Yesterday, I committed Part I of this Davos Journal, and I promised you, the next day, a little Bill Clinton–so here he is.
As you may remember from my reporting and commentary last year, Bill Clinton is King of Davos, the World Economic Forum’s favorite American, by far, just as Shimon Peres is its favorite Israeli (you may detect a pattern here). There is almost a worshipful attitude about Clinton here in Davos, as people get adoring looks in their eyes, and follow his every move like bobby-soxers in thrall to Sinatra. No wonder the ex-prez so loves coming here; he is bathed in uncritical love.
He gave a speech on Wednesday that was pretty interesting, and that had all of Davos rapt. Clinton looks good, in that his weight is down–he’s practically slim. He has heavy bags under his eyes, but he looks rather more mature than he did when president.
In the course of his speech, he did a lot of lip-biting, and he pauses way too long to let what he considers good points sink in. But he is undeniably effective, and he spoke largely without notes. He had two overriding themes, as I saw it: 1) the continuing greatness of Bill Clinton, and 2) the need to “systematize”–his new word, one he repeated over and over–assistance to the poor.
Speaking of the discontents of the world, he noted that terrorism is not necessarily “caused” by poverty, because so many of the terrorists are not poor–in fact, some of them are downright rich. This is elementary for you and me, but it was good for this crowd to hear it, particularly from the idolized Clinton.
He noted that one response to globalization is to revert to a tribalism, or a primitivism–people around the world have done that. He said that “the anti-globalization people” have some valid criticisms, but they tend to mourn a past that probably never existed. Was there ever a time when economies were localized and perfectly self-sustaining? He quoted Will Rogers, who he said was a big figure during his youth in Arkansas. You know the old line: “I lived in the so-called good ol’ days, and the good ol’ days ain’t never was.” (Forgive me if I don’t have the vernacular just right.)
Clinton spent some time on India, with which he has an evident fascination: “The explosion of economic growth has given India the largest middle class in the world.” And instead of arguing about whether a Hindu temple or a Muslim mosque should be built on a particular site, the Indians should concentrate on adding yet more millions to the middle class.
The ex-president talked a lot about his current activities, and how very hard he has worked–you remember that, don’t you, from those eight years he lived on Pennsylvania Ave.? He is immensely talented, as everyone recognizes, and terribly bright, but he just can’t resist the impulse to tell people how great he is, and how hard he works, and how laudable are his motives. He needs not only constant reassurance, but his own constant trumpeting of his virtues.
And if ever he didn’t need to trumpet, it’s before this crowd.
Often he talked in vacuities–vacuities well suited to an international conference (and, indeed, almost its native language)–but often he made direct sense. As he did last year, he praised the Peruvian wiz Hernando de Soto as the world’s most important living economist–that he thinks so highly of de Soto, whose cause in life is property rights, and what they can do for every human being, speaks well of him. (Clinton also quipped that “some think ‘living economist’ is an oxymoron.”)
And you may be interested to know that any time he referred to the Bush administration, or alluded to it, it was in a complimentary way. He told this crowd–again, a crowd that could use hearing it, especially from this source–that much of what we’re doing, successfully, in the War on Terror never makes the newspapers. For example, “cells are rolled up,” which you never hear about. The administration has achieved “cooperation with other governments” that is not “inherently sensational” but “has saved a lot of people’s lives.” You never hear about this bomb found in this container on this cargo ship destined for this port–and “I could give you 50 other examples.”
He said–rather melodramatically, and in that operatic way of his–that he now has two big desires in life (seeing that he has already had “the best job I’ll ever have”): “I don’t want to see anyone die who’s younger than me,” and, “I don’t want people to waste their energies not making a difference.”
What did he mean by this last? Well, again, his big theme is “systematization.” You can have all the money for AIDS treatment in the world, but the money won’t mean anything if there is no system for delivering it–chains of clinics and so on.
Toward the end of his talk, he did a little survey of the world leaders in the room. He praised Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo to the skies, saying that he had brought new hope not only to Nigeria but to Africa as a whole. He said–in what was probably his best moment–”Look at Ernesto Zedillo,” the former president of Mexico. His party, the PRI, had a monopoly on power, and they gave it up. They consented to free elections, which they of course lost. “It was one of the greatest acts of democratic statesmanship of the century,” said Clinton.
