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A Conversation with Former President Bill Clinton

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon

In the five years since he's left the White House, former President Bill Clinton hasn't stopped running. Even heart surgery didn't slow him down. He's established a charitable foundation, opened his presidential library, toured for AIDS awareness in Africa and tsunami relief in South Asia. Yesterday in Atlanta, he delivered the keynote address to attendees at the 30th annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists. Following his speech, we talked about life after the White House.

(technical difficulties) ...sat in the most powerful seat in the world, but can you now affect change better, more efficiently, now that you've left the White House? You certainly have left some of the bureaucratic luggage that comes with the job.

Former President BILL CLINTON: Yeah. I think the answer to that is yes and no. That is, no, I can't affect change over a broader range of topics in areas than I could in the White House, because I had more power in the White House. On the other hand, if I use my influence now in concentrated ways and I make efforts based on, you know, what I've learned and what I know and who I know, my ability to raise funds in concentrated ways, I think I can make more of a difference. So that, for example, this system we've set up to provide care and treatment for AIDS is highly efficient, very cost effective, much cheaper than any government program could ever be. I've got over a hundred volunteers doing a lot of this training work. And negotiating the details of the cheapest AIDS drugs in the world is something that I could do as a private citizen that I could not have done had I been president.

GORDON: The two initiatives that you are pushing now, that's the AIDS initiative in Africa most specifically, but here in the United States, and the childhood obesity. Quickly, talk to us about that and why you decided to push these two issues?

Mr. CLINTON: Let me first start with the childhood obesity. I decided to push that because the Heart Association came to me after my heart surgery and said I'd become the most visible heart patient in America and they'd like me to do something to continue to increase public awareness and to help them with their endeavors. So I looked around and decided the most important thing I could do was try to increase public awareness and public action in the area of childhood obesity, which is going to lead to massive heart problems and is already leading to, interestingly enough, adult onset diabetes in our kids. This is going to impose enormous strains on the health-care system.

We're here in Atlanta doing this interview. Emory University just did a study which showed that over 25 percent of health spending increases between '87 and 2001 came out of obesity increase. So I did it because I think it'll save a generation of children. I think it's essential to the health of the health-care system. I don't think we can succeed with health-care reform at affordable rates unless we do something about it. And I think there are ways we can do it. We can cut down the fat and sugar content of food that we eat at home, that we eat in restaurants, that our children are served at school cafeterias, increase exercise and get more kids involved in public awareness. That's why I'm doing that.

AIDS I did because I was angry when I got out of the White House, that even with the money that we were then spending, so few people were getting the medicine, and there was so little care in rural areas in Africa and the rest of the world. So now we're providing medicine to a hundred and ten thousand people. We'll get it to 300,000 by the end of the year. It's the cheapest medicine in the world, and we're training people all over the world. We're training 700,000 doctors in Africa, paramedical workers in Rwanda and other places, and we're going to save a lot of lives. And Africans and other people are getting their act together on AIDS, so with just a little bit of money, a few hundred million dollars, within a year and a half, I think we'll be able to say, `If you give us this money, we can treat everybody in the world.'

GORDON: Al Sharpton said recently the Democrats and even you have, in fact, taken the black vote for granted. We've heard that throughout the years, frankly. Credence to that?

Mr. CLINTON: Well, I don't know about other people, but I never did. I don't think that's fair. I think if you look at both the level of my commitment in terms of appointments and, even more importantly, in policy, every single policy from doubling the SBA loans to minorities, to having record minority homeownership, record minority business ownership, dramatic drops in poverty and child poverty, and a lot of specific efforts to increase the participation of blacks in the life of America, I think it's simply impossible to make that claim that we took African-Americans for granted.

GORDON: Just want to get your idea of the love affair that much of black America has with you and your feeling about it. Why do you think it's so?

Mr. CLINTON: I think a lot of it is the feeling I have for black America and for individual African-Americans, that I think a lot of it grows out of people's sense of where my mind and heart are and what my record was and what I'm trying to do now. I think a lot of African-Americans identify with me because of my childhood and my upbringing. I think that what I went through with the impeachment thing struck a responsive chord with a lot of people who've been through tough times in their own lives that they didn't think were quite fair.

I think there are a lot of reasons, but mostly I think we like people who like us, and we care about people that care about us, and I think that over the years, I was in public life, and when I was president, a lot of Americans reached the judgment that I was pulling for them and cared about them, and I think African-Americans particularly felt that way.

GORDON: And John Roberts--do you like that nomination?

