Bill Clinton talks to Simon Schama

How do you begin a conversation with the man who knows everything? Steering clear of female literacy rates in Bhutan; the daily amount of clean drinking water available to slum dwellers in Caracas or the rate of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, the sort of thing Bill Clinton recites in his sleep or sings in his shower, I try something less expected. “Do you ever think much about John Quincy Adams?”

“Oh sure,” he says, with his most disarming smile. “The first ex-president to do something active afterwards; eight terms in Congress, led the anti-slavery movement.” And then he’s off, as unstoppable in his historical enthusiasms as he is in almost every other subject you can imagine. Sitting next to me at a Dimbleby Lecture dinner some years ago, Clinton used dessert time to offer an exhaustive analysis of the Kashmir conflict, sketched with a marker pen on a paper napkin.

The motormind is still racing. It’s quickly apparent that not only has Clinton given thought to his activist ex-presidential predecessors but that he has established a kind of personal comradeship with them across the generations. Jimmy Carter? “Magnificent … Thirty years since he left the White House; must be 87 now … he just goes chugging along ... Saw him just before he went down to Haiti to build houses.” Some presidents walk alone; Clinton was made to bond, even with the dead. William Howard Taft? “Went to the Supreme Court … suited him better than the presidency I think …” Herbert Hoover? “Left office around the same age as me … ” It’s as though he had got them all together for chinwags over coffee and doughnuts.

Amidst the club of ex-presidents, Clinton likes to confound stereotypes by hunting for good amid Republicans reviled by his own Democratic side. So he singles out Hoover not as the president who claimed that “prosperity is just around the corner” while America was on its knees, but as the young idealist-engineer trying to lift a world from its bloody prostration after the first world war: the reformer later drafted by Harry Truman to reorganise the federal civil service. Even more improbably, Clinton invokes George W. Bush as an environmentalist techno-geek. As governor of Texas (“and not a lot of people know this”) he signed legislation to make it more attractive to put up windmills, “so that Texas is now the number one producer of wind energy in America. On a good day, when the wind is blowing, Texas gets 25 per cent of its baseload of electricity from wind.” This is the sort of thing that makes Clinton’s wonky heart jump with joy.

Seven years ago, that heart gave out on him, requiring emergency quadruple bypass surgery. As he got back on his feet, the fleshy Clinton face became sharply chiselled and the rest of him followed suit. At 65, standing tall in the office of the Clinton Global Initiative in a Harlem skyscraper, he is now trim rather than gaunt, the hot dog ravening replaced by vegetarianism. “He’s a near-vegan,” his aide Craig Minassian tells me, a concept about as persuasive as near-virgin.

Trying to interrupt Clinton in the full spate of Exemplary Data is like trying to lasso a tornado. But amidst the onrushing info storm – the amount of energy generated by the waste that would otherwise have been dumped in landfills in São Paulo; the amount of pollution Walmart has eliminated by reducing its packaging by 5 per cent, “the equivalent of taking 211,000 dirty, diesel-burning trucks off the road and saving its supply chain $3bn” – I put it to him that, however right all these causes championed by the Clinton Global Initiative are, the problem right now in America is that cool factuality has been swept aside by the hot vehemence of Belief. Rightwing radio and television shows with audiences of millions chortle daily at “environmentalist wackos”, while for the Tea Party, climate change is just another stratagem by which liberals mean to turn the US into Sweden West. Confronted with militant antediluvianism, why would Clinton assume that evidence-based arguments would have any impact on those whose avowed goal is the neutering of the entire American governing system put in place since Theodore Roosevelt?

Isn’t the real challenge, I suggest, one of counter-persuasion; the battle for reason itself? Perhaps, then, Clinton might yet follow John Quincy Adams’ example and run, as he is constitutionally entitled to, for a seat in the House? There, amidst the flat-earthers and holy rollers, he might yet make the case for American governance. President Clinton could morph into Speaker Clinton. Think of the apoplexy of the foe!

