REVIEW: An Admiring Look at What Bill Clinton's Been Up to Since He Left the White House

Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton
By Joe Conason
Simon & Schuster 496 pp.  

By Jim Swearingen

For those who still occasionally feel a lingering hangover from the scandals of the Clinton years — and there are many who do — Joe Conason’s new book, Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton, will help ease much of the nagging queasiness at the Clintons’ personal and political havoc. Conason has written a biographical history of the former President’s remarkable exploits since leaving 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that is entertaining and enlightening — and yes, reassuring.

The book, which covers the period from Inauguration Day, 2001 (at the close of the Clinton presidency) to roughly May of 2016, (in the middle of Hillary’s second presidential campaign), opens with the uncomfortable vacuum that a former President enters as soon as he departs the White House. A besieged figure like Clinton immediately felt the absence of the small army of aides, press officers, and servants that had helped insulate him from partisan politicians and petulant journalists.

It also left him with the existential question of what to do with himself as a not-financially-well-off 55-year old man, retired from the ultimate career post. He still had much to contribute, but no established path to doing so.

Clinton initially had to set aside the question of his next career move to respond to two new scandals.  He was being accused of corruption for his 11th-hour pardon of shadowy billionaire Marc Rich, and his administration was being charged with having engaged in petty acts of sabotage of White House equipment on their way out the door.

Although the story about sophomoric sabotage later turned out to be a bizarre fabrication by the new Bush arrivals, Conason fills in the geopolitical background to Clinton’s executive clemency toward Rich. The pardon involved a nettlesome, but clandestine political favor for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who had been Clinton’s valiant partner in the Mideast peace talks with the P.L.O. and for Rich, a covert humanitarian who had used his extensive business contacts with hostile regimes around the globe to ferret thousands of persecuted Jews out of Ethiopia, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, and Syria and into Israel.

In the wake of the ensuing public relations disaster and calls for new investigations of his final act of leniency, Clinton’s few remaining friends advised him to disappear from public view for six months or more. With the fallout from these latest scandals shutting off the prospect of large speaking fees in the U.S., Clinton began the notorious and lucrative globe-hopping speaking tours that would help retire his $20 million debt in legal bills, fund the Clinton Library construction in Little Rock, and introduce him to various humanitarian crises that he was uniquely poised to address.

As with nearly everything Clinton, this story is not dull or morally unambiguous. Conason provides much of the backstory on how Clinton, Doug Band and Ira Magaziner built a lithe, responsive mega-foundation to deliver AIDS medication to millions of patients across the Third World. The Clinton Global Initiative’s multiple spinoffs also succeeded in addressing malaria, childhood obesity, global warming, and rebuilding efforts in Haiti.

All of these ventures were funded by the many friends of Bill, a legion of international political leaders, corporate tycoons, Hollywood actors, and rock stars who would jet around the world with him to the latest humanitarian crisis aboard one of the many planes on which he was able to hitch a free ride.

Conason documents that Bill Clinton’s efforts were funded through enormous donations from people drawn to his personality, accomplishments, and eye for effective humanitarian relief efforts. He describes how Clinton’s stature and tremendous popularity brought disparate parties to the negotiating table who might otherwise not have made it there.

The former President advocates for a modern, holistic, data-driven “smart-government,” proving that the concerted efforts of government, business, and science can accomplish what no one entity alone has done before. In Conason’s view, Clinton’s unique ability to motivate people, mobilize donors, collaborate with former political rivals, and tackle overwhelming financial, logistical, and cultural problems has succeeded in getting relief directly to afflicted people.

A large portion of the book covers Clinton’s emergence as perhaps the single most important warrior against the AIDS epidemic. Of all of his eclectic philanthropy and countless summits with a legion of world leaders, the signature accomplishment of his post-presidency has been stanching the deadliness of HIV/AIDS. Through the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative (CHAI), Clinton tackled the thorny problem of entrenched Western attitudes toward the AIDS epidemic: a medical establishment that favored prevention over treatment; a pharmaceutical industry that resisted generic brand competition; and a neo-colonial suspicion that Africans wouldn’t follow a rigorous drug regimen even if it promised to keep them alive and relatively healthy.

Conason tells the story of a leader not known for his humility or flexibilitywho has been eager to listen to local doctors, politicians, corporate magnates, and health officials; to support treatment efforts compatible with local customs and culture; and to fund the building of government-business partnerships that would allow for sustainable treatment over decades.

The book is full of tantalizing, well-reported stories that presaged major troubles to come.  These include the dinner at former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s home at which Colin Powell allegedly recommended that Hillary Clinton use her own personal email server; an aborted bombing raid targeting Osama bin Laden in Kandahar which Bill Clinton called off to spare the collateral deaths of 300 women and children.  It also includes what may turn out to be the first chapter in Chelsea Clinton’s political biography, as she assumed leadership of the Clinton Global Initiative.

Conason intensively explores the Clinton family’s frustration with the media. Many of the book’s 500 pages are devoted to refuting erroneous, long-standing reports of the Clintons’ corruption and conflicts of interest. Though he does fault the couple for frequent lapses in political caution and indiscreet optics, the book illuminates the problematic role of the press in covering the Clintons. As Conason sees it, the media’s fascination with celebrity, combined with shoddy journalism—profound unfamiliarity with tax laws for charities is one recurring example — has led to years of incorrect reporting, regurgitation of unsubstantiated gossip, and partisan repetition of damaging falsehoods.

The fallout from this scandal-mongering leaves the reader with an inevitable and uncomfortable conclusion. If Hillary wins her presidential bid and Bill and Chelsea Clinton abide by the campaign promise that they will resign from the Clinton Foundation and all donations to the Foundation from corporations and foreign governments will cease, the impact on Bill Clinton’s endeavors will be staggering. The persnickety moralism of Hillary’s political opponents will constitute the latest about-face of a Republican Party that once touted the value of bi-partisan government partnering with business and private philanthropy to meet humanitarian needs. Given the Foundation’s hard-fought victories against HIV/AIDS, malaria, childhood obesity, storm devastation, and other global woes, the vacuum created will make our obsession with the Clintons’ optics seem like a #firstworldproblem.

Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.