And he pointed to this “new 36-year-old president of Georgia.” What are you going to do? he asked the assembled Davosers. “Just pat him on the back, or help him,” in any way possible, so that democracy is a success in Georgia and may give hope to other former Soviet republics.
Bill Clinton is so adored here that, when he has finished speaking, even people in satellite rooms, watching him on a screen, clap enthusiastically.
But Clinton was very, very impressive–that’s a plain fact, Impromptus-ites–and well worth listening to. As Dick Cheney, I believe, said, at the 2000 convention in Philadelphia: So much talent, so much wasted.
‐One final word about Clinton, old slippery Bill: Just as you could never be sure whether he supported the ‘91 Gulf War, you can’t be sure now whether he supported last year’s Iraq war. You just can’t–which is a little weird, don’t you think, given that we all have opinions, and this is an ex-president of the United States.
At least with Jimmy Carter, you know where he stands! (With the Daily Mirror, right?, just as he said!)
‐Bill Clinton is the star of Wednesday midday, but the star of Wednesday late afternoon is Khatami of Iran. He is thought to be the Moderate Mullah, and some have their doubts, but there seems to be no doubt in Davos–he is greeted rapturously. He floats across the stage in his black robes and black headgear, soaking up the (spontaneous) applause of the audience, smiling benignantly, doing his little bows, radiating peace and goodwill. I find myself wondering what Michael Ledeen would say–wish he were here.
The founder and father of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, introduces Khatami, repeatedly referring to him as “Mr. President” and to his country as “the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
I’m reminded a little of Bob Costas at the Olympics, reciting over and over the name “German Democratic Republic” (in reference to East Germany). Of course, the old quip was that the GDR was neither German nor democratic nor a republic–rather a Moscow-controlled Communist police state–but such are the protocols, one supposes.
Says Dr. Schwab, “You come to us as a man of great courage and conviction, and you are a devoted supporter of reform.” Let us hope that saying so, somehow makes it so. The leader of a theocratic terror-state could perhaps use a little international encouragement, to nudge him toward where he should go.
Khatami, in his speech, does the trick of quoting–get this–Hume, Weber, and Hegel. He inveighs against propaganda, and I’ve noticed, in his bio, that he once served as Iran’s Chairman of War Propaganda–not just propaganda, mind you, but war propaganda! It is good to hear him inveigh against it, however.
He calls for a peace based not on military might but on “compassion and friendship toward humanity.” He declares that democracy is not just “a Western political theory” but “a human experience” (puzzle that out a bit). He tries a definition of politics–something about combining what’s ideal with what’s possible–and I am reminded of one of Hubert Humphrey’s favorites. You remember, don’t you? That “politics is the art of the possible.”
Khatami and HHH, peas in a pod.
And Khatami goes on and on about poverty, and how terrible it is that no one does anything about it–as if he were not president of a country, one of the few among mankind to fill such a role.
Anyway, Khatami leaves to a chorus of applause and hosannas.
And may I note one small thing, sort of amusing? In yesterday’s installment, I mentioned the book of Davos participants that is assembled every year, giving photos and bios and certain fun facts. In most cases, the website of the person’s organization is listed. For Khatami we have www.president.ir–so there you go!
‐The next event is a panel discussion featuring Obasanjo, Jack Straw, Carly Fiorina, Elie Wiesel, and Roshaneh Zafar (director of a foundation that seeks microloans and other such assistance to the poor).
First, however, we have a message from two astronauts, speaking by video from the International Space Station. One of them–a Brit, I believe–reads a platitudinous script, which includes the inevitable, “From this vantage, we can barely see borders or territories.” But it is all very sweet, in a way.
Secretary Straw takes a few minutes to say how impressive and brilliant and inspiring Khatami was, and then it is time for Obasanjo, who speaks in a gentle, lilting, but ultimately commanding manner. He notes that, in his country, Nigeria, there are 300 languages–”not dialects: languages.” And 50 percent of the country is Muslim, and 50 percent Christian. These, the president insists, are “brother religions.” “When I was incarcerated, I read the Koran from cover to cover. And I read the Bible from cover to cover. And I was amazed at their similarities.” Really, “there is not much to choose between them.”
