Clinton: Tackling world’s ‘meatiest’ problems

Former president Bill Clinton is hardly taking it easy since leaving office in 2001. Much of his time these days is spent traveling the globe focusing on humanitarian work on behalf of the Clinton Foundation. This week the 42nd president is in New York City, hosting the group’s second a three-day event that unites some the world’s most influential people for solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Meredith Vieira, co-anchor of “Today,” caught up with Bill Clinton at the conference to talk to him about his foundation’s agenda for the next year and about why he’s so pleased that Warren Buffett, the famed investor and now major philanthropist, attended his foundation’s meeting. Here’s an edited version of their conversation:

Meredith Vieira: How do you decide what areas [the Clinton Foundation is going to concentrate on]? This year, you are covering poverty and global health, climate and the conflict in religion.

Bill Clinton: Well, last year, we did everything but global health. And we had one on governance, because it is clear in many of these developing countries, where there is the lack of capacity, the lack of the ability to have [a goverment] system, [and the lack of] an established connection between effort and result, that is a big problem. But we realized that was a problem in all of these areas, so we added global health this year. And I decided, because I think those are the biggest challenges, [that’s where] private citizens working through non-governmental organizations or philanthropies or businesses can have the biggest impact.

I can have a security session here and we could talk about nothing but Darfur, Iraq, the Middle East, and how we need an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but that is not anything any of us can do much about. I think it is more fruitful to talk about things all of us can have an impact on. That is why Tom Friedman [a columnist for The New York Times] today [at the conference] was saying, I am the genie; I am giving you two wishes, tell President Clinton what you want …

Vieira: Yeah, everyone has three or four wishes …

Clinton: Yeah, and that is OK. But the point is in all of these areas — in global health, in creating jobs, [in] meeting the challenges of climate change, in helping people work their way out of poverty, in promoting religious and racial and ethnic reconciliation — these are all things we can do if we are not in office, if we are out of political office. That is why I picked them. These are the meatiest, the most pressing problems [on which] non-politicians can have a big impact.

Viera: [Is there] anybody in the room [at the Clinton Global Initiative conference] this year that you’re just so glad that they took the call and came.

Clinton: Yeah, I’m glad Warren Buffet came this year because, you know, he — first of all, he’s a great example, a philanthropist. When he gave his money, he gave it to Bill Gates’s foundation, and I called him and I thanked him. And I said, “Warren, what’s the deal here?” He said, “Well, you know, I could build a monument to myself, but I made all this money because people thought I could make money better with their money than they could.” And he said, “They were right.” But he said, “Bill Gates can spend my money better than I could.” And he said, “It’s really crazy; it’s wrong for me not to do this.” So I think not only do I find him a delightful man, but he set an example that we should all remember, that none of it’s about our egos, it’s about the most effective way to invest whatever money or time we have. So I’m especially glad that he came. The Chinese foreign minister came this year; I'm glad to have the Chinese here....

Vieira: Why?

Clinton: Because I think that they’re getting richer and richer and they need to assume greater responsibilities in the world. And also they’ve got to come to grips with this climate change thing the same way the Indians do. Otherwise, no matter what we and America and Europe and Japan do, the world is still in a world of hurt. So the Chinese have actually done a better job than we Americans have in regulating greenhouse gas emissions from cars, but they’re bringing all new coal-fired power plants on line every 10 days or so. Unless we can figure out a way to obviate the need for these plants, or take the greenhouse gases and bury them under ground the way the Norwegians are, we’re going to be in deep trouble. So I’m thrilled that he’s here. And I think that we want them to play a more constructive role in the future. That’s just two examples. We’ve got a lot of new people here, but those are two important ones.