Thursday, September 28, 2006
Here is a pretty good article about Bill Clinton. Like most Democrats, I think of Clinton as sort of a political god. While he didn't pursue many issues I would have wanted him to, and he did kowtow to the Right on occasion, he was the best thing that has happened to the US for a long time. The article is from the New Yorker Magazine, and is by David Remnick. It is quite long, but well worth the read. As always watch your back.
by DAVID REMNICK
Bill Clinton’s quest to save the world, reclaim his legacy—and elect his wife.
Issue of 2006-09-18
As the bus pulled up to the stadium, a few people stopped to greet the ex-President and his daughter, but most hustled to the gates in orderly streams. Clinton, though he may be less schooled in “the beautiful game” than in the fortunes of the Arkansas Razorbacks, said, “I’m totally psyched for this.”
The Clintons took their seats in the “statesmen’s section,” at midfield. While Clinton’s statesmanship has been strictly freelance for the past six years, he was not far from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and he spent time during the game, and during the breaks, chatting with old friends—the schmoozer in excelsis. He was in the midst of a long trip typical of his increasingly manic and global post-Presidency. He started out from his house in the New York suburb of Chappaqua, campaigned for a local Democrat in Indianapolis, gave a public interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival, gave a speech in Los Angeles, returned to Aspen, and then, flying on the private jet of one of his many wealthy friends, landed in Berlin. Immediately after the game, he was scheduled to fly to Cape Town, for the start of a seven-country tour of Africa, where he would look in on the H.I.V.-AIDS programs that the William J. Clinton Foundation, his base for good works, had established in the previous few years.
Upon arriving in Berlin, Clinton had felt the need for some improvised pre-game affection, and so he directed the bus, which carried him and a traveling party of aides, donors, a doctor, Secret Service agents, and volunteer advance workers, to the Brandenburg Gate, where more than half a million ticketless enthusiasts had gathered to watch the match on a set of huge television screens. The bus pulled up behind a stage that had been erected under the gate. Clinton climbed down from the bus and took in the mass of people. “Damn, that’s some crowd!” he said. A rock band performing onstage got the signal from the wings to wind up a song, and Clinton, white-haired, trim, and wearing the dark suit and radiant tie of high office, strode out to the microphone and began to wave. The crowd didn’t immediately know who it was—Is that. . . ? What is he doing here?—but as people began to recognize him on the big screens, with the familiar smile and the ingratiating squint, they started to cheer, louder and louder. It was impossible not to wonder what the reception would have been for George W. Bush—here or just about anywhere else in the world—and it is this implicit comparison that accounts for the remarkable popularity of Bill Clinton.
“I’m honored to be here, and thank you to Germany,” he said, lolling in the warm bath of cheers.
Clinton didn’t really have much more to say, and he knew that the crowd was not in the mood for a speech. It was enough to present himself and feel the love. He was beaming; his color rose to the high blush of a peach. And the memories! As he left the stage, he paused under the gate and pointed. “In 1994, Helmut Kohl and I stood on a stage here,” Clinton told me over the roar. “That day, there were a hundred thousand people—but nothing like this. This is great. When I was President . . .”
The band started a strangely Teutonic version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”—Is this the real life? Is thisjust fantasy?—drowning him out for a moment.
Clinton shouted louder, the better to provide a lesson in the history of the Brandenburg Gate: “You’ve got the French versus the Germans, the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, World War One, World War Two . . .”
“I said, these are the original gates, but they were restored!” he said, pointing to the yellow mortar. “They went about covering the bullet marks. They didn’t want Germany to be defined just by violence. A hundred years from now, the restoration will blend in completely with the original gate . . .”
The scene reminded him of a trip to Ghana he made in 1998, when seven hundred thousand people turned out on the streets of Accra to greet him. Chelsea, who was taking a few days off from her job (she is a consultant at McKinsey & Company in New York), stood off to the side, her hands clasped in front of her, watching her father work; she seemed patient, sweetly indulgent and knowing. She had waited for her father before.
“I was the first President to speak on the east side of the gate,” Clinton went on. Then he shook some more hands and posed for pictures with a row of cheerleaders holding glittery pom-poms. Jay Carson, a diligent young Georgian who works as Clinton’s communications director, started to interject the kind of polite “Ahem”s and “Thank you”s and nods that lesser politicians know to take as signals to wrap things up.
Clinton wraps things up in his own time. We made it to the game with a few minutes to spare. The battle between the Italian azzurri and the French bleus was an epic that ended in a crime, although the crucial moment was lost on nearly everyone in the stadium. It came (as we learned later) when the referee red-carded the venerable French midfielder Zinedine Zidane for head-butting a rival who, he claimed, had impugned the honor of his mother and his sister. As Zidane was banished from the Elysian fields, the jeering, unknowing crowd went almost completely over to the Gallic side; but, in the end, the Italians, emboldened by Zidane’s absence, won the game—and the Cup—on penalty kicks.
About an hour later, Clinton was on the plane. He’d changed out of his suit and into a pair of black jeans and a lemon-yellow polo shirt.
“Pretty good game, huh?” he said, striding down the aisle of the plane, the inevitable Diet Coke clutched in his spookily large fist. (Hillary has written that she was immediately attracted to Clinton’s hands—“His wrists are narrow and elegant and his long fingers deft, like those of a pianist or a surgeon. When we first met in law school, I loved just watching him turn the pages of a book.”) One of Clinton’s aides, an efficient young man named Justin Cooper, who carries the bags and makes sure that every detail is in order, interrupted and handed him a cell phone.
“Hillary!” Clinton shouted into the phone. He started walking to the rear of the plane. “Hillary, did you see that?”
When he came back, he was wearing a pair of gold-rimmed half-glasses and was chewing on an unlit cigar. Some on the plane were starting to get calls about Zidane.
“Hillary told me all about it,” Clinton said. “I can’t imagine what he must have been thinking.”
Clinton was instantly forgiving of Zidane and wondered what would become of him. He recalled Gao Hong, the goalie for the Chinese women’s team, who, in the 1999 World Cup final, gave up the decisive penalty kick to Brandi Chastain, of the American team. Gao had played brilliantly until that point, but, like Zidane, she had to return home and endure the consequences of her defeat.
“I identify with people who get beat up,” Clinton said. “I remember that game like it was yesterday.”
The plane was divided into three compartments. The Secret Service contingent and a few staffers were in front, press were in the middle, and Clinton and his aides in back. Through the open door, I could see him doing three or four things at once: telling old war stories, eating a yogurt parfait, drinking coffee, glancing at a stack of Xeroxed press clippings, playing cards. This was around one in the morning. The day had begun in Colorado; we were now somewhere over Algeria, headed for a refueling stop in N’djamena, Chad. Since Clinton would eventually exhaust the card-playing endurance of his aides, the ever-industrious Carson was preparing a backup cadre: he was giving instruction in how to play Clinton’s game. For decades, including the White House years, Clinton’s game was hearts (or, when he lacked a posse, solitaire), but he dropped it when Steven Spielberg, a longtime Friend of Bill, taught him Oh Hell—a lesser cousin of contract bridge.
Nearly all Clinton’s younger aides refer to their boss as “the President,” but they also “do” him. They do the scratchy high-in-the-throat drawl, the run-on pronouncements studded with arcane facts and statistics (“And with every ten per cent of cell-phone penetration G.D.P. goes up point six per cent ”), and the trademark exclamations (“Isn’t that fascinating?”). Newcomers pick it up pretty quickly, and so, as half a dozen of us fumbled through our middle-of-the-night Oh Hell lesson, we were also cracking wise in the voice of the forty-second President of the United States. At around two-thirty, though, pillows and blankets appeared and lights were dimmed. Sleep beckoned. But, just as it did, a familiar voice beckoned from the doorway: “Hey! How you guys doin’?”
I saw some of Clinton’s aides slouched in their seats in the rear of the plane, their eyes shut, their mouths agape like murder victims in a Weegee photograph. Clinton was carrying a marked-up copy of “The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies,” by Richard Heinberg, on how oil production led to economic modernity and how its depletion will shape the future.
“Interesting book, Mr. President?” someone asked.
Clinton sat down on the arm of the seat and eased his way into a near-soliloquy that lasted two hours. First, he talked about light bulbs—their history, their physical properties, their contribution to greenhouse gases, the latest developments in bulb technology. He talked about alternative fuels, ethanol research, the politics of ethanol, the value of tar sands, the near-inevitability of hundred-dollar-a-barrel oil. He talked about the relative virtues of hybrid vehicles and electric cars and whether Detroit had conspired to kill their development. He pronounced oil depletion an opportunity: “But we need to make fixing climate change as politically sexy as putting a man on the moon.” And as the “conversation” veered into politics Clinton talked about one of his favorite recent books, a study, by Harold Holzer, of Lincoln’s speech in 1860 at Cooper Union, which launched his campaign for the Republican nomination. It was Lincoln’s “toughness” at Cooper Union that Clinton seemed to admire most, and which led him to a theme he kept returning to all week: the need for the Democratic Party to “lean into” Republican attacks. He made no secret of his feeling that the Democrats had lost winnable elections in 2000 and in 2004; Al Gore and John Kerry were “a couple of honorable men” but had been “tarred” as men of low character, and their campaigns failed to fight back effectively. Kerry, after the so-called Swift Boat veterans, with the tacit encouragement of the Republican campaign leadership, started smearing him, “should have challenged Bush and Cheney to a town-hall debate on their respective Vietnam records. Bush and Cheney were like me—they didn’t go. Kerry was a genuine war hero!” In the gloom of the cabin, Clinton jabbed his finger to emphasize his point. The Kerry campaign was “like a deer caught in the headlights.”
We were somewhere above the Sahara, but Clinton’s mind was fixed on the condition of the Democratic Party in the Age of Bush and on the way the White House, even as Iraq verged on civil war, remained on the rhetorical and ideological offensive.
“I am sick of Karl Rove’s bullshit,” Clinton said. And yet there was a trace of admiration in the
remark, a veteran pol’s regard for the way his rival had packaged a radical brand of American conservatism as “compassionate conservatism” and kept on pushing it long after its sell-by date had passed.
“Nixon was a Communist compared to this crowd,” Clinton said.
It was closing in on four in the morning. Weary heads were drooping. No matter. Without mentioning 2008 and the potential presence of his wife in the race for the Presidency, Clinton started talking about John McCain, the presumptive G.O.P. candidate, and he made sure to say how funny and decent he is, and how heroic he was in Vietnam, but soon he was pointing out McCain’s “far-right” bona fides, his being “right there with Bush” on preemptive war and “loads” of right-wing domestic policies. We had started out on light bulbs and, with hardly a question, landed within putting range of the Iowa caucus.
At around four-thirty, with Chad still in the distance, Jay Carson finally managed, with a series of coughs, stifled yawns, and expressive chin-lift gestures, to cue Clinton to call it a night. “Well, O.K., you guys,” Clinton said. “Good talking to you. We’re going to have a great time in Africa.”
The post-Presidency as an institution and as a source of public interest is mainly a modern phenomenon. Perhaps the most important post-Presidential moment came when George Washington refused a third term and, in his farewell address, calmed any anxieties that the republic would be ruled by an enduring monarch. Thereafter, Presidents generally faded from view. “For a long time, you were either old and retired, died, or got killed,” Sean Wilentz, a professor of American history at Princeton and a friend of the Clintons, told me. “Or you were some kind of rare exception.”
John Quincy Adams and William Howard Taft were among those rare exceptions. After losing the Presidency to Andrew Jackson, in 1828, Adams was elected to a seat in the House of Representatives and, until his death, in 1848, represented Massachusetts as an anti-slavery Whig. Eight years after leaving the White House, in 1913, Taft was nominated by Warren Harding to succeed Edward Douglass White as Chief Justice of the United States; that made him the only politician in U.S. history to lead both the executive and judicial branches.