About Obasanjo, more later, in this Journal.
Jim Wolfensohn is a rock star at events such as this, being president of the World Bank, perhaps the quintessential international institution. The Bank pours money at governments, in the belief that it is doing good for people. Maybe it is, sometimes. Wolfensohn is fresh from Moscow, where Vladimir Putin has pinned a medal on him–as well he should, Putin.
Here in Davos, Wolfensohn talks a lot about “social justice,” a phrase that has always sounded murky to me, and suspicious. Is there such a thing as social justice, as opposed to individual justice–or justice justice, if you like? Or is “social justice” an unattainable ideal, or a way of excusing a lack of individual justice–of real justice, of justice justice? (I imagine that Erich Honecker and his supporters would have said that Bob Costas’s German Democratic Republic had social justice, whatever that is–meaning that all citizens were spying on one another, and that Stasi had the goods on everyone?)
Wolfensohn stresses that the world is full of young people–why, there are almost 3 billion human beings under the age of 23. And “when I speak to them . . .” he says. Perhaps I’m not the only person in the hall who finds this phrase inadvertently amusing. And then, “I spoke to them recently, and they told me . . .”
It is good to be president of the World Bank.
Always, always, they talk of poverty, and that “social justice,” and the failure of rich, self-satisfied nations to help poor, desperate nations. Self-flagellation is a favorite sport here, and sometimes the Annual Meeting threatens to devolve into a Guiltfest. (I should say that self-flagellation is the sport of successful Westerners; the flagellation of others is the sport of yet others!) It’s not easy for a person like me–and like you, I imagine, dear reader–to sit still through such proceedings. What makes people prosper? Luck? Rapacity? No, what makes them prosper–if I may boil it down–is freedom and the rule of law. If our panjandrums really want to help the poor, they can insist, around the world, on freedom and the rule of law.
A great many people want the riches of the West without emulating the practices of the West–and that is pie in the sky. The opinion that free-market capitalism and a democratic order are the greatest poverty-destroying machine ever devised by man (if it was not devised at a higher level) is little heard at Davos. At least little heard by me.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Forbes brothers are here!
On to Carly Fiorina: She is CEO of Hewlett Packard, and she speaks in crisp, clear English. It is almost completely devoid of international-conference-speak, which is refreshing. She is like a cool glass of verbal water.
But what is the content of that water? She says that “the fundamental objective” of her company–the fundamental objective, mind you!–is not “to make money” but “to do good,” “to be a good international citizen.” When she says “make money,” she makes it sound so dirty. She borrows the old Quaker business about not just doing well but doing good.
Fine and dandy, of course, but I find myself wishing–not for the first time–that businessmen would be a little less defensive and more self-confident. They have nothing to apologize for. Does Hewlett Packard want to do good? Then let it invent and manufacture products that people need–or want, or that make their lives better–and sell them at affordable prices. That is doing good.
I hate to be more pro-Hewlett Packard than the CEO of Hewlett Packard, but . . . I tell you, I would wet my pants with joy if one of these people, at one of these conferences, said, “You know? People like Henry Ford and Bill Gates have done more for humanity than any thousand soi-disant benefactors-of-humanity put together.”
When it’s Elie Wiesel’s turn, he makes a crack about Mars–and about Bush. Someone has used the familiar formula, “If a Martian came down on earth . . .” Wiesel offers: “If a Martian could talk to us, he would say, ‘Stay home!’” Ha, ha. Naturally, the crowd seems to love it.
Wiesel is a living saint, and he is also living proof that living saints can be . . . well, just a tad bit annoying. Is that okay to say? Wiesel asserts that he cannot be happy when others are unhappy. That he cannot feel peace when others do not feel peace.
Well and good, but he says that we who are comfortable must feel ashamed–ashamed!–that other people are poor.
In my view, those who should feel ashamed are those who inflict socialism on people–and make excuses for Third World dictatorship and corruption–and thereby abet, if they do not guarantee, poverty.
(The preceding announcement has been brought to you by the Cato Institute. Just kidding.)
Elie Wiesel, for all his sainthood–his genuine humanity–is a bit of a showman. A real performer. He concludes his remarks in a dramatic whisper. No Broadway veteran could do it better.
But who am I to knock a little theatrical ability?
See you Monday, for Part III.