Some Big Names Decline Speaking Gigs at the Clinton Global Initiative

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September 26, 2015; Politico

Pope Francis has been one busy guy of late, so it makes sense that the pontiff might not have been able to fit an appearance at the Clinton Global Initiative into his calendar. Pope Francis wasn’t the only famous person unable to squeeze in a spot at the CGI this week, according to Politico investigative reporter Kenneth P. Vogel and researcher Noah Weiland.

Vogel and Weiland report that “dozens” of “all manner of celebrities, dignitaries and donors” turned down speaking gigs at the Clinton Foundation’s “Future of Impact” gathering in New York City, celebrating CGI’s tenth anniversary. Among the examples were several notables easily recognized by NPQ readers: Arianna Huffington chose a “thought leaders” program in Aspen, Colorado over CGI; invited to receive an award for his work on AIDS, Elton John declined; Mark Zuckerberg claimed a scheduling conflict; Federal Research chairperson Janet Yellen, offered the platform to talk about income inequity, declined, with a Fed spokesperson explaining that no sitting Fed chair has ever attended a CGI meeting; and economist Thomas Piketty, also invited to talk about income inequality, said, “I almost never go to this kind of meeting, simply because I want to concentrate on my work!”

Heads of state David Cameron of the UK and Angela Merkel of Germany declined CGI invitations, but recently reelected Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will be there. Also in the “yes” column, however, are Mario Batali, Jessica Biel, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Ashley Judd, Edward Norton, George Soros, Charlize Theron, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

To be clear, there’s no suggestion in the Politico article that any of the invitees who declined to speak bear any enmity toward the Clinton Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, or Bill, Hillary, or Chelsea themselves as a reason for not attending. Nonetheless, Vogel and Weiland suggest that the number and quality of rejections—plus the loss of a number of corporate sponsors—may suggest a waning of enthusiasm for the Clintons’ philanthropic venture. Other factors might be at play as well:

  • Hillary Clinton, in the throes of a presidential political campaign, isn’t attending this year’s event. Because of the upside of her potential political future, she is a draw for big-name speakers. Without her as a participant, speaker, or panel moderator, the attraction of attending is less.
  • Replacing Hillary Clinton in the agenda is Chelsea Clinton, who will be leading or moderating much of the program agenda. It may well be that some people of substance don’t quite see the Clinton scion as quite the same draw.
  • There is also the issue of sensitivity over criticism of Hillary Clinton herself, notably her continuing and deepening problem concerning her State Department emails. As the email imbroglio festers, causing some decline in the public’s and the electorate’s faith in her trustworthiness, some potential speakers might have an interest in creating a little distance between themselves and a potentially troubled presidential candidate.
  • Despite the 501(c)(3) status of the foundation, Vogel and Weiland point out that some of the foundation’s 2,000 staff have already left the institution in order to take positions in the Hillary Clinton campaign, and more are likely to do so after this CGI meeting. That makes the Clinton Foundation, whether intentional or not, look like a holding pen for political operatives waiting out some of the time between Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign and the current 2016 race. Some donors, politicians, and celebrities might be a little queasy about being too close to a foundation that may itself become a political issue in the campaign.

This may be a turning point in the Clinton Foundation. With Hillary Clinton running hard for president, watching her popularity with the voters slip against renegade outsider Bernie Sanders and still unannounced Joe Biden, and former President Bill Clinton expected to turn up in political settings the way he did in the 2008 campaign, especially in trying to make a case for Hillary Clinton with minority voters in South Carolina, the Clinton Foundation may be at an inflection point of significant change. Hillary Clinton has separated herself from the Foundation’s operations. If Bill Clinton reduces his role in the foundation as he increases his engagement in his spouse’s presidential campaign, which seems likely, the Clinton Global Initiative might be heading toward becoming a lower profile operation until Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations are settled one way or the other.—Rick Cohen