big names such as Colin Powell; foreign leaders such as Tony Blair and Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf—did not happen by accident. Clinton deliberately scheduled CGI to coincide with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, so that there are always heads of state for him to invite to sit on his panels and mix with his guests.106
To Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation and Better World Fund and a regular at CGI, the timing is “brilliant.” “What would you rather do if you’re a diplomat or a head of state; you go and do your cameo that’s necessary at the UN and then what is more fun than to go over and see Bill Clinton right across town?”107
While there would be scores of the superrich business leaders who frequent Davos, Clinton would bring in heads of NGOs and scholars and mayors and activists and for them he would waive the $15,000 registration fee. The “brilliant strategy,” says Susan Davis, chairperson of Grameen Foundation USA, is Clinton’s idea to pair people who want to make money commitments with people who do the work and are looking for partners.108 Chris Jennings, who was Clinton’s senior health adviser in the White House, and who now heads a health-care consulting firm, helped to shape CGI’s health-care programs and calls CGI “a cause, not a conference.” He attributes CGI’s remarkable and almost instant success—it took only one, maybe two CGIs for it to have the feel of an institution, and a reserved place on the calendars of the connected—to “the number of…the speakers, who are on-the-ground people, people who actually know what they’re doing and are delivering care, and have successful programs.” It is not, he adds, “a highlighting problems conference; this is a highlighting innovative solutions conference…. People who come have to make commitments to address the challenges that are raised.”109
An invitation from the Bill Clinton of 2001 might have been buried at the bottom of the pile or declined, but the Bill Clinton of 2005 had morphed into the rock star president. Clinton loved that designation, but he wanted to be the rock star with gravitas; a kind of Bono in a business suit, who could attract the kings, the former presidents, the secretaries of state, the foreign ministers, and the billionaire businesspeople and extract money from them to bring his programs to fruition.
So far Clinton has been omnipresent, running on all cylinders. When he climbs the stage at a CGI event, says Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian, and asks the assembled billionaires to stand up and make a pledge, he is like a revivalist at a tent meeting. Instead of “Do this for Jesus,” it’s do this for the good of the world, and, left unsaid, for the good of the legacy of the star onstage.110
Like a United Jewish Appeals annual dinner at which attendees give public pledges that are sometimes upped by the desire to appear to have the most money or the biggest heart at the table, the CGI is designed to help its attendees find religion (i.e., make pledges, sometimes seven-figure pledges). As Richard Feachem, head of the Global Fund, puts it, “And people come forward and make these major commitments in a very public way…. And [they] can’t just make the commitment and then quietly forget about it.”111
Every donor is assigned to a Clinton staffer who keeps in touch, to make certain that the pledge is fulfilled and that the donor knows precisely how his or her money is being spent. Melanne Verveer, chairman of the board of the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a nonprofit that supports emerging women leaders around the world, says the staff is obsessive about keeping on top of commitments both financial and program-related. “There has been almost a religious zeal in following up.”112
Susan Davis marvels at Clinton’s ability to touch or put the touch on the very wealthy. He understands, she explains, that people who have made or inherited big sums can be moved by the right words to wonder, “‘What is it that I want to do that has real meaning in life now that I have ten houses and private planes and yachts?’ There usually is hollowness and all of these billionaires get to that place and that’s where I think Bill Clinton’s fundamental…belief in the goodness of people…comes into play. I really see the guy as a preacher; what he’s doing is trying to help raise awareness among the richest in the world on behalf of the poorest.”113
Sandy Berger, who has become a CGI adviser, describes Clinton’s “dazzling,” seemingly unscripted closing summaries. He assembles the panels with a showman’s eye for drama. Desmond Tutu and King Abdullah discussing peace and reconciliation was “electric,” says Berger.114 Susan Davis remembers an 8 A.M. session featuring Jordanian queen Rania Al-Abdullah, Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and South African archbishop Desmond Tutu. About the latter she says, “He literally put goosebumps on everybody and brought us all to our feet and half the room was crying.”115
For those who are serious about their philanthropy and their networking, such as Chris Stamos, CGI is a feast: not only is there “the most impressive lineup of speakers on the planet,” but also, “you turn to your left and your right and if you’re lucky enough to talk to that person, you’ll discover…they started an NGO or they discovered something that’s helping the world.”116
While at CGI, Stamos was sitting with Tom Hunter, the Scottish philanthropist who had been directed to CGI by Vartan Gregorian. “Bill Clinton came over and…put his arm around us and spent a good ten minutes chatting with us about what’s going on.”117 The Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who attends CGI, does not get that kind of attention, and he’s completely clear-eyed about why. This is business, and, Stiglitz says, Clinton is “spending his time with the people who are giving money.”118
Given the nature of the speakers and those in attendance there are plenty of security guards, but, says Georgette Bennett, who heads the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and is an active participant in the “mitigating religious and ethnic conflict” track of CGI, there’s a feeling of openness at the meetings, no divide between someone who won the Nobel Peace Prize or is the president of a country, such as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, and someone who runs a struggling nonprofit. “You can get to any of the speakers.” When the panel that included the president of Liberia was over, “people could come up to her, speak to her. She wasn’t immediately surrounded by security people.”119
The heaviest hitters are invited onstage with Clinton, and his performance is generally flawless. He thanked Rupert Murdoch and Barbra Streisand for their commitment to his climate change plank. “This is probably the only thing that Barbra Streisand and Rupert Murdoch agree on,” Clinton quipped. Streisand whispered in Clinton’s ear that Murdoch is much richer than she is and yet she gave twice as much—$1 million. But Clinton forgot to call up Anson Beard, an equal partner in giving but not a name recognized beyond Wall Street. (Beard was not in the least offended at being overlooked; he seemed to find it amusing.)120
As the CGI has caught the attention of the media and as it has restored and raised Clinton’s reputation, members or would-be members of the elite are more determined to take part, and if they want to continue to receive their invitations, they have to make good on their pledges. The CGI is so prestigious that, like the Truman Capote Black and White Ball, it is enormously humiliating to be left off the invite list. “Everybody aspires to that invitation,” says Steve Grossman.121 It’s a lovely circle that Clinton has created. There have been three so far, in September 2005, 2006, and 2007, and Clinton intends for them to continue every September indefinitely.
