On the evening of Sept. 15, former President Bill Clinton stood at the center of a flock of reporters and well-wishers at Nobu 57. The first day of his sprawlingly ambitious conference, the Clinton Global Initiative, had gone smashingly well, and now he was enjoying the company of a mostly fawning press corps as it munched on sushi and trundled about the open bar.
“Monica Lewinsky was a lucky woman,” one reporter from the Italian press corps confided longingly to The Observer as Mr. Clinton preened.
Also in the restaurant was Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her black suit and chunky pearls, shaking hands with a stiffer set. (“I just wanted to thank you for providing leadership in a time of change,” one woman told her.)
Mrs. Clinton broke away from the crowd at midnight, sans Bill; her husband waited 20 minutes more to leave, and not before a very brief speech: “Have a good time!” he told the adoring crowd.
At Nobu, it was clear—as it was so many times during Mr. Clinton’s three-day confab—that for all of the Senator’s political success, Mr. Clinton is still the star in the family, and enjoying every minute of it.
Staged for three days at the Sheraton New York Hotel in midtown, the Initiative—a conference with a $15,000-a-head price tag, an emphasis on concrete results, and a kind of anti-poverty evangelism that drew more than $1 billion in pledges—was an extraordinary, high-powered gathering so sui generis that it generated almost no coverage from a media that didn’t know what to make of it.
The event showcased Mr. Clinton’s breathtaking personal ambition: For all the assumptions that every move Bill Clinton makes is directed to elevating his wife to the Presidency, it’s clear that Mr. Clinton has other—some might say bigger—things on his mind. The gathering’s four topics were poverty, religion, climate change and governance, and the former President discoursed happily on everything from the textile trade in Lesotho to the necessity of insuring Gazan start-ups against terrorism. Mr. Clinton’s first day had been spent chatting with Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair and the King of Jordan.
The next evening, he looked on as News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch took pointed shots at Time Warner chief Richard Parsons, seated a few feet away.
In his new capacity as former President George H.W. Bush’s cheerful twin and fellow goodwill ambassador, he drew in high-ranking Bush administration insiders— World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz and Elizabeth Cheney, a State Department official and the Vice President’s daughter, along with Ms. Rice—and a handful of heads of state and government.
But if Mr. Clinton’s international high-wire act isn’t devoted to electing his wife to his old job, it remains unclear what the ex-President’s unprecedented profile means to his wife’s domestic ambitions. On one hand, his constant pairing with the current President Bush’s father—raising money for crises from Indonesia to New Orleans—seems to have set him above party politics, and perhaps defanged a bit of the rabid Clinton hatred of the right.
At his best, he gives Mrs. Clinton’s down-the-line Democratic positions a sheen of nonpartisan independence, and when he echoes her criticisms—as he did in discussing Katrina’s aftermath on Sunday—he amplifies her positions.
But his elevation has a flip side: Mrs. Clinton risks looking petty and partisan in comparison to her husband.
At one session, a California state official, Anne Baker, was seated to Mrs. Clinton’s left in one of four white armchairs, in a room that looked like nothing so much as a suburban Florida dentist’s waiting room. Between the two women was seated Gen. Wesley Clark.
“Under Secretary Baker, how is it that corporations continue to prosper and damage the environment while the rest of the society bears the burden?” asked the moderator.
The audience paused to chuckle at the question’s bluntness, perhaps not expecting so blunt a reply.
“We were discussing that in the prior room,” Ms. Baker replied. “Senator Clinton said something I agree with, which is: ‘They have the power, the money.’”
Mrs. Clinton soon jumped in to restate the careful, sharp critique of the Bush administration that she’s been developing for months: that they ignore science, and evidence, on everything from global warming to birth control to war and peace.
Mozart and Salieri
Indeed, replacing the rhetoric of the crusading liberal with the lab-coated analysis of the scientist can make Ms. Clinton seem even more detached—and never so much as when her husband’s charm is on display nearby. And while part of the calculus of Mrs. Clinton’s ascendance has been the total investment of her political (and personal, partner) their relationship has been complicated. Americans hardly need reminding that it hasn’t always been to their mutual benefit.
It has always been this way: Where Mr. Clinton is expansive and disorganized, Mrs. Clinton is sharply, tightly focused. He is the natural; she works harder. They’re Mozart and Salieri. And in the realm of ideas, where both have long played at the highest level, their differences were on display last week in New York.
For Mr. Clinton, the conference was an unprecedented playground. With Mr. Blair, Ms. Rice and the Jordanian king, he floated a pet idea:
“I have a very specific thing I think you—I would like to ask you to consider, because I’ve been personally calling around the world trying to get people to do this,” he began. “I would just like to ask that you consider setting up some sort of insurance structure where, for a modest fee, an entrepreneur could participate in pooled insurance so that if something happened because of a terrorist act, they could be made whole. Then I think we’d have a lot more success in getting venture capital in [Gaza].”
