TNR'S CLINTON PROBLEM. What is it that so infuriates the folks at The New Republic about the Clinton Global Initiative? Clinton could be drawling out old war stories on the golf links, like, say, Gerald Ford. He instead spends his time charming rich folks out of their money in order to help out the poor. Slick Willie plays Robin Hood. The first year Bill Clinton held this conference, he raised a couple billion. This year, he raised more than seven billion. And TNR, whose karmic balance currently strains under their cover for a misguided war and starring role in the destruction of the 1994 universal health care push, sees this is as worth repeated mockery. Glad they've got their priorities straight.
TNR's first swing at the CGI pinata came last year, when Michael Crowley greeted the first conference with an article mocking Clinton's wonky tendencies and superstar trappings. To Crowley, the couple billion raised by the effort was less worthy of attention than Clinton's "pathological need for adulation" or the occasional platitudes he offered. But if Crowley couldn't actually know the good the CGI would do, Leon Wieseltier operates from no such informational deficit -- Clinton's conference is now a proven mechanism for raising massive amounts of cash to fund programs widely acclaimed by the HIV/AIDS and humanitarian communities. Nevertheless, Wieseltier found the event -- which, again, raised more than seven billion to help the poor and needy -- "peculiarly repellent," loathed "the cult of the personality" it exhibited, condemned the "fatuity" and "banality" of the meeting, and lamented the "vanity" of the whole affair. And this was all before Wieseltier launched into a superficial recounting of Maimonides' hierarchy of charitable giving in order to shame the do-gooders. Sadly, Wieseltier was forced to admit that, "[i]n many ways the experts and the donors at the CGI honored this [highest] ideal of self-reliance, which the philosopher says is "exceeded by none."' Oh-what-oh-what circle of hell could be hot enough for these louts?
Wieseltier's actual problem is that the CGI folks flubbed the next item down Maimonide's list: Anonymity. Wieseltier feels this crowd is immodest in their giving, and the world must be warned. But Maimonides' injunction focused on keeping the recipients of charity from knowing their benefactor's name and the donor's from knowing their recipient's identity. It was to avoid a situation in which small communities had various poor members feeling inferior and indebted to the rich. Thankfully, I highly doubt each dose of ARV drugs given in Africa is attached to a picture of the tech mogul who purchased it, and then the mogul is handed a polaroid and name card for each AIDS-ravaged African he helped out. Maimonidies can relax.
Moreover, what neither Crowley nor Wieseltier seems to have noticed is that there's a method to the vanity. Easy as it may be to snipe at self-importance from a magazine perch (and really, what job is more egotistical than ours, which is predicated on the idea that the world should and must be exposed to our opinions, at great length and for a couple dollars a pop?), the self-important superstardom Clinton cultivates is actually central to his fundraising success. As David Remnick, who offered up a much more serious and judicious analysis of Clinton's post-presidency in a recent New Yorker, wrote:
Clinton is the first post-President to tap into the newer generation of wealth-the hedge-fund and retail moguls, who have bigger planes to lend and more cash to burn than their upper-class predecessors ever had. Ronald Burkle, a supermarket tycoon, is another frequent travelling companion and airplane lender; Burkle made Clinton a partner in one of his investment funds. Clinton's appeal for these tycoons is obvious: in exchange for giving money to a good cause-the Clinton Foundation's budget last year was thirty million dollars-you not only have the usual tax break and the knowledge that you are doing good but also get to play Oh Hell until five in the morning with a two-term ex-President who knows how to have a good time. You become a certified Friend of Bill, which still has some currency, six years after one Clinton White House and, possibly, two years before another. Writing a check to the March of Dimes hardly provides the same multi-layered reward.
Does that bespeak the purest motives on the part of the donors? No, it doesn't. But $10 billion is a lot of money. It can help a lot of people. And if Clinton uses his rock star reputation and the do-gooder vanity of his rich friends to channel tens of billions towards combating pandemics and ecological catastrophe, well, I think Maimonides would understand. The question is, why can't TNR?