• July 13, 2006 |
On tour with Bill Gates and former President Bill Clinton (Campbell Brown, NBC News)
The world's richest man and the ex-president who still gets rock star treatment around the world are, individually, two of the most fascinating people I have ever covered. Watching them together, side by side, adds a whole new dimension and makes them all the more compelling. Clinton and Gates, along with Gates' wife Melinda, have made enormous commitments through their respective foundations to improving global health. They are concentrating their efforts on fighting AIDS in the developing world. The Gates Foundation programs center on AIDS prevention and the Clinton Foundation on AIDS treatment. Traveling together in Africa, the two Bills are trying to spotlight some of their projects, with the clear recognition that joint appearances offer an alluring new angle to a story that sadly gets too little coverage.
Together, they are hypnotic. Stylistically, they seem both at odds and oddly complimentary. One (you guess which) is driven by emotion, fully immersed in the sensory experience. We visited an AIDS treatment center in the tiny country of Lesotho that is funded in large part by the Clinton Foundation. Clinton held the hand of a young girl with AIDS during most of the visit. His focus was on listening to the stories of victims, like the one told to us by a teenage girl who had been raped and infected with HIV. Gates' interest was equally intense, but directed more at how the clinic was run, areas where additional help was needed, specifics on what was working and what wasn't. Physically he was reserved, even distant, but intellectually just as engaged.
Balancing the extremes of Clinton and Gates was Gates' wife Melinda. She is the driving force behind the Gates Foundation and its true voice. She is both knowledgeable and engaging, and deeply committed to finding ways to empower women to protect themselves from HIV infection. I had never heard of microbicides before this trip, but they are Melinda's passion. The simplest explanation: a gel-based substance that women apply vaginally to, theoretically, block the transmission of HIV. The idea behind them is to provide a method of protection to women in developing countries who are in subservient roles and often have little or no say over whether a condom is used during sex. The problem with microbicides is they have yet to be proven effective. In Durban, South Africa, we visited a clinic funded by the Gates Foundation where microbicide testing is now underway. The medical experts there say they are still years from finding one that is effective. But the Gates Foundation has committed over a billion dollars to funding research. Melinda Gates, in her words, believes that finding a microbicide that works could break the back of AIDS in Africa.
During an in-depth interview (obligatory plug: airs Tuesday, July 18 on "Today" and Friday, July 21 on "Dateline") the Gateses and Clinton all acknowledged that the real solution, an AIDS vaccine, is likely 10, even 20, years away. But none of the three seem at all daunted by the challenge. Their styles may be different, but their dedication seems equal. It is a powerful partnership.
Campbell Brown is currently in Africa. Her report on this trip airs on the Today Show Tuesday and on Dateline next Friday. Read former President Clinton's piece in last month's Newsweek on his quest to improve AIDS care.