Bill Clinton, messiah.

By

New York, New York

It was almost midnight at the Manhattan sushi hotspot Nobu Fifty
Seven, and Bill Clinton was briefing Elvis Costello on the future
of New Orleans. "First you've got to flush the lake. Just flush
it," Clinton explained. Between the low thrum of club music and the
starstruck admirers jockeying for position, it was impossible to
hear much more, but one thing was clear: Clinton was really
enjoying himself. As several celebrities--including Jeremy Piven of
HBO's "Entourage," millionaire playboy Steve Bing, and the dapper
Nobu himself-- hovered on the margins, Clinton talked on ... and on
... and on. A few minutes earlier, Costello had looked starstruck
himself. But now, his enthusiasm seemed to be waning. In fact, as
Clinton droned on, I detected a certain glaze forming behind the
smartly dressed rocker's famous black-rimmed glasses.If Clinton noticed, he didn't care. These are the moments he lives
for. This was the first evening of the Clinton Global Initiative--a
sprawling three-day extravaganza that was equal parts Davos,
Renaissance Weekend, charitable telethon, and self-celebration. The
stated purpose of the conference was to bring together top thinkers
and leaders from public and private life to help devise solutions
to intractable world problems. But, most of all, this was the Bill
Clinton show--a chance for the ex-president to talk an endless
number of hapless (though often rich and famous) souls like
Costello blue in the face.

Clinton's pathological need for adulation is welldocumented. (When a
friend of mine--who is not famous and had never spoken with Clinton
before--ran into the ex-president at a hotel gym recently, he had
to fabricate an excuse to escape his long-winded ruminations.) But,
in New York last week, Clinton was after something more. It's not a
jealous effort to remind Americans that life was better under his
presidency, something he seemed keen to do during the first term of
the Bush administration. Indeed, Clinton has steadily evolved into
a less partisan figure: He has raised money for tsunami victims with
the first President Bush and even appeared with George W. in the
immediate aftermath of the disaster, declining to join the
post-Katrina attacks on the Bush administration--all of which has
some fellow Democrats exasperated. "People want to tell him, `Do
you remember the fucking things [the Bushies] said about you when
you left office? Stealing furniture and trashing the place?'" one
Clintonite whispered to me.

But no, it seems that Clinton doesn't want to remember. He has other
plans, a larger mission that transcends the petty squabbles of U.S.
politics. And his weekend in Midtown Manhattan offered a clue to
what it is.

In some ways, Clinton's summit was reminiscent of his free-form
White House bull sessions. The guest list of about 2,000 attendees
included dozens of old Clintonites, including Terry McAuliffe,
Sandy Berger, Mack McLarty, Bruce Lindsey, George Stephanopoulos,
Robert Rubin, Ira Magaziner, Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright,
and John Podesta. But now there were also corporate moguls (Richard
Parsons of Time Warner, Starbucks CEO Jim Donald), dignitaries
(Tony Blair, Shimon Peres, the emir of Qatar, King Abdullah II of
Jordan), save-the- world celebrities (Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt,
Bono), and even Republicans (Rubert Murdoch, Condoleezza Rice,
Elizabeth Cheney). All told, the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers
on 7th Avenue had become a kind of modern-day Mount Olympus. The
conference's specific topics were suitably grandiose: poverty,
climate change, religious strife, and Third World governance.

Even by Clinton's standards, these issues were considered in
Oprah-esque fashion. The conference's several panel discussions
were held on stages where participants reclined in pristine white
armchairs under soft hues of pink and blue. (One discussion opened
with a Coldplay soundtrack as Rice, Blair, and Abdullah strolled
onstage.) Before another panel, a female staffer appeared in the
media center. "Poverty? Poverty? Follow me," she said, before
leading a clutch of hacks past a sign that read the escape from
poverty and into a dimly lit ballroom. Inside, Berger was presiding
onstage before a white backdrop upon which poverty glowed in the
kind of purple-pink lettering you might find outside a chic TriBeCa
cafe. Poverty, of course, was an unfamiliar condition to those
present, many of whom had paid a

$15,000 registration fee to attend. At one point, one attendee
whispered to an associate, "She has her own helicopter."

A little cognitive dissonance didn't preclude some genuinely noble
results. Clinton claims to have secured well over

$1.25 billion in specific commitments from conference attendees to
fund projects in the conference's four target areas. The pledges,
written documents that Clinton required donors literally to sign
"on the dotted line," ranged from $1 million (to improve the
justice systems of Bolivia and Peru) to a promise by Michael
Jordan's mother (for a hospital in Nairobi) to $1.5 million for
"cheap sustainable mobility"--translation: free bicycles--for Sri
Lankan tsunami survivors. (Some savvy observers insisted that
Clinton's figure was inflated, saying certain "new" commitments
were hyped-up extensions of preexisting programs. One attendee
joked that some pledges read like little more than the sponsoring
organizations' mission statements. But a Clinton spokesman told me
that "every commitment" was "done specifically for ... or inspired
by" the New York event.)

Clinton constantly announced the latest dollar figure like a
telethon host. But he appeared even more interested in the big
ideas at play. Many of the conference's panels and "breakout
sessions" seemed to accomplish little, producing either platitudes,
such as Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal's pronouncement that "[w]e all
value human life.... Let us work together on all these issues," or
small-bore ideas like a proposal to print more Korans in Europe to
promote religious understanding. Such moments led one reporter to
call her editor in a mild panic. "It's just, like, so incredibly
boring.... I feel like this is just a big waste of time."

For Clinton, it was just the opposite. Partly, it was a chance to
show off his astounding grasp of global affairs, whether it was the
15,000 job losses in "the little mountain kingdom of Lesotho" due
to an expired trade pact; or grain production in Argentina and
Brazil ("because they have topsoil, in some places as deep as 22
feet"); or the promise of solar energy ("There are a million homes
in Latin America today where the light and cooking heat come from
solar generators ... at a cost of about a month's worth of
candles"). This, in sum, was a man who wanted to demonstrate total
understanding of the planet Earth.

And not just Earth--but also time, spirituality, and anything else
you can imagine. In New York, Clinton sounded less like a
politician and more like some mystical guru, an all-knowing
caretaker of the planet. The first hint of this transformation came
on the conference's opening day, when the former middle- class
champion offered the politically taboo notion that, by forcing
energy conservation and independence, higher oil prices are a good
thing for the United States in the long term. Later, he mused about
his mortality: "I've reached an age now where it doesn't matter
what happens to me. I just don't want anyone to die before their
time." Elsewhere, he riffed on the meaning of faith and religious
harmony: "As long as you say, I believe there's a truth, but we're
not in possession of it, we can all live together." And, perhaps
most striking, in a discussion of climate change, Clinton cast the
war on terrorism as a blip on the radar of history: "[W]e have
become arrogant in the present. All of us. Osama bin Laden's
arrogant in the present. I mean, he really thinks it matters if he
blows us up and kicks a few thousand American soldiers out of Saudi
Arabia or whatever. And we really think it matters if we blow him
up, more than how we all live and how people will be living 100
years from now."

It was a startling statement to hear so close to Ground Zero. Yet
there seemed to be nary a critic in the house. After Clinton's
closing remarks on Saturday afternoon--which featured a genuinely
affecting sermon on aids in Africa--one man turned to the attendee
next to him and declared, "He'd be elected president of the world
if he were to run!" But Clinton is finished running. Mere mortals
can never grant him the title he craves: messiah.

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.