While Clinton was President, he had a range of living examples to consider: Richard Nixon, who, as the Sage of Saddle River, New Jersey, tried to rescue his reputation with a series of memoirs and foreign-policy pronouncements; Gerald Ford, who treated himself to a golf-and-early-supper retirement worthy of Bob Hope; George H. W. Bush, who combines occasional good works with Carlyle Group profiteering and speedy recreations. And then there is Jimmy Carter.
Carter was fifty-six when he left the White House, Clinton fifty-four. As Southern governors and centrist Democrats, the two men shadowed each other for twenty-five years but at times had a testy relationship. “I guess it’s a Southern thing,” Clinton once told me. But toward the end of his second term he invited Carter to the White House to talk about Carter’s post-Presidential re-invention as an activist in global health, human rights, and freelance diplomacy. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Carter are the only American Presidents who have won the Nobel Peace Prize; in Carter’s case, it was largely the post-Presidency—his work as an election observer and his attempt to eliminate guinea-worm disease from Africa—that clinched it.
“I really was impressed by the way, after he took a few months off to deal with what had to be a terrible disappointment, he was back in harness,” Clinton told me, referring to Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan, in 1980. Carter set up a foundation, yet he also made his living by writing nearly a book a year, including poetry, a historical novel, and a children’s story. “I just love the fact that he never stopped learning, never stopped taking on challenges,” Clinton said, “and I wanted to talk to him about it, because I thought his foundation was as close as anybody had come to kinda what I wanted to do.”
Energetic, seemingly healthy, yet limited by the Twenty-second Amendment and the convention of rhetorical discretion, Clinton felt that he had two options: “You can sit there and feel sorry that you’re not President anymore, or you can find some way to use what you know, and who you know, and what you know about how to do things, and go out there and do all the good you can. The one thing I made a very determined decision about, even before I got sick”—with heart disease, in 2004—“was that I would not leave the White House and spend the rest of my life wishing I were still President.”
Clinton’s final diplomatic push as President—an attempt, in 2000, to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—collapsed. A lasting treaty would have been his singular foreign-policy achievement, but in the public eye, at least, the failure had been a noble one. What sullied his reputation on the way out of the White House was a gross misjudgment in a far less exalted realm. In his last hours as President, Clinton pardoned the commodities broker Marc Rich, who was living as a fugitive from justice in Switzerland. Rich had been indicted for tax fraud and illegally dealing in Iranian oil.
Reflexively, the Republicans (who had indulged George H. W. Bush’s pardon of six Iran-Contra figures in 1992) jumped on the mistake and equated it with the recklessness of the Monica Lewinsky affair. But not all the attacks were partisan. Jimmy Carter, for example, called the Rich pardon “disgraceful.”
“I thought there would be controversy,” John Podesta, Clinton’s last White House chief of staff, said. “I didn’t realize how much.”
“Clinton should have had more brains,” Rahm Emanuel, a former aide who is now a congressman from Illinois, told me. “He basically thought he had put all this stuff behind him and people were in the early stages of appreciating his Presidency, and not just small things but real accomplishments. It was worse than sloppy.”
At the same time, the Republicans leveled a series of very dubious accusations. In the first days of the Bush Presidency, the papers were filled with ill-sourced reports that the Clinton people had “trashed” Air Force One and the White House and that the Clintons had illegally taken home gifts and furniture—all charges that faded upon inspection.
“I was livid,” Clinton said of those stories. “I just couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a low blow. And the other thing that was frustrating to me is—you know, my instinct was to go out and answer everything. Then I thought, Well, I shouldn’t do this, because we just got a new President and I don’t need to be taking up any more airtime right now. I just tried to let it go.”
Clinton left the White House angry, exhausted, and broke. He also had to live with the fact that he had hurt Al Gore in the 2000 election, thereby jeopardizing his Presidential legacy—and, as it turned out, so much else. Not a few people made the calculation that if Monica Lewinsky hadn’t been on pizza duty during the government shutdown of 1995 (and Clinton not so predisposed to share the snack) there might never have been a Bush Presidency at all, or a hyped case for war in Iraq, a botched occupation, a skyrocketing budget deficit, a morally and bureaucratically bungled reaction to Hurricane Katrina, and a loss of American prestige around the world. His kingdom for a slice!
Clinton was also stuck with ten million dollars in legal bills—the cost to him of fending off the seventy-million-dollar government investigation into the Whitewater case. For the first time in a long while, the Clintons were not tenants of the state, though this was an anxiety quickly cured. Alfred A. Knopf paid an advance of ten million dollars for Clinton’s memoirs (Simon & Schuster paid eight million for Hillary’s), and everyone, it seemed, was willing to spring for as much as two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for a lecture. In his first year out of office, Clinton gave fifty-nine speeches and made $9.2 million. On the strength of their ballooning income, Bill and Hillary easily paid the mortgages on two houses—a $1.7 million Dutch Colonial in the wealthy Westchester town of Chappaqua and a $2.85 million mansion near Embassy Row, in Washington, called Whitehaven.
According to many of his aides, Clinton enjoyed having time to read and play golf at home in Westchester, dropping in at Lange’s Deli or the local Starbucks, taking walks with his chocolate Lab. But he had difficulty adjusting to his powerlessness and the instant loss of an executive-branch staff numbering in the thousands. He also had to adjust to the reality that he would never in the rest of his years be able to accomplish what he could have done in a single week as President. “He was angry about some of the bullshit—the first couple of weeks when the Bush people made a cottage industry of trashing him and the staff,” Podesta said. “It didn’t seem, to the extent I saw him, that he was talking to the paintings in his house, but it was an understandable letdown.”
Even as he began traveling to pay his debts and his real-estate agents, Clinton was searching for a way to follow the Carter model of post-Presidential service. In the spring of 2001, he visited Gujarat, India, where an earthquake had killed some twenty thousand people. He helped raise millions of dollars in relief aid, mainly from the Indian-American community. “I think that gave him a sense that with his stature and his ability to connect with people and care about the poorest people on the planet, he did have the ability to get things done,” Podesta said. “Looking back, that was a good clue to what he could do and what he would do.”
We landed in Cape Town in the late afternoon—sixteen hours after watching Zidane leave the field in disgrace. It was winter in South Africa, gray and blustery. Clinton, who had barely slept, shook hands with the middling officials who had been sent out to greet him, and (a post-White House phenomenon) waited to clear customs.
Clinton found a new direction for his foundation in 2002, at an AIDS conference in Barcelona, where Nelson Mandela took him aside and urged him to do something about the H.I.V./AIDS epidemic in Africa—in particular, the cost of anti-retroviral drugs. Mandela’s influence came partly through his obvious moral example, but also through his toughness and his gestures of sympathy. In the midst of the impeachment crisis of 1998, when even many allies had distanced themselves from Clinton, Mandela spoke publicly in his support, and now Clinton could hardly refuse his entreaty for help.
Clinton began to focus on trying to drive down the price of drugs for people with AIDS in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean; he has helped reduce the cost of treatment from sixteen hundred dollars to a hundred and sixty dollars a year by lobbying heads of state in Europe and Canada to donate funds, by pressuring generic-drug manufacturers to cut prices (with the hope of making money on higher volume), and by working to set up treatment and distribution centers with Third World leaders, the United Nations, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, and nongovernmental organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Clinton has helped get cheap drugs to nearly half a million patients, and he hopes to increase that to two million by the end of 2008. Another of his programs, the Clinton Global Initiative, organizes an annual meeting of leaders in business, government, and charities to work on poverty, global health, climate change, and conflict resolution; the foundation staff makes sure that any group or individual who does not come through on a pledge is not invited back.
Clinton’s Africa trip was beginning with a Government Leaders Forum sponsored by Microsoft. Clinton had good reason to cultivate Bill Gates. The investor Warren Buffett had recently announced that he would double the Gates Foundation’s scale by donating thirty-one billion dollars—most of his fortune—and Gates was looking for reliable partners in the AIDS field. That night, at a hotel ballroom in Cape Town, Clinton sat down at the forum’s gala with Gates, the Presidents of Zanzibar, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Burundi, and the mayor of Cape Town.
Several tables away, I was talking with Frank Giustra, a mining financier based in Vancouver, who started, ran, and sold Lions Gate Films. Giustra is in his late forties. He is short and trim and has close-cut white hair. The plane in which Clinton was touring Africa was Giustra’s, an MD-87 jet, complete with leather furniture and a stateroom. Giustra told me that he was still heavily involved in business—he travels frequently to Kazakhstan, to check on mining interests he has there—but that his wife had been pushing him to give away more of his money.
“All of my chips, almost, are on Bill Clinton,” he said. “He’s a brand, a worldwide brand, and he can do things and ask for things that no one else can.”
Clinton is the first post-President to tap into the newer generation of wealth—the hedge-fund and retail moguls, who have bigger planes to lend and more cash to burn than their upper-class predecessors ever had. Ronald Burkle, a supermarket tycoon, is another frequent traveling companion and airplane lender; Burkle made Clinton a partner in one of his investment funds. Clinton’s appeal for these tycoons is obvious: in exchange for giving money to a good cause—the Clinton Foundation’s budget last year was thirty million dollars—you not only have the usual tax break and the knowledge that you are doing good but also get to play Oh Hell until five in the morning with a two-term ex-President who knows how to have a good time. You become a certified Friend of Bill, which still has some currency, six years after one Clinton White House and, possibly, two years before another. Writing a check to the March of Dimes hardly provides the same multi-layered reward.
The Clinton Foundation’s offices are at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, in the heart of the Harlem shopping district. Clinton usually spends about seven or eight days a month there. On trips abroad for the foundation, he devotes himself wholly to AIDS, but, one of his advisers said, “when we’re home, we only use him when we need to.” From ten to fifteen days a month, he is on the road, raising money for the foundation, speaking for personal profit or for good causes, and, increasingly, campaigning for Democratic candidates for office. Clinton plans to celebrate his sixtieth birthday with parties doubling as fund-raisers for the foundation; the Rolling Stones will play at one, at the Beacon Theatre, in New York, in late October.
In the morning, Clinton was scheduled to appear onstage at a hotel in downtown Cape Town, in conversation with Bill Gates. Clinton’s staff had been up late trying to formulate a response to Bush’s press secretary, Tony Snow, who had told reporters that the Clinton Administration had been craven in the face of North Korea’s insistence on building a nuclear weapon. Clinton’s emissaries, Snow declared, had gone to the North Koreans with “flowers and chocolates” and “a basketball signed by Michael Jordan” and “many other inducements for the ‘Dear Leader’ to try to agree not to develop nuclear weapons, and it failed.” Six years into their Administration and the Bush people were still attacking like insurgents. Jay Carson drafted a response saying, “It’s unfortunate that the Bush Administration’s TV spin master is manufacturing excuses for North Korea’s transgressions instead of looking at the last six years of inaction and the abandonment of diplomacy.”
Clinton and Gates make an odd pair, not only in personality but also because the Clinton Administration’s Justice Department spent so much effort prosecuting Microsoft for alleged anti-trust violations. The staffs of both men, however, talked blithely about the meeting of “the most famous man in the world” and “the richest man in the world.” In the AIDS field, Clinton is the secondary player. The Gates Foundation is incomparably richer than any other, and its ambitions are profound: to develop vaccines for malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS.
As Gates was speaking, I looked at Clinton. Studying him, you begin to appreciate one of his political gifts: he is an expert watcher. The night before, as a children’s choir sang some of the freedom songs of the townships, Clinton let his lips slip slightly apart, an expression signaling pleasure and awe, and here, as Gates described his interest in technology—“The computer you have now is a million times as powerful as the computers Microsoft first made software for”—he nodded, narrowing his eyes. He was projecting fixed engagement with the same intensity with which Nancy Reagan used to project adoration.
Neither Clinton nor Gates conceals a taste for battle, even a measure of ruthlessness, but the two also share a colossal, even misty, optimism. “On the health side, we can expect unbelievable progress,” Gates said of the next quarter-century in Africa. “Given that time frame, we should expect a pretty incredible continent where a kid born here can expect the same opportunities as a kid from the United States can.”
