CGI Photo by Taylor Davidson / Clinton Global Initiative.
Taylor Davidson / Clinton Global Initiative

One thing that was obvious about the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) annual confab in New York City last week is that former president Bill Clinton really knows how to pull in the financial commitments from corporate and philanthropic players. Whether you liked or disliked Clinton’s performance while in office, there’s no question that he has mastered the art of harnessing private-sector muscle—in the form of dollars, publicity, credibility—behind CGI priorities.

Part of it is Clinton’s ability to confidently weigh in on nearly any aspect of humanitarian or economic policy while showing that he understands where all the various interest groups on a given issue are coming from. Last week in the online publication UN Dispatch, blogger Penelope Chester noted, “Those who have been following President Clinton and have had a chance to hear him speak before know that he has an uncanny ability to speak authoritatively about essentially any subject under the sun.” For example, during a CGI roundtable with bloggers, Clinton expounded on a constellation of issues:

  • Haiti: “It’s a tough world out there, and the international community has not given all the money it promised to give. When there was a political slowdown occasioned by the last election and its aftermath, it in effect operated as an excuse for donors not to pony up. But if we get more donor money this year and we keep the economics going right—and we’ve got a lot of interest—I think it’s going to be really good.” He added later, “We’ve got a shot . . . but we need more money.”
  • Climate Change and Refugees: “I think that you have to assume that because of climate change, there are going be a lot more refugees . . . and that the laws which exist, and the systems of support that exist, not just the U.S. but elsewhere, were basically built for a different time when you might have a surge of refugees from this country or a surge from that country, because of a particular political upheaval or a particular natural disaster. And that’s almost certainly going to not work now.”
  • Israel and Palestine: “The two great tragedies in modern Middle Eastern politics, which make you wonder if God wants Middle East peace or not, were Rabin’s assassination and Sharon’s stroke. . . . The Israelis always wanted two things that once it turned out they had, it didn’t seem so appealing to Mr. Netanyahu. . . . Now that they have those things [a credible Palestinian government on the West Bank and efforts by its neighbors such as Saudi Arabia to work toward normalization of relations with Israel], they don’t seem so important to this current Israeli government.”
  • Cutting the Deficit: “I personally don’t believe we ought to be raising taxes or cutting spending until we get this economy off the ground. If we cut government spending, which I normally would be very inclined to do when the deficit’s this big, with interest rates already near zero, you can’t get the benefits out of it. . . . [W]hat I’d like to see them do is come up with a bipartisan approach, starting with the payroll tax cuts because they have the biggest return.”
  • Tea-Party Politics: “You can stand up and say anything and nobody rings a bell if the facts are wrong. There’s no bell ringing. It’s crazy, we’re living in a time when it’s more important than ever to know things. And not just to know facts but to put them in a coherent, sensible pattern. And we live in a time, if you just want to talk about the economy, where the model that works for economic growth and prosperity is cooperation. But the model that works in politics is conflict. . . . You know, there’s not a single solitary example on the planet, not one, of a country that is successful because the economy has triumphed over the government and choked it off and driven the tax rates to zero, driven the regulations to nonexistent and abolished all government programs, except for defense, so people in my income group never have to pay a nickel to see a cow jump over the moon. There is no example of a successful country that looks like that.”
  • Dancing with the Stars”: “This is interesting—actually they contacted me once about [appearing on the show]. . . . And I told them I didn’t have the time to train for it. You know, you actually go out there and train—you really work at it. . . . Hillary said to me, ‘You know, when I’m not secretary of state anymore, we should go take dancing lessons.’ So we’ll start with the tango.”

The former president’s remarks at the CGI bloggers’ roundtable will sound familiar to anyone who has seen first-hand a Bill Clinton performance during his tenure as POTUS. I was there to witness his stunning no-notes introductory remarks at the first and only White House Conference on Philanthropy in 1999, where he made donors and foundations squirm by calling for higher levels of charitable giving by the rich and, as a corollary, higher foundation payout rates. The kind of commentary he delivered at the CGI conference is representative of his remarkable genius: