Bill Clinton: There Are No Great Generations, Just Different Problems

The former president on climate change, curiosity, and what it means to be a leader


Reuters/Pool New

The office where I met Clinton high in the UN headquarters building belongs to another era. It is an institution built for a world of the past -- one based on Cold War rivalries and the last century's balance of power. It was Clinton's first day in the cramped space, and his entourage of bodyguards and assistants were stumbling over one another in the confines. The Secret Service men dispatched a young press aide to inquire why so many UN staffers were loitering near the elevators, though it was clear that they were simply trying to catch a glimpse of the ex-president.

"Is this the office?" an exhausted Clinton asked after shaking my hand. I nodded, as did most of the swarm that followed him. The entire place felt as if it hadn't been touched since the early fifties when the building was raised, a lone skyscraper above an otherwise flat block on the East Side of Manhattan. I heard him chuckle to a staffer as he stepped inside, "You know what," -- 'wahut,' the final word came out -- "It kinda reminds me of Mad Men. Have you seen that show yet?"

In the 2008 presidential election, Clinton was cast as a villain, an overbearing spouse allegedly eliciting racism1 to propel his ambitious wife forward to the presidency and, conceivably, to reclaim a good deal of power himself. The Democratic presidential primary of 2008 muddled the esteem that had ballooned during eight years of gaffes and incompetence by his successor in the Oval Office. During that span, Clinton largely redefined the post- presidential years; he circled the globe as a nimble, intrepid freelancer, leveraging charisma and a seemingly limitless Rolodex for both the broader good and personal gain.

"Clinton is a nonprofit conglomerate," says one former advisor and long-time friend. It's not an in- accurate characterization. His work fittingly mirrors the rise of social networking and the Internet, a two-point-zero version of previous post-presidential benevolence.

Among his most important accomplishments is his success drastically reducing the cost of life-saving anti-retro viral treatment for AIDS victims around the world. The latest round of deals with pharmaceutical companies -- on the heels of others that have helped two million people access treatment -- drops the cost of second-line regiments, for those whose illnesses have overcome first line drugs, by 60 percent. Commitments to charitable work made each year by individuals and corporations attending the Clinton Global Initiative conference reach into the billions of dollars. He launched a ten-year $100 million campaign against extreme poverty in Rwanda and Malawi and, in 2005, raised over a $120 million following Hurricane Katrina with George H. W. Bush.

As president, his achievements were matched by equally notable shortfalls. He presided over a massive expansion of economic growth, generating surpluses of $122 billion and $230 billion during his last two years in office; he waged a successful campaign to stem genocide in Kosovo, and greatly expanded free trade and global commerce. But his failure to intervene in Rwanda, where some 800,000 were massacred, or to move effectively to stop genocide in Bosnia, or to advance middle east peace, marked high-profile failures. Domestically, he was unable to pass comprehensive health care reform and ambitious campaign finance reforms. He signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, which had raised a wall between the speculative trading and underwriting of investment banks and the more traditional lending of commercial, depository banks. The law had been in place since the 1930s. Its elimination helped inflate the massive bubble that burst in the 2007 financial collapse, and meant commercial institutions, like Bank of America and Citibank, were allowed to assume massive risk in the form of housing market credit derivatives. They, of course, had to be bailed out to protect the broader economy. "I think they were wrong," he told ABC in April 2010, referring to his economics advisors, "and I think I was wrong to take [their advice]." The Monica Lewinsky scandal and a myriad of other sex-related allegations forever scarred his legacy and remains the first thought for many when his name is invoked.

But for most of those who've had the chance to interact with Clinton, his warmth and intelligence overpower the more lurid details that special prosecutor Ken Starr seared into the American conscience. Clinton is surprisingly tender in person, a gentle handshake matches the soft white hair and the unmistakable bulb nose.

He has been called the Michael Jordan of politics, an apt comparison in terms of both talent and intensity. Stan Greenberg, who worked as a consultant for both of Clinton's bids for the White House, recalled Clinton's rage at a Ross Perot attack in the closing days of the 1992 campaign: "They are attacking my character and we must attack Perot's character." He went on, speaking over the phone with aides after a long day of campaigning, "We need to take a meat axe to his brain, cut his head open." He demanded a response that was "red meat and passion, no more pussy ads." 

William Jefferson Blythe III never met his father, a traveling salesman who died in a car accident three months before Bill was born. He took the name Clinton from his hard-drinking and abusive stepfather, Roger, who Bill, at fourteen, demanded never hit his mother again. He hid the abuse from most people in his life. As a junior at Georgetown University, though, he shuttled back and forth to Durham, North Carolina on weekends to make peace with his dying stepfather as he underwent cancer treatments. Clinton almost never drinks; he sleeps little and speaks without reprieve. On the day that we met, the topics of his endless seminar ranged from the evolution of the light bulb to early twentieth-century American film to the beauty of Columbia's Aburrá Valley and Medellín.

Perhaps the most interesting dimension of his character is the pace with which he lives. "He had said to everybody over and over and over again," Chelsea Clinton has said, "that none of the men in his family live past sixty, or much past." As a result, he has always moved at a rather reckless pace, trying to accomplish as much as possible before a short clock -- either real, imagined, or prophetically self-fulfilling -- ticks to a stop. 

As members of my generation look around the world today, we see climate change on the rise and nothing in the way of a successor for the Kyoto Protocol, the proliferation of nuclear weapons still un abated, Millennium Development Goals we're still well short of, a hugely imbalanced global economy that will continue to undermine itself, and I wonder if you worry that you and this post-Cold War generation of leaders will be judged harshly by history?

No. I think that's a cheap trick. I mean, all of this "the greatest generation is World War II?" -- it just happens that they're the most horrible parents in human history, right?

If all of us baby boomers were so bad, then our parents were terrible; they failed. And if we were so bad, how come our kids are so great? We were hellaciously good parents.

I think it's phony as a $3 bill. I think they had a chance to win World War II and it was clear. These are much more complex things [now]. We have no idea if the World War II generation would have made the decisions they should make on climate change if they thought doing so would bring an end to their economic prosperity.

The real problem in climate change is that we're paying for our past success. The established order has too many self-protecting economic entities, and not enough people who yet understand what it takes to change.

The World War II generation was thrown into a war by a madman, Hitler, and an expansionist empire in Japan, and we did what we had to do. Look, I admire the World War II generation; I'm just trying to make a point here. I don't think there are defective generations. There are times and struggles and they present different challenges.

I believe the United States will pass reasonably good climate change legislation, I believe we will get a successor that will be better than Kyoto, and I think that we're in a race against time and circumstance.

This will be calamitous if we don't do something about it, and the population of the earth will drop hugely over the next 1,000 years, maybe over the next 200 years, if we don't do something about it.

We're really in a race against time. I think history is a relay race and you just got to keep handing off and making things happen. I'm basically pretty optimistic.

Where the intersection of science and politics is on climate change, I'd leave to others. We might lose. Our minds may not be able to expand enough collectively to avert the worst.

I think most people are more literal and they learn things in a serial fashion. Most people have all they can do to keep body and soul together -- even before this economic collapse -- raise their kids, pay their taxes, worry about how to pay for college, deal with their mother's health, and everything.

It just takes time to change the mindset, but we're a much more communitarian country and a much more communitarian world than we were 20 years ago. I basically think you've got to get people's attitudes right, and then they have to have a general analysis that's right, and you have to organize for action. And you just have to stumble in the right direction. I'm pretty upbeat about it.

When you're my age, I hope you're dealing with a different set of problems. There'll always be problems, but that's what I hope will happen

David Leopolus, a childhood friend of yours, used to joke with friends that if they were bored, they could always go and watch you read. Is that insatiable curiosity critical to being a good leader?

Well, I think that insatiable curiosity is important in a time dominated by complexity and dynamism, because you have so many things you need to understand. For the last 20 years, insatiable curiosity has been really important.

I think in order to do one or two big things, you have to know many little things. I think it's also important in a complex time with a lot of dynamism to be able to relate to all different kinds of people, because, in the end, most political power depends more on persuasion rather than coercion.

And then I think you have to be able to reconcile the complexities and order them in a pattern. For a lot of people who just follow the evening news or read the morning paper, it's like the political equivalent of chaos theory in physics.

But your job, if you're a leader, is to take superficially random events and organize them into patterns that tell you what you should do to maximize an opportunity or head off the problem.

Being decisive in the face of complexity and ambiguity is important. Being able to make a call, to decide to act, and then figuring out how to act to support that decision. Yes, be curious; yes, appreciate the complexity and ambiguity; but then organize into patterns and decide what you're going to do and execute. I think that's extremely important.

You know, Machiavelli said in the 15th century that change was hard because the people who would benefit from it were uncertain of their gain and the people who would lose were positive of their loss; that's pretty much the way it still is. And if you sign on to be a progressive change agent, you had to have a high threshold for pain and you keep throwing yourself under the bridge, but I believe you can really make a difference if you just make these efforts and get up and work at it every day. I left the White House more optimistic than I entered it, after all I went through, and I would wake up every day believing that you can make good things happen.

This post was adapted from Brian Till's new book, Conversations with Power: What Great Presidents and Prime Ministers Can Teach Us about Leadership.

Drop-down image credit: Reuters