“Well, I hope that’s right,” Clinton said.
The next morning, we flew to Durban, where Gates and Clinton were to visit a clinic that was testing the use of microbicides, vaginal gels that scientists hope will prevent H.I.V. infections among women. Gates has put $123 million into microbicide research. Clinton showed up in an olive-and-khaki outfit of safari crispness. In political circles, this particular look is called “disaster casual.”
Gates peppered the head of the trial project, Dr. Gita Ramjee, who was giving a PowerPoint presentation, with a series of questions about biochemistry and the structure of her research. At one point, Ramjee broke down the costs of the project, and it became clear that salaries were consuming a dominant share of the budget. Gates did some long division in his head and calculated that salaries for clinicians appeared to be well over a hundred thousand dollars a year.
“That seems pretty high, doesn’t it?” he said.
Ramjee tried to skip past the question. Gates was having none of it.
“Can we go back to my question for a second?”
Clinton looked at Gates for a moment. There was a trace of an admiring smile on his face.
“Doesn’t that seem high?”
The Kingdom of Lesotho is a tiny independent state inscribed into the territory of eastern South Africa. It has the dry, mountainous terrain, the windswept buttes and mesas you’d see in a film by John Ford. Lesotho is rural and poor, and about a quarter of the population is H.I.V.-positive. Slowly, the villages are emptying out. There is little work beyond subsistence farming, and any young person with an ounce of ambition and some money to make the trip heads for the townships and cities of South Africa.
We left the airstrip in a string of vans and cars and drove along rocky, ascending roads toward a village called Mafeteng. After half an hour, we pulled up to a low-slung clinic, where Clinton
and Gates were greeted by doctors, patients, and every dignitary, it seemed, in the Kingdom of Lesotho. The women ululated their welcome, and a banner read “Knowing Whether You Are H.I.V. Positive or Not Is the First Step Toward Your Confident Future.”
While the two Bills were getting a tour, I met a young woman in her early twenties named Tsopang who said that she had contracted H.I.V. after being raped. Many village women in Lesotho and throughout Africa even now refuse to be tested for the virus for fear of being stigmatized. Tsopang, however, was tested and began receiving anti-retroviral drugs, and now she worked at the clinic as a counselor to help other young women with the same problems.
“I heard the name Bill Gates,” she said, “but the name only. A rich man in America. I heard of Clinton, too. But just a little.”
Everyone gathered in the courtyard of the clinic: the dignitaries, some patients, the doctors, Clinton, Gates, and—the fulcrum of the gathering—the camera crews. An important reason for these trips to Africa is to accumulate press clippings and television time as free advertising for more fund-raising. In case the press does not do the job, the foundation has its own photographer and a videographer filming Clinton’s every step and gesture.
Just as Gates commanded the talk—and the facts—at the microbicide briefing in Durban, Clinton took command of the political theatre in Lesotho. When the speeches began—first the
head doctor, then some testimonials by patients who had been near death and whose lives had been saved at the clinic—Clinton stood hand in hand with an adorable seven-year-old girl named Arriet; she was smiling, wearing a cardigan and a blue polka-dot dress with a petticoat peeking out. Arriet was born with H.I.V. and had been in treatment for the past eight months, we were told; she was healthy and was going to school.
“Look at this girl,” Clinton said, “and the life she’s going to have, how strong she is.”
Arriet knew that she was being talked about and, like an accomplished child star, smiled an impossibly wide smile. The cameras obliged her, clicking like mad. By late afternoon, Arriet’s
image and her story would be on the wires.
As we headed back to the vans, Gates allowed himself to be impressed by Clinton’s mastery of public relations. “We do macro—we learn from individual cases—but we’re about new vaccines,” Gates said. “But President Clinton is doing fantastic work and plays a unique role shining a light on the problem. We’re really doing complementary things.”
Not long before leaving for Africa, I had lunch with a senior official in the Clinton Administration who said that, while the foundation’s work in public health has been effective, “the motive for Clinton’s advocacy work is simple—he is trying to atone for what he did not do about AIDS and Rwanda when he was President.” The former official went on, “His failure as President on AIDS is incredible. He knew all about the issue, but he let people push him away from it. The O.M.B. people told him he had a congressionally mandated budget cap that he had to observe, but there was never any effort to challenge the Republican Congress. The great question is why he didn’t do more in Africa, where he is a rock star, and it goes to the negative side of the balance sheet of the Clinton Presidency.”
The Clinton circle tries its best to deflect that narrative. On the plane, Ira Magaziner, an old family friend who worked with Hillary Clinton on the ill-fated health-care initiative and now does AIDS work for the foundation, came back to brief us. Magaziner made his fortune as a business consultant but his affect is that of a professorial shlump. He travels for weeks with a carry-on bag and generally wears the same suit, a heroically enduring olive-green number. Slouching on the arm of a seat, Magaziner said that the foundation prides itself not only on its results but also on its efficiency and its tight budgets. It works quickly, pays modest salaries, and avoids creating what is known in the AIDS world as “gold-plated programs”—glossy models that generate more publicity and self-congratulation than results.
Stephen Lewis, Kofi Annan’s personal envoy on H.I.V./AIDS, was in Lesotho and told me, “Clinton and his people move with tremendous urgency—call it a sense of emergency—that is qualitatively different from everyone in the field. It’s the sheer force of his personality and the tremendous access he has. The way they work is so focused and with such energy that I know of no parallel as I wander around Southern Africa.”
In 1997, at Morgan State University, in Baltimore, Clinton declared that government and science should work to find an AIDS vaccine by 2007. But his rhetoric outstripped the actions he took. “The Invisible People,” by Greg Behrman, describes the Clinton Administration as timid and unwilling to propose greater spending to help stanch the spread of the virus in the Third World. When the South African government fought drug patents in order to get cheaper drugs, the Clinton Administration backed the American pharmaceutical companies. The Administration did increase domestic spending on AIDS, but Magaziner’s explanation for the Clintons’ seeming lassitude regarding the Third World was lame: he claimed that the early and middle nineties had been the “heavy infection period,” and that, because AIDS symptoms do not typically appear in an infected person for several years—and because there has been such a negligible rate of testing in Africa—“it wasn’t until 2001, 2002 that we had a crisis.”
“And let’s not forget the political situation at the time,” Jay Carson said.
“It’s hard to describe the atmosphere,” Magaziner said, clearly referring to the Republican attacks on Clinton, the Whitewater investigations, and the antipathy to foreign aid among conservatives.
And Carson added, “The evangelicals weren’t on board yet.”
It is true that it took time for figures such as Rick Warren and Franklin Graham, and influential conservatives in Congress, like Jesse Helms, to come around on AIDS. But the idea that it was
not until the early Bush years that we knew “we had a crisis” is hardly credible. In January, 2000, the Clinton Administration’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, helped organize a month long Security Council session during which the global AIDS crisis was declared a threat to international security.
Many of the leading activists and scientists in the H.I.V./AIDS field are so grateful for the Clinton Foundation’s current activities and so loath to alienate Clinton that they only reluctantly criticize his record as President. Nevertheless, some wish that he were more focused on elimination of the disease. Seth Berkley, the president and founder of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, praised Clinton for using his influence and “charisma” to work on treatment strategies and drive drug prices down, but he said, “The sad truth is that today’s plans for dealing with the epidemic are clearly unsustainable. If we don’t find a way to slow down or stop it, AIDS will sap the life out of many societies. My wish is that Clinton would put ending the epidemic back at the top of his AIDS advocacy, and match his current work on AIDS treatment with renewed leadership to create a vaccine.” AIDS is spreading so fast that no treatment, not even effective, cheap drugs, can stop it. Worldwide, eight thousand people die of the disease every day.
“I agree that the vaccine is the big kahuna,” Clinton said. “Now, here’s the problem. Most of that has to be done either by governments or, frankly, by the Gates Foundation, because they’ve got the bread, the money. In the meanwhile, somebody’s got to try and keep these people alive, keep as many people as possible from becoming H.I.V.-infected in the first place, and set up health-care systems that can deal with the corollary consequences of t.b., malaria, and all the other health issues. So I don’t disagree with Seth, and I would be glad to do more to be an advocate. But somebody needs to do what I’m doing. I’m not a scientist who can do the research myself, and I don’t have billions of dollars to pour into it, like the government or the Gates Foundation. I think I’m doing what is best for me to do, and what will save the largest number of lives.”
Clinton deflects the tougher criticism of his inaction on AIDS during his Presidency with a maddeningly homey reference. He told me that Chelsea wrote a thesis at Oxford that dealt, in part, with his Administration’s reaction to the AIDS crisis.
“I gave you a grade,” she told her father.
“What did I get?” Clinton asked.
Clinton told me, “She studied what we did, what everybody else did, and I said, ‘What do you think?’ She said, ‘You didn’t do nearly enough. But you did more than anyone else in the world.’ ”
Clinton told the story with such good humor that you would have thought he’d received an A-minus. And, while he gives Bush credit for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a
five-year fifteen-billion-dollar plan that was introduced in 2003 (despite the reservations he has about the anti-condom and pro-abstinence message that the right wing insisted on attaching to the program), he is quick to give himself, and his White House, a mulligan. “I applaud what they did,” Clinton said. “But to say that the same thing was possible when I was President is naïve, and a distortion of the way things were.”
“I almost died!”
This was Bill Clinton considering the fragile state of his life in the autumn of 2004.
It was a cool evening out by the buffet table and the glittering pool of the Saxon, a five-star hotel in Johannesburg. And, as Clinton talked about his once clogged arteries and how they almost killed him, he attacked a dinner of chicken satay, seared sesame tuna, fried shrimp, noodles, and sautéed vegetables. The owner of the Saxon, and Clinton’s host, was a Roy Orbison look-alike named Douw Steyn, a businessman who made a fortune in rental cars, insurance, and other investments. The suites at the Saxon go for more than two thousand dollars a night. Nelson Mandela finished his memoirs in one after leaving prison.
Clinton wore a black shirt and black trousers and the beginnings of a ruddy sunburn.
“I’m telling you,” he was saying, “I almost died!”
At first, the talk had been about Mandela’s health—he was turning eighty-eight in a few days and Clinton was scheduled to meet him the next morning—and how political prisoners trapped in small jail cells discover, in time, that their muscles wither for lack of exercise and a man’s walk becomes a shuffle. “It’s those tiny muscles here that drag around the biggest ones in your body, you see, and—” Clinton’s recitation on muscular mechanics turned to exercise and how he had discovered, at the age of fifty-eight, and after many years of dutiful jogging, that he could no longer run a mile without stopping. Regular exercise, his cardiologist determined, had not been enough to cancel out a lifetime of doughnuts and French fries.
On September 6, 2004, Clinton had emergency quadruple-bypass surgery in New York and, six months later, another operation to repair his injured chest cavity. He was now just weeks away from his sixtieth birthday. Running is out, but he takes long daily walks and a private trainer works with him in his home gym in Chappaqua. With renewed health has also come an insouciant fatalism. “I’ve reached an age now where it doesn’t matter whatever happens to me,” he says repeatedly. “I just don’t want anyone to die before their time anymore.”
Clinton talks like that a lot these days. Born three months after his biological father was thrown from a car wreck and died in a ditch, he has always lived with a sense of ambitious urgency. Just three pages into his memoir, “My Life,” he writes:
My father left me with the feeling that I had to live for two people, and that if I did it well enough, somehow I could make up for the life he should have had. And his memory infused me, at a younger age than most, with a sense of my own mortality. The knowledge that I, too, could die young drove me both to try to drain the most out of every moment of life and to get on with the next big challenge. Even when I wasn’t sure where I was going, I was always in a hurry.
Clinton’s grandfather died at fifty-six, his stepfather at fifty-nine; his father was twenty-eight. He says that he remembers “distinctly” the day that he had lived one day longer than his father. Some of his happiest hours have been spent wandering through cemeteries, reading the headstones. The sense of trying to cram two lifetimes into one, of always being in a hurry, he said at a conference in Colorado last year, “caused me to make a lot of mistakes. It caused me to work too hard, and most of the personal and political mistakes I made in my life were because I tried to do too much and was exhausted. But I also got a lot done.”
After his heart surgeries, Clinton told me, he did not fall into the kind of depression that so many patients describe. Instead, once he had passed the most trying weeks he felt less impatient about “the nickel-and-dime stuff.”
“I’m more likely to be grateful to see the sun come up in the morning,” he said, “and I try to make a determined effort to enjoy every day and, in a funny way, simultaneously to think more about the future in constructive ways but to live more in the moment. And I noticed an interesting thing when I went home after I left the White House, once I got over being mad. I had more time to myself than at any time probably since I’d been in law school, maybe even since I’d been in England. And I was very happy in England. I was young, I didn’t mind, I traveled a lot alone. I was alone a lot as a kid. I was never bored.”
Over dinner at the Saxon, though, Clinton hardly seemed a hunched solitary soul. He was a happy warrior, Hubert Horatio Humphrey in modern dress, performing. He needed little prodding to soliloquize on the killer instincts and hypocrisies of Newt Gingrich when he was Speaker of the House; on the “crucial differences” on Iraq between Joe Lieberman and the rest of the Democrats in the Senate (read: Hillary); on the complications of building a Presidential library and its fantastic cost ($165 million); and on a crocodile he saw on his last trip to South Africa (“That boy was as wide as my wingspan, I swear to God!”).
At around eleven, Clinton suddenly wandered off to talk with Douw Steyn. Half an hour later, though, he returned, accepted a cup of black coffee, and said, “I want to sit down and hear what you guys are talking about!” He picked up the thread of his monologue, describing in fantastic detail why Ray Nagin edged Mitch Landrieu in the New Orleans mayoral race (“I understand it, because I know how black folks think”), which led to a story about the uninhibited (and currently incarcerated) ex-governor of Louisiana Edwin Edwards, and then on to another retired pol, Boris Yeltsin. Vladimir Putin invited Clinton to a seventy-fifth birthday party for Yeltsin at the Kremlin this year. The foreign guest list had been limited to Clinton and the former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, along with the more dubious company of Aleksandr Lukashenko, of Belarus, and Leonid Kuchma, of Ukraine.
“Putin is one sly dog,” Clinton said, laughing. “He got up there and said, ‘Well, tonight we have Kohl, Clinton—and all the dictators.’ ” Somebody asked if Lukashenko, who continues to run his country as a personal fief, was insulted.
“Are you kidding?” Clinton said. “Guys like that consider that a compliment!”
He seemed nostalgic for his old cadre, and was full of praise for Yeltsin, despite the Chechen war and corruption in the Kremlin; clearly he still relished their relationship. “I don’t care how drunk he was sometimes,” he said. “Yeltsin really hated Communism.” He recalled that in his Kremlin office Yeltsin had portraits of Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Alexander II, who freed the serfs—“no Commies.” Clinton credited Putin with being “extremely smart” but said he was concerned that he was building what amounts to a “tsarist system,” in which “oil is like America’s military, its weapon to play on the world stage.” Yeltsin, he said, appointed Putin as his successor because he knew that he would not pursue his family in the courts for corruption—“He has shown great respect for him”—but also because Putin “could sit on his behind and read memos and documents fourteen hours a day and make decisions.” Clinton said he wished that Bush hadn’t been so “gushy” about Putin in the beginning, conjecturing about the goodness of the Russian President’s soul, but the Administration is making a mistake now, he said, by criticizing him so often.
Clinton evidently sees himself as an exemplary blend of idealist and political roughneck, someone who never stood down from the cheap attacks, impeachment included. Hour after hour, that was what infused his anecdotes, his policy rambles, his assessments of the political landscape: toughness in the service of doing good. He admires this in himself; he believes it’s what set him apart from Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry. “We’ve got to be in the winning business,” he would say, “because without winning”—without taking power—“it’s the other guy, and the other guy’s ideas, that prevail.” And, evidently, the only Democrat on the scene who he feels is both ready for the big battle and has the stomach to win it is the very person who will attract the harshest attacks. That Democrat, of course, is Hillary Rodham Clinton. And so, in the middle of the night, Bill Clinton was doing his part, criticizing Joe Lieberman’s support for preemptive war (even as he was preparing to campaign for him in the Democratic primary) and describing why it was fine to be for congressional legislation criminalizing flag-burning but opposed to a constitutional amendment permitting such legislation (to justify Hillary’s triangulation on that score).
Toward the end of the evening, as Clinton finished a final cup of coffee—“This stuff doesn’t really have an effect on me, I guess”—someone asked him whether it wasn’t frustrating to be talking about the Presidential hopes of other people, even if one of them was his wife.
Clinton smiled. “No, not at all,” he said. Look at all the good work he was trying to get done in Africa, the fun he was having. The important thing, he said, was to find something you like to do and do it. Then he shrugged and said, “You have to bloom where you’re planted.”
A couple of weeks before the Africa trip, I’d followed Clinton to New Hampshire. He went to Manchester to do a campaign event for the Democratic governor there, John Lynch, to play a round of golf with some friends, to go to a reception with old allies from the 1992 campaign, and to give a short speech at an “obesity event.” (Since his heart surgery, Clinton has worked with the American Heart Association to campaign against childhood obesity.)
The Suburban driving him from the golf course pulled up to the Radisson Hotel an hour or so behind schedule. He was beaming. A local TV reporter put a microphone in front of him and asked him what he’d shot. “Eighty-one, eighty-two,” he said. “Not bad for an old man.”
A few minutes later, Clinton and his caravan charged out of the driveway with motorcycle escorts and traveled approximately one and a half blocks, to the Athens Restaurant, heralded in a framed review as “the best Greek restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire.”
“A lot of these people started with me in ’91,” Clinton said. “Some are friends for thirty years.”
There were hugs, cell-phone snapshots, and a lot of talking and joking around, base-touching with the Democratic core of New Hampshire.
As Clinton and his staff were edging toward the door, a woman came up to him and said, “Mr. President, we thought you could say a few words.”
Clinton’s eyes brightened in gratitude. Chairs were assembled in a semi-circle around him.
“Thanks for coming out to see me,” he said. “It makes me feel like less of a has-been.”
And then, as he began a tour d’horizon of Republican perfidy and the elections ahead, it was as if we were back in the winter of 1991.
“The Republicans are brilliant at creating bogus issues, cartoon cutouts,” he said, “and the press, even if it doesn’t agree with them, brings it along.” He said that he was especially infuriated by the way the Administration’s rhetoric painted anyone who criticized any aspect of its policy in Iraq as weak on national security. Almost as infuriating was the way the Democrats were beating each other up about the past (in other words: Hillary’s 2002 Senate vote authorizing the President to use force in Iraq) rather than forming a coherent alternative to the White House’s stay-the-course rhetoric. “This deal with Iraq makes me want to throw up,” he said. “I’m sick and tired of being told that if you voted for authorization you voted for the war. It was a mistake, and I would have made it, too. And Congress made it once before, at the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.” The blame was with the White House: “The Administration did not shoot straight on the nuclear issue or on Saddam’s supposed ties to Al Qaeda prior to 9/11.”
Clinton said that he had read Ron Suskind’s article in the Times Magazine in which an unnamed Bush aide says, mockingly, that journalists and Democrats languish in a “reality-based community” while the White House, as the vanguard of an American empire, creates its own realities. “That’s an amazing paradigm,” Clinton said. “We ought to run on that.”
More than a year in advance, Clinton was clearly concerned that debate within the Democratic Party, particularly over Iraq, would hurt Hillary’s chances. He didn’t mention his wife. But he did tell the crowd in the Athens Restaurant, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Finally, it really was time to go. These people had jobs, after all.
“Thank you,” Clinton said by way of closing. “I love you guys.”
In the world of William Jefferson Clinton, there are constituents and potential constituents. In the afternoon, he visited Parkside Middle School for the “obesity event.” A few hundred kids were sitting on the floor of a sweltering gymnasium while the governor’s wife lectured them, complete with PowerPoint presentation and statistics on caloric density, on the perils of fast food. She sounded like the Carrie Nation of the Chicken McNugget.
Clinton has successfully lobbied soft-drink manufacturers to keep sugary beverages out of school vending machines. He allowed that his old eating habits had contributed to the heart condition that almost killed him, and said that, “as a former husky kid,” he wanted to “do more than a few public-service announcements” to help American kids lose weight.
“We’re done with the soft drinks, and now we’re gonna work with the snack people,” he told a few local reporters.
After Clinton was introduced, he stripped off his jacket and sat on a high stool. “When I was a little boy,” he said to the kids, “I was bigger than almost all of you. Now there are more kids like I was.” He told them about learning to exercise more and suggested they watch a show on Nickelodeon called “Let’s Just Play Go Healthy Challenge.”
When the question period began, a chubby kid, no more than seven, nervously held the microphone and asked Clinton, “What if you don’t have the channel?”
His quavery voice betrayed such a sense of terror and deprivation that a lot of the kids laughed. What? No Nickelodeon? It’s basic cable!
Clinton had clearly heard the laughing and seen the terror in the kid’s eyes, and he sensed the
embarrassment that would likely haunt his nights, and so he said, “A lot of people don’t have the channel. So that’s a good question. A great question.”
The jaws of life! The boy smiled. His whole body seemed to relax. The laughing stopped. It was a great question! And while Clinton went on to talk about other ways kids could learn about eating more sensibly, it was easy to believe that this kid—still a little shaken, but relieved of his shame—would vote for a Clinton one day if he could.
In Johannesburg the next morning, Clinton was to meet Nelson Mandela at Sunninghill Hospital, at a fund-raising event for a cardiac ward named for Mandela’s late comrade Walter Sisulu.
The doctors and administrators greeted Mandela with cheers, and women in native dress sang to him in Zulu: “Prepare your things, the time is coming.” With a carved ivory cane in one hand, and with his second wife, Graca Machel, the former First Lady of Mozambique, holding the other, he did not so much walk as skate along the hospital floor tiles. The iconic old revolutionary has grown so venerable that the airports of South Africa sell Mandela dolls the way the gift shops of Mount Vernon sell George Washington dolls. But while Mandela has become frail—he wears hearing aids in both ears and limits his public appearances-—he has lost little of his magnetism. His smile is broad and lively, and he made funny remarks to the people who greeted him at the door and on the way to the elevator, and his look—well, only he can get away with those phantasmagorical long-sleeved floral shirts that he wears; anyone else would come off like a vacationing podiatrist from New Rochelle. Mandela was led to a waiting room near the recovery ward for kids who had just gone through cardiac surgery. He sank into an armchair and chatted for fifteen minutes with his wife and with Sisulu’s widow, Albertina, awaiting the arrival of his American friend.
When Clinton turned up at last—astonishingly, he will make anyone wait for him, even a global patriarch who is presumably his moral hero—he was wearing an odd get-up, a dark suit and a black polo shirt. His lapels obscured the full logo on the shirt and all you could see were the numerals “666.” A curious omen.
“Madiba!” he said, using the tribal name that nearly everyone in South Africa uses for Mandela. “Madiba, it’s so good to see you!”
Clinton squatted near Mandela’s chair and hugged him tenderly. Then, holding the old man by the elbow, he helped him to his feet.
“So, what is your instruction?” Mandela said jokingly to a doctor named Robin Kinsley, who ran the ward.
The ward was spotless, high-tech, and Kinsley guided the two men from bed to bed to meet the children.
“Madiba, this is a unique problem,” Kinsley said, leading the group (cameras included) to the bed of a boy from Botswana named Neil. “This little chap developed two leaking valves.”