Julian H. Robertson Jr., the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of the hedge fund Tiger Management, says that “probably most of the people there were confirmed Democrats,…an alumni meeting of sorts.”122But there is just enough bipartisan flavor to the event to make it seem above petty politics. Invitees include Condoleezza Rice, Laura Bush, former Senate majority leader Bill Frist.
This nod to making nice with the Republicans does not win unanimous praise, although participants understand its motive. Susan Davis, for example, speculates that were Hillary not running for the Democratic nomination for president, Bill would be a stronger critic of the Bush administration, but he doesn’t want to “burn bridges” that she might need. Davis says his “natural instinct is to accommodate and…hope everybody gets along and build this big center. That’s his personal style…. So while this country’s engaged in war,…he’s looking at the systemic underpinnings of peace, on religious understanding and tolerance. He’s not having panels [on] should we be in Iraq.”123
Before writing his check, Anson Beard and his sons went up to Harlem and met with the former president, who kept them waiting for twenty minutes. That’s Bill Clinton, Beard says, recalling that he was twenty-five minutes late the first time he met him in 1992 after the New York presidential primary. Then, not now. To the surprise of many, programs and panels start and end on time. “Somebody introduces the forty-second president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton; he walks out at 8:00 point 000.” Beard calls CGI “the best conference I’ve ever attended…not sizzle, it was all steak.”124
Although CGI ’05 was covered with breathless superlatives, CGI ’06 was proclaimed an improvement on an extremely successful debut. The panel members were even more impressive, the panels more focused—what works as opposed to some theoretical discussion of poverty. The bottom line on money raised in 2005 was $2.5 billion; in 2006 it was $7.5 billion; in 2007, $10 billion.125
Republican Scott Reed is impressed. “The type of money he gets. It’s the biggest thing in the world.”126
One of Clinton’s pastoral counselors, Tony Campolo, pronounces CGI to be Clinton’s “primary legacy.”127 Georgette Bennett sees CGI as Clinton’s third term;128 Leon Panetta sees the former president as leading “almost a government in exile being created by people like Bill Clinton and billionaires who have basically decided that it’s their responsibility to try to deal with the problems of the world.” Among the billionaires Panetta has in mind are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, both of whom have attended CGI.129
Clinton told a Chicago Tribune reporter that he expects that CGI will have some project going in “virtually every country in the world” and that CGI will have touched a billion people.130 He told Larry King, himself a CGI regular, that he plans to lead CGI for “at least a decade,” and by then, he should have produced “a global network of citizen public servants that will go on and keep growing and growing and growing, whatever happens to me and whatever I do. I just hope I can sustain this for a decade.”131
By most benchmarks the 2007 meeting was the most successful yet, but its luster was marred by a Ron Burkle deal gone sour. Served up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal on CGI’s opening day were spicy details about Raffaello Follieri, a young Italian businessman; his $40,000-a-month penthouse; private jet; five-star lifestyle; executive chef; his girlfriend, actress Anne Hathaway; the Catholic Church and the Vatican; and his public embrace by former president Bill Clinton. That latest installment of the saga also included details about Doug Band, including an alleged $400,000 finder’s fee paid to Band for introducing Follieri to a major backer of Clinton’s philanthropic causes. Clinton’s spokesman claimed that Band, who earned a law degree while working for Clinton and traded the personal aide title for the loftier title of counsel, did not keep the fee. There were also details of Band’s salary boosted by indirect payments from Burkle, of Follieri promising to help Hillary with Catholic voters, of Follieri donating funds that might not have been his to donate to Clinton’s causes, of Follieri allegedly using his ties to Clinton and his causes to meet with Clinton-connected high officials and billionaire businessmen, including one businessman and Clinton contributor who traveled with the former president through Africa.132