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09.22.10

Clinton Raises the Bar

Six years after launching the Clinton Global Initiative, Bill Clinton has set a new bar for post-presidency achievements. By Tom Watson.

Six years after launching the Clinton Global Initiative, Bill Clinton has set a new bar for post-presidency achievements.

Six years after unveiling his Clinton Global Initiative in midtown Manhattan, Bill Clinton is happy to reel off the numbers: 1,946 commitments to social change in the world valued at $63 billion “which have already improved nearly 300 million lives.” That's almost 5  percent of the Earth's population. And those numbers will go up this year, as the usual pilgrims for social change make their way to the cool and cavernous Sheraton on Seventh Avenue to announce philanthropic deals, forge alliances, and tweet the latest star sighting.

At the center is an ex-president almost entirely unbound. In setting up CGI, gathering the world's leaders from the corporate, NGO and government spheres, and pressing for a diverse series of philanthropic commitments around the world, Bill Clinton has created a potent alternative to the cloistered, poll-driven, media-obsessed, 24-hour cycle of the 10th circle of hell known as the American Presidency.

Bill Clinton has created a potent alternative to the cloistered, poll-driven, media-obsessed, 24-hour cycle of the 10th circle of hell known as the American Presidency.

And as CGI prepares to welcome President Obama and the first lady on Thursday, the contrast couldn't be greater. Clinton knows the frying pan currently toasting his younger successor, and 10 years into what he called "my dotage," Bill Clinton has surely created a model that fits the future ex-president from Chicago almost as well as the man from Hope, Arkansas.

CGI is not without its critics. Former President Jimmy Carter clearly intended to slight Clinton without using his name when he told NBC's Brian Williams that his own philanthropic work is "superior" to that of other former presidents. Some wonder if some of the corporate commitments announced at CGI were already in the works, the money essentially spent and not representative of new philanthropic dollars. And critics note that as with many large-scale philanthropic projects, including major foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the long-term success of the CGI commitments are still unknown. The list of CGI's commitments in every corner of human endeavor may be as impressive as the billions are on paper, but it's not as yet clear that CGI has appreciably changed the world.

But other criticisms have fallen short, mainly because of how Clinton has operated the organization. CGI was cast as some kind of alternative "administration in exile" running its own erstwhile State Department during its early years during the Bush Administration—yet Laura Bush made the most prominent speech during CGI's second meeting (she's back again this year). Nor did CGI become a major platform for Hillary Clinton's campaign for president, as many expected it would. John McCain spoke at the 2008 confab.

After the early hubbub over worries that Bill Clinton would somehow cause trouble for Secretary of State Clinton (and her boss), the opposite has been true. As Ben Smith noted today in Politico, "the caricature of an out-of-control former president that emerged on the campaign trail really hasn't come true on this large stage." No it hasn't. If anything, CGI is a valuable soft asset for U.S. foreign policy, once removed, and an avenue for putting America's best face forward to the world.

I've attended five annual meetings of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, and I know that CGI has become an important stop for anyone working in global development. Here’s what I told a reporter from a major financial newswire today when he asked how to describe CGI in a single line: “it’s an investment banking service—old style—for causes and philanthropy.” And that’s exactly what CGI is. Bill Clinton uses his considerable political capital—and the platform that comes from being an energetic, globe-trotting former president who just happens to be married to the current secretary of State—to work with foundations, nonprofits, corporations and no small number of stars and celebrities to make deals for the public good.

The annual meeting here in New York, timed to the opening of the United Nations General Assembly each year, gets most of the attention—"look, there’s Ashton and Barbra Streisand chatting with Muhammad Yunus!"—but CGI has grown into a year-round operation. This past spring, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking on social media at the CGI University gathering at the University of Miami, which evoked an entirely different vibe than the pin-striped, star-studded affair each September. In Miami, 1,800 college and university students came together to work on projects of social entrepreneurship and charity—they were energetic, entirely un-jaded, and incredibly inquisitive. For them, CGI wasn’t a platform for making major corporate commitments – it was a place to learn from their peers and gain professional assistance for projects they believe will change the world.

In truth, the annual New York meeting can be a bit old-fashioned and stodgy. Security is tight. News media is kept strictly segregated from the paying customers. The panels are endless. The ritual photos of corporate chieftains gripping giant printed commitment certificates wouldn't be out of place at the local city councilman's office. Year-to-year, the faces are the same. Yet at the annual student gathering, the opposite is true—even the bus shuttle lines at airports buzzed with excitement and possibility. There was talk of social change and its more politically dangerous cousin, social justice.

Earlier this week, Dayo Olopade suggested in a thoughtful post in The Daily Beast that CGI was becoming "a 21st century initiative that could ultimately eclipse" the United Nations. I think the analogy that fits CGI better is the "spend down" foundation—or the billionaire who refuses to take it with him. Like Warren Buffett's pledge to divest his fortune during his lifetime (and convince his friends to do the same) or the commitment of the Atlantic Philanthropies to spend its entire endowment, Clinton's own commitment to CGI comes with a use by date. He needs to spend his vast social and political capital now. And that's just what he appears to be doing.

Ex-presidents, after all, are as mortal as the rest of us. Yet in creating a second act that rivals his first, Bill Clinton has crafted a new model for youngish former chief executives to follow. And whether it's in two years or six, the current Democratic caretaker of the White House has to be watching the sketch of his own potential future with conviction that life after politics can be meaningful indeed.

Tom Watson is the author of CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World (Wiley, 2008) and managing partner of CauseWired Communications LLC, a consulting firm that works with nonprofits and causes.