“Hey, Neil, how are you?” Mandela said.
The boy winced. He’d had his chest cracked open just the day before. If ever Bill Clinton could feel someone’s pain, it was now.
“I’ll bet Neil’s a little sore, aren’t you?” he said.
Neil smiled and nodded.
After the tour, we went to an atrium in the hospital where Walter Sisulu’s son announced that, in order to raise money for the hospital, they were going to auction off a chance to have tea with Albertina Sisulu and Mandela.
“If Tiger Woods can get over a million dollars for charity by playing a round of golf with someone,” he declared, “imagine what we’ll get by offering tea with two legends.”
Sisulu introduced Clinton as “His Excellency.”
“I basically always try to show up around Madiba’s birthday,” Clinton said.
“I’ll soon be sixty,” he went on. “And, at a certain point, the definition of young is anyone who is a year younger than you are.” He paid tribute to the doctors and nurses who had given the children in the hospital a chance to have a normal life. He dwelled for a few moments on the fighting then just beginning in Lebanon and northern Israel and lamented that so many were still “trapped in the age-old illusion that somehow we can lift ourselves up through violence.” Then, by way of paying tribute to Mandela and Sisulu, Clinton recited from Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy”:
History says, Don’t hope On this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme.
The man sitting next to me—tiny, trig, powerfully built—was in tears. He was the former flyweight boxing champion of the world.
Mandela and Clinton returned to the Saxon for lunch. By now it had been explained that Clinton’s shirt was not a tribute to Satan but a gift from Mandela. It bore his prison number at Robben Island—46664.
“He just sent it to me,” Clinton said.
Mandela asked Clinton why Chelsea hadn’t come to Africa. “Is she O.K.?” he said.
“Oh, she’s great,” Clinton said. “She’s working for McKinsey in New York. She solves problems for people. She knows more than me or her mother. Which she tells us in every
“That’s good,” Mandela said, laughing. “And why didn’t Hillary come?”
Clinton shrugged. “You got the only unemployed member of our family.”
“Are you really unemployed?” Mandela’s wife asked.
“Let’s just say I have more control over what I do and when I do it,” Clinton said.
The lunch party, led by Douw Steyn, headed toward the dining room. Steyn was wearing a black suit, wraparound shades, and gleaming shoes.
“You look pretty shiny today, Douw,” Clinton told his host. Douw didn’t smile.
During the lunch, Mandela told a story about being released from jail during the apartheid era to meet with South Africa’s leaders. Prison officials came to his cell to fit him for a suit, he recalled, because it would not do to meet the white politicians in his prison clothes. When they dressed him, they grew frustrated that Mandela didn’t know how to tie the laces of his new dress shoes properly. Mandela was pleased to see the chief of the National Intelligence Service on hands and knees tying his shoes.
Clinton later admitted that he kept thinking that this could be his last meeting with Mandela. “He’s as tough as nails,” Clinton told me. “He didn’t survive all those years in prison and come out in the shape he was in just by having a good heart. I think it takes more strength to survive something like that than it does to beat somebody up with a negative television ad. Mandela was tough, and he also was ferociously loyal to the people who were loyal to him and to his movement while he was in prison. He told me all along, ‘You know, I have strange friends. The Taiwanese are my friends. If the Chinese are mad that they’re coming to my inauguration, tough. They helped me. If you don’t like that Castro’s coming, tough—he helped me, too. The Democratic Party helped me, but so did Castro. Qaddafi, so he did a bad thing in that Pan Am 103 thing. But they stayed with us, they helped us. I’m not going to renounce my friends.’ ”
After lunch, Clinton walked Mandela out to his car.
“Bye, bye, Bill,” Mandela said. He asked to be remembered to Hillary and Chelsea.
“I’m so happy to have seen you,” Clinton said.
He helped Mandela into the back seat, closed the door, and waved as the car pulled away.
Clinton turned and headed back into the Saxon. “Did my shirt work out all right?” he asked. “Mandela dressed me today. But it was hard for me to wear it, because if you only knew how many millions of Republicans wanted me to go to jail.”
Few modern Presidents have consumed biographies of their predecessors as voraciously as Bill Clinton. One afternoon when we met for lunch, he reeled off a list of some of his favorite Presidential books: three lives of Grant, David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, and a novelty choice, “Jack: A Life Like No Other,” by Geoffrey Perret, “which surprisingly received no coverage, and it had a lot of, kind of, dirt in it, like, dishy gossip I’d never heard about—Kennedy and Jayne Mansfield, and Mansfield was pregnant, stuff I’d never heard!”
As he was leaving office, Clinton told friends that he hoped to write a great book of his own, something approaching Grant’s memoirs. He had admired Katharine Graham’s autobiography, and so he sought out her editor at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb, who once ran the house. (Gottlieb was also, from 1987 to 1992, the editor of The New Yorker.) At an early meeting to talk about the book, Clinton informed the editor that he was actually very easy to work for. Gottlieb interrupted, saying, “You’re working for me now.”
Clinton had help with research, and he dictated a lot of stories to the historian Ted Widmer and to his aide Justin Cooper for later use, but he also wrote much of the book in longhand, in more than twenty spiral-bound notebooks. When he handed in the first hundred and fifty pages of the manuscript, Gottlieb said, “This is a really good story, but let me ask you something: Are you running for anything?”
“No, I’m done,” Clinton said.
“Good,” Gottlieb said. “You cannot put the name of every person you’ve ever met in this book. I do not care what happened to their children and grandchildren, and it bothers me that my President had enough room left in his head to remember what happened to the children and grandchildren of every person he ever met.”
So, Clinton said, recounting the story, “I said, ‘Look, Gottlieb, I’m from Arkansas. That’s what we do, that’s what we care about—I can’t help it. That’s who we are.’ ”
Clinton sent another hundred pages or so, this time on the American South of his childhood. Gottlieb called and said, “I really like this.”
“Well, you got any questions?” Clinton replied.
“What is it?” Clinton asked.
“Did you know any sane people as a child?”
“No, but neither did anybody else,” Clinton said. “I was just paying attention more than most people.”
The first half of Clinton’s thousand-page memoir is a cross between “Tobacco Road” and “Ragged Dick,” the Snopes saga and “All the King’s Men.” The early pages make clear just how far Clinton had to travel before he landed in the safe berths of the Ivy League and Oxford. One night at dinner in Africa, Clinton was talking again about the Bush circle’s contempt for “reality-based” thinking, and he remarked that he had spent a large portion of his early life trying to achieve a “reality-based” state of mind, so painful was the situation in his house in Arkansas: a father who died before he was born, a stepfather who beat his mother, the night when Clinton stood up to the old man, all the threats, the alcoholism, the troubled brother, the endless secrets. At one point in the book, Clinton quotes at length from a composition, full of self-doubt, that he wrote in high school for a teacher named Lonnie Warneke:
I am a person motivated and influenced by so many diverse forces I sometimes question the sanity of my existence. I am a living paradox—deeply religious, yet not as convinced of my exact beliefs as I ought to be; wanting responsibility yet shirking it; loving the truth but often times giving way to falsity. . . . I detest selfishness, but see it in the mirror every day. . . . I view those, some of whom are very dear to me, who have never learned how to live. I desire and struggle to be different from them, but often am almost an exact likeness. . . . I, in my attempts to be honest, will not be the hypocrite I hate.
Unfortunately, there is hardly a passage in the second half of the book—the chapters that cover his eight years as President—as exposed as that one. Clinton played it safe in his memoir, and his reasons were almost surely political. Even the publication date was politically determined. Clinton and Knopf decided that “My Life” had to come out before the 2004 campaign entered its final stage. As a result, the book was rushed and is at times almost defiantly dull. The chapters that cover 1992 to 2000 often seem as cursory and reticent as the entries in a desk diary. Grant’s singularity as a memoirist is safe. But then the General’s memoir ends before his Presidency begins.
Bill Clinton is an ex-President in the business of creating a successor who happens to be his wife. The way he sees it, George W. Bush and the United States Supreme Court denied him the legacy he deserved. Perhaps the wife who supported his every triumph and lifted him up
after every fall, the wife he humiliated and nearly lost in 1998, will be the one to provide it.
The Clinton marriage, since we first came to know it, is perhaps the most exhaustively chronicled in political history. Antony and Cleopatra had Shakespeare and Joseph Mankiewicz; Bill and Hillary have had lesser poets—Peggy Noonan, Gail Sheehy, and R. Emmett Tyrell, Jr. When I went to Arkansas to see Clinton at his Presidential library, in Little Rock, we had a barbeque lunch in his apartment, which is built onto the library’s fourth floor. The apartment has two distinctive characteristics: the first is a study shaped precisely like the Oval Office; the second is Bill and Hillary’s bedroom. “As you can see,” Clinton said, leading me around the
place, “it’s glass, floor to ceiling.” A glass bedroom for the Clintons—as if they needed a metaphor to underscore their constant exposure. When Clinton was preparing to leave office, six years ago, John F. Harris, the Washington Post’s White House correspondent, wrote, “The Clinton years have enveloped all America in one dysfunctional family. Things that once seemed extravagantly weird—a President who goes to pastoral therapy sessions once a week to recover from his sex addiction; a First Lady who moves out of the White House to run for office in a state where she never lived—now seem routine.” A race in 2008 would likely mean a return to the weirdness.
“Their marriage is the black hole at the center of the drama,” a former senior official in the Clinton White House told me. “We are living through one of the worst Administrations in American history—there is a world crisis—and our whole future can be affected by this marital relationship as it affects the next election.”
If, as seems likely, Hillary Clinton is reelected to the Senate in November, she will have to decide quickly whether to run for President or be content with a career representing the State of New York and, perhaps, assuming the Democratic leadership. The many staff members and Clinton confidants I spoke to said that the chances of her running are between eighty and ninety per cent.
Two things could still hold her back. One would be a straightforward political calculation that she would probably lose. In the race for the nomination she could falter because of a powerful anti-war sentiment in the Democratic Party base, or she could get tripped up by John Edwards in Iowa or face a surprise candidate, like Al Gore. A series of early losses might undercut her advantages in money, name recognition, and organization. Many Democrats have grown dismayed with her positions on everything from the war to flag burning. If Hillary Clinton advances to the general election, she may not be able to overcome her own negatives or a candidate like John McCain.
“She might not run if she decides she can’t win, but it may be that a part of Hillary will look around and say, ‘Where are the giants that are going to beat me?’ ” one member of her circle said. “ ‘People around me said I couldn’t run for the Senate in 2000 and win in New York. They said I couldn’t be a good senator and fit in to one of the most subtle public institutions, but, by all accounts, I’ve done just that. So why not me? Yes, forty per cent will be against me. I get it. But forty will be with me, and the race is all about the rest. Don’t you think I have as good a chance as Evan Bayh? As Bill Richardson?’ ”
The second factor militating against a run has to do with the Clinton marriage. Do the Clintons (to say nothing of the voters) want to go through it all again? The members of Hillary’s inner circle—the political consultant Mandy Grunwald; the pollster Mark Penn; her chief of staff, Tamera Luzzatto; the head of her fund-raising apparatus, Patti Solis Doyle—talk about numbers and policy with her constantly, but I was told repeatedly that no one around her raises “the Bill factor” without trepidation. And yet these aides are acutely aware of what is likely to influence the Senator’s decision.