Amused, he doesn’t take the bait. “I don’t think so, no, there are plenty of well-qualified people in Congress who can do a good job, but not a lot of people who could do what I do [with the Global Initiative] – just because of the life I’ve had.” Still, he concedes that classic American governance, so institutionally brittle on paper, so forgivingly elastic in practice, is now not just sclerotic but paralytic, at exactly the time when the economy has gone into a vegetative state and the social fabric is fraying. “We’re living in a time when there is a disconnect between the way both politics and many of the communications channels work, and what works for the economy and society. Basically we know what works to create jobs and grow prosperity is networking and co-operation, but it’s not a very exciting segment on the evening news and it doesn’t get blood boiling in elections.”

Clinton characterises the core problem as the dominance of “ideology” over “philosophy”. In his book there is nothing wrong with genuinely philosophical debates in American politics. “Everyone should have a political philosophy … it’s good to be a little bit liberal or a little bit conservative, or a lot liberal and a lot conservative. The problems with ideologies is that you’ve got all the answers in advance, so evidence is irrelevant, experience is irrelevant, how the competition is doing is irrelevant.”

For that matter, “criticising the government is the birthright of every American,” he says, since the nation was born, after all, “in response to what we believed was an irresponsible abuse of power … that was the number one obsession of the founding fathers”. But as much as the framers of the constitution wanted a system that would protect Americans from those abuses, they also wanted “a government that could be strong and flexible enough to do what needed to be done through all times and ages. They understood that if you want entity, someone has to provide the glue.” Virginia, he says, was the founding generations’ version of Angela Merkel’s Germany, called on to assume the debts of much poorer ex-colonies with which it had nothing in common. But it cut a deal to do just that by having a capital city on the Potomac. So attacking governments is hardly new. By now “we’ve got enough barnacles on our institutions that everyone can find a tax that was too high, a programme they think is a waste of money, a politician they believe abused power.” But as much as Americans have always been leery of too much government, they “have always wanted enough government, so the real debate is about ‘what is enough and what is too much?’”

So why, I ask, isn’t that debate actually happening and why isn’t President Obama leading it? Partly, because there’s money in hot air, he thinks. The polemicists of the airwaves may well believe what they believe, but they push to the extreme because raw conflict entertains. “There’s a disconnect between politics and the media and economic success.” The latter comes from building networks and doing deals, but what angry politics builds is “attention deficit disorder”. And the fast-food psychology of governance doesn’t help either.

If you ask Americans, he says, they claim to like the idea of divided government; the White House and the Congress held by different parties, preventing each other from lurching too far to the left or right. In more or less normal times, that system is made for deals across the aisles. Apparently brittle, the governing culture is usually elastic; friendly to compromise. “There are only two things Americans should never see being made,” Clinton quotes Mark Twain as saying, “sausages and laws”. But both deliver the goods. Now all that is imperilled, not least because what Teddy Roosevelt called the bully pulpit has got a lot smaller. “When I was first old enough to vote, the president got between 30 and 45 seconds every night on the news. Now it’s less than eight seconds.”

Some of the hysteria against government he discounts as commercially astute entertainment. Rush Limbaugh, the most successful of the ultra-conservative radio jocks, is, he says, “a very smart man. I don’t mean he doesn’t believe any of this, but he gets market share by ideology and the extreme.” But even if the orchestrators of the anti-government chorus do it mostly to annoy, the arrival of Tea Party ideologues sworn never to raise revenues has pushed Republican leadership in the House of Representatives so far to the truculent right that their spanner-throwing can seize up the works of government altogether. In some deep, theological sense, the Tea Party faithful want to hasten the Last Days of federal government.

“The Tea Party,” Clinton says, “is the most extreme incarnation of the 30-year cycle that began when Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural that government isn’t the answer, government is the problem. But the real issue is not that the Tea Party is in control of the country, has captured the airwaves or represents a majority of public sentiment; the problem is that something [the deal-making system] that has worked for the American people in the past isn’t working now.”

