Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were having a diplomatic face-off during a panel discussion on, basically, how to save the world from itself, the meta-theme of the Clinton Global Initiative.
You go first, Tutu motioned to Karzai. No, motioned Karzai, you go first.
“Quit being deferential,” Clinton snapped in faux frustration. “You’re wasting time.”
It’s hard to imagine anybody but a former president speaking to dignitaries that way, but the exchange captured the urgency and the informality of the three-day conference, which ends today. (The impish Tutu had brought the house down when he described Myanmar’s persecuted political activist Aung San Suu Kyi as his “only pin-up.”)
Later, everyone else’s pin-up, Angelina Jolie, brought many to tears as she recounted recently meeting an 8-year-old Iraqi refugee in Syria. The boy had befriended a badly burned beggar, cleaning his wounds and selling tissues on the street to feed them both. When she asked him if he’d like to become a doctor one day, he demurred. “I can’t,” Jolie said he told her. “I have to sell tissues.”
There was a point: Jolie had just announced a major partnership worth close to $150 million aimed at providing education for children in conflict zones around the world. “We need to help them be doctors,” she said as her eyes reddened.
Not to be outdone, the man she described to reporters as “my uh, my uh, Brad” had also announced that he and philanthropist-producer Stephen L. Bing were ponying up $5 million each in a matching fund to create 150 affordable, sustainable homes in New Orleans’ Katrina-ravaged Lower 9th Ward.
The Clinton Global Initiative is a festival of philanthropic and socially responsible investment. Heads of state, CEOs, billionaires, mere millionaires and celebrities join up with nongovernmental organizations and underfunded activists looking to solve four generally intractable world problems: climate change, poverty, health and education. Guests this year included former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Nobel Peace laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus, former Irish President Mary Robinson, Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch.
Members, who must be invited, pay $15,000 a year and undergo rigorous screening. They are expected to make substantial commitments to one of the four areas of focus during the conference. Those who do not follow through are not invited back.
This means they will miss grand opportunities to do good work, as well as some pretty good parties. On Tuesday, for instance, there was a screening of “The Kite Runner.” Thursday, a private concert featuring Tony Bennett and the African Children’s Choir was scheduled at Carnegie Hall.
On Wednesday evening, it was a bash at the Museum of Modern Art. Clinton popped in briefly to spend some time in a VIP room -- heads of state only. Maybe he had to leave early to watch his wife debate her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Partisan politics is not, however, on the agenda at the Clinton Global Initiative. Its major underwriter, B. Thomas Golisano, who earned his billions as founder of Paychex, which processes payrolls, is a Republican who has run for governor of New York as an independent. “I was somewhat surprised at the cost of it,” he said, “but after I witnessed the first one, I thought, ‘What a great deal.’ ”
Politics did come up briefly at the MoMA party, when former Democratic presidential contender Gen. Wesley K. Clark and his wife, Gertrude, stopped near a Jackson Pollock to chat. “Big mistake to stay out of Iowa,” said Gertrude Clark, referring to her husband’s decision not to participate in the state’s caucuses in 2004. “We got really bad advice on that.” Her husband, who had just greeted the Democratic Leadership Council’s Al From, was wary: “You got a microphone in your skirt?” he asked.
In the museum’s atrium, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe chatted with producer Lawrence Bender, who was blogging on the gathering for the Huffington Post.
Bender said he was struck by how emotional the conference was, citing Jolie’s tale about the little boy, a heartfelt outburst by former Vice President Al Gore about the melting polar ice caps, and a poignant story told by the Afghan education minister, who visited a wounded girl in the hospital after her school had been attacked and two classmates killed by the Taliban. “Please Uncle Minister,” Mohamad Hanif Atmar said the girl told him, “don’t let them close our school.”
The big-ticket commitments are worked out in advance, some independent of the conference. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist accepted plaudits for Florida Power & Light’s $2.4-billion clean-energy program that will include the construction of solar power plants.
In another commitment, eight U.S. utility companies (not usually the good guys in your global warming circles) committed to investing $1 billion a year over three years to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5 million tons a year -- the equivalent, they said, of taking about a million cars off the road.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg announced a multinational billion-dollar plan to drastically lower childhood and maternal mortality. At a news conference, he was flanked by the leaders of Mozambique, Indonesia and the Netherlands, as well as an envoy from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the World Bank’s new president, Robert B. Zoellick, and the head of UNICEF.
While those efforts get the limelight, in small discussion groups, members sometimes make spontaneous gestures of generosity, sort of like speed-dating for social good. Pankaj Shah, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was so moved by Inderjit Khurana, who created schools for impoverished children on 17 railway stations in India, that he gave her $200,000 on the spot, an amount equivalent to her entire annual budget.
“I didn’t know her from a hole in the wall,” said Shah, who stood out in his red T-shirt and jeans among the suits and ties. “I just saw that a relatively small amount of money could make a huge difference.”
It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than the popular former president trying to save the world on this scale. As wonky as he is charismatic, Clinton managed during a 30-minute news conference to discourse knowledgeably on the incremental nature of political and social change; carbon markets versus carbon taxes; the 150,000-year history of human existence; how educating girls and women is not only the way to stop overpopulation (because they will marry later and have smaller families), but also the way to stop illegal immigration (because eventually, countries with low birthrates will be crying for immigrants); and the controversy over releasing the list of donors to his foundation and presidential library.
After reeling off a list of facts and figures attesting to the initiative’s success, Clinton was asked by a reporter from the French newspaper Le Monde, “Why do you do this?”
To summarize: He feels obligated to give something back to a world that has given him so much, he hasn’t lost interest in global problems just because he isn’t president anymore, and mainly because he really enjoys it.