Mr. CLINTON: Well, I like what I know of him as a person very much. He seems to be a very impressive person, and the fact that he's a conservative Republican is consistent with President Bush's winning the election. The only thing I've seen in these documents that bothers me that I really want to see the Senate explore is that he apparently had a big fight within the Reagan administration, where he was to the right of other people in the Reagan Justice Department in claiming that the Congress could keep the Supreme Court from hearing all kinds of cases involving school busings, school prayer, abortion, flag burning, lots of other things. That might indicate an unwillingness to allow the Supreme Court to be the court of last resort when people assert their constitutional rights. So I'd like to see that explored in the hearings. I think that'd be good for America and, you know, otherwise, I think we ought to all just sit back and see what he has to say and give him a fair hearing.

GORDON: Let me ask you this. So many times since the speculation about your wife perhaps looking toward the White House, you've been asked the question, `Is she running? Do you think she'll run?' Let me ask you this. Do you want her to run, outside of, `Oh, if she wants to'? We know that. Do you personally want her to run?

Mr. CLINTON: Well, first, I have to observe what I told her to observe. We have no business discussing this until she is re-elected senator for New York. Because if the people of New York don't ratify her service, it'll become a highly academic question. The second thing is I don't know if she'll run or not. For the country, I'd like it if she could serve because she'd be really great. I never met anybody with her combination of mind and heart, of sort of knowledge and passion, the ability to organize and run things and the ability to sort of speak out. She's the most gifted person I have personally ever worked with in public life, and I've worked with a lot of gifted people. So personally, I wish she had more time to come home, we could travel more and do more things together and, you know...

GORDON: Yet, that would be a tremendous burden on her, outside of just the office of the presidency. If, in fact, she won, she would obviously be the first female to hold that office; all of the baggage, the pressures that would come with that.

Mr. CLINTON: Yeah. That's true. But you just asked me what I wanted for her. I want--personally, I'd like to see her have a life with less pressure and more fun, and I got her that book last Christmas. One of my Christmas presents was that book of thousand places to see before you die, and we've been through it and through it and sort of checking off what we've seen, and there's still a bunch of places in that book we haven't seen. So personally, I'd like it if we had more time together to do that. But it'd be a good thing for America and the world for her to be in public life and the highest level she could be in, because she's just good. She's just incredibly gifted and wise.

GORDON: Quickly, the war, exit strategy. Some are suggesting that we're going to see Congress push the president based on the idea that elections are coming up, and they'll have to answer to the people at home. Do you think you have to have an exit strategy?

Mr. CLINTON: Well, I think we have an exit strategy. The question is do we have to set a date certain for withdrawal? I believe that we should set a date certain for withdrawal only if we have concluded that we cannot succeed with our strategy, because if we set a date certain for withdrawal, then all the people involved in this insurgency are just going to hang around...

GORDON: And wait.

Mr. CLINTON: ...and wait for us to go and try to set off every bomb they can on the last day we're there. So our exit strategy is to help the Iraqis hold elections, which they did; help them draft a constitution, which they're doing; and then develop the ability of the Iraqi security and military forces to defend themselves. Now none of this is easy, but the president made a decision to do this before the UN finished its job. I think that was an error, but we did it. We are where we are. Saddam's gone. That's my view. I think it would be quite hazardous now to set a specific date and it would run the risk of kind of dictating failure in an effort which still might succeed.

GORDON: Finally, do you believe the fact that you've faced death, frankly, has caused you to understand the importance of life a bit more than you did before that?

Mr. CLINTON: Sure. I think in two ways. I think it makes me--I've always been comfortable with my own mortality; that is, you know, my father died before I was born, so earlier than most children, I became aware of the fact of death and the inevitability of it. But I also have always been as healthy as a horse, so I just roared through life and worked like a demon, you know. I think that having this brush with my mortality, having this long period of convalescence, it has steeled my determination to try to do whatever I can to keep anybody anywhere in the world from dying before their time. I just want to--my whole passion--I keep telling people--is I want to spend the rest of my life helping to save lives, solve problems and see the future. That's all I want to do. And I don't think there's any question that this health scare intensified that.

GORDON: Bill Clinton, a really happy birthday and thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. CLINTON: Thank you. Thank you.

GORDON: William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, turns 59 on August 19th.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ed Gordon
Hard hitting, intelligent, honest, and no-nonsense describe Ed Gordon's style and approach to reporting that have made the Emmy Award-winning broadcaster one of the most respected journalists in the business today. Known for his informative on-air interaction with newsmakers, from world leaders to celebrities, the name Ed Gordon has become synonymous with the "big" interview.

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