“With any presumptive front-runners—take Mario Cuomo or even Colin Powell—the reasons they get in the race or not are usually more personal than poll-driven,” one of Hillary Clinton’s closest advisers told me. “She has to ask herself, ‘Do I want twelve armed men following my daughter around? And what about my ninety-year-old mother—do I want her reading all these things about me?’ If you held a gun to my head, I’d guess that she will run, but if, nine months from now, I woke up to an A.P. report saying she was going to forgo the race, I would not be
What effect Bill Clinton would have on a Hillary Clinton candidacy is, after the war in Iraq, probably the most intensely discussed political question within the Democratic Party. Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska governor and former U.S. senator, who is now the president of the New School, told me, “I think it’s ninety-nine-per-cent certain that Hillary will run, but that one per cent is where the world lives. She’s got everything to run: the intellect, the money, the people, the national campaign—and she has the best political spouse in the business. If I were running for President, you can bet that I’d want Bill Clinton as my spouse—even if it meant a change in sexual orientation! He’s good at everything. He’ll get huge crowds wherever they send him, and, remember, a Presidential campaign gets ten requests for every one that you can do. The most important media you get in a Presidential campaign is the free media, and I’ve got to think he is worth two hundred million in free media.”
Clinton is already, in effect, Advance Man in Chief. His recent trip to New Hampshire was an early foray into the race, and he is scheduled to speak at a range of high-profile events, including the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner, this fall.
“Bill Clinton helps her by being one of the most gifted strategists of our time,” Mike McCurry, who was Clinton’s press secretary from 1995 to 1998, said. “Paul Begala and James Carville were good in ’92, but Clinton is a long shot better. But, just as she had to develop a story line as First Lady, he is going to have the same problem. He is delivering to us now a model of what he might have to do as First Spouse, as an emissary rebuilding America’s reputation in the world, the premier overseas ambassador, the chief of public diplomacy.”
Hillary Clinton said of her husband, “When he was President, he really tried against great odds to reach out on behalf of our country in a way that connected others around the world to us. But I think, clearly, the comparison with his successor only enhances the nostalgia that people feel for his Presidency.”
Strategists for Senator Clinton see the positives in her husband, but they are increasingly aware that they have to be careful about putting the two onstage together. Both spoke at the marathon funeral services for Coretta Scott King, at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, earlier this year. Bill Clinton, who was called America’s “first black President” by Toni Morrison in these pages, could not have had greater emotional and rhetorical command. Every gesture—from the apt quotation from the Book of Isaiah to the way he pointed to the coffin and reminded everyone that there was “a woman in there,” not an icon but a mother, the wife of the greatest of all civil-rights leaders—spoke to a lifetime’s experience in the pulpit. As the crowd cheered him, Clinton stepped aside for his wife, and although her speech was adequate, she was, by comparison, cool and mechanical, and the reception was merely polite.
Clinton is used to playing the lead role, and now he cannot; his discipline as secondary player sometimes wanders. I was once at a dinner with both Clintons where he occasionally stared out the window during Hillary’s speech. Before another dinner, where she was the guest of honor, he muttered to himself on the way in, “Don’t talk too much—keep quiet.”
I asked Clinton if he saw himself as a potentially negative factor in a race. “Only if people thought she wouldn’t be her own person, and I don’t think that will be a problem,” he said. “I think, you know, sometimes, it’s, like, unfair when— I’ll give you an example. The last time that happened was at Coretta’s funeral. I read about that, and I said, ‘Hil-lary, if we both spoke at the Wellesley reunion, you’d probably get a better reception.’ I said, ‘You can’t pay any attention to this.’ I said, ‘This is my life. I grew up in these churches. I knew more people by their first name in that church than at the end of my freshman year. This is my life. You don’t have to be better at this than me. You got to be better than whoever.’ ”
Hillary Clinton told me, “I was amazed that anybody made any kind of big deal about that. I had a wonderful time being there. I didn’t sense any invidious comparison whatsoever. He is a master at public communication. I don’t know anyone who would argue with that.”
Among Democratic Party operatives who speak wistfully of Bill Clinton as the Michael Jordan of politics, the Secretariat of spin, a concerted effort has begun to highlight Hillary’s skills as opposed to his. “He is her most important adviser on policy and politics and much else—there is no secret about that,” Melanne Verveer, who was Hillary’s chief of staff in the White House, said. “ Hillary has got skills and capabilities that are different from his. She is an exceptional listener. She is very smart—though he is, too. She is very pragmatic and disciplined. She is less patient with theoretical opportunities and more wants to get things done. She can be quiet and be happy working with her papers and books, where he is the Energizer Bunny and always has to have people around.”
“She’s better than him in some areas,” the Democratic strategist James Carville said. “Her life is a testament to preparation. She is more disciplined than he is. We used to have to chase him off the rope line. And she is also attuned to the glory of the unspoken thought.
“I think if she runs no one will out-prepare and outwork her,” Carville continued. “What you discover in Presidential politics is that one of the big factors is fatigue—especially in the primaries. In the ’92 campaign, all I remember is being fatigued, bone-tired, during Gennifer Flowers and the draft letter and all of that. You are like fighters who have to drag themselves out for the next round. But some people have that extra will to fight through the fatigue. The Clintons have that.”
Elaine Kamarck, a Harvard professor who worked in the Clinton White House and then as a policy adviser to Gore in the 2000 campaign, said, “If there is anyone who knows how to fight the Republican slime machine, it’s her. You can’t imagine Hillary going through weeks of Swift Boat attacks and letting them go unanswered.”
Hillary herself said, “Maybe because Bill and I have been through so many elections we know that Democrats have to fight back—that you can’t assume people will see through the blizzard of negativity that is the hallmark of modern Republican campaigns. When Democrats don’t fight back, I don’t understand it. So that’s been a disappointment to me, because of the results that, unfortunately, we’ve been stuck with now.”
Just as Al Gore felt that he ended up paying more dearly for Bill Clinton’s sins than Clinton did, some in the Clinton circle are worried that Hillary will suffer from the Lewinsky affair even if there is no repeat of it—that for some voters the reservations, and the gibes, will not go away.
Except on a few issues like trade, there is no ideological gap between the Clintons. “There never has been much space,” Hillary Clinton said. “Bill and I have very similar world views and political views that we’ve developed over so many years that I don’t think that’s an issue.”
Much more difficult to anticipate will be whether the electorate will want to relive the nineties and the drama of the Clinton marriage—the sanctimony, the pop analyses of their relationship on the evening news, the old infidelity and oral-sex jokes on Leno and Letterman.
“Voters, many of them in red and purple states, will ask, ‘Are we electing him again?’ ” Elaine Kamarck said.
“Hillary is dealing with a whole set of personal judgments based on her time during the Clinton Presidency,” the former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley says. “The fact that she was elected senator is almost irrelevant to those judgments. It’s very hard for her to establish herself in her own right. George W. Bush distinguished himself from his father by essentially closing him out, not talking to him much or meeting with him. That would be very hard for Hillary to do.”
Leon Panetta, Clinton’s former White House chief of staff, told me that the Clintons can employ his political skills and even their marriage as an asset, but only if they are disciplined.
“You want to make use of it, not be embarrassed by it, the way Al Gore was,” he said. “Bill and Hillary Clinton have come to recognize that this is the nature of the relationship. Their marriage has survived because they have accommodated themselves to the strengths and weaknesses of each other.
“What they have to avoid in any way is trying to present images that in some ways distort their relationship—touchy-feely things, the holding-hands-on-the-beach kind of thing,” Panetta continued. “Everybody understands the relationship—they have developed their own worlds—and they shouldn’t try to be false. There is obviously a genuine feeling of love between them that goes back a long way. The one thing they can’t do is for both of them to get into a mode where they decide there is a certain part of the world that is absolutely against them. That tends to eat at their guts and distorts their ability to do the right thing. That’s not to say it isn’t real, the enemies, but, if they are going to run, there’s going to be all kinds of shit, and they are going to have to rise above it.”
On May 23rd, the Times published a front-page article that was one of the stranger specimens of journalism in the past year. After weeks of investigation, “interviews with some 50 people,” and “a review of their respective activities,” the political reporter Patrick Healy gravely concluded that although “the dynamics of a couple’s marriage are hard to gauge from outside,” the Clintons have “built largely separate lives.”
Healy wrote, “Mr. Clinton is rarely without company in public, yet the company he keeps rarely includes his wife.” He is the firefly, she the drudge. He is “zipping around” at night with his “bachelor buddy” Ronald Burkle, or “hitting parties and fund-raisers” in Manhattan, while she is “yoked” to her work. The Times went on to say that since the start of 2005 the Clintons “have been together about 14 days a month on average, according to aides who reviewed the couple’s schedules.” In addition, “out of the last 73 weekends, they spent 51 together.”
Unlike a tabloid exposé, the Times article did not openly explore every rumor about Bill Clinton’s social life since leaving office. And yet the unmistakable inference was that in the post-Lewinsky era it is no longer just the right-wing noise machine that will be on the Clinton marriage beat if Hillary runs. One former Clinton aide, the ABC newscaster George Stephanopoulos, told me, “The piece said, ‘We are watching this. People are talking about it. Fair warning.’ ”
Hillary Clinton insisted that such attention didn’t bother her. “I’m just not going to give up a lot of psychic energy worrying about what other people worry about,” she told me. “I’m endlessly fascinated by people’s fascination with us, but that’s not something I’m going to spend much time on.”
Republican operatives make no secret of the fact that they are thinking hard about how to frame a campaign against Hillary Clinton. “They will basically try to tie the two of them together,” Frank Luntz, a Republican media consultant, told me. “And, among Republicans, if you didn’t like the original, you’ll hate the new version.
“They will viscerally hate her, because she’s smart, because she’s ideological, and because they are generally afraid of her world view,” he went on. “With Bill Clinton, you could negotiate with him. The feeling is, you can’t move her. He’s warm, she’s cold; he was a politician, she’s a theoretician. This is how people feel—and perception is reality.”
However, Luntz said that he would be cautious about making a campaign issue of Clinton’s past infidelities; only a return to bad behavior would matter. “The only people who care are people who really hate them, the people who got burned by them—conservative Republicans,” Luntz said. “But if it comes back—if he is an idiot and they start taking pictures again—it will cause her a world of problems. You won’t want to cover it, but the News and the Post would love it. Some British tab will grab it, and then it’s open season.”
When I brought up the subject of the Times piece to Clinton later, at his office in Harlem, he laughed and said, “How weird was that?”
Then he narrowed his eyes to slits. “It didn’t bother me as much as it did a lot of people last time,” he said. “But I just want to—That’s their choice. Except this time, with all the problems this country has, if the New York Times really wants to take the place of the Enquirer, and the Globe and the Star, you know there are alternative means of communication this year. And I don’t know how long people in the press think they can do that to one party, instead of both, by themselves. I think this is nuts, myself. I’ve never engaged in it, and I never will.
“First of all,” he continued, “I’m about to be sixty years old and I damn near died. And I’m worried about how many lives I can save before I do die. So, for me, I’m just blowing it off. I read the letters to the editor, in the New York Times, and I was shocked at the number of people who said, ‘You know, I didn’t vote for that guy, and I didn’t vote for her, but have you lost your mind?’ That’s sort of what I thought. And I think it got pretty well the response that it deserved. But ask me if I’m worried about all of that? Not a bit.”
But was he prepared to go through it again? I asked.
“You know, when I look at how old I am, and see my gray hair in the mirror, I can’t imagine that anybody’s interested in my life anymore,” Clinton said. “But, for one thing, I literally have no idea yet whether my wife will want to run for President. That’s the first thing. And I know nobody believes that, but I do not believe she has made that decision. And I believe if she had firmly decided to do that, I would know. I believe that.
“Secondly, I said this a thousand times, I’ll say it again. I don’t know if she can win if she runs. I do believe that if she were elected she would be magnificent. She is an exceptionally able person who has been subject to a level of scrutiny and criticism that I think is almost amazing, and has not gotten half the credit she deserves for what she’s done. But she has risen against all the odds. And like me she believes in working with Republicans when she can, and disagreeing with them when she needs to.