And the ideologues haven’t had their “Waterloo moment to break the fever,” such as the two shut-downs of the federal government engineered by Speaker Newt Gingrich and the incoming House Republicans in 1995. That triumphant phalanx assembled beneath the banner of the Contract with America to which they vowed to remain uncompromisingly faithful. But the public hated the shut-downs and blamed Republicans to the point when it became apparent they had actually taken out a contract on themselves. It was Gingrich, not Clinton, who was ousted, the president winning re-election a year later. The manufactured spat earlier this year over raising the debt ceiling had Waterloo-moment promise, but the prospect of the US defaulting for the only time in its history and the risk of sending the already stressed bond market over the cliff meant that Obama, unlike Clinton, couldn’t call the naysayers’ bluff.

So what can be done about this latest edition of Know-Nothings? “You can’t convert the ideologues because they don’t care what the facts are. With the world as it is, you have to fight the fight you can win, and the fight you can win is economics.” He gets intense at this point. “There isn’t a single example of a successful country on the planet today – if you define success as lower rates of unemployment, higher rates of job growth, less income inequality and a health system that produces the same or better care at lower cost – that doesn’t have both a strong economy and effective government that find some way to work in harness with each other … If you don’t do that, if you don’t have a system by which the poor can work their way into it, then you lose the social cohesion necessary to hold the country together and that is a big problem.

“The answer for America has got to be to do the things that we know are good economics.” The Clintonian trump card is just the arithmetic of jobs generated by intelligent investment. “For $1bn invested in a new coal plant, you get fewer than 900 jobs, for solar you get 1,900 jobs, for wind turbines 3,300 jobs and [for] retrofitting buildings, 7,000-8,000 jobs. These kind of projects represent a process of natural co-operation between the private and public sectors. I just say, ‘Here are the jobs, here is the investment. Are you really against it?’”

It’s not something, he realises, that can be legislated (though legislation can surely enable it); but it works when it comes about “organically.” Which takes him to Orlando, Florida, a subject on which the ex-president waxes lyrical. “Go down there tomorrow and, with the exception of a slight drop in visitors, you’d have a hard time knowing there was a recession.” The reason is not just Disney, but the Department of Defense, which makes an annual investment there of $5bn in research and training. What is it that Disney, Electronic Arts, the videogame kings, and the military all need? “Computer simulation!” he exclaims. “If you and I joined the air force tomorrow we’d have to go down there and train on simulators.” Add to the mix a technology-savvy institution of learning and research – the University of Central Florida, 56,000 students strong, devising programmes so that its graduates can fit right into the nexus – and you’ve got the perfect positive feedback loop between the public and private sectors and NGOs that make for an incontestable economic powerhouse. “Now why would you look at that model of success and reject it?”

When we turn to education, Clinton lauds a national inner-city programme called Kipp (Knowledge is Power Program). For the bright kid from Hope, Arkansas, it’s always been about knowledge; the Jefferson in William Jefferson Clinton the personification of that 18th-century belief, shared by both the Scottish and French Enlightenments, that informed understanding will conquer all; poverty; a wreck of family life; the disadvantages of the held-back. The particular magic of American optimism has been the seeding of that conviction amidst the millions of immigrants, enslaved and destitute, generation after generation, sustained by the gospel that learning is the condition of upward mobility. Like the current incumbent of the White House, he is both the advocate and the personification of that principle, though somehow Clinton has always worn his learning more lightly than Obama. No one has ever accused him of sounding professorial.

But he also recognises that we are in a populist moment when a display of intelligence can be a political liability. His response to the television debates of the Republican aspirants, is “you know … wow”; each of them (to borrow Joe Klein’s verb which he loves) “empretzelling themselves” to be further to the right than each other: “We heard that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme.” Ron Paul, the libertarian, was asked – since nothing run by the government can be good – whether he would close the Grand Canyon? “That’s a trick question,” he exclaimed with the pain of a cornered sophomore. As for “poor Jon Huntsman” – the former governor of Utah who was also Obama’s ambassador to Beijing – Clinton says sympathetically, “Disqualified by being Obama’s ambassador and speaking Mandarin?! I believe in God and know what they mean about intelligent design, but looking at those debates I had to wonder.”

