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The agony and the ecstasy of the Clintons at CGI

Almost everything about the Clinton family -- good, bad and otherwise -- was on display this week at the annual Clinton Global Initiative event.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and husband, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton address the audience during the Clinton Global Initiative on Sept. 22, 2014 New York, N.Y. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty)
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and husband, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton address the audience during the Clinton Global Initiative on Sept. 22, 2014 New York, N.Y.

NEW YORK -- The Clinton Global Initiative, the signature annual event of America’s preeminent public family, concluded Wednesday night, and now comes the search for meaning. Is it a cronyistic confab of global elite? An innovation in charity that could help save the world? Political theater ahead of another likely Clinton presidential run?

The only correct answer is all of the above.

Almost everything about the Clintons -- good, bad and otherwise -- was on display this week, from the big-money deal-making, to their love-hate relationship with the press, to the magnetic power of a controversial family that has managed to captivate America for more than two decades.

If you want to understand the Clintons, the ballroom of the Sheraton in Times Square was a good place to start.

First, the good: Despite being the nominal point of the entire event, the charitable work of CGI was often overshadowed by the glitz of celebrity and the cynicism of politics. But the good is undeniable, even to the most ardent detractors: 430 million people in 180 countries have been affected in some way over the past 10 years by charitable “commitments to action” from CGI attendees, according to a new analysis.

This year, there were 188 new commitments from the corporations, governments, and nonprofits that make up CGI’s membership, including a major new campaign from soda makers to reduce caloric consumption from their products, along with efforts to educate girls in developing countries and save African elephants.

The elitism problem: There’s a reason the Clintons were attacked from both the right and left during CGI: The event is basically their elitism perception problem brought vividly to life.

Even in this high-powered crowd, the Clintons' position is secure at the apex of a pyramid made up of people accustomed to sitting atop their own hierarchies. That includes the current president of the United States, who came to send more praise in the Clintons’ direction than the reverse.

The Wall Street problem: In an interview with CNBC Tuesday, Bill Clinton defended corporations who move abroad to avoid paying American taxes. That night, at a dinner hosted by Goldman Sachs in honor of its program to empower female entrepreneurs, his wife, an all-but-certain Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, joked about “all my banking friends.”

The next morning, Hillary Clinton ceded the main stage to Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein, giving him more than 10 minutes on a coveted platform to promote the bank’s charitable work. “This isn’t the first time we’ve all met,” Blankfein joked in a moment that quickly became fodder for the Republican National Committee.

“This summer has solidified the fact that Hillary Clinton is out of touch with Americans between spending all of her time with millionaires,” RNC spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski told msnbc.

It’s a complaint echoed almost exactly by the RNC’s ideological opposites. Neil Sroka, the communications director for Democracy for America, founded by Howard Dean, told msnbc that Bill Clinton’s comments on corporate inversions were “wildly out of step with both the American people and the Democratic Party.”

“It showed a real disconnection and showed just how captured President Clinton is by the CEOs and the organizations around him,” Sroka added.

Let’s make a deal: Bill Clinton often says the Constitution should be subtitled, “Let’s make a deal,” and he has praised the admittedly “ugly” deal-making in Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln.”

CGI may be the best place to see Clintonian pragmatism in practice, both its benefits and unseemly side. Take Hillary Clinton’s work with the CEO of Goldman. The “optics” are terrible, but he was there to announce that his company was expanding tenfold its commitment to help female entrepreneurs in the developing world. Does the end justify the means?

“You’ve got to start with the end in mind,” Bill Clinton said on a panel with Cisco CEO John Chambers, a major Republican donor who has become a key supporter of CGI and a friend of the Clintons. “If you can put a price on it, and make it transparent, you can get people that you wouldn’t expect to support you.”

Chambers recently interviewed Hillary Clinton in front of thousands of his company's employees. “Afterwards, I had a bunch of Republicans come up and say, John, ‘I’m not sure we can’t beat her,'" he said. 

In a dark mood, it's easy to look at CGI and see what the critics of the non-profit industry call “conscience laundering." But if Bill Clinton sells his wealthy patrons a clean conscious, he gets in return a check or a commitment that can improve the life of someone somewhere.

The media problem: Hillary Clinton and the press have a famously dysfunctional relationship, but the cameras keep coming. CGI attracted about 1,100 members of press, according to organizers (many, if not most, were foreign).

Reporters were kept in the basement and discouraged from interacting with attendees or panelists, escorted everywhere -- including, at least on the first day, to the bathroom -- by college-aged volunteers.

When The New York Times’ Amy Chozick asked a spokesperson about the practice, he replied dismissively with a link to a Clinton initiative to promote sanitation in Africa -- “Since you are so interested in bathrooms and C.G.I.”

It’s just as telling that the political press corps, from the editor of The Washington Post on down, immediately seized on the bathroom story, since it confirmed everything they think to be true about the Clintons’ view of the Fourth Estate. (It’s not the first time Clinton handlers have put reporters in a bathroom.)

Foreign policy: At a time when foreign policy is back at the forefront of the national conversation, liberals might also pause at a reminder of the Clintons’ long friendship with John McCain, the Senate’s preeminent war hawk, and his wife, Cindy, an adviser to a Clinton Foundation project who appeared on a panel with Hillary Clinton on Wednesday afternoon. Earlier this year, John McCain invited Hillary Clinton to his own ideas forum in Arizona.

Palace intrigue: The personal relationships among the Clinton family members have long captivated Americans, for better or worse, and will no doubt continue if Hillary Clinton decides to run for president again.

Right now the impending birth of Chelsea Clinton’s baby seemed to be all anyone wanted to talk about. “On my book tour over the summer, I must have shaken 70,000 hands and over half of them mentioned something about being a grandparent,” Hillary Clinton noted at one point.

Women: In a stark contrast from 2008, when Clinton largely avoided discussing her gender, the issue is likely to emerge as a central theme of a new presidential campaign. After two other women-centered speeches last week, she heavily emphasized the theme at CGI.

It’s a deeply personal issue for Clinton, but it’s also a politically-beneficial one for a party that relies on expanding the partisan gender gap.

The Clinton magic: In its final moments, the entire project snapped into focus as Bill Clinton closed the summit. Pacing with his glasses off, he held a room of hundreds of the world’s most powerful people absolutely rapt. It was part pep talk and part sales pitch, but these titans of industry and commanders in chief hung on his every word.

“Every day, we all make a decision, and some days we don’t feel like making it. Every day, we wake up and there’s like this scale inside, and some days its weighted towards hope, and some days its weighted towards the reverse,” he says. “This thing is here after ten CGIs, look at all the good that’s been done, because you made a decision about what to do.”

Here was the difference between the Bill and Hillary Clinton -- she talks obsessively about data and evidence, he appeals to the gut.

The people in this room could have been on a golf course or a private island, but instead they chose to spend three days in a Sheraton in Times Square listening to seminars about diarrhea because the Clintons inspired them to come.

On their way out, they will thank the Clintons profusely for the opportunity to write a check.