“Third, if she decides that’s what she wants to do, I’ll be for it, and I’ll work for it, and I know what the deal is. You’ve got to understand—I have a whole different attitude to life now. Every day I get up is a gift. I could have died two years ago. And I’m in great health, I think. I feel good, I think I’m out there saving lives, I think I’m helping change the world, and it’s just part of the cost of doing business. I mean, if you want to run for President in this day and age, and you don’t want to be criticized, that’s like Yao Ming saying, ‘Why are they fouling me? I’m just a seven-foot-five-inch basketball player! Why are they being so mean to me?’ We know what the deal is—at least we know for the last thirty years what’s happened to the course of American politics. I wouldn’t be surprised, I must say, if those little letters to the editor of the New York Times weren’t indicative of a huge bipartisan urge to get away from all that, because I think people believe the country’s if not in trouble then in crisis, that we’ve got a lot of big decisions to make about where we’re going. But I’m completely relaxed about it. Whatever happens, fine with me.”
At times, Clinton’s hopscotch through Africa seemed like one of those vaudeville routines in which a storyteller steps to the lip of the stage to recount his trip around the world as a painted backdrop scrolls behind him: Big Ben, the Kremlin, the Taj Mahal ...
The tarmac of Kamuzu Airport, in Lilongwe, Malawi, was prepared for the arrival of its distinguished visitor. A red runner carpet stretched a hundred yards across the pavement. Tribal dancers performed in leopard skins and cut-off jeans; the tribal singers wore long dresses emblazoned with multiple portraits of ears of maize and of the President, Bingu wa Mutharika.
Just before Clinton’s plane landed, a motorcade pulled up to the red carpet and President Bingu, tall and mountainous, emerged from a Toyota Land Cruiser. Bingu’s loafers went unsullied by uncarpeted ground, and a uniformed general held an open umbrella over his head to shade him from the sun as he walked toward the plane.
The Malawi stop lasted just a few hours; its purpose was the signing of a memorandum of understanding about a new Clinton development project backed by a Scottish sporting-goods magnate, Sir Tom Hunter. “This will seem like a political pageant,” Ira Magaziner said, “but we’ll ride off of his few hours in Malawi for years. There will be pictures of him in government offices, people will have memories of meeting him, and it will pay off politically.”
The roads leading back to the Lilongwe airport were lined with men, nearly all of them young and out of work. Clinton told his driver to pull over, and he allowed the crowds to converge upon him. And there he was, the ex-President, his corona of white hair and his pink delighted face bobbing above the crowd, hundreds of people trying to touch his outstretched hands. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a man happier than Clinton at that moment. The official videographer took it all in.
We landed at the airport in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, after dark. This was Clinton’s fourth visit in eight years. The first was in 1998, when, in the middle of an extended Presidential tour of Africa, he came to the airport to apologize for American inaction during the hundred-day genocide, four years earlier. “It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family,” he said that day, “but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.”
Around eight hundred thousand people, mainly Tutsis, were slaughtered in 1994. Today, more than a hundred and fifty thousand people in Rwanda are infected with H.I.V. Clinton may be
defensive and self-forgiving about his Administration’s record on AIDS, but he does admit to a deep sense of guilt about, and duty to, Rwanda.
Some of the traveling party went from the airport to the genocide museum. In the front yard of the museum are mass graves holding the remains of more than a quarter of a million Rwandans. Inside, the display cases hold hundreds of skulls and femurs. Clinton, who had been to the museum before, went to the “Presidential suite” at the Intercontinental Hotel to relax.
Later that night, Clinton invited everyone traveling with him, along with the heads of the foundation staff in Rwanda, up to his suite for dinner. At first, he talked about his meetings with some of the survivors of the genocide, but pretty quickly he seemed eager to talk about more distant subjects: wind and solar power, the frustrations with the Gore campaign in 2000 (“But he won, that’s crystal clear to me”), and Barack Obama, who he thinks has the intelligence and the toughness necessary to be President but has to be careful about running too soon—“like John Edwards.”
Later, when I asked Clinton about Rwanda, he said that the calamity in Somalia and the crisis in the Balkans had been distractions but that his inaction in Rwanda was the worst foreign-policy mistake of his Administration.
“Whatever happened, I have to take responsibility for it,” he said. “We never even had a staff meeting on it. But I don’t blame anybody that works for me. That was my fault. I should
have been alert and alive to it. And that’s why I went there and apologized in ’98. I’ve always been surprised at how much they wanted me to come back, accepting my help on their holocaust memorial. Every time I ask, they say, ‘You know, we did this to ourselves, you didn’t make us do it—I wish you’d come.’ And then they always say, ‘Besides, you were the only one who ever apologized. Nobody else even said they were sorry.’ So all I can do is—I just have to face it. It was just one of those things that happen. It is inexplicable to me looking back, but when we lived it forward, in the aftermath of Somalia, trying to get the support from a fairly isolationist Congress at the time—including some elements in both parties—to get into Bosnia, where I felt we had an overwhelming national interest and a moral imperative, we just blew it. I blew it. I just, I feel terrible about it, and all I can ever do is tell them the truth, and not try to sugarcoat it, and try to make it up to them.”
In the morning, we flew east in Russian helicopters to the compound of the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame. The bush was lush and green, and, from the air, we saw only the occasional village. After half an hour, we landed in a field of high grass a few hundred yards up a hill from Lake Muhazi. A bus met us and took us through the gates of the Kagame compound. The property, with corrals and guesthouses, seemed like an African version of Southfork.
Kagame, who spent much of his career as a guerrilla fighter in Uganda and Rwanda, came out to greet Clinton wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt and a pair of Dockers. He led Clinton around the property to see his guard dogs and then to a corral where he kept some cattle with long, undulating horns.
“They are called inyambo,” Kagame said.
Clinton smiled and then let his jaw drop a little. “A-ma-zing,” he said.
The President of Rwanda beamed. “These cows provide only low-fat milk,” he said.
“No fat?” the recent cardiac patient said appreciatively.
“Drink as much as you want,” Kagame said. “No problem.”
As we walked away, Ira Magaziner, ever the stickler, said quietly, “Actually, with the African diet it would be better to have high-fat milk.”
Kagame’s staff had erected a huge tent in the back yard, and there were platters of eggs, toast, and fruit for breakfast.
I sat next to a tall, slender woman dressed in a formal blue pants suit. We chatted politely for a while about the crested cranes and other species that roamed the property, and it emerged that she was Lieutenant Colonel Rose Kabuye, the chief of protocol and the highest-ranking woman in the Rwandan Army. Kabuye had trained with Kagame’s forces in Uganda and took part in the siege of Kigali in 1994; when the killing stopped, she became mayor of the city. She used to carry a Kalashnikov. Now she had a butterfly pin clipped to her lapel.
“I think we like Clinton because he was the only world leader who came here and said how sorry he was—and that meant a lot to Africans,” she said. “I wish others, including American Presidents, would come, too.”
After breakfast, we boarded the helicopters, Kagame in tow, and headed for a hospital in the village of Rwinkwavu. The hospital used to serve a nearby tin mine run by Belgian colonials; now it is run by Paul Farmer, an infectious disease specialist who first made his mark in Haiti and later in Russia, South America, and Africa. Farmer, who began Partners in Health, is hoping that with financing from the Clinton Foundation, the Rwandan government, and other sources he will be able to set up similar hospitals around the country. Farmer led Clinton around the hospital, which treated forty thousand patients last year; it is a catchment point for much of eastern Rwanda, the poorest sector of the country. Mothers and children rested together in narrow beds and watched, wide-eyed, as Clinton strode through the ward. In a hallway, a few patients lined up to tell Clinton of their experiences. Speaking Kinyarwanda, a woman named Solange described how she and her husband, both suffering from AIDS symptoms, sold their land in order to get treatment. She was brought to the hospital in a coma in February, and her husband died soon afterward. She began drug treatments in May. Her recovery, she said, “thanks to God,” has been “unbelievable.”
“How do you feel now?” Kagame asked her.
“I feel strong,” she said. Then she sang a traditional Rwandan song: “If it weren’t for the power of the Almighty, I would die.” When she stopped singing, she began to cry as she thanked Clinton and the doctors for helping to save her life.
Before Kagame boarded his helicopter to return home, he explained why he had long ago made his peace with his visitor. “I accept Bill Clinton’s apologies. Looking back, he wished he had done more than he did, and that comes from a sincere person.”
Paul Farmer stood nearby, listening, knowing that soon the tour would end and he would go back to work. He is forty-six and, thanks to the reputation for selflessness he has built up in the field, he is routinely referred to as a saint—and he has the physique to prove it. “I’m the skinny one,” Paul Farmer said to me, and added, gesturing to another, distinctly less skinny American, “Meet my brother.”
Most of the doctors and notables at the clinic wore name tags announcing their bureaucratic affiliations in the world of public health. Jeff Farmer’s read “Global Ass-Whuppin’ Initiative.” The penny dropped. Jeff Farmer, a professional wrestler, had been Lightning in the tag team of Thunder & Lightning. Jeff Farmer’s signature hold remains the Scorpion Death Lock.
Bill Clinton generally maintains the tradition of former Presidents respecting their successors, but the mixture of motives that pull at him is unique. Having stepped off the electoral merry-go-round for good, an ex-President is theoretically free to say what he really thinks. But what about an ex-President whose spouse is a senator contemplating a run for even higher office? Hillary Clinton’s ambitions stoke Bill Clinton’s instinct to be combative on her behalf; by the same token, he must try not to say things that would force her to do a lot of explaining. “My sense is that he trims his sails on an awful lot of issues because of what it might do in terms of Hillary’s career,” one insider close to both Clintons said.
As for Clinton’s attitude to his White House successor, his role as the Democratic Party’s (and his wife’s) biggest gun pushes him in one direction, while his role as a non-partisan, above-the-fray doer of global good deeds pushes him in another. A further complication is that his successor’s father is the predecessor whose bid for reelection he quashed in 1992. If the antecedents are confusing, the emotions are, too. So friendly has Clinton grown with his old opponent George H. W. Bush—they have raised more than a hundred million dollars together, to help the victims of the Asian tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005—that one member of the Clintons’ circle worries that “the Bush people worked hard to co-opt him,” keeping Clinton quiet, or at least polite, by keeping him close.
Many of Clinton’s sentences begin “When I was President” or “During our Administration,” but he does not often begin with, for instance, “If I were President.” And yet when I asked him once whether he ever wished he were unhindered by the Twenty-second Amendment, he hesitated.
“9/11—I wish that I’d been there,” Clinton said. He had been in Australia that day, to give a speech. “I wish I’d been there beforehand, you know, when the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. finally said we agree that bin Laden did the Cole. We could have gone after Afghanistan. And in the aftermath I’d have liked to have been there.”
Clinton remains sensitive to accusations that he was too hesitant or distracted in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden—recently, he attacked an ABC docudrama for suggesting that his Administration, given the chance, had failed to fire on bin Laden—and so I asked him what he would have done in Bush’s place.
“I would have gone into Afghanistan, as quick as I could, just as President Bush did,” he said, “and I would have demanded that Saddam open himself up to inspections, because U.N. records indicated that there were unaccounted-for chemical and biological materials. I personally never saw any intelligence on the Al Qaeda connection or the nuclear issue, except that he had some people in labs fooling around with it.”
Once he got going, Clinton laid out a critique of the Bush Administration, though his was not remotely as harsh as the one Al Gore has provided in the past two years. Tax cuts for the top one per cent of the income scale were “ridiculous.” Working people were getting “stiffed.”
“It just makes me mad,” he said. “I just wish I were there—I wish I were there trying to articulate the alternative vision.”
When opponents of the Bush Administration express nostalgia for the Clinton era, it sometimes has less to do with policy than with the stark contrast between the two men as public speakers, as intelligences. Even Clinton’s critics who feel that he squandered his promise never speculate, as Bush’s critics often do, that he is stupid. When I asked Clinton if he thought intellect was an essential part of being President, he proceeded carefully.
“I think it’s important to be curious, I think it’s important to ask questions, I think it’s important to be secure so that you like being around people that know more about every subject than you do and still in the end you trust your own judgment once you hear them out,” he said. “So I think intellect is a good thing, unless it paralyzes your ability to make decisions because you see too much complexity. Presidents need to have what I would call a synthesizing intelligence.
