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Katrina and The Clintons

The flood in New Orleans gives a sharp new focus to Bill Clinton’s New York conference—and a boost to Hillary’s presidential hopes.

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Bill and Hillary Clinton have never been modest in the scope of their ambitions, nor shy in pursuing them. And so it comes as no surprise to find the once and (aspiring) future presidents fast emerging as two of the dominant figures in the aftermath of Katrina. Here you have an event of possibly epic political consequences, a mirror-image 9/11. And here you have the preeminent power couple in the past two decades of American political life, a pair whose hunger to shape the course of human events is as ravenous as ever.

The Clinton-Katrina nexus will be on vivid display toward the end of this week in New York, when the Clinton Global Initiative gets under way at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers. Extravagantly ambitious, confusingly named (in case you haven’t heard, it’s a conference), and staggeringly expensive ($15,000 a head), the CGI is Clinton’s attempt to reanimate the internationalist vision of his presidency from a postpresidential platform—three days of panels and plenary sessions designed to spur government–private-sector cooperation to tackle the world’s ills.

Until two weeks ago, there was every chance that the CGI would be dismissed as just another logorrhea—but then the levees broke in New Orleans and the world shifted on its axis. Suddenly, America itself had provided a vivid First World object lesson in total system failure that’s as shocking and as calamitous as any in the Third. Suddenly, Clinton had on his hands an event that promises to be charged with relevance and grounded in local urgency. And suddenly, Hillary had a gnarly stick with which to beat the White House—no small thing for a putative presidential candidate whose vote authorizing Bush to wage war in Iraq is emerging as potentially problematic to her prospects.

Only the most cynical and rabid Clinton-haters would suggest that either of them takes pleasure in the still-unfolding nightmare on the Gulf Coast. Yet for politicians, as the Clintons well know, tragedy, though never to be wished for, breeds political opportunity—the opportunity, in this case, to reshape the partisan battlefield. And, perhaps, in the process, to bring about a Clinton restoration.

Clinton’s people—who, being Clinton’s people, are harried and sleepless most of the time, but especially right now—insist that the CGI isn’t going to be all Katrina, all the time. According to Clinton spokesman Jay Carson, the only New Orleans–related adjustment to the agenda is the addition of a single session on climate change and natural disasters. “We made a decision not to make this the Katrina Global Initiative,” he told me. But Carson acknowledges that the topic will nevertheless be pervasive. Of the four primary subjects being addressed at the event—Poverty; Enhancing Governance; Climate Change; and Religion, Conflict, and Reconciliation—only the last seems likely to be an entirely Katrina-free zone.

Even so, there probably won’t be much explicit Bush-bashing onstage at the CGI. For one thing, Clinton is involved in an intricate dance with the Bushes—providing political cover for the son by signing on to a Katrina relief effort with the father, whom he genuinely likes, apparently on the theory that it will shield Hillary from a degree of administration criticism. (Fat chance.) For another, Clinton believes that for the CGI to grow into a lasting institution, it must be, as Carson put it, “scrupulously nonpartisan.”

Certainly the attendee list—750 entries long and full of geopolitical boldface names—appears to reflect that dictate. Blair, Chirac, and Peres will all be in the house. So will Murdoch, Soros, Rubin, Parsons, Condi, Gore, and Kofi. It’s the World Economic Forum meets Renaissance Weekend with a dash of Bohemian Grove.

Yet whatever their partisan affiliations, the Clinton conferees actually share myriad traits in common. They are, almost to a man, hard-core internationalists, cosmopolitans, sophisticates. They believe that global economic integration is, by and large, a force for good. They believe that such integration has, like it or not, fostered a stout and growing degree of global interdependence—that problems, like capital, spill freely across borders. Most, if not all, are multilateralists to one degree or another, who believe in collective action. (This, indeed, is the very raison d’être of the CGI.) They are, in short, all incarnations of what the Harvard professor Samuel Huntington once described as Davos Man.

George W. Bush, of course, is not now and has never been a Davos Man (though, arguably, his father is). Nor is Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or almost anyone else of significance in the Bush inner circle. (Which isn’t the same as saying that they’ve never been to Davos; even the hardest-hearted men of the right have been known to enjoy the occasional skiing junket.) It’s apt, in fact, to label the Bush high command as anti–Davos Men, wedded to their now-familiar brand of go-it-alone, you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us brand of unilateralism abroad and reflexive anti-governmentalism at home.


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