What Bill Clinton’s Right-Hand Man Tells Us About the New American Power Elite

Alec MacGillis’s profile of Doug Band, one of the central architects of Bill Clinton’s post-presidential career, is well worth reading. MacGillis describes the origins of the Clinton Global Initiative, one of the most prominent philanthropic endeavors int he world:

CGI is not a traditional charity—unlike Clinton’s foundation, it does not dispense money of its own. Instead, it is a series of collaborations with corporations or individuals to solve global problems, anchored by an annual conference that costs $20,000 to attend. In the past eight years, CGI has secured pledges worth $74 billion. (By comparison, the Gates Foundation has given away $28 billion since its inception in 1994.) As conceived by Band, CGI was the perfect vehicle for Clinton. It allowed him to train his intellect on wonky dilemmas—improving China’s power grid, bolstering Mali’s market for locally produced rice. And it placed him at the center of a matrix of the ultra-wealthy and the ultra-powerful, the kinds of people Clinton has always taken a special pleasure in surrounding himself with.

CGI operates like an economy in which celebrity is the main currency. For Clinton, there is the appeal of tackling existential challenges by striking a deal, one on one, with the right influential person. He could help expand access to health care for millions, thanks to the whim of a billionaire like Saudi Arabia’s Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi; or get $30 million in loan guarantees to finance clean water utilities in India, via Dow Chemical; or $100 million for small-business development in Africa, courtesy of Shell. Clinton “has this abiding faith that, if you get the right people in the room together, magical things will happen,” says Priscilla Phelps, who was the housing expert for the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which Clinton co-chaired. In some cases, such as securing agreements for carbon-emissions reductions, the solving-by-convening model has produced impressive results. In others, such as the Haiti commission, which held only seven meetings to little effect, it has not. (Phelps told me that “the practicalities of what happens after those smart people leave the conference room and cocktail hour is not [Clinton’s] specialty at all.”)

For corporations, attaching Clinton’s brand to their social investments offered a major p.r. boost. As further incentive, they could hope for a kind word from Clinton the next time they landed in a sticky spot. “Coca-Cola or Dow or whoever would come to the president,” explains a former White House colleague of Band’s, “and say, ‘We need your help on this.’ ” Negotiating these relationships, and the trade-offs they required, could involve some gray areas. But for that, Clinton had Band.

And later on, MacGillis sheds light on how the former president approaches financial matters:

“He doesn’t care about money,” the Clinton friend told me. “He doesn’t even have a credit card. When he wants to get something he says, ‘Wow, I love that,’ and whoever he’s with says, ‘Here it is!’ ” Band’s former White House colleague agrees that Clinton “has never worried a heck of a lot about that stuff. It’s more about, ‘Who’s loyal, who’s helping me, who’s delivering value?’ and not, ‘Are they doing really well for themselves on the side?’ ”

MacGillis’s Band profile brought to mind Matt Continetti’s recent column on Clintonland, which used the Clintons’ consumption habits and networking prowess as a lens through which to understand the state of American democracy. It also brought to mind Lisa Margonelli’s Pacific Standard article on the “Flexians,” which profiles the work of George Washington University anthropologist Janine Wedel. I don’t find Wedel’s analysis convincing in every respect, but it is certainly provocative:

Across the political spectrum, there is a sense that something has taken control of the institutions that we used to trust. According to Wedel, that something is a new class of power brokers with a new set of cultural norms. Wedel calls these power brokers “flexians.”

A flexian, as Wedel defines the term, is a creature peculiar to our moment in history: a mover and shaker who serves multiple, overlapping roles with smiling finesse—business consultant, think tank fellow, government adviser. He is someone who “glides in and around the organizations that enlist his services,” she writes in her book Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market. “It is not just his time that is divided. His loyalties, too, are often flexible. Even the short-term consultant doing one project at a time cannot afford to owe too much allegiance to the company or government agency. Such individuals are in these organizations (some of the time anyway), but they are seldom of them.”

Wedel is convinced that informal networks of flexians wield more power today than they have in the past due to in part to the (supposed) shrinking of the state:

In her view, the historical transformations of the post–Cold War era—both here and abroad—have made statecraft all the more reliant on what anthropologists call “informal networks”: groups that are transparent only to themselves. The resulting distribution of power is reminiscent of Poland. “In the Polish communist state as I witnessed it, informalization counted for so much. The state had the power officially, but it was really the party and the networks of people that made things work,” Wedel says. A similar informalization of power is sweeping across the world now, as she sees it, spurred along by the growth of executive power and the pervasive reliance on contractors.

I’ll have more to say on the flexian thesis in the future. One wonders how Barack Obama will navigate this landscape on leaving the White House.


Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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