He had his own way of defusing the madness. In 1999, on the 30th anniversary of the moon landings, “when there were still raw feelings … the impeachment … I got Nasa to loan me a moon rock, carbon-dated 3.6 billion years old. I put it on the table in the Oval Office and when people started the crazy stuff, I’d say, ‘Wait a minute guys. See that rock, it’s 3.6 billion years old. We’re all just passing through, take a deep breath, calm down, let’s see what makes sense.’ It had an incredible calming effect!” Should Obama try the moon rock strategy? “Well, when he thinks they’re off the reservation he should stand up to them, break through the ideological fog and get back to deciding things.”

I ask him whether school budgets aren’t taking the biggest hit from the savage cuts in every state across the union. Aren’t we wasting our seed corn?

“Yes we are,” he concedes. But he also says that it isn’t just a matter of throwing money at the problem – there are structural, systemic problems of accountability that need to be addressed. “We are still living with a farm calendar. Only Belgium has a shorter school year.” But, “We still have a pay structure based on getting all the smartest women in America for free. Women were the last low-cost, high-quality labour pool feeding into the supply. Now they are on company boards, in medicine and law.” More seriously, the baby boomer women teachers are all about to retire. “Money matters to recruit young people to teach, even if for just five years,” but it isn’t the whole answer. An overwhelmingly African-American high school in one the poorest counties in the country, in the Mississippi Delta, but a Kipp school that emphasises innovative methods of instruction and social behaviour, got to rank second in Arkansas; a testimony to inspired teaching, not a bank of dollars.

Which leads Clinton to pull another melancholy reflection from his own bottomless barrel of knowledge. When Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933, he reminds me, it was the old who were the poorest Americans. But their plight was transformed by the great accomplishment of the New Deal, Social Security and Lyndon Johnson’s creation of Medicare in the 1960s, the two institutions that stick most in the craw of conservative believers in the absolute supremacy of the market. For the past two decades, Clinton points out, it’s the young who constitute the poorest social cohort in America: whether as children deprived of adequate health insurance or the basic high school education that would give them some chance in the employment market. “It’s a metaphor,” he says, for prosperous countries, valuing the present over the future.

“So, Mr President,” I say, “Do you really think America has what it takes to get out of this deep hole?” He shifts his chair closer to me. “I’ll give you an honest answer. I’m absolutely confident we have what it takes. But I’m more worried now than I have been for many many years … because we have both a short-term crisis of horrible unemployment and long-term issues about education, healthcare and tilting the economy a little more to production. But here’s what I know … People have been betting against America for 200 years – it’s a maddening country – and they all wound up losing money. They said Washington was a mediocre surveyor with a set of false teeth; on the way to his inauguration an Illinois newspaper said that Abraham Lincoln was a baboon, he’ll ruin the country … Khrushchev said he’d bury us, the Japanese in the 1980s were going to bury us too.”

But, and something like a sigh escapes the optimist – “this is a different sort of challenge. It’s short-term and long-term, it’s complicated and we need a narrative that allows people to buy into America. The best I can do is tell you that what works in the modern world is different from what works in politics. When I’m asked what’s the one thing I’m proudest of, it was moving a hundred times as many people from poverty into the middle class as in the previous 12 years, because that was clearly the product of economic policy. That’s what this country is all about; the idea that if you work hard and you’re an honourable person you get a chance to live your dream and give your children a chance to chase it.”

The aides close in, calling time. Clinton wants, of course, to carry on talking, especially about the fate of the young in America, not just as some sort of abstract policy issue but as if he were one of them himself, which, of course, the Comeback Kid in many ways still is. He walks over to the windows of his office and looks down to a scrap of green amidst the urban grit. “See over there? That park? That’s Marcus Garvey Park. Tough spot. But that’s where the Harlem Little League team plays. And some years back, they made it all the way to the World Series. Just imagine!” Which is what, for all his worldly political wisdom, Bill Clinton still irrepressibly does. Imagine.

Clinton’s agenda

Founded by Bill Clinton in 2005, the Clinton Global Initiative brings together world leaders to address poverty, the environment and access to education and healthcare. It organises an annual meeting in New York every September; last month’s attendees included Barack Obama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The CGI does not fund projects – its members make specific “commitments to action”. If honoured in full, these are valued so far at more than $69bn.

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