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A conversation with Bill Clinton

Former President Clinton talks about Iraq, the ad wars and his global initiatives.
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"Countdown" host Keith Olbermann had to chance to speak with Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, to learn more about his efforts to help people around the world in even the smallest of ways and his feelings about the hot political topics affecting the country right now.

On his fund-raising juggernaut, the Clinton Global Initiative
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, “COUNTDOWN: This is the annual “can you top this” of charity, of giving, of kindness. Is it more difficult this year in the middle of political crisis and heavy political fundraising and the contributions that follow that? 

BILL CLINTON, 42ND PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  No, not really.  I mean, the interesting thing to me is how much more interest there is.  And I think it kind of what I want to happen is operating kind of independent of the politics, because my whole theory is that in the United States and around the world, you need a strong economy, a good government, and a vibrant civil society.

And for example, last year we had about 50,000 people follow my Webcast.  As of noon today, we have 400,000 people looking at it.

So I think there is just more and more interest in it.  It is not about government policy.  In fact, as you know, a lot of what we have had today are joint projects.  I just announced a program on neglected tropical diseases with the company, a foundation in 15 countries. 

That is what you have to do.  We try to find the proper role for private giving.  And it has really been encouraging to me.  We have had big, big givers.  People are giving $100 million.  An electric company committing $2.5 million to solar energy.  And then a lot of people just giving small amounts.  And that is what you want.  And you want the time and skills and just the whole texture.

I think in the 21st century we all need to define our citizenship with making a good commitment to having good political policies, and also making the economy work, and finally being a giver in some way.  

OLBERMANN:  Last year you had “wow” moments.  The year before you had “wow” moments.  Is there something that stands out that just stops everything in the room?

CLINTON: Well, I think when (the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative) opened yesterday, Bishop Tutu, as always, was profoundly eloquent.  And we were talking about whether religion was a good or a bad thing. 

Last year he brought the house down by saying religion is like a knife.  If you use it to cut bread, it is good.  If you use it to cut off your neighbor’s arm, it is bad.  So since that time there have been a whole spate of books written in America about how terrible religion is because (INAUDIBLE) politics around the world.

And Tutu talked about in Burma today how all of these Buddhist monks are risking their lives to try to free Aung San Suu Kyi and restore democracy.  And the way he did it just took my breath away. 

Then there have been small things.  For example, one of our most interesting commitments was a person who committed a relatively small amount of money, in the context of this, a couple of million dollars, to set up thousands of people in small businesses in the developing world to sell reading glasses.

It turns out in poor countries only 5 percent of the people can read but need reading glasses to read.  So this project will help hundreds of thousands of people and in the process create a whole new sector of the economy, a lot of small businesses.

A lot of people say, I never would have thought of that.  And we always have that where people are coming to us with simple ideas, you know, buying bikes for people so they will have a way to make a living.

Yesterday Brad Pitt made a big impression on people because he said he would give $5 million to somebody with his friends (INAUDIBLE) give $5 million and people would match it to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans with green houses.  So that when the lower-income workers move back to the Ninth Ward, they will have better houses than they had before, and it will cost them less to run because the utility bills will be so much lower. 

And people thought, wow, that is a good thing, I hadn’t thought of that, that we could actually give them better houses and lower costs if we do it in this way. 

OLBERMANN:  This is the thing that is below the surface here, I would imagine.  Obviously gifts, money, those keep the wheels moving, but the idea of an idea.  Last year the one, the stuck in my mind, were the micro-loans, the idea that you got people going begging in many countries, give them something to sell and all of a sudden you have turned them into door-to-door salesmen. 

CLINTON:  Well, I can just give you an example of that — we can all be micro-bankers now thanks to a little Web site called, which made its introduction here last year. 

They came here for the first time.  And one of the people who followed us on the Internet, of the 48,000 people, several hundred of them made their own commitment.  One of them said, I’m going to loan $25 to somebody in Africa to start a business or expand a business. 

When I featured them in my book and then went on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and she brought them there, within three days, all of the people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Afghanistan, every one of their businesspeople was fully funded within three days by people giving between $25 and $200. 

It was amazing.  So now they all will get reports and when their loans are paid back, they can keep them or turn around and lend them again.  These are the kind of ideas that are circulating in the world.  And we can increase the visibility of the good idea.

And people, even with a very modest amount of money can have a huge impact.  Just think about it.  You and I could become bankers to people and we could monitor their progress and people in their neighborhoods will see and they will look for micro-loans, they have their own ideas, so we can give them a chance to raise their kids with dignity, send their kids to school, and in troubled places like Afghanistan, we marginally increase the chance that peace can prevail because people will see there is a positive alternative to conflict.

