Clinton family basks in the glow of the global elite

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and husband, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton address the audience during a meeting for the  Clinton Global Initiative on Sept. 22, 2014 in New York City.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and husband, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton address the audience during a meeting for the Clinton Global Initiative on Sept. 22, 2014 in New York City.

NEW YORK -- The Clinton family relished their spot atop the extended network of friends and supporters they’ve built over the past ten years through the Clinton Global Initiative, using the first full day of the group's annual meeting on Monday to review their success with an eye toward the future -- where a potential presidential run loomed in the shadows.

“I want to begin by making a totally unbiased, objective statement. I think my husband has invented an extraordinary initiative,” Hillary Clinton said at the first major session of three days of meetings here. “And I can say this because I had nothing to do with creating CGI and I want to thank him for 10 years and so much that we have to celebrate and to build on.”

The conference is now at a crossroads. Former President Bill Clinton started the annual event, operated under the auspices of the Clinton Foundation, in 2005 to bring together heads of state, titans of industry, celebrities, thought leaders, and philanthropists to make commitments to improve the world. 

Now a family business, the conference was already thrown into question when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, forced to curtail some of its activities and reveal its donors. If she decides to run for president again in 2016, CGI’s future would be even more unpredictable, as the deals struck here could open her campaign (or White House) to charges of conflict of interest.

But for now, the Clintons were proud to tout the success they have achieved over the past decade. When she took the stage, Hillary Clinton ticked off an impressive list of accomplishments: 3,100 commitments from organizations and governments to do something good, nearly $100 billion promised, and 430 million lives affected in 180 countries. “Extraordinary,” she said.

The conference, which is timed to coincide with the U.N. General Assembly, is like a who’s who of do-gooder global elites. 

It’s the kind of place where Bill Clinton muses about a promise from the president of Mongolia to provide him with a strong horse ride across the steppe before quizzing the King of Jordan and the president of Chile on turmoil in the Middle East.

“Why did I run [for president] again? Because I just couldn’t help it,” Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, who is close with someone else at the conference who is considering a second run at the presidency, told Bill Clinton.

It’s a rare place where Hillary Clinton does the interviewing, putting questions to the CEO of IBM and the World Bank. And where Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple is major star -- but not as big as Leonardo DiCapio, who was given an award here Sunday night.

While the point of the event is philanthropy, politics is never far away. Spotted were Clinton hands like Paul Begala, a longtime Clinton strategist who currently advises a big money pro-Clinton super PAC, and Gene Sperling, the Clinton and Obama White House adviser.

In the lobby, David Brock, the former professional Clinton hater-turned-chief Clinton defender, waited before some meetings with donors. He was not meeting with either Clinton this time, however, he said.

A big emphasis on this anniversary event was accountability for the money that has been committed over the years. Chelsea Clinton has taken a lead in evaluating the Clinton Foundation’s work, commissioning an audit from an outside firm. 

“One of the ways that CGI has grown over the years is that the rest of my family joined the business,” Bill Clinton said with a laugh. “One of my ideas is that I wanted them to do more of the heavy lifting. You know I’m not a young guy any more.”

The former first daughter, looking very comfortable despite the fact that her baby is due any day, is increasingly taking charge of the foundation. She strode on stage to report that almost 90% of projects are on track or have already been successful.

She also announced a new project, Service Year, which will help connect young people with one-year service opportunities, such as AmeriCorps. Stanley McChrystal, the retired general who was demoted by President Obama after insulting the president in a Rolling Stone article, is involved in the effort and Chelsea praised him as “an example to all of us.” 

The evaluation effort has left Hillary Clinton to think a lot about data, she said. “The idea that big data, information, can be valuable seems so obvious. Because who can be against information? But it turns out, a lot of people are because they don’t want information that violates their ideology or some other pre-existing belief or conviction that they have held,” she told Jim Yong Kim, the head of the World Bank.

Regardless of the future of the Clinton Global Initiative, it already serves as an ideal platform for Clinton to elevate herself and issues that would be important in a presidential run, not to mention stay in touch with potential donors and other influential people.

Twenty nine out of 30 companies listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average have donated to the CGI, according to Bloomberg. And Democratic donors like Ted Waitt, the founder of computer maker Gateway, and investor Alan Patricof were among the sponsors of some programs.