Former President Bill Clinton at Chicago Ideas Week. For more photos, launch the photo gallery »
My last book was about Bill Clinton’s post-presidency. He was in exile back in 2001, almost broken by the Lewinsky scandal, with his outlandish pardon to billionaire Iran arms trader Marc Rich nearly finishing him off. Today, soaring in mass affection while his onetime nemesis Barack Obama (think 2008 primaries) sinks, Clinton is no longer anything close to an exile; he’s the toast of every town and country he visits. When news broke that he was coming to town for Chicago Ideas Week, I couldn’t resist getting another look at a man who’s near the top of the list of most well-loved men in the world.
The Chase auditorium was sold out Tuesday morning for the conversation between Clinton and Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel. Actually, it wasn’t exactly a conversation. Perched on the edge of his seat, Stengel asked the former president how he’d advise the current one to fix the economy. And off Clinton went on a 20-minute tear, his advice quite technical—the stuff of a graduate seminar in economics.
I won’t try to deconstruct it all—his thoughts will be available next month in a new book, Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy, a copy of which I hope he’ll send to Obama and the leaders of both parties in Congress. The bits and pieces I could digest—bring down the corporate tax rate, fix the mortgage problem, focus on green energy—sound eminently sensible and implementable. “You can’t get there with an anti-government strategy,” he said.
To Stengel’s question about whether Americans will have to learn to live with 9 percent unemployment, Clinton answered empathically no. Looking trim, sunburned, and handsome, he put it in layman’s terms—although this audience would have cheered him had he been reading the ingredients off the side of a package of super-processed food. “This country is so culturally wedded to the work ethic. It’s about way more than money. It’s about… how you feel when you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror.” He then added a kicker that would sound good in a Mitt Romney campaign ad: “The unemployment rate is not 9 percent… the real unemployment rate is at least 15 percent, and that doesn’t count those working part time.”
Asked by Stengel if the Arab Spring means that something like representative democracy will come to the Middle East and North Africa, Clinton responded, “I don’t know,” adding, to much laughter, “I try to force myself to say ‘I don’t know’ once a day.”
He seemed refreshingly bipartisan—no longer a stridently partisan figure—when he observed, “America has overcome all these prejudices we had, …not nearly as gender-biased as we used to be, not nearly as racist, …not as anti-gay…. The only bigotry we have left is we don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with you.”
Stengel closed the 50-minute conversation by referencing his magazine’s current cover story on Steve Jobs, and asking the former president, “What does Steve Jobs tell us about leadership in the 21st century?… He wasn’t inclusive in his decision making… can something like that work in government?”
Clinton offered his rambling, heartfelt take on Jobs and ended with some advice for his entranced audience: “When my daughter was at Stanford, [Steve] got in touch with me and said, `It’s hard to travel and see your child when you’re president. I got a place out in the country. You and Hillary can stay there and Chelsea with you whenever you want to.’ He gave me a priceless opportunity to see my child…. I don’t think his leadership style would work very well for a political leader because you have to be more inclusive…. He was always thinking, and when he came out and looked decisive, it wasn’t like there was a new idea every day. He really worked. He was a very determined man—most intense powers of concentration I ever saw…. He worshipped his family…I went to see him a couple of months before he died. He said, `You know this cancer I have is very clever…. I have beaten it back repeatedly but have fired all my ammunition, and it keeps coming up with new ways to attack me.’ One thing I learned from watching him is he figured out what he was good at, where his gift is, and he nourished his gift…. The way he handled his illness and managed to create space for Apple and for all those creative things he did at the end of his life and for his family—did it all with courage and deliberation…. That’s my advice, `Nourish your gift and don’t quit.’”
Stengel managed to grab the last words: “The most interesting place in the universe is in Bill Clinton’s mind.”
PhotographY: Getty Images