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Bill Clinton's Plan for World Domination

Clinton arrives at Lesotho airport for the first leg of his African swing.  

“I figured, Well, I have great relations with most leaders of the world,” he says, as he sits on the deck of his presidential suite in Zanzibar, stares at the ocean, and explains the most important piece of his new life—his AIDS work, which he’s been promoting here all week. “I think I can talk people into, you know, doing the right things. I figured if we could cut the cost of drugs, we could save a lot of lives in a hurry.” He chomps on an unlit cigar. “I really believe this is the worthiest thing I could have done as the main initiative of the administration at this point in history.”


“Not administration,” he quickly corrects. “Foundation.”

Five years after his presidency, Clinton still thinks like a world leader. In some ways, it’s more complicated: He thinks like the leader of the world. While there’s no official means to be president of the planet, other than as U.N. secretary-general—a prospect constantly floated by Clinton supporters, though it’s practically impossible—he certainly seems to be trying hard to invent one. On September 15, the former president will be hosting the grandly titled Clinton Global Initiative, a conference timed to coincide with the World Summit at the U.N. The guest list features an impressive and eccentric mix of moguls, heads of state, and problem-solvers—from Sonia Gandhi to George Soros to Rupert Murdoch—who, after three days of panel-going and furious rubber-chicken consumption, are expected to sign pledges to do something about bettering the world.

At least, that’s the theory. It’s possible the conference won’t look very different from Davos, Aspen, the Renaissance Weekend, and other high-end policy huddles. “They’re still trying to figure out how not to make this another yak-yak,” says Mike McCurry, the former Clinton press secretary. The cost of attending the CGI, $15,000, has also raised more than a few eyebrows, considering so much of it dwells on eradicating poverty (Clinton’s people say the fee will be waived for those invitees who can’t afford it). And because this is Clinton we’re talking about, it’s likely the program will be in chaos until the curtain comes up. Organization isn’t exactly his strong suit. “He’s . . . flexible,” says Bob Dole, the former Senate Republican leader and Clinton’s presidential challenger in 1996. “He’s almost loose.”

But never mind: For the former president, it’s finally a chance to press forward, to shore up his legacy—to throw an inaugural ball, really, for his third term. Before this moment, Clinton hadn’t had a career so much as big projects to complete: millions in legal bills to pay off; a $180 million library to design, curate, and pay for (it’s still not paid for); a $10 million autobiography to write; and, most unexpectedly, two heart surgeries from which to recover.

No longer. Clinton, the man people accused of trying to be everything to everyone, can now embrace just that role, recasting himself in purely global terms. Since leaving the White House, he has traveled to 67 countries. On this African sweep, he manages to squeeze in six in seven days. “I think there are three people who are universal, whose prestige truly extends way over borders,” says Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist and author of The Mystery of Capital (and a key participant in the CGI). “There’s Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, and Clinton. The problem with Kofi is that he leads the world’s biggest bureaucracy. And Mandela is basically an African. He’s never had something to say about Asia. He’s never said, ‘I like mambo.’ Strangely, the only one who does this is Clinton, and he doesn’t even speak a foreign language.”

He pauses. “I mean, say Jacques Chirac retires,” says De Soto. “He can’t do the Chirac Global Initiative.”

The question is, how will Clinton translate his own iconic status—not to mention his considerable intellect and political skills—into something concrete and influential that goes beyond this conference? The Jimmy Carter good-works model comes closest to what appeals to Clinton, but that’s not exactly right; Carter is far less dynamic, and when he first left office, he had little international or domestic clout to exploit. “The contrast is interesting,” says Harold Varmus, the former director of the National Institutes of Health. “Carter’s done great work. Yet it somehow comes across as prissier.”

Like Carter, Clinton has a foundation dedicated to good works. But it has attracted only intermittent attention at home, constrained as Clinton is by a shoestring staff (his foundation’s non-AIDS budget is just $6.5 million, though this doesn’t include in-kind contributions, like the use of private jets), a wife he shouldn’t eclipse (especially if you believe in her prospects for 2008), and an American media with other, larger fish to fry (at a New York event featuring Clinton and Ted Turner in June, I was stunned by the number of unclaimed name tags that lay on the table).