Bill Clinton's Second Act

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When Bill Clinton found himself approaching the age of 60 on Aug. 19, people detected a hint of sourness from the second youngest ex-President in American history. "For most of my working life, I was the youngest person doing whatever I was doing, then one day I woke up and I was the oldest person in the room," he told the International AIDS Conference in Toronto last week. Although he may wax nostalgic for years past, he has also been keeping an eye on his future. Ever since he left office, the former President has been on an almost non-stop energetic search for meaning in his second act.

Clinton didn't have a very clear idea of what he wanted to do with the rest of his life when he boarded a government jet and headed for his newly purchased Dutch Colonial in Westchester County, New York, in January, 2001. He joked about going back to Arkansas and running for City Council. But those around him sensed a most uncharacteristic aimlessness as he contemplated what lay ahead. Interminable days of headlining charity benefits and starring in public service announcements didn't have much appeal. "I don't like bulls--- advocacy," he told aides in private. "I like to keep score."

Not quite six years later, Clinton has put quite a total on the board. The Oval Office may be the most powerful spot in the world, but celebrity is a force all its own. In Clinton's case, it has also allowed him to make common cause with old adversaries, and build a legacy that transcends the divisiveness that marked his years in office.

The closing of air traffic on 9/11 found the 42nd President of the United States literally on the other side of the world, stranded in Australia until his successor sent a government plane to retrieve him. For the first time in a decade, Clinton was a mere spectator to a global crisis. Powerlessness did not sit well with him, recalls an aide who was with him on the 28-hour ride home. He considered pulling together his Hollywood friends for a big benefit, but it turned out that was already being arranged before he landed. So he started looking for beyond the obvious, for something that would make both a difference and a statement. Within a few weeks, he and former Senator Bob Dole, the man he had defeated for President in 1996, announced they would spearhead a $100 million effort to provide college scholarships to the spouses and children of those who had been killed or disabled in the attack. It was a prelude to an even more unexpected Odd Couple act: An unlikely partnership with George Herbert Walker Bush that raised $1 billion for tsunami relief and another $115 million in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

What is likely to have even a far greater impact in the coming decades is the quiet work that he is doing under the auspices of the Clinton Foundation. At an international conference in 2002, Nelson Mandela asked Clinton to attempt what governments have found impractical, if not impossible: Find a way to provide AIDS drugs to the more than 40 million HIV-positive people in the world — 90% of them in developing countries. Clinton recruited Ira Magaziner, the architect of Hillary's disastrous health care effort, to begin negotiating deals with the same pharmaceutical industry that she had demonized as profiteers in 1994.

The idea was that the companies would dramatically cut the cost of AIDS drugs they sold to the developing world; in return, the governments of 58 countries so far have guaranteed that they would make large purchases and otherwise help the companies to lower their costs. In those countries, the price of AIDS drugs has fallen from $2,000 a year in some cases to as low as $140, and an additional 400,000 people are now receiving treatment.

Those close to Clinton say he has similarly ambitious hopes for his Clinton Global Initiative. In its inaugural conference last October in New York, Clinton brought together celebrities, business moguls and world leaders from Mick Jagger and Angelina Jolie to General Electric Chairman Jeff Immelt and Starbucks President Jim Donald to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. To be invited to the Davos-style gathering, each guest was expected to promise to do something specific within a year in one of the conference subject areas: worldwide poverty, religious conflict, corruption and global warming. It claimed 300 commitments worth $2.5 billion from that first session. Says Clinton: "After 10 years of that kind of action, we should have made the world a better place."

Clinton's emergency quadruple bypass in 2004 inspired yet another campaign, one to fight childhood obesity, which led to a deal in April in which the three biggest beverage manufacturers agreed to quit selling sodas in schools. Magaziner says that is just the beginning. Their next target is vending-machine snack foods and cafeteria lunches, and they are even in negotiations with fast-food companies to reduce the fat in their restaurant fare. And earlier this month, he launched yet another project, the Clinton Climate Initiative, which joins 22 of the world's largest cities to create an international consortium, in which they can share ideas and combine their purchasing power to buy and create cheaper energy-efficient products.

Clinton, having reached the milestone of 60, has acknowledged that he has more days behind him now than in front of him. But where he celebrated his 50th with a mega-fundraiser for his 1996 re-election campaign, it tells you something about his new life that he will usher in his next decade with a private Rolling Stones concert in October, the money reportedly going towards his foundation.