Bill Clinton should have been a preacher, not a politician.
In his address at the closing plenary of the Clinton Global Initiative, he laid out a Gospel for the 21st Century: On the major problems of our era, ranging from expanding educational opportunities to building interfaith cooperation, we have to move human beings “From opinion to conviction, from inclination to action, from ‘I wish’ to ‘I will’.”
There are many politicians who understand complex issues, but nobody who consistently finds the poetry to connect private lives with public purpose in the way Clinton does.
CGI is full of corporate titans, celebrity activists and heads of state. Look to your left, you’ll see Angelina Jolie. Turn to your right, and there’s the President of Rwanda. Watch out, or you may bump into one of the founders of Google. The big fish are the ones on stage making billion dollar commitments on climate change and pontificating about the new institutions necessary for an interdependent world.
But that’s only part of the story at CGI. This year, Clinton talked about a young South African girl named Zethu, a 17-year old AIDS orphan whose life was turned around by a program called Ubuntu in South Africa. I met Zethu a few months ago at the CGI mid-year meeting (she tried to teach me a few words in her native tongue, Xhosa, but I was hopeless). She was full of life and full of dreams – it took me a moment to fully grasp that this girl was standing in front of me because somebody had built an organization that gave her a chance to make something of herself.
For Clinton, Zethu was also full of power. She had made a commitment, too. While she was studying to be an accountant, Zethu was going to find and mentor ten other young South African AIDS orphans through the program she had successfully completed. Somebody had given to Zethu, and Zethu was turning around and giving to others – a perfect illustration of the catalytic nature of commitments.
In his closing address at the 2005 CGI, Clinton spoke of the hundreds of thousands of people with AIDS who had received life-saving drugs through his foundation. The audience started clapping.
He told them to stop.
It’s pathetic, he said. We should feel embarrassed that the numbers are so small. The drugs are available and the money exists and we still only managed to save a fraction of those with this disease. We lost too many people who could have been givers.
The current Atlantic has an article on how Clinton’s Foundation is organizing efficient markets for public goods, starting with AIDS drugs. It is a complex initiative led by Ira Magaziner which effectively ensures that poor countries can purchase large quantities of life-saving drugs for their populations at a favorable price.
And while Clinton’s people work out the charts and the deals, he is preparing his next sermon in a series that could be called the Gospel of Giving.
The theme is both simple and profound – what does it take to turn human wish into human will.