OLBERMANN:  So this is, you’d say, after three years of this that the spirit of giving and of creative thought towards how to help other people is contagious?

CLINTON:  Oh, yeah.  And how people spend — we have a commitments office that works all year long.  So we help people develop these commitments in the run-up to the CGI.  Then at the conference, people who came and haven’t yet made commitments, we help them make their commitments then a few months afterwards.

And then we spend six months helping everybody keep them.  It’s worked out so well, that probably the most innovative big thing that’s been announced is the $300 million that the Canadian mining interest and Carlos Slim the Mexican billionaire committed to going to mining communities and help them develop long-term economic development projects that benefit average people and are good for the environment.

As long as the world population is going up, mining will go up.  We’ll need more minerals, materials of all kinds.  But very often miners don’t do very well.  Their families don’t do very well.  The land is denuded.  When the mine plays out, everybody leaves and goes on and then all these people are left without a way to make a living.

So that this one man, Frank Giustra, a Canadian friend of mine with a social conscience said this is wrong and it’s not helpful, we make a ton of money, we should give a big portion back.

And there are $300 million have already been committed.  Twenty-four other companies lined up to give more.  Five countries in Latin America and Africa already selected.  There is some money in the bank in Peru for this that the government requires and the Europeans have already paid into the bank lots of money to buy carbon offsets to meet their global warming targets, but they don’t have good projects.

We’re going to try to put all of this together and I wouldn’t be surprised if this one guy’s idea and $100 million commitment leads to billions of dollars in reinvestment in good, environmentally responsible jobs for people in some of the poorest countries in the world.

OLBERMANN:  It’s nice to see the dominoes falling in good order.

CLINTON:  And it’s something you can do with relatively little bureaucracy.  And I tell, you, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need an international fund, and we do.  It doesn’t mean that the government is not important.  It is.  But these are things that can be done to fill the gap that is always there and always has been between even the healthiest economies and most vigorous government in the whole — in this society and where we ought to be.

On the N.H. Democratic debate
OLBERMANN:  While this has been going on, did you get a chance to watch the Democratic debate last night?

CLINTON:  I missed the first 15 minutes.  I had to go to a party for all these people.  But I saw the rest.  And I thought it was interesting.  I felt bad for them because they’ve done a lot of these debates and everybody is being told beforehand, you know, here is what you have to accomplish, here is what you have to accomplish.  This one started great, 9 o'clock, and then it went on for two hours.

So maybe because I have been there before, most viewers won’t think this, but a lot of them had to be tired after a long day’s work and it required a lot concentration and you could see, I could see at least, the ebb and flow of energy in all the participants.

OLBERMANN:  And one of the participants had a moment last night, had a moment that I think was fairly generally assessed as being a signal moment in this campaign.  When pressed about whether or not she was in agreement with a theory, a theoretical that you had addressed on “Meet the Press” a year ago, there was an apparent disagreement between Senator Clinton and you on this point.  To which she said, well, he is not standing here right now.  What did you think of that?

CLINTON:  I loved it.  I thought to myself, you know, Tim Russert is a very clever interviewer, he thought that he had trapped her, and instead she made the obvious point that if she is elected, she will be the president, I won’t, she will make the final call, and I completely agree with her about the policy.  The United States has to be against terror.

As a matter of fact, what I really was talking about with Tim Russert is what happens when you have people watch “24,” as you know.  Jack Bauer always knows the nuclear weapon is going to explode in five minutes and here is a guy who knows what you do.

There is a one in a million chance that happens.  But the United States is against torture because it’s illegal, it’s immoral, it doesn’t work and it makes our own soldiers vulnerable to torture.

If that ever happened, the point I was trying to make to Russert, and you or I or anybody else thought a million lives for you beating up this guy, you’d probably do it, but you should know it’s against the law and you should be prepared to take the consequences.

And we shouldn’t ever ask the president of the United States of America to be on the side of torture, illegal, almost always ineffective and makes our own people vulnerable to the same sort of treatment.

On the Iraq War and the Gen. Petraeus ad controversy
:  May I ask you two other topical questions?

Do you think we’re being consumed a year in front of the presidential election with phony issues?  We have a spasm over an advertisement pertaining to Iraq but we don’t talk about Iraq, or the administration doesn’t talk about Iraq, and we don’t talk about race but we talk about whether a commentator’s racial remarks were taken out of context or he is being smeared?

Where’s the old ’80s ad for — the burger company goes, “Where’s the beef?”

CLINTON:  Well, I think that in our primary I think there has been a lot of substance.  We have at least three very serious plans on health care.  We have at least four or five very serious, well-thought-out plans for how to disengage in Iraq and what we should do and what our obligations are even among those of us who thought it was a mistake to go in.

