Friends Of Bill

I’ve been nettled for years by the near-worship with which Bill Clinton has traditionally been regarded in these parts; if you ask most of my neighbors in Park Slope or Wellfleet, the man can simply do no wrong. This has always puzzled me, because although he is obviously highly intelligent and possessed of a certain raffish charm, he is also, as far as I can tell, a venal, ill-tempered, philandering rogue.

One might think that in recent weeks his fulminous effusions of spleen and vitriol on behalf of his partner, which have clearly made him a liability to her prospects, would have jolted some of the locals from their thralldom, but so far, no such luck. Maybe an item from today’s Times will help:

After Mining Deal, Financier Donated to Clinton

Late on Sept. 6, 2005, a private plane carrying the Canadian mining financier Frank Giustra touched down in Almaty, a ruggedly picturesque city in southeast Kazakhstan. Several hundred miles to the west a fortune awaited: highly coveted deposits of uranium that could fuel nuclear reactors around the world. And Mr. Giustra was in hot pursuit of an exclusive deal to tap them.

Unlike more established competitors, Mr. Giustra was a newcomer to uranium mining in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic. But what his fledgling company lacked in experience, it made up for in connections. Accompanying Mr. Giustra on his luxuriously appointed MD-87 jet that day was a former president of the United States, Bill Clinton.

Upon landing on the first stop of a three-country philanthropic tour, the two men were whisked off to share a sumptuous midnight banquet with Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, whose 19-year stranglehold on the country has all but quashed political dissent.

Mr. Nazarbayev walked away from the table with a propaganda coup, after Mr. Clinton expressed enthusiastic support for the Kazakh leader’s bid to head an international organization that monitors elections and supports democracy. Mr. Clinton’s public declaration undercut both American foreign policy and sharp criticism of Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record by, among others, Mr. Clinton’s wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Within two days, corporate records show that Mr. Giustra also came up a winner when his company signed preliminary agreements giving it the right to buy into three uranium projects controlled by Kazakhstan’s state-owned uranium agency, Kazatomprom.

The monster deal stunned the mining industry, turning an unknown shell company into one of the world’s largest uranium producers in a transaction ultimately worth tens of millions of dollars to Mr. Giustra, analysts said.

Just months after the Kazakh pact was finalized, Mr. Clinton’s charitable foundation received its own windfall: a $31.3 million donation from Mr. Giustra that had remained a secret until he acknowledged it last month. The gift, combined with Mr. Giustra’s more recent and public pledge to give the William J. Clinton Foundation an additional $100 million, secured Mr. Giustra a place in Mr. Clinton’s inner circle, an exclusive club of wealthy entrepreneurs in which friendship with the former president has its privileges.

Ah yes, very nice. Our ex-President schmoozing with a Central Asian dictator — thereby lending a gloss of legitimacy to his corrupt and autocratic regime — in order to land a crony a lucrative uranium deal. Perhaps we’ll be hearing more about this in the days ahead.

Read the story here.

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  1. the one eyed man says

    Venal? I don’t think so — at least compared to someone like Rudy Giuliani, who put a homeless shelter next to a politician who voted the wrong way (and frequently used the force of government to harrass his enemies, real and imagined, as a recent New York Times article catalogues).

    Ill-tempered? He seems like a cheerful, twinkle-in-the-eye type of guy to me. Maybe he is volatile in private, I wouldn’t know.

    “Philandering rogue” is somewhat redundant, but yes: he screwed around, as did FDR, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, and who knows how many other Presidents. As someone who can seduce women simply by glancing at the door, I can tell you from personal experience that having unlimited sexual access makes it exceedingly difficult to resist temptation. OK, that’s a joke. However, who among us wouldn’t, uh, you know…

    The reason Clinton left office with an approval rating in the sixties is because of this: in your lifetime, can you name a President who was better at his job than Bill Clinton?

    Posted February 1, 2008 at 8:29 am | Permalink
  2. bob koepp says

    I would add that, as far as I’m concerned, the Clintons’ “charitable foundation” has more to do with stimulating charitable attitudes toward the Clintons than improving the lot of those in need. Is that an uncharitable assessment? Yes, but I don’t claim to be anything other than a cynical bastard.

    To reinforce that last point, let’s consider the challenge “in your lifetime, can you name a President who was better at his job than Bill Clinton?” Well, I suppose that depends on the job description. As one schooled in the black arts of political science, I’d say that Richard Nixon was actually a “better” president than Mr Clinton. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that I have any sympathy for Nixon.

    Posted February 1, 2008 at 9:48 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Yes, Peter, I agree with Bob; that really depends on what you mean by “better”. Just in terms of foreign policy alone — in particular, as regards the rising threat of Islamic fanaticism, but also regarding Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, etc. — I think his administration was a poor one indeed. (No need to regale me here with a litany of the Bush administration’s incompetence, for which I offer no apology.)

    If you really want to go to the mat over venality, we can have a conversation about Norman Hsu, Johnny Huang, Marc Rich, the Lincoln Bedroom, and so forth. It will be immensely tedious, I’m sure.

    I am not arguing that he was any more venal or satyriacal than many other males in positions of power such as his have been — and I am sure there is a good Darwinian account to be made of his priapic romp through history. My wish here is simply to point out that he is certainly not the haloed Messiah his devotees imagine, and to express my ongoing puzzlement over their worshipfulness, which, surrounding me on all sides as it does, I find increasingly irritating. (You aren’t helping.)