“I keep reading that Bush is incurious, but when he talks to me he asks a lot of questions,” Clinton went on. “So I can’t give him a bad grade on curiosity. I think both he and his father, because they have peculiar speech patterns, have been underestimated in terms of their intellectual capacity. You know, the way they speak and all, it could be, it could just relate to the way the synapses work in their brains.
“I’ve never been worried about his intellect so much as his ideological bent. I think he believed—and perhaps correctly—that his father was defeated in ’92 because he lost the right. And he made up his mind that he’d never lose it. Kind of like George Wallace did when he was beaten for governor.
“I also think that he was genuinely more conservative on questions like concentrations of wealth and power, weakening of environmental and health regulations—things of that kind—than any President we’ve had in a very, very long time. Even more conservative than Reagan, probably, and way to the right of his father and Nixon and Eisenhower. But the thing that bothers me about having an ideology as opposed to a philosophy is that, if you have an ideology, then the outcome is dictated before the facts are in, before the arguments are heard. And that, I think, can cause problems.”
Clinton said that Bush, despite employing the slogan “compassionate conservatism,” never hid his radical-right agenda. “He said, ‘Vote for me, and I’ll give you judges like Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia,’ and that’s exactly what he did.” Clinton frequently says that he has “a theory of the case”—an overview of how the Republican Party, starting in the nineteen-seventies, moved increasingly to the right. Like many other political analysts, he believes that the Republicans were able to capitalize on the reaction to the counterculture of the nineteen-sixties and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, in 1973. “Starting in the late seventies, they really developed the ability to demonize us, independent of the fact that we were for civil rights and against the Vietnam War,” Clinton said.
He spoke with a professional’s admiration of Reagan’s calm and his talent as a political performer, but said that the Reagan campaign employed “mad dogs” in 1980. “They called our
crowd everything but a blue goose,” Clinton said. “I remember looking at these people in the voting line and thinking, Oh my God, it’s going to be a long night, because they were just glassy-eyed. They were there like somebody had fed them some sort of a controlled substance.”
In the early nineties, Clinton theorized, “with the increasing diversity in America, and the increasing urbanization, and the suburbs becoming more communitarian and less isolationist, our base slowly moved up to theirs. So, by the time Al Gore ran, we had equal bases.
“What that means is,” he continued, “they can run somebody convicted of armed robbery and, barring a national catastrophe like 9/11, we couldn’t win by more than fifty-five to forty-five, and neither could they, under the present circumstances.”
Clinton is clearly anticipating a widening attack on Hillary’s agonized Senate vote on Iraq in October, 2002. Her speech before the vote denounced preemptive war and asked for greater attempts at diplomacy and weapons inspections in Iraq, but in the end she remains vulnerable to the ever-increasing number of people furious about the war. And so Clinton, in effect, provides her defense. “It would really be crazy,” he said, “if the anti-war element of our Party thought that the most important thing to do was to beat up on the Democrats, and gave the Republicans a free ride.”
Clinton had told me that the Bush Administration’s plan for post-invasion Iraq “was the sort of thing two students of international relations could have thrown together in forty-five minutes. They were arrogant. They thought it would be easy and they thought there would be no terrorism, that everyone would be on their side.” In more formal interviews, the rambling answer he gave to my questions about what the United States had to do next in Iraq was, like some of Hillary’s speeches, long on complexity and alternatives, short on direction, and unlikely to satisfy voters demanding a renunciation of the war and a rapid withdrawal of American forces.
“I think first of all you’ve got to remind people that we didn’t get into this mess overnight—and we’re not going to get out of it overnight, that we might decide that it’s a lost cause and we just have to withdraw in an expeditious fashion,” he said. “But that whether you were for or against the original action, it would be better if it did not end in calamity and chaos, mass killing within Iraq, more terrorist bases there. And I think you have to say that this is a national-security issue—and I say that because I don’t think we should have done it until after the U.N. inspections were over, until we had secured Afghanistan, and we had a consensus in the world community. I never thought Saddam presented any kind of a terrorist threat. But once you break these eggs you’ve got to kind of make an omelette. And we’ve just got to be straight about that. And, if it is obvious that there is nothing positive that can come from our committed involvement there, then we have to say we’d be prepared to say we’ll come home—but we’re not there yet. Seventy per cent of those people did vote. They voted to set up this government. And most of them, if left to their own devices without the people with the guns in the middle, would find some way to make some sort of decent go of it.”
Clinton had a long day ahead of him in Addis Ababa. In the morning, in a Soviet-style government building that looked as if it had been airlifted from downtown Novosibirsk, he met with Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister. Then it was on to an AIDS clinic and a speech at the African Union.
In every city where he had time, Clinton called for a few hours of cultural expeditions or shopping—a break. In Durban, he’d picked up an eight-foot-tall wooden giraffe for Hillary (“She loves giraffes!”) and at a crafts store in Addis he bought loads of gifts for friends and staff, including a gigantic silver Coptic crucifix. His aide Justin Cooper left the store with his arms so full he looked as if he had looted it. Then, at Clinton’s command, we visited the National Museum, which houses the bones of “Lucy,” a hominid who lived more than three million years ago. The museum was dingy and underfunded, but the guides were thrilled to open the place to Clinton, even though it was their day off. As he walked past the exhibits, Clinton listened a little and talked a lot. He talked about the giant pigs, the razorbacks, that roam his home state. And as he walked past some of the display cases he started talking about the wonders of the bonobo apes.
“They have the most incredibly developed social sense,” he said. “When one of them makes a kill, they share the food, unlike all the other apes.” And then, Clinton said, with a laugh, “they fall down to the ground and have group sex! It’s a way of relieving aggression!” Such behavior, he said, “would drive the Christian right crazy!”
There wasn’t much anyone could add to that, so we walked past the bones and the maps in silence for a while. Then Clinton said, “Hillary used to read Archaeology and she told me all about this stuff.”
That night, Clinton invited the travelling party to Castelli’s, an Italian restaurant on Mahatma Gandhi Street, near the Mercato, the market area. The original owner had come to Ethiopia in the thirties with Mussolini’s occupying army and stayed behind; the family members who run it now speak fluent Amharic. There were plates of marinated eggplant and zucchini, prosciutto di Parma shipped to Djibouti from Italy and driven to Addis; there were two kinds of spaghetti, two of ravioli; there was roast chicken. On the wall were pictures of Jimmy Carter, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie with the owners.
I sat across from Clinton. There were bags under his eyes, and yet he seemed in a good mood, eating, joking around. (He barely touches wine or other alcohol.) And then, without a question or a prodding comment, Clinton started to talk about Whitewater, about Kenneth Starr, about how allowing the appointment of a special prosecutor had been “the worst decision” of his Presidency. He talked about old enemies in Arkansas, about the Resolution Trust Corporation, about Gennifer Flowers, about Susan Schmidt, of the Washington Post (“a Xerox machine for Ken Starr”). This went on for twenty minutes, at least. A few times, when he started pointing across the table, when his carotid artery seemed to inflate like a jammed garden hose, you could see just how deeply he still feels the attacks of the late nineties.
Someone asked him if he thought it would be unbearable to go through all of it again, as he inevitably would if Hillary ran for President in 2008.
“I don’t care,” he said, “because we know we did nothing wrong.”
Later, Clinton’s aides expressed little surprise at his outburst. John Podesta, who had been at the dinner, said, “He can bring it up and be pissed off all over again, but he really has moved
on. He reminds himself of what Mandela told him at Robben Island. Clinton asked, ‘How did you forgive your jailers?’ And Mandela said, ‘When I walked out of the gate I knew that if I continued to hate these people I was still in prison.’ Clinton believes it, but he has to keep reminding himself. That story is a little bit of a prayer.”
Despite Clinton’s declarations of inner peace, his “prayer” does not always keep the furies, the old resentments, at bay. “The method he uses to live with himself is to make a clear and precise argument that this was something that others had done to him and not that he had done to himself,” Leon Panetta said. “Because of his brainpower, he can create a logic for anything. But deep down he would be such a good person if he could just accept the fact that he screwed up and made mistakes, and move on. ”
Rahm Emanuel told me that this was too harsh an interpretation, that the attack on the Clintons in the nineties was so severe and baseless, in his view, that a moment of anger over dinner was nothing. He mentioned a recent report in the Chicago Tribune which revealed that
the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, began his career in Congress with a net worth of three hundred thousand dollars and now has assets of six million, owing largely to an almost fantastical increase in the value of land near a highway project that he helped push through Congress. “The Speaker came in with three hundred thousand dollars and now has six million in real estate and no one asks a question? Your question is ‘Why is Clinton so angry?’ My question is ‘Why are you so stupid?’ ”
The last day of the trip was, when time zones were taken into account, two days: Addis Ababa to Abuja, Nigeria, to Monrovia, Liberia, to the Azores (for refueling), to the Westchester County Airport, in White Plains, New York.
In the morning, when we arrived in Abuja—the Brasília of Nigeria, an artificial capital city distant from the poverty of Lagos and the villages—Clinton was worn out and in a foul mood. As we were getting ready to leave the plane, he accosted Eric Nonacs, an intelligent and extremely efficient foreign-policy aide, and asked him for some detailed information on the Millennium Debt Relief Initiative.
Nonacs did not have everything at hand.
Clinton scowled. “How hard can it be, Eric?” he said, in the unloveliest of tones.
Clinton’s aides are constantly half-listening to the world and pecking away at their BlackBerrys; normally, they could quickly summon any information they needed from the home office in New York or from the Internet, but they were out of electronic range.
Clinton was scheduled to meet with Olusegun Obasanjo, the Nigerian President, in an hour, and it was a long ride into town. He would not let his displeasure go. He brooded and shoved papers into his portfolio.
Nonacs kept silent, knowing better than to explain further. The other aides wore pinched expressions, like professionals at a funeral home. “I mean, how can we not know this?” Clinton groused.
Because the Nigerians would not allow more than one vehicle on the grounds of the Presidential complex, Clinton’s entire contingent jammed into one white van, with Clinton in the second row of seats. He worked moodily on some papers. Abuja was hot and steamy that morning, but, unaccountably, with the windows closed, Clinton absently reached up and, with a flick, shut off the air-conditioning. Very soon the air inside the van was stale and overheated. Nonacs didn’t realize who had shut off the air and said, “Hey, isn’t there any air in here? What’s the air-conditioning situ—” He was in mid-syllable when Magaziner and Podesta turned to him, their eyes wide. Nonacs, thankfully, was quick to understand. We rode another half hour until finally someone intuited that Clinton’s mood had passed and a brave soul turned on the A.C. Clinton did not notice. The weather had changed.
Obasanjo, wearing a spectacularly iridescent dashiki and carrying a carved walking stick, received Clinton and his aides in a reception room lined with marble and glass. The two men have developed a close relationship, but evidently this session was not the highlight of their years together, for when Clinton got back in the van he said with frustration, “That was quite a meeting, wasn’t it?”
We headed for a village nearby where Clinton thought that he could kill half an hour looking at the local crafts. He was buoyant again. At one of the gift stores, he lectured the guide, and me, on how, when he was in Kazakhstan, he bought a bow and arrow made of a composite: “The first composite was made a thousand years ago by the Mongols. Did you know that? It’s fascinating.”
On the plane home, Clinton went in for some recreational multitasking, eating, gossiping, playing endless hands of Oh Hell. There were fifteen hours left to fly and a ten-minute drive from the airport before he’d be in Chappaqua. When we landed in White Plains, a dozen black cars were there to meet us. Clinton seemed reluctant to rush home; he was buzzy with a sense of accomplishment. On the last leg of the flight, he’d availed himself of the plane’s bedroom, with its double bed and shower, but he said, “I had a hard time sleeping, I was just so excited about the trip!”
“Mr. President, that’s some giraffe,” I said. “It must be seven, eight feet tall.”