Hillary has given a very thoughtful education program. So, I think, has Senator Edwards.  So there has been a lot of beef.  I think, frankly, with a campaign that goes on this long, you’re bound to have some distractions, and the daily news is bound to dominate from time to time. And to be fair, people in your business can only go through their health care plans or education plans so many times.

I think the important thing is to keep doing these debates.  I know some people may get bored with them, but I think that the debates have been by and large quite positive experiences that people can try to talk about their differences so in the end they have to answer the substantive questions.

And I think all these candidates should keep laying out their plans for the future so that the American people can make judgments about their person experience and about their policy positions.

But you’re going to have some of this stuff.  I didn’t like that debate about the ad because I thought — I admire Gen. Petraeus, and I disagreed with it.  I would never attack him personally.  I hate all the personal attacks in politics.  I oppose them.  I haven’t engaged in them.

But I thought the absolute snit the Republicans went into was bait-and-switch.  They said, oh good, I can take — I can shift the heat to the Democrats.  I can shift the heat to MoveOn and I don’t have to talk about what really matters, which is, do we really think it’s worth hundreds of more deaths and thousands of more wounded to sustain this many more months?  What are the consequences if we don’t?  What are our options besides the stay-the-course plan outlined by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, and leaving tomorrow?

It is not like there are just two options here.  There are, you know, 50 different things you could do.  So I think that those people who called the bait-and-switch what it was were right. 

For example, I was proud of Sen. Boxer, because she introduced the resolution which exposed what happened.  She said, OK, let’s condemn what they did to Max Cleland, who left half of his body in Vietnam and was put in an ad with Saddam Hussein and John Walker Lindh. 

Let’s condemn the Swiftboat action.  And the guy that paid for that was appointed to an embassy by President Bush.  Let’s condemn what they did to John McCain in South Carolina in 2000.  He had a pretty good record of sacrifice for this country. 

So I think that is what we need to do.  We need to, every time there is a bait-and-switch and we are taking our eye off the ball, we ought to call it for just what it is and put it behind us.

OLBERMANN:  We are doing that when we can.

CLINTON:  And Hillary voted against that resolution.  I was really proud of her, not because she disrespects Gen. Petraeus. She is on the Armed Services Committee.  She likes and admires all of these generals, including the ones with whom she disagrees.  And many of the military generals agree with what Democrats are saying about Iraq.

But that is not the point.  The point is that we need to be talking about things that will affect the American people and their lives.  And do I think we should not attack people personally?  Absolutely. 

But do I think we should not allow the inevitable snit, as people’s nerves get frayed and they are frustrated and they say things like that to divert us from what will affect the American people and our interests in the world?  That is what I believe.

And most responsible candidates will always drive it right back to what affects the American people.  The elections are supposed to be about them, not the politicians.

OLBERMANN:  As a final point, do you have an idea, do you have an opinion at this point, how and when we are going to get out of Iraq?

CLINTON:  I do.  If you ask me, do I know what is going to happen, no, I don’t know.  But I can tell you what I think should happen.  I believe we have really no choice but to begin fairly quickly to reduce our military presence there. 

And I believe that for several reasons.  First of all, I think when it is clear that we are bringing down our presence, number one, we will bring our people home and probably fewer people will die.

I think that we can do that without undermining what has been done in these two areas where the Sunnis are basically fighting to control their own country again and we are helping them.  That is what we should have been doing all along, helping them instead of asking them to help us. 

I think that we have to do it because we need to lower the level of violence, because we need to increase the pressure on the Iraqi government to make deals because we need to mix things up so that the neighbors and the U.N. and all of the other people will engage in diplomatic discussions.

And then the Iranian president can come here and say, oh, I want America to leave and I will fill the vacuum. The truth is he is terrified that there will be millions of more refugees and they will all go into Iran and they aggravate his own instability.

Iran is not a monolithic country.  There are a lot of different ethnic groups there, near where almost all of the refugees would certainly pour in.  They would have a lot of problems if this happened.  We need to get more diplomatic movement. 

And finally, the American military has been badly damaged by this.  So if we have an emergency, we will have to fight it with the Navy and the Air Force.  We have no Army.  We have no Marine Corps.  The Guard, the Reserves are either all there or on rotation.

And even the Navy Reserves now are being called up, trained in infantry tactics and deployed to the Iraq theater.  They were supposed to be trained in infantry tactics to be our security reserve in the event of another problem.  Now even Navy Reservists are being sent in to serve with the Army in the theater.

So this is a subtext in this thing, but I think almost 100 percent of Americans are proud of the military, proud that it is capable of doing what it does, and would be really alarmed if they knew just how depleted it has been by our commitment of far more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan, where I think our national security is more at stake.