The Real Clinton Foundation
Joe Conason is interviewed by Salon regarding his reporting on the Clinton Foundation:
No one has been able to produce real evidence of corruption at the Clinton Foundation, but the relentless media chatter falsely implying otherwise has had its effect: Few voters know about the good work that the foundation does. Americans are instead more likely to believe false stories about corruption than know about the foundation’s work.
Journalist Joe Conason wants to change that. In his new book, “Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton,” Conason profiled Bill Clinton’s post-presidency career in philanthropy. Through his work for the Clinton Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and other activities, former president Clinton has devoted himself to fighting against poverty and for greater access to education, nutrition and health care around the world. I recently spoke with Conason over the phone. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’ve written a lot about the Clintons for how long now?
Well, I mean since he first ran for president. So that’s — what is it? Almost 25 years? Something like that.
So what motivated you to write this book about Bill Clinton’s post-presidency?
Esquire magazine asked me to write a profile about him in 2005 when he was just about to launch Clinton Global Initiative. That summer before [he and his associates] launched it, I went to Africa with him on his annual Africa trip, and we visited several countries.
And when I came back and went to the first CGI and wrote the piece for Esquire, it got a huge reception. I realized sometime after that that what they were doing was really interesting and different from what other presidents had done when they left office and that there might be a book in it.
It took a couple of years, but I persuaded [the Clintons] to cooperate with a book that they would have no control over. President Clinton didn’t see the book until August, when it was all ready to hit the printer.
But they nevertheless were very cooperative, and I went on a couple of more trips to Africa with him and other places, traveled with him a lot and interviewed him, you know, more than a dozen times — sort of sit-down, taped interviews. And it turned out that I was right, there was really a lot to write.
How would you say President Clinton’s vision of a post-presidency differs from other presidents before him? And, well, after him, as well?
Well, we’ll see what comes after. In spite of their sometimes tense relationship, President Obama has displayed a lot of interest in what Clinton has done since he left the White House since he knows he’s leaving soon, and they’ve talked quite a bit about it. So we’ll see what Obama does.
Clinton studied the post-presidencies of earlier presidents very carefully, and especially Jimmy Carter, who[m] he hosted at Camp David just before his own presidency ended to talk about what Carter had done. That again was a very tense relationship, one that had big ups and downs, but I think Clinton really respected what Carter had done.
But [Clinton is] a bigger personality in a lot of ways and more ambitious and wants to do more things. He never sort of set a boundary around what he was doing.
He started out realizing that something really needed to be done about AIDS treatment in the developing world, because there were likely to be 100 million AIDS victims if nothing was done.
He never decided, Well, it’s only going to be about these things or it’s only going to be about these themes or I’m only going to do health or I’m only going to do education. He really allowed himself to cast a very wide net. And I don’t any other president had done that yet after leaving the White House.
How do you see the Clinton Foundation and [its] work? And how does that differ from the way it’s being portrayed in the media?
I’d say it’s night and day, Amanda.
The media is focused on false stories about conflicts of interest, or true stories about potential conflicts of interests that don’t seem to me to matter very much. They want to know about every email that was ever sent on behalf of any donor or anybody that might’ve been a donor or attended CGI.
I’m looking at things like they’ve had 11 and a half million AIDS victims on treatment who otherwise would have died, for instance. That’s just one thing. Or, rebuilt the entire health system of the country of Rwanda. Or, you know, they’ve eliminated malaria from most of Tanzania and saved thousands and thousands of people’s lives that way.
It would take a long time to enumerate all the accomplishments of the foundation. This is not just Clinton himself. This is a lot of people who are either volunteers or employees there — doctors, volunteer business executives, all kinds of people who decided they wanted to address these problems. It’s why I wanted to write the book in the first place.
For some reason, very few of our colleagues have the slightest interest in that. I’ll hear, as I have already a few times while I’m going around talking about this book, Well, no one would deny the good work, but …
That’s fine, don’t deny the good work because you don’t know anything about it. But what if you looked at the good work for 15 minutes? What if you sent somebody overseas to look at the good work? Almost nobody ever does.
That’s the difference between my outlook on it and what I would call the conventional media narrative now, which is all about this idea that somehow something corrupt had to have happened.
Keep in mind, these were people who, up until the election cycle started, would go to Clinton Global Initiative every year and suck up shamelessly to Clinton trying to get an interview. [The] same people now only want to talk about why nobody trusts the Clintons and ask, Don’t you think that they should shut down the foundation?
Sure, they should shut down the foundation and if those 11 million people die, nobody in our media world would care. I think says a lot more about them than it does about Clinton.
In the book, I talk a lot about The New York Times, which influences all media coverage basically, especially in politics. And The New York Times has been very focused on the foundation and problems that [Times journalists] allege in the foundation, such making up this whole story about Russian uranium, which was a completely fabricated, phony story taken from “Clinton Cash” that they put on the front page.
You know what, they know better. Celia Dugger, who is a very good reporter for the Times, went to Africa with Clinton and saw what he did — and saw what the foundation had done. So they know, and they ran a very good story about it years ago but this is years ago. And that was one time in 15 years basically that they paid attention the real work. Meanwhile, they are constantly on this, and it’s all part of the political cycle.
The popularity of the Clintons goes up and down. You can see it in Gallup polls that are taken every year, it goes up and down whether one of them is running for office — especially her. And I think you know the basis for all of that.
How would you characterize Bill Clinton’s philosophy of philanthropy? . . .