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09.21.09

How Bill Got His Mojo Back

Mocking predictions that he'd be sidelined or prove an irritant to his wife, Clinton is back in business, kicking off his annual meeting this week with an address from Obama.

As the Clinton Global Initiative prepares to commence its fifth annual meeting in New York City on Tuesday, Bill Clinton’s army of efficient minions has been checking off their lists. On Monday, the press center was open and functioning in the basement of the Sheraton Centre; the television trucks had begun to surround the perimeter of the hotel; and a parade of government, corporate, and nonprofit leaders from around the world already were gliding up to the airy suite where the former president holds court in private.

In short, Clinton is doing global business as usual. And as usual, he is mocking the widespread predictions last winter that his wife’s new role as secretary of State would somehow sideline him and his foundation—or that he would prove to be an irritant to her and President Obama.

The conventional opinion voiced by pundits and politicians back then presumed that Bill Clinton would (or at least could) become a problem rather than a solution. Amplified whispers from the incoming administration suggested deep concern over possible conflicts between Bill’s philanthropy and Hillary’s diplomacy. Fundraising for his foundation—and for CGI, his enormous international effort to coordinate citizen and corporate efforts against disease, poverty, ethnic conflict, and climate change—would embarrass the United States. Relationships between his foundation and foreign governments would compromise her and the president. And sooner or later, a shadowy figure would turn up among his donors whose money would taint the State Department and the White House. Somehow, he needed to be held in check—or so said his perennial antagonists in the capital.

“We’re announcing over 250 commitments to action, sponsorship is up 20 percent, and—more than ever before—over 60 current and former heads of state will be discussing the major challenges of our time.”

None of their dire predictions has materialized, of course. During Hillary’s confirmation, he agreed to a few restrictions, in deference to the White House lawyer. To minimize any substantive conflicts, he reincorporated the Clinton Global Initiative separately from his foundation and promised not to hold any conferences in foreign countries—but neither of those adjustments has done much to cramp his style. He has regained the popularity he enjoyed before his wife’s rocky presidential campaign and resumed his ardent planetary organizing.

As he explained on Monday: “This, our fifth annual meeting, will be the biggest to date. We’re announcing over 250 commitments to action, sponsorship is up 20 percent, and—more than ever before—over 60 current and former heads of state will be discussing the major challenges of our time.”

Benjamin Sarlin: Obama Does the Clinton Show Indeed, there could be no clearer confirmation of the shift in attitudes toward Clinton than Obama’s own scheduled address to CGI’s opening plenary session on Tuesday—in person. (Last year, with the campaign bruises still healing, he didn’t show up but appeared via video link.) While he awaited the president’s arrival, Clinton was taking meetings. On the morning before CGI opened, he sat down with Danish environmental minister Connie Hedegaard to discuss the Clinton foundation’s Climate Change Initiative, the upcoming United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen—and how to bring Congress closer to the European consensus on that issue.

Such quiet meetings with significant international figures have been a regular part of Clinton’s schedule, dating back to the early days of the Bush administration. Shortly after Obama took office last January, Clinton went to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where—in the midst of the Washington clucking over his supposed “conflicts” and “freelancing”—he spent nearly two hours in an intense discussion with Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader. Whether the White House asked him to speak with the Russian leader and help “reset” bilateral relations is not clear, but it is certain that he was not asked to avoid that meeting.

The Putin encounter received little media attention. Questions about Clinton’s public role faded until early August, when he suddenly flew to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il. Culminating in the swift rescue of two American journalists held there, Clinton’s North Korea mission demonstrated that his brand of statesmanship remains powerful even in the world’s most troubled and isolated places.

Well into his post-presidency, he is among the most ambitious of statesmen and still influences nonprofit, corporate, and government behavior across the world. Presiding over a multibillion-dollar philanthropic enterprise, he is anything but irrelevant or constrained. He is not a liability, as his critics in the Washington punditocracy will forever insist. For an administration with imagination and guts, he could yet become an indispensable asset.

Joe Conason writes weekly political columns for The New York Observer and Salon.com. He is also an editor at The Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. His books include The Hunting of the President: The Ten-year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton (with Gene Lyons); Big Lies; and It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush.