By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 16, 2010; C01
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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Bill Clinton is credited with prioritizing Haiti more than any other modern president; in 1995, he became the first commander in chief to visit the island since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But Clinton failed to achieve his goal of economic growth in Haiti. His administration intervened in 1994 to reinstall President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and a democratic government in the wake of a military coup. When Republicans took over Congress the next year, they checked Clinton's every step in Haiti, and within two years Clinton withdrew U.S. troops from Haiti. The island state has continued to be plagued by crime and drug trafficking.
"The unfinished business was whether there could be enough assistance to get an infrastructure to allow Haiti to dream of becoming this century's South Korea," said Taylor Branch, a longtime friend. "Naturally, Clinton hoped that Haiti could have an economic rebirth to go along with this political rebirth. But it didn't happen."
Still, Clinton has been regarded as a harbinger of hope to the Haitian people. He recently visited Milot, a town in northern Haiti, where he drew a large and unexpected crowd of locals in a soccer field. They recognized the former president.
"He kind of charged into the crowd," said Paul Farmer, a public-health expert and deputy U.N. envoy to Haiti, who accompanied Clinton on the trip. "He was so happy. It sounds corny, but I've seen that again and again. He has this real connection."
Last summer, Clinton took a walk with Haitian President René Préval down a street in Gonaives that had just been reconstructed following the 2008 hurricanes. Hundreds of neighbors gathered around them and Clinton spent so much time talking with the locals, aides said, that it took one hour to walk a quarter-mile.
"He is regarded as someone who's fundamentally sympathetic to the Haitians, someone who has argued they have a right to dignity and respect -- and to chose their own leaders," Farmer said.
In his post-presidency, Clinton has tried to leverage his prestige to focus on long-term development in Haiti, helping secure millions of dollars in aid. Wirth has traveled with the Clintons to Haiti. "He asks, 'What can we do?' " Wirth said. "This is such a problem . . . and people have almost such enormous fatigue facing the size of this challenge. He lifts people above that fatigue and into action again."
Asked if he is committing himself to Haiti's cause for near future, Clinton said: "Oh, you bet."
"You've seen the pictures," he said. "The streets are full of the wounded, the orphaned and the dead. It's a devastating, devastating thing. . . . These people, they deserve their chance to build a modern life, and I think they can do it."
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On Thursday, Clinton and Farmer convened a long-scheduled meeting in Clinton's Harlem office of about 50 philanthropists, financiers and leaders of nongovernmental organizations interested in the long-term development of Haiti. Clinton said his strategy is to "build back better." That means not just fixing roads, but also planting trees on deforested hillsides, growing more mangoes to export and expanding organic recycling programs.
"The Haitians have the first chance they've had to escape their own history," Clinton said.
To Clinton, Haiti's promise can be summed up in a single briquette. Haitians cook mostly with charcoal fire, but coal is an expensive resource there. A group of entrepreneurial women he visited recently in a densely populated Port-au-Prince neighborhood found a solution. As Clinton told the story, they walk through the streets picking up trash. They mix the paper with sawdust and water and then press the water from the product to create organic briquettes.
"They can sell these things for a penny or two a piece, and three of them will prepare dinner on a typical Haitian cooking stove for much, much less -- 15 percent of the cost of making dinner with charcoal," Clinton said.
He was so impressed that he brought dozens of the briquettes to New York with him. He carries one in his bag every day, aides said, sometimes pulling a briquette out of his pocket during speeches to show audiences.
"For a few hundred thousand dollars," Clinton said, "we can spread this all over Port-au-Prince."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.