    Posted February 1, 2008 at 10:30 am | Permalink
  4. the one eyed man says

    Re foreign policy: you cheerfully ignore his triumphs (successful intervention in Bosnia, relatively decent Arab-Israeli relations, strong partnerships with our allies, eight years in which America arguably was at its zenith in power and prestige). I’m not sure what an American President can do about stopping Muslims from being fanatical – as this has been a problem at least since Khomeini and the PLO – but you might want to take a look at how the Republican Congress eviscerated his Omnibus Anti-Terror Bill. Clinton was the first President to actually do something about Islamic terrorists (unlike, say, Reagan, who sold them arms). Somalia and Rwanda did not go well, and I’m not sure why you cite Bosnia as a problem. However, viewed in the context of other administrations, these are small potatoes indeed. Compare his administration to JFK (Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis), LBJ (VietNam), Nixon (bombing of Cambodia), Carter (Iran), Reagan (Iran-Contra), and Bush II (Iraq), and Clinton (and Bush I) come out looking pretty good. The eight years of Clinton’s administration were times of relative peace and prosperity, especially when compared with those who preceded and followed him.

    Re Hsu, Huang, etc.: this doesn’t speak to venality as much as the need to raise money and the proximity to unsavory people which is part of this process. I’m not here to say that it’s a wonderful thing for politicians to take money from people who later are found to be crooks, but I don’t see anything fundamentally different than taking money from oil tycoons, right wing fanatics, pharmaceutical companies, ethanol producers, or anyone else who looks to trade money for influence. Whether Clinton was better or worse than the others is debatable. However, in my mind, venality is defined by Bush surrogates spreading rumors in 2000 that McCain’s adopted child was actually his illegitimate kid, or by Swift Boaters insinuating that three time Purple Heart winner John Kerry was somehow a coward in battle (or distributing purple band-aids at the Republican national convention). Politics is a contact sport, but I think the brand played by the Clintons is on a much higher plane than what we have seen before and since.

    Re irritation: sorry to be the skunk in the garden party, but while Clinton is neither haloed nor Messianic, he was a darn good President. Hence your dodge of my question: in our lifetimes, you can’t name one who did a better job than he did.

    Posted February 1, 2008 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Peter, contrary to how venality is defined in your mind, in the dictionary venality is not defined as the spreading of damaging allegations about a political opponent. It is defined as “prostitution of talents or offices or services for reward”.

    Clinton had the good fortune to preside over a world in which the arrival of the Internet, along with the “peace dividend” following the collapse of the Soviet Union (which was arguably hastened by Reagan’s steadfastness) made possible a period of prosperity and consolidation of US influence that would have made Millard Fillmore look like a great president. I’ll be happy to put together a detailed account of what I consider to be Clinton’s foreign-policy weaknesses; it will have to wait, though, as I am at work, and haven’t the time to assemble such a lengthy essay.

    But in fairness, yes, I am tempted to say we haven’t had any truly great presidents lately. In retrospect, I think but for the Iran-contra blunder, Reagan comes the closest, though I certainly was no admirer of his at the time. Certainly not Carter, and not JFK. I think G.H.W. Bush benefited from the same post-cold-war euphoria that Clinton did, and his abandonment of the endgame in Iraq was an enormous mistake (not to mention the moral culpability in deserting those in Iraq who rose up to oppose Saddam, and were left to be slaughtered).

    What I admire above all in a president is firmness in foreign policy and defense, and resolute adherence to, and proactive support for, core American principles of freedom, and opposition to tyranny and brutality, in our dealings abroad.

    Posted February 1, 2008 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    I should add that all of this completely misses the point of my post, and I hadn’t intended to get into an increasingly polarized (and unproductive) argument about presidential rankings. Bill Clinton is, as I freely acknowledge, a very smart guy, a virtuosic politician (until recently, at least), and if he was not a great president (they are rare), he certainly was not a notably bad one, if we put foreign policy and the unbelievable stupidity of the Lewinsky affair aside. At least he was an educated person who could speak English properly, a treat I look forward to enjoying once again in ’09.

    The reason I wrote this post was simply to express my annoyance with those who regard him as some sort of living saint, and to offer some evidence to the contrary. There are a great many such people around here. I encounter them all the time, and despite often seeming quite intelligent otherwise, when it comes to this rascal they are utterly deluded. It bothers me. If you aren’t one of them, I’m glad to hear it.

    Posted February 1, 2008 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    Nah. Bill Clinton, like anyone else with his oversized appetites, doesn’t make it into the pantheon of saints. I do like the guy for being larger than life: whether it’s golf, sex, cheeseburgers, or providing glasses for free as a way to solve intractable poverty in Africa, he goes for it with gusto. Or maybe I like Clinton because he’s just about the only person I ever voted for who actually won. (I voted for Carter, Rudy, and Arnold, but I’m at a loss to think of any other winners I voted for). I’m voting for Obama on Tuesday. I would be thrilled if he became our next President.

    Posted February 1, 2008 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Well, I’m still a registered Democrat, and I’ll be voting for Obama on Tuesday also. We could do a lot worse, I think, although he is awfully green, and I think he is wrong on Iraq. But he is dazzlingly smart, intellectually engaged, honest as far as I can tell — and I think he would be welcomed by the world, which is no small thing in this day and age.

    On the other side, I’ll root for McCain. I look forward to having the two of them to choose between as we head toward the general election. What a relief that will be, after Bush v. Gore and Bush v. Kerry.

    Posted February 1, 2008 at 1:20 pm | Permalink