Former president Bill Clinton made a low-key return to the public stage last night following his latest surgery, appearing in Northern Virginia to accept an award recognizing his work to promote AIDS treatment and prevention in the developing world.
The 42nd president looked fit and well-rested -- in contrast to his drawn and fatigued appearance at some events before his March 10 surgery -- and made no mention of his health problems during an hour-long appearance.
Former President Bill Clinton speaks in Arlington.
(Kevin Wolf -- AP)
Instead, he said it was "unconscionable" how little wealthy countries are doing to prevent a public health catastrophe in Africa and other regions with rampant HIV.
Clinton's medical episode, however, clearly colored the evening's mood. He received whoops and cheers from the tuxedoed physicians and scientists who greeted him at the annual awards banquet for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. To minimize his activity, he arrived at the end of the dinner, and staff members warned event organizers and guests that he had to leave quickly (though Clinton, in keeping with his usual practice, lingered to shake hands and have photographs taken).
Clinton has made the fight against HIV abroad one of the centerpiece issues of his ex-presidency, and his foundation has negotiated lower drug prices and helped craft prevention and treatment programs in numerous countries. He said he hopes that by 2008, about 2 million people will be covered by his foundation's programs.
Such efforts earned him the group's annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Award for Humanitarian Contributions.
He used his award to pivot into a broader lecture about the nation's role in the world. After he and President Bush's father, former president George H.W. Bush, traveled to Southeast Asia last month to help promote tsunami relief, Clinton said a poll in Indonesia showed support for the United States rising from 36 to 60 percent virtually overnight in the world's largest Muslim country, while support for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden dropped from 58 to 28 percent.
He said the tsunami relief and AIDS campaigns underscore his message to the United States and other countries: "If you live in an interdependent world where you cannot kill, jail or occupy all your enemies, you had better spend some of that money to make a world with more friends and fewer enemies."
Clinton's latest surgery, to remove fluid around his left lung as well as scar tissue, was a follow-up to heart bypass surgery he had in September after doctors found massive artery blockage. His first return from the recovery bed, last October, was a far more rousing event -- a huge Philadelphia rally for 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry.
There were a handful of unspoken ironies at last night's gathering. The event hailing his ex-presidency took place at the Pentagon City hotel that played a cameo role in the controversy that for a time threatened to end his presidency prematurely. It was at this same Ritz-Carlton in 1998 where prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr's investigators first confronted Monica S. Lewinsky in a sting operation, pressing her to admit her affair with Clinton and cooperate in an investigation.
Also last night, Clinton spoke glowingly about former president Jimmy Carter, a man with whom he has long had a complicated relationship -- respect alternating with resentment about controversies from Clinton's presidency and Arkansas governorship before that.
Last night, Clinton said Carter has had the most admirable ex-presidency of any modern White House occupant, and noted that when he was 29 he ran Carter's presidential campaign in Arkansas in 1976 -- winning 65 percent.
"That was back before white southerners knew that God was a conservative Republican," he joked.