More notable than the appearances of John McCain and Barack Obama this morning at the Clinton Global Initiative was the host’s personal endorsement of the Democratic nominee—despite their fractious and friction-plagued relationship.
Bill Clinton first acknowledged that he should treat both nominees with nonpartisan hospitality and deference, which he certainly tried to do. He offered a courteous shout-out to Cindy McCain for her charitable work in Rwanda, where Clinton’s own foundation is very active. Yet after listening to McCain, praising and thanking him graciously for his remarks, Clinton could not resist the chance to add a few extra words of praise for Obama when introducing the Illinois senator (who showed up on a giant screen via satellite). When Obama came to visit him in Harlem on Sept. 11, Clinton said, the nominee declined to wade into adoring crowds on 125th Street, because “he thought it was wrong to campaign on 9/11.” Second, Clinton said, “80 percent of our conversation had nothing to do with politics.”
He recalled Obama’s first question: “What is the matter with the way America is organized to exercise our soft power?”—by which he meant the capacity to deal with disease, poverty and conflict via nonmilitary and aid-oriented means. To Clinton, this was a sign of Obama’s extraordinary intelligence and preparedness for the presidency, which he compared favorably with his own readiness as a candidate in 1992.
The former president also mentioned that Obama had consulted with him “and Hillary” (as well as “the primary members of my economic team”) on how to respond to the current financial crisis. According to Clinton, Obama said, “Please don’t waste time talking about what is politically salable. … Let’s figure out the right thing to do—and then we will figure out how to sell it.” This reflected well not only on Obama “as a person but as a potential president,” he said.
Both Obama and McCain laid out their now familiar positions on the Treasury Department’s proposed $700 billion financial bailout legislation, with agreement on several aspects (and with Obama insisting on protection for “innocent homeowners” as part of any deal). Obama reiterated that he would go to Washington to offer his assistance in passing a bailout bill—”outrageous” as he considers that necessity to be—and then proceed to Oxford, Miss., for his scheduled debate with McCain. The Republican did not say whether he would go to Oxford or not.
Both candidates pleased the C.G.I. crowd by promising to deal with climate change and poverty—indeed, McCain sounded like his old, Democrat-friendly self rather than the aggressive right-winger of recent weeks. Both specifically promised to eradicate malaria. And it was refreshing to hear McCain once more emphasize that the burning of fossil fuels causes global warming, with his skeptical running mate Sarah Palin sitting demurely in front of him.