Giving, by Bill Clinton

I’ve been reading Bill Clinton’s book Giving, which is about philanthropy of time, money, and energy.  Since he left office, Clinton has devoted himself to a variety of causes, much like Bill and Melinda Gates — he has a foundation, and he pulls in powerful, wealthy people from around the world and demands contributions. Bill Clinton is a unique figure in that he is so well-connected to people in politics, show business, the venture capital community, and non-governmental organizations.  When he went to rescue the two journalists in North Korea last month, it was apparent that he was one of the only people who could successfully liberate them.  Not only is his stature significant as a former President, but he had made overtures to North Korea during his term, so Kim Jung Il respected him.  I know there were a lot of jokes made about Bill Clinton picking up women, but to me, it was a poignant moment of rescue and reunion.  How miraculous he must have seemed to those two journalists when they first laid eyes on him.  So, whatever his personal failings, Bill Clinton commands a certain respect for accomplishing tasks large and small.

He’s also astoundingly smart and exudes mastery.  I’ve seen him speak a couple times since he left office, and both times I’m pretty sure he spoke without any notes.  Most recently, he was stumping for Al Franken here in Minnesota (the Frankens and Clintons are friends), and he made a clear and compelling case for why Barack Obama needed Al Franken.

So when I picked up the book, I knew that it would be well-written and have a clear argument.  It does.  He’s divided it into sections about giving money, as individuals or groups doing fundraising, giving time, and giving abilities.   The chapter I’m reading now is on businesses that are leading the way on green technology and climate change initiatives.  Clinton is passionate about the issue, probably in part because of Al Gore’s influence.  He writes, “When Al won the Academy Award for his fine documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, I was thrilled.  America was finally listening to the lecture he’d given me every week for eight years!”

The book is very detailed in terms of groups and individuals that have made efforts to change communities for the better, but at a certain point, each chapter seems to become a litany of examples.  The differences between the examples help keep it interesting, but it’s clear that the thesis of the book is so obvious, the only way that Clinton can make it into a book is to keep providing examples of how to give.

Clinton is forthcoming about his failings on Rwanda, which I think is the biggest thing that haunts him from his presidency.  He mentions the country in eight different chapters, sometimes just giving an example of a community outreach program, but in other times going into detail about his foundation’s efforts to improve health care or education in the country.  He joined with Dr. Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health program, which has clinics in Haiti, Peru, and Russia, to open a hospital in Rwanda.  I think that Clinton will keep going back to Rwanda throughout this life to see that he can make up for his failure to move the international community to action against the 1994 genocide.

I give credit to Clinton for making his book accessible to people who, as he notes, don’t have millionaire friends.  There’s an index in the back of each organization and its website that he mentions in the book, and he offers examples of how individuals can make a difference in their communities.  He makes a good argument that if we all contribute, the world would indeed be changed for the better.  It’s a book that can’t help but inspire, and it’s not overtly political.

I think that Bill Clinton has done a lot of good since he left office.  I was reading a tribute to Ted Kennedy this week that noted that ex-presidents are left with a lot of time to be statesmen and to play golf, but Kennedy was able to always have influence and power by remaining in the Senate and not succeeding in becoming President.  I’m sure it’s a harsh new reality to leave the Oval Office and all its trappings.  Clinton himself has said that he wishes he could be President forever.  With his foundation to fight HIV/AIDS and childhood obesity and his Global Initiative to bring leaders together to develop innovative solutions to global problems, he seems to be doing the best he can to retain some power and influence.  I think the book Giving succeeds in part because it’s not all about him — it’s about how he has been moved by his travels to developing nations like Rwanda and Cambodia and the philanthropic efforts he’s witnessed and supported.  Even if you don’t like Clinton or his politics, I think you would find the resources and examples offered in the book to be a call to action.


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