What is it about a man
that makes hundreds of people in a room catch their breath in unison in
expectation of their presence or voice?
I adjusted my skirt, put a
hand to my hair, and looking around the ballroom in the Trinidad Hilton on
October 22, saw those silent, subtle movements echoed throughout the room,
by women who were doing the same, by men who were tugging at their ties;
all eyes peeled to the door through which the former President of the
United States, William Jefferson Clinton, was to walk.
I asked that question of
myself and thought private thoughts for the full hour Bill Clinton spoke
at CL Financial’s World Leadership Series in his signature cultivated,
impassioned Southern American voice.
What is it, I wondered,
about icons of our time, my mind thumbing through images of Jackie Onassis;
Diana, Princess of Wales; Mahatma Gandhi; Nelson Mandela; Martin Luther
King; Marilyn Monroe, makes us carefully wrap this moment to pass on to
our great grand-children?
It’s elusive, this
thing. They are human stars who emanate a powerful light with their vast
spirits and instinctive recognition of the blinding light and terrible
darkness in this world. They are a magnified version of ordinary human
beings, with greater vulnerability and fallibility and sexual or political
power than we ordinary mortals can dream of. (Think of Marilyn Monroe
dying of an overdose, Bill Clinton raising his right hand at the height of
his humiliation - “I did not have sex relations with that woman.”)
Yet they allow us to
believe in something much bigger than ourselves, allowing our spirits to
expand, because if we are human, they are twice as human. And they inhabit
not small spaces, but the mind of millions around the world, because they,
too, are wide and embrace it all.
Clinton’s voice broke
“In our time, 700,000
people died in Rwanda in 90 days, with almost no guns, almost all killed
by machetes; 250,000 innocents killed in Bosnia, a million refugees
created overnight in Kosovo, conflicts rooted in ethnic, religious
differences and my civilisation not blameless.
“In America we practised
slavery for quite a while. Afterwards, people were killed because of their
race by the Ku Klux Klan. We still have in our country the occasional hate
crime, where someone is brutalised because of race, religion, sexual
orientation, but we have been stumbling in the right direction.
“Today there are 30
million cases of AIDS, the largest number - 70 per cent in Africa, second
largest in the Caribbean, third in India, and China just admitted they
have twice as many aids cases as previously thought and only four per cent
of adults have any idea how it is contracted and spread.
“If these trends
continue, in five years there will be 100 million AIDS cases and AIDS will
be the biggest health problem the world has known since the black death
killed one in four Europeans in the 14th century.”
So, I thought, eyeing the
tall figure in blue shirt, fuschia tie and black suit, this feast of a man
was once a church-going, saxophone-playing, loving boy from Arkansas. A
boy who was able to hoist himself up by his bootstraps, and as a man, win
scholarships to Oxford and Yale and win the confidence of the American
people as Governor.
There is something
incredibly sexy about a man who is passionate about not just women (every
woman in the room swore he made eye contact with her) or power, but the
vulnerable among us; a man who has poetry in his soul when he plays the
saxophone, and scholarly depth, who commands the respect of world leaders,
shapes economies whose actions have impacted on thousands of lives, yet
who is fallible as any, succumbing as he did to the charms of a saucy
intern or two.
A man who apologises to
the world for lying under oath (and wouldn’t every man in that
position?) even if it wasn’t anyone’s business. A man who must have
thought, during his impeachment, that the fools who judged him should be
focusing on his foreign policy rather than sex life, because he was
elected to be accountable about the former, not the latter.
Those who say he didn’t
concentrate on leadership in the lecture missed the point. Bill Clinton
embodies leadership. He is the product of the American dream which allowed
him, raised by a single parent - his mother, a nurse (his father died in a
car crash when he was three months old) and later, a step-father, Roger
Clinton, an automobile salesman - to rise to the office of the 42nd
President of the United States.
His tools? Talent,
ambition, a hero like Martin Luther King. A man, who delivers his speech
with the inflection and poetry of a Shakespearean actor, who makes you
want to weep with joy and sorrow at his voracious appetite not just for
music, women and power, but knowledge, a powerful sense of responsibility
to humanity and his thorough engagement, however fallible, with life.