Bill Clinton's Got What It Takes for 'Giving'

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

NEW YORK -- When you write a book called "Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World," a typical send-off party with Chablis and beef satay will not work. You need earnest. You need serious. You need "panel discussion," preferably with Tavis Smiley as moderator and a group of super-energetic do-gooders on hand to describe the good they do and exactly how they do it.

You need that, plus you need to get on "Oprah." And because the author of "Giving" is Bill Clinton, yesterday he got exactly what he needed.

The panel discussion part took place at the Harlem Children's Zone, a nonprofit that targets at-risk kids, in a gym that also had a stage. There was seating for a couple hundred people, and the crowd filled nearly all the seats -- most of the attendees, judging from appearances and overheard conversations, from the well-heeled, political-slash-philanthropic sphere of New York. Sprinkled throughout was an assortment of recognizable faces so random they seem popped from a lottery machine number jumbler. There's TV cooking star Rachael Ray! Isn't that Princeton professor Cornel West? What is Pat O'Brien, host of "The Insider," doing here?

Madeleine Albright -- she looks terrific!

The former president was introduced a mere 15 minutes after the scheduled noon start time, easily beating the over-under of 35 minutes established by betting members of the media. Nobody can bask in applause with quite so much style -- the gentle wave, the grin the shape of a sideways comma, the sense that he knows he deserves the accolades and yet is humbled by all the clapping, which makes people clap harder.

"He is pushing America to engage in a dialogue to make this a better world," said Smiley, by way of introduction.

Clinton took a seat, then explained the point of "Giving," which was helpful because, ironically, the publisher wasn't giving away copies, nor were there any on hand to buy. ("Selling: How Each of Us Can Earn Change" might be a title Knopf could publish next season.) Clinton has been talking up the power of private charities since he left office, and this book collects examples of self-starters and the charities they've created.

(A significant portion of the book's profits go to charities, a Clinton aide said, though he didn't know what that portion is.)

Among the charity creators: people like Majora Carter, who founded Sustainable South Bronx in 2001 to push for environmental reforms in her borough, and who was among those giving first-person testimonials onstage with Clinton and Smiley. She sat near Mark Grashow, who visited southern Africa with his wife and was so appalled by school conditions there that he set up U.S.-Africa Children's Fellowship to improve the education system there.

Arguably the most entertaining presentation belonged to McKenzie Steiner, a 6-year-old who apparently so enjoyed collecting garbage during a field trip with her parents that she decided a pick-up-trash party was what she wanted for her last birthday.

"Why did you want to pick up trash on your birthday?" Smiley asked, in the gentle voice you use for kiddies.

"I don't remember," McKenzie said into the microphone.

The correct answer was "Because it made me happy," which was one of the themes of Clinton's pitch. And pitch he can. He still has this way of presenting his ideas for reforms as simple, elegant solutions that would all but enact themselves if enough people get behind them or merely get out of their way.

He spoke, at one point, of "whittling down materials to retrofit buildings to combat global warming in Bangladesh," and whatever it means, it sure sounds like a good idea. He said the market for charitable giving was "under-organized" and "under-capitalized," and again -- it makes sense even if you're not sure about what it means.

Listening to the man think out loud again, it was hard not to pine for an era before bad news got really bad, before Sept. 11 showed up on the calendar every year as Patriot Day.

"We've gone from small 't' to capital 'T,' " said Cornel West, speaking of Trouble, as the session ended and he was getting ready to leave. "And I think there's a certain nostalgia for the commitment to the public interest on the one hand and a certain charisma on the other."

Same question, Pat O'Brien. Although, first, what are you doing here?

"I'm actually a commissioner in the state of California for California Volunteers," he said. "Appointed by Schwarzenegger."


"He's amazing," said O'Brien, referring to Clinton. "To me, it's a Bobby Kennedy thing. A lot of politicians have tried it and he actually made it work."

Rachael Ray -- who has her own cooking-related charity, Yum-o! -- you feeling any nostalgia for those earlier times?

You bet she is!

"There was no debt, we had hope, we were largely at peace," she gushed. "Recession shmession."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company