The next evening, he took an oblique angle with Mr. Murdoch, asking—in the context of foreign aid, but with echoes of the debate over weapons of mass destruction—what a news organization should do “when you know you have a persistent misperception …. Rupert, would you like to start?” Mr. Clinton asked mischievously.
That session ended with the two in tight, smiling conversation, agreeing on the perniciousness of agriculture subsidies in wealthy nations, as fans—including the actor Brad Pitt—clamored in vain for their attention.
Mrs. Clinton, by contrast, was at the Sheraton in her capacity as expert. She has always had a reputation as a wonk, though she was forced to partially bury it under a pile of cookies during the Clinton Presidency. In the Senate, she’s developed the ability to bore reporters into submission on issues ranging from upstate economic development to the pay and benefits received by soldiers. (That’s why the most damaging section of the announcement speech of one potential Senate rival, Westchester D.A. Jeanine Pirro, may not have been her notorious 32 seconds of silence; the sharpest contrast with Mrs. Clinton was drawn when Ms. Pirro responded to a question of what to do with troop levels in Iraq: “I certainly would leave that up to the experts who understand the military and what we need to do,” she said. Mrs. Clinton, of course, is an expert.)
The heart of her case against the Bush administration these days is based on science, a theme laid out most fully in a commencement address to the graduates of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute this spring.
“In recent years, scientific integrity—specifically with regard to public policymaking—has been under attack, under almost constant criticism. Interference in and abuse of publicly funded science, suppressing or disregarding scientific evidence, manipulating scientific advice, politicizing scientific advisory panels, are all on the rise,” she said, warning: “The betrayal of our scientific tradition would have long-term, lasting consequences.”
It’s a critique that easily broadens from climate change and reproductive health policy to other elements of the Bush administration’s policy: Washington has become, Mrs. Clinton likes to say, “an evidence-free zone.”
The thread—Senator in lab coat—has run through much of her thought recently, and not by accident, said one longtime advisor, Ann Lewis.
“It is clear that it’s one of her central concerns—disagreements with the philosophy and governing principles of the Bush administration,” Ms. Lewis said. “They regularly discount what the evidence of science shows to be so.”
At the Clinton Global Initiative, Mrs. Clinton appeared on a panel on climate change, speaking as General Clark smiled broadly—perhaps over-broadly—beside her.
“[T]he scientific consensus is settled,” Mrs. Clinton said, bolt upright in her a black suit. “We still have this debate in Congress because of the absence of leadership from the administration and the Republican leadership, but it is an argument that is losing steam in the face of evidence and, I hope, is finally beginning to be replaced by a more realistic and responsible position: Human activity is responsible for the majority of climate change that we have observed in the last 30 to 40 years.”
She called the Bush administration’s policy “phony,” then launched into a lengthy disquisition on, among other things, the spruce bark beetle:
“If you fly over the Yukon and Alaska, there are now millions of acres that have been affected by the spruce bark beetle, which is a beetle that infests and kills spruce trees, so you see literally miles of dead trees. This is a beetle that could not have survived the cold winters in the Yukon and Alaska a decade ago. Now, because not only is it getting warmer, it is also not getting as cold as it used to …. ”
Mr. Clinton was thinking big, Mrs. Clinton was talking about a beetle, and around them their aides and (quite separate) political organizations mirrored their respective intellectual approaches.
Mr. Clinton’s Global Initiative was a classic of his own seat-of-the-pants brilliance: Aides said the event had been thrown together over a few months, with the final pieces coming into place in the weeks and days before it began.
The handsomely bound program, for example, had only partial lists of speakers, and the packed Murdoch event was absent from the guide entirely.
“This was the President’s deal,” said John Podesta, Mr. Clinton’s former White House chief of staff.
On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton’s tight, loyal circle is focused, organized and sure-footed. They do their homework. Her talk at the Global Initiative echoed her Rensselaer address, and many others, almost word for word (with the exception of the California official’s indiscretion).
Mrs. Clinton’s Senate re-election campaign, meanwhile, has been humming quietly in the background as her government office churns out press releases at a furious rate.
The question now is how Mr. Clinton’s global fights—against AIDS and poverty, perhaps to redeem some of the failings of his administration—fit into Mrs. Clinton’s progress.
“That is what is remarkable about the two of them: this commitment to believing they ought to do what they can to make a difference from the beginning,” said Ms. Lewis. “But that doesn’t mean they always do it exactly the same way.”