The Big Creep
An attempt to rehabilitate Bill Clinton is in full bloom. Unsurprisingly, the would-be hagiographers leave a lot out.
Feb 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 23 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
The aging fops and dandies who edit Esquire magazine—yes, it still comes out, check a newsstand if you don’t believe me—devoted a chunk of their issue this month to Bill Clinton. It was an unusual move. Typically, under the motto “Man at His Best,” the editors concentrate their attention on those fabulous new chukkas Donna Karan just introduced, or the optimal thread count for Ralph Lauren Egyptian cotton sheets, or the yummy new clover-accented absinthe imported from Azerbaijan at $33 an oz.—or even, when el machismo oversweeps them, a superhot new starlet in slingback spike heels with off-color stitching and a simple but elegant choker. What I mean is, when these gentlemen put a politician, even an ex-president, on the cover and a long interview with him inside, you know something’s up.
So there he was on the cover, spookily lifelike, legs akimbo, head cocked, eyes moist, his large, experienced hands fairly gleaming from the exquisite manicure. “Bill Clinton and 78 other things we can all agree on,” read the headline. We may seem like a divided country, the editors were telling us, but at least we can all come together around the Man from Hope: “He has become the rare consensus figure in a country that has lost all sense of consensus.”
The consensus is so solid that the editors don’t feel obliged to explain what it is. But pretty soon you get the idea. In a patty-cake interview many thousands of words long, Clinton and his interviewers explore “why he’s now the subject of such public and surprisingly bipartisan affection.” We as a people have come to agree that Bill Clinton is a vaguely flawed but always well-meaning fellow, a great president whose greatness was stunted by a lunatic opposition, and who now, having emerged from the fires of Republican defamation, is universally recognized as a visionary of unalloyed beneficence, a statesman, a sage.
Well, this much is true anyway: We are in the midst of a Clinton revival. After a brief dip during his wife’s presidential campaign, the line of his ascent only steepens, carrying him through showers of rose petals towards halos of light. A couple of months ago the sage published a book on public policy, Back to Work, and though it was thick with platitudes about uninteresting subjects, the sales were brisk and the reviews were better than good. Back to Work showed the former president to be a thinker in the 21st-century Manhattan mold—think of Thomas Friedman with rewrite men. The book was full of “ideas,” many reviewers said, and Clinton himself is a “man of ideas.” And ideas of a certain sort do occupy much of his public life. He’s chairman of his own charity, the modestly named Clinton Global Initiative, whose annual meeting is a smokestack discharging great plumes of ideas. It never fails to attract lots of good publicity.
If you want to pin down what it is that CGI does, good luck to you. The Initiative’s literature describes its mission with loosey-goosey Friedmanian words like “challenges” and “facilitate” and “solutions” and “innovative” and “sustainable” and “leadership” and the verb form of “partner.” (If you’re a thinker in the Manhattan mode, you can mix and match words, it doesn’t matter: “We’ve partnered with other leaders to facilitate innovative and sustainable solutions to our unique challenges.”) On the other hand, “directly implementing projects”—a euphemism for “actually doing things”—is not one of CGI’s priorities. Instead, CGI “is determined to change things now, by discussing some of the world’s most pressing problems.”
Change by discussion: It’s an innovative idea indeed. CGI’s extremely efficacious discussions bring “together a carefully selected group of the world’s best minds.” They talk about such topics as “sustainable consumption” and “values-based leadership.” But that’s not all. “Most importantly, [CGI] requires each member to make a specific Commitment to Action.” There have been 2,100 commitments to date!
CGI is the kind of charity that students of Clinton’s career would expect him to lead: It hires a legion of over-schooled high-achievers and collects mountains of money and, instead of giving the money to poor people, hospitals, doctors, nurses, food banks, or stuff like that, spends it on an annual conference in which high-achievers talk for long periods of time about what it would be like if they were going to do stuff like that. It is an organization devoted to talk.
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