Last week, for the seventh year in a row, I attended the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, or CGI, in New York. This one understandably was different from the others, more poignant, because it was supposed to be the last such meeting. It was palpably sad to watch Bill Clinton, at the end of the three-day session, draw the curtain down on an initiative that has lifted countless lives around the world over the past 12 years and which, I am convinced, will go down with the perspective of history as a shining example of the most meritorious body of post-presidency work ever performed by a former American president.
Even in our poisoned political environment, I never thought it would come to this.
Just four years ago, Mitt Romney, as the nominee of the Republican Party, took the time in the middle of his general election campaign to come to CGI, where he lavished attendees with praise for their effective philanthropic work around the globe. But then Mitt, whether you supported him or not, obviously was then and remains now a good and decent man, thoughtful and insightful.
It would never have occurred to Mitt, I am sure, to politicize philanthropy, knowing as he would that the people who would be most harmed by so doing would be disadvantaged people, abused women, sick and hungry children, desperate for just one chance.
Enter Donald Trump and his minions. That Trump himself, a man seemingly of little to no moral fiber but a bottomless wellspring of self-regard, would stoop so low does not surprise me.
But I do wonder about his various spokespeople and surrogates — they can't all share Trump's absence of core values and common decency. They vilify CGI and its parent, the Clinton Foundation, notwithstanding the top ratings both have received from various independent watchdog organizations that monitor the activity of charities and foundations. In so doing, are they being willfully ignorant or ignorantly callous? Do they not care about the legions of people who will be hurt, when the many, many worthy programs of the Clinton Foundation are scaled back or eliminated?
I don't know what to say to such people other than that I am convinced, as they say, that there is a special spot in hell reserved for those who try to score transitory political points at the ultimate expense of the helpless, the dire impact of which may be permanent.
Of course, the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative leveraged off Clinton's convening power and, even more, off his catalytic power. For some donors, access to the Clintons may have been their only motivation.
But I don't imagine that those folks lasted for long because the uniquely effective premise of CGI was that, if you came to the event, you had to consider doing something good. if you didn't make an actual commitment, you didn't get invited back. If you made a commitment but didn't follow through on it, you couldn’t expect a return visit.
That's how it worked for us: We attended; we committed; we fulfilled the commitment.
That pesky bipartisanship
In the case of NRG Energy, which I used to lead, we committed to installing solar arrays on a range of schools, orphanages and social enterprises in the central highlands of Haiti. Our CGI commitment, amplified by a supplemental financial commitment from the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund (ah, there's that pesky bipartisanship from the good old days), took about two years to implement. It wasn't easy for us, being new to the country, but the Clinton Foundation showed us the way.
Substantial motivation to get the job done also was provided by the assurance that President Clinton himself eventually would come by to check on your work.
But that was just the beginning. Let me tell you a story.
At the following CGI meeting in New York, Clinton dropped in on a session focused on Haiti just as it concluded. As one would expect, he immediately was mobbed by well-wishers. I chose, however, a different tack.
I used the commotion he caused to try to break through the smaller (but still substantial) set of well-wishers who had surrounded Paul Farmer of Partners-in-Health. My wife wanted to meet him (at her insistence, "Mountains Beyond Mountains" is required reading for the Crane children, as it should be for you and yours). As I am not pushy, I failed. I hadn't even penetrated the outer ring of Farmer fans when, out of the corner of my eye, I see President Clinton break out of his circle, striding directly towards me.
I fix my tie, check my breath and try to appear cool and relaxed. After all, he may actually be headed for someone on the other side of me; I am not the very important person I sometimes think I am, just someone who is blocking his way.
Alas, it is me he wants to talk to.
He wastes no time on pleasantries. He puts one hand on my shoulder and the other on my wife's. He pulls us into his personal space, so we can't get away.
He looks me in the eye and says in that soft southern drawl of his, "David, the hospitals in Haiti are in distress. Funding from the Red Cross is being cut and they're burning their entire operating budgets on diesel for their generators. They're having to lay off nurses; kids are dying for lack of basic care. Can your team at NRG get some solar panels on the roofs of those hospitals ASAP?"
And so that was what we did. And while Trump and his people may not be able to understand this sentiment — we, and others, did it not to gain access to Hillary Clinton (access that, in our case, was neither sought by us nor offered by them) but to keep children from dying.
Over the 12 years that CGI has existed, countless lives have been saved in many countries, life prospects for challenged communities have been improved and degraded environments have been remediated.
The numbers are enormous — you can look them up — but even these impressive numbers don't do justice because they focus only on the recipients. They ignore the spiritual and practical impact of CGI on us, the givers.
Even after our formal CGI commitments had been fulfilled, we continued to do pro bono solar projects in Haiti for the remainder of my tenure at NRG. We did them as volunteer projects, inviting NRG employees and guests of the company, to labor on the hot roofs of Haiti. Our intention in doing it this way was to infuse our employees and friends of the firm with the spirit of giving and community service and most returned from Haiti and got even more involved in their local communities.
Indeed, one of our guests in Haiti was Connor Barwin, star defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles. He told me later that he had been so inspired by Haiti, and his realization of the power of one person to make a difference, that he went back to Philly and started his own foundation, the Make the World Better Foundation (Google it).
Barwin and his organization are doing fantastic work renovating degraded parks in inner-city Philadelphia. Yet it never would have happened except for CGI and the Clinton Foundation. They were like a stone dropped in still water, creating a positive ripple effect of philanthropy in every direction.
I don't know where the Clinton Foundation goes from here. They are shutting down CGI, but it doesn't seem right. After 12 years, CGI seems to have a momentum of its own and could survive four or eight years of no Clinton family involvement. Perhaps, it could just be "The Global Initiative" and could go forward under the auspices of all the living former presidents.
Time will tell but, in the meantime, my final vote for the McCarthy-era "Have you no shame moment" for Trump is not his attack on a federal judge, his brutality towards Ted Cruz's wife, his dismissal of the media or the disrespect accorded the pope, the Khans and Gold Star mothers everywhere. It’s this indignity — his attack on CGI and the Clinton Foundation.
Mr. Trump and your surrogates, have you no shame?