If Only This Saint Had Been President

The cover of the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly is filled with the solemn gaze of a thoughtful, generous, remarkable man. His name is William Jefferson Clinton, although, such is his modesty, he prefers to be known simply as “Bill.”

The reader may perhaps have heard of Bill Clinton. His uplifting speeches have made him the most sought-after speaker on the inspirational talk circuit. Giving, his book about philanthropy, sits atop best-seller lists, while his foundation promotes exciting ideas in the fields of global health, education and climate change. He is the darling of Davos, a leader of liberals, an oracle to everyone who believes — as the subtitle of his book declares — that “each of us can change the world.”

“When I left the White House,” Clinton writes in Giving, “I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life giving my time, money and skills to worthwhile endeavours where I could make a difference.” The spirit of Albert Schweitzer lives. Seriously, this is a beautiful man.

Now, I should pause to clarify something. This Bill Clinton is not the Bill Clinton who was president of the United States. I don’t know why the Bill Clinton who wrote Giving made that reference to the White House. Maybe he took the tour. But he is definitely not the Bill Clinton who was president. Same name. Different men.

Very different men. Polar opposites, in some ways. In fact, as I was reading Giving, I kept thinking, wow, this Bill Clinton must loathe the other one.

For one thing, the Bill Clinton who wrote Giving — I’ll call him “Saint Bill” to keep things straight — is deeply moved by poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Saint Bill applauds recent increases in development aid announced by the G8 but he insists it’s not enough. He talks about all his friends who are working hard to make a difference, people like development guru Jeffrey Sachs and former British prime minister Tony Blair. And Bono — Saint Bill tells his readers to support the rock star’s campaign to “persuade the U.S. government to dedicate one per cent of our national income to eliminating extreme poverty in developing nations.”

And the other Bill Clinton? The former president? He liked to talk about Africa but he was a disaster for development aid. Forget one per cent of national income. Under President Bill, American aid fell to an all-time low of 0.11 per cent — barely more than one-10th of what the other Bill Clinton thinks it should be. In the latter half of President Bill’s time in office, the U.S. economy boomed and budget projections showed fat surpluses as far as the eye could see. And yet President Bill kept right on squeezing aid.

At a G8 meeting in 2000, Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien suggested the G8 increase assistance by five to 10 per cent. He got nowhere. “My proposal was well received,” Chrétien said at a press conference, “but certain governments did not want to commit themselves to a certain figure.” Mr. Chrétien never said who the holdout was but news reports citing Canadian officials fingered President Bill.

That alone might be enough to make Saint Bill take a swing at President Bill if they ever meet. But that’s only the first item on a long list of contrasts between the words of the saint and the deeds of the president.

Consider this compassionate statement in Giving: “What I cared most about was doing what I could to make sure people younger than me don’t die before their time and aren’t denied the chance to find their own fulfillment.”

It is a fine and noble sentiment and the man who wrote it would surely be appalled by a president who personally approved and oversaw the execution of a man so gravely retarded he had the mental capacity of a young child — a man who, when given his last meal, set aside a slice of pecan pie “for later.” President Bill did just that during his first campaign for the White House. It was good politics. Executing a man with the mental capacity of a child showed he was no liberal softy.

The day after the execution, the prison chaplain resigned. “I hate murder,” he said. “I hate murderers. But to execute children? What was done to Rickey Ray Rector was in itself, absolutely, a crime. A horrible crime. We’re not supposed to execute children.”

While Bill Clinton was president — and thanks in part to his policies — the death penalty was revived and the United States experienced the greatest incarceration boom in its history. By the time he left office, the U.S. had passed Russia as the world’s leading jailer. Almost half a million Americans –most young, poor and brown –were caged for drug crimes alone.

Shortly before leaving the White House, President Bill gave a long interview to Rolling Stone magazine. After being assured that the interview wouldn’t be printed until after he left office, President Bill said he supports marijuana decriminalization and he thinks mandatory minimum sentences should be re-considered. “We really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment,” he boldly declared.

That’s one thing President Bill has in common with Saint Bill. He’s a great talker. He’s also a liberal icon, just like Saint Bill, which is a little harder to understand. As Christopher Hitchens noted, President Bill went “further than Reagan ever dared in repealing the New Deal and seconding the social Darwinist ethic at home and abroad.” For liberals, the Clinton presidency delivered little more than many fine words. And yet, that was enough.

“Clinton makes speeches, (his conservative appointees) make policy,” wrote conservative pundit David Frum in 1999. “The Left gets words, the Right gets deeds; and everybody is content.”

“Government matters,” Saint Bill writes in Giving. “That’s why one of the most important ways of giving time, money, knowledge, and skills can be in an effort to change, improve, or protect a government policy.”

Nice stuff. What a shame it was the other Bill Clinton who was president.