Bill Clinton, Beyond the White House

Today the former president looks like a wiser man (and it's not just the glasses).
Today the former president looks like a wiser man (and it's not just the glasses). (Chip East - Reuters)
By Tina Brown
Thursday, September 22, 2005

The big surprise of Bill Clinton's Global Initiative conference at the Sheraton Hotel in New York last week was how strangely calming it was. You would expect to emerge begging for mercy from a three-day talkathon on the world's most intractable problems emceed by history's most garrulous president -- especially if you were a survivor of one of his book tour gigs.

To be sure, Clinton, the big intellectual showoff, had never been less than brilliant on his feet, but he never knew when to stop. And all that promiscuous lateral thinking ended up sucking the air out of the room. We got so tired of his lack of discipline that by 2000 we thought we were ready for a presidency that operated by assertion. Five years later we see what that's brought.

Maybe it's the effect of his brush with death. He's pared himself down to the essentials, symbolized by the slimmed physique and the paternal reading glasses. His style was always inclusive even when he was on the attack. But now you feel he's shed the psychic baggage of the impeachment years and with it the toxic rock and roll of his constantly roiling reputation.

The new, honed Clinton on the rostrum made sure that any earnest hand-wringing grappled with the raw brutality of irreconcilables. He even saw to it that the panels he moderated actually ran on time.

Every session began with a stroll to the podium to announce a big-bucks pledge for some imaginative initiative ($1.25 billion by the conference's close).

"Now here's something else in my hot little hand," the former prez would say, dangling his glasses, with his best "doggone" smile. "My old friend Carlos Slim Helu here has just said he's willing to develop a cell phone network for Gaza and link it to Jordan's network! Why, thanks, Carlos. Come up here and be recognized." A big hand for Carlos, who turns out to be the richest man in Latin America.

This wasn't just the usual FOBs from Park Avenue and Hollywood (though there were plenty of those cruising around). With so many world policy chiefs present -- Tony Blair, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Condi Rice, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, even Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, for heaven's sake -- the conference was a tour d'horizon of Clinton's life, and head, since the White House. (So that's what he's been doing on all those far-flung speaking gigs -- scarfing down public policy from the global minibar.) No one has figured out before how to leverage a post-presidency like this. Jimmy Carter's version has been about the power of example. Clinton's is about the power of power. He's been everywhere, met everyone (my favorite Clintonian aside: "As someone who went to Nigeria to plead for the life of a woman condemned under sharia law, I thank you for doing this."). Now he's putting that Rolodex to work for something bigger than the next campaign.

Welcome to Planet Clinton, an interconnected world that's a solar system and a wormhole away from Bush country. Here Shimon Peres and Oprah Winfrey are just members of the audience. Barbra Streisand looks like any peppy matron taking an extension course. Brad Pitt's staccato hair and Angelina Jolie's duvet lips (sighted in the audience of Jeffrey Sachs's poverty panel) are reduced to a responsible human scale. Wandering out of a kitchen exit I found myself in a milling informal think tank with the former president expounding to the two guys who founded Google and a sprightly "Planet of the Apes" figure who turned out to be Mick Jagger.

Unlike Davos and other high-octane gabfests, however, Clinton's conference wasn't just about elephant bumping. For every VIP there was some earnest activist or intellectual who has caught his eye.

Clinton seems to have found his role as facilitator-in-chief, urging us to give up our deadly national passivity and start thinking things through for ourselves. Commandeering the role of government through civic action suddenly feels like a very empowering notion -- the alternative being to find oneself stranded in a flood waving a shirt from a rooftop.

It's an indicator of how the mood has changed that it was Al Gore who brought the house down. His Category 5 tirade on the impending calamity of unaddressed climate change electrified the lunch crowd. Who knew this Gore existed?

The answer is he didn't. Like Clinton, Gore has been liberated by cauterized rage at what has happened to the country in the past five years.

The White House doesn't seem to realize it yet, but we are entering a post-spin era in public life. The shift has long been underway in the business world, propelled by the Enron catastrophe and the collapse of the dot-com bubble. Process, not perception, is king in boardrooms today. After so much corporate malfeasance it all got too dire to put up with fake CEOs anymore.

Now after the Iraq debacle, the ballooning deficit and the aftermath of Katrina, Americans are pining for grounded leaders in public office, too -- leaders who have moral conviction, yes, but also the gnarly, dexterous ability to think things through.

The irony is that no one would have believed that Clinton -- the king of spin, who went out under a cloud of indecency five years ago -- could climb back to such credibility. Monica is fading and he's backlit now by his disciplined handling of the economy, the unsought comparisons of how well FEMA used to perform under his watch and the enlightened nature of his global activism.

A weird reputational exchange has taken place between Clinton and President Bush. After so much dishonest reasoning it's the vaunted "CEO president" who begins to look like the callow, fumbling adolescent. And it's the sexually incontinent, burger-guzzling, late-night-gabbing Bubba who is emerging as a great CEO of America.

"We are so arrogant because we are obsessed with the present," he told his guests at the conference's end. "I've reached an age now where it doesn't matter whatever happens to me. I just don't want anybody to die before their time anymore."

On Clinton's face these days is a look of wry, judicious knowingness. It's the look of political wisdom, and it imparted to his conference's departing crowd something like serenity.

2005Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company