Bill Clinton on my mind


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Category: Profiles Date: 28 Oct 01

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:


“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.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur