Haiti holds a special place in the hearts of Bill and Hillary Clinton

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 16, 2010

In the strange circle of life, it all comes back to Haiti.

When Bill Clinton married Hillary Rodham in 1975, a friend gave them a trip to Haiti. Since that honeymoon vacation, the Caribbean island nation has held a life-long allure for the couple, a place they found at once desperate and enchanting, pulling at their emotions throughout his presidency and in her maiden year as secretary of state.

With the world's attention now trained on the devastated Haitian capital, rebuilding the country will be a central part of Bill and Hillary Clinton's lives going forward. And for the 42nd president, the catastrophe offers the opportunity to fulfill whatever unrealized ambitions he has for the long-suffering nation.

"This is a personal thing for us," Bill Clinton said in a interview Thursday. He said he and his wife have "always felt a special responsibility" for Haiti and its 9 million people. "She has the same memories I do. She has the same concerns I do. We love the place."

On that first trip in December 1975, Clinton said he and his wife watched as a wreath was placed at the national monument to celebrate Haitian Independence Day. They toured the old hotel where the writer Ernest Hemingway once stayed and visited a voodoo high priest dressed in all white. They sat in a lonely pew of the Port-au-Prince National Cathedral, which lies in ruin following Tuesday's earthquake.

"We just became fascinated with the country," Bill Clinton said by telephone from his charitable foundation's office in New York. "We followed all its ups and downs."

The Clintons' enthrallment has lasted for more than 30 years. They decorated their homes with Haitian art. They flew back again and again. Hillary Clinton once said that theirs was a "Haiti-obsessed family." At a dinner in Rwanda with African leaders in 2008, Bill Clinton talked more about Haiti than Rwanda.

When the Clintons learned that sites in Port-au-Prince they had visited as tourists were destroyed in the earthquake and locals they had come to know were injured or unaccounted for, Bill Clinton said he was "personally emotionally affected." His wife, he said, became "physically sick."

The Clintons are at the center of the global relief effort. Bill Clinton is the U.N. special envoy to Haiti and, together with former president George W. Bush, is leading America's humanitarian and long-term recovery efforts in Haiti. Hillary Clinton is among the top officials responsible for the nation's work aiding Haiti and its paralyzed government, and plans to fly there Saturday. "The two agencies in the world that can run these things are the United States and the United Nations, and the Clintons sit atop this package," said former senator Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation.

Three months into her term last spring, Hillary Clinton addressed the Haiti Donors Conference in Washington, where she spoke of her family's "deep commitment to Haiti and the people of Haiti." She told of visiting the Haitian town of Pignon as first lady, meeting a country doctor who ran a health, women's literacy and micro-credit center to help his countrymen gain a foothold in the global economy.

"For some of us, Haiti is a neighbor and, for others of us, it is a place of historic and cultural ties," Clinton said. "But for all of us, it is now a test of resolve and commitment."

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