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Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World
By Bill Clinton
Knopf, 240 pp., $24.95

Unless he returns as a presidential spouse, and perhaps even if he does, Bill Clinton seems intent on making his own post-White House career known for its efforts to encourage charitable giving. This is not a new interest for the former President. While in office, he created a government agency to foster volunteering and hosted a conference on philanthropy. Since leaving the White House, he has co-chaired (with his predecessor, George H.W. Bush) drives that have raised millions of dollars for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, and presided over invitation-only meetings at which he asks philanthropists and businessmen to make public commitments of large amounts of time and money for a host of “global initiatives.”

In his new best-seller, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, Clinton explains what he is doing and encourages others to join him. In example after example of what he considers model efforts at charity, the former President contrasts such selfless “giving,” of the kind he now enjoys as a philanthropist, with the “getting business” of politics, in which nothing is given without expecting something in return. And many of the examples in Giving do certainly display a true spirit of generosity.

Clinton tells, for example, the story of Oseola McCarty, a Mississippi washerwoman who saved enough to endow a $150,000 university scholarship fund. He describes the charitable work of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and the tennis star Andre Agassi as well as that of ordinary people like the two Minnesota sixth-graders who raised $24,000 to help schoolchildren in New Orleans. Nor does he overlook such faith-based programs as