The last time I saw Bill Clinton, in the flesh, I followed him through five campaign stops in one day across South Dakota. The event I often think about–well, I was swinging my legs from an elementary school desk, among a small group of maybe fifty others similarly perched, all of us gathered early in that small Dakota town, the name of which I forget. My takeaway from that morning in June 2008 is twofold: Clinton’s elegiac tone, for he knew this was the end of the road for his wife’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and yet he did not understand, quite, why. I was the only reporter there. No national reporter of large reputation deigned to follow former President Clinton on the stump for Hillary in 2008. (Reminder: Hillary Clinton did win–too late to matter–the South Dakota primary.)
Bill Clinton’s marathon on behalf of Hillary Clinton–he sometimes made 7 to 9 small town speeches in one day–is lost to history. If I had to do it all over again, assuming the choice could have been mine, I would have concentrated exclusively on following Bill Clinton on his journey. And I would have photographed all those small town events, for that kind of American political campaigning–the front porch speech–historic–has almost passed away.
Those of you who know my work probably find it odd that it is the early morning Clinton pit stop that has stayed with me. It is an encounter with Clinton later in the day that made the news. But those of you who are getting older, like Clinton and me, are not surprised, for we have experienced the second takeaway: it is always the fragment of deep feeling, that rare instant of revelation, that endures.
So today, four years later, here I am in New York for the annual Clinton Global Initiative, because globalism is the driver of everything I write now. And I see Bill Clinton again. He has a bald spot in his mane of white; he has the older man’s tremor, in his left hand. (But then I’ve aged, too; I’m limping around the Sheraton on a cane.). But the great thing about Bill Clinton in 2012 is his boldness–I like to think that I too am bold, but I cannot begin to match him. Really, this is age’s reward: ever Forward! for you have nothing to lose.
The recent rise of Bill Clinton’s reputation (many CGI attendees clutching the latest issue of Time) pricks my natural bent toward cynicism. The national media astonishment at Clinton’s nomination-of-Obama speech a month ago at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte–well, you guys, if you had followed Bill through North Carolina in 2008, you could have put that speech in a timeline.
The night before I flew to New York, I attended an “Obama Report Card” panel hosted by the University of California at Berkeley law school. Robert Reich gave President Obama a B-, overall. Former California Governor Pete Wilson gave O an F in foreign policy. All the panelists, left and right, had nothing but praise for former President Clinton. It was an evening of Clinton praise music. From people who wouldn’t have given him the time of day four years ago.
Boldness. What does it take? Clintonian boldness is steely; he is not as garrulous as before. He has become a geography unto himself: a campground where scourged reputation and thirst for something better meet, meld and grow.
I witnessed this dynamic today at the Clinton Global Initiative. As a reporter, I am first and foremost a questioner. And there was plenty to doubt on this the first day of the annual conference, which, from an utterly skeptical point of view, can best be described as a revival meet-up for wealthy and well-intentioned do-gooders. (Who curiously gravitate to distant Africa, as American missionaries before them.)
My favorite inanities of the day. From U.N. Secretary Ban Ki Moon: U.N. launching a new education initiative with the UK. (UK Border Control is just now severely restricting the number of foreigners who can study in Britain.). A young presenter talking about Congo (a failed state): “we are empowering young women to become creative agents for change.”
But then I heard Bill Clinton and Heikki Holmas, the Norwegian minister of international development, address, impromptu, a press gaggle (the Norwegian press making it clear to the rest of us that “Heikki” is not a Norwegian but horrors a Finnish name) about their latest joint initiative. Clinton Global/Norway is convening meetings with 22 small island nations, which are most in danger from global warming (rising sea levels) and which pay the highest energy prices in the world. Clinton reeled off energy costs here and abroad. The plan is to make green energy work first, on the islands, in small scale. Each island will need a different project: geothermal in Grenada, for example. Cutting use of imported and therefore pricey diesel everywhere. Trying to bundle 6 to 8 islands together in one project, so that it is worth it for a big company like Siemens to take on.
Norway is putting 3.9 million into the islands project. Eventually, the savings from freedom of dependency on diesel fuel will allow each nation to pay for the energy source switchover. The Clinton Global Initiative, with no financial interest, will act as “a trusted third party,” providing the business know-how to put the projects together.
As Bill Clinton said several times, it’s the small scale here–the islands consume very little energy compared to other nations–that will make it possible to prove whether or not green energy is viable in every way. Clinton and Holmas chatted fondly about their earlier success in Malawi with tree-planting, so they have confidence–but really this is bold.
And yet they have convinced me, through Clinton’s command of fact and Norway’s experience (more electric cars than any other country in the world, and at the forefront of battery-charging), that this cockamamie scheme just might work. Might be a tipping point. And, as a Californian, I drive past the weed-infested Solyndra plant several times a week and watch my neighbor’s chronic travails with the solar panels on his roof.
Boldness–surging through the security-threaded halls and conference rooms of the New York Sheraton today. Unilever: aims to reach one billion consumers and to teach them to wash hands five times a day and therefore cut infant deaths in half. With Lifebuoy soap. A brilliant five minutes from the Unilever rep on habit-making behavior. “Presenting a negative perception of what people should do differently does not work.”
At the same session, Molly Melching, talking about what she has learned in her life’s work to end female genital cutting in Senegal: “Understanding the nature and dynamic of social norms is crucial. You are dealing with a behavior to which people are strongly attached, and give value. Change must come from within.”
If only President Obama could have been at CGI today, and listened, instead of doing the helicopter-in moment he’s scheduled for at CGI two days from now. Because Obama has forgotten how to be bold. And his de-friending Egypt from his world Facebook page shows that his brief Indonesian sojourn did not teach him, despite his self-confidence, how to understand and communicate with and persuade world leaders and peoples of different beliefs and culture.
The irony of CGI today was that, despite all the CEOs and world leaders and NGOs mingling, the most important man of the day in New York was elsewhere. Mohamed Morsi was at the U.N. Morsi is proving himself to be a formidable leader for post-Mubarak Egypt. He is re-shaping U.S. Egypt relations, whether we will or no. As a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he is feared and misunderstood (out of ignorance) by most Americans.
Morsi, just like Obama himself, is a hinge upon which this century is beginning to turn in a new direction. And yet Obama, pusillanimous, refused to meet with Morsi. Really, I have nothing but contempt here for our president–and if you follow my blog, you know this is a rare condemnation. Really, Mr. President? You were so afraid of what American voters might think? Surely, you always knew in your gut you have a second term before you. So fear of losing to Romney–nonsense. Worse, your caution feeds an American Islamophobia rampant.
September 23, 2012
Tomorrow: more from CGI. (My New York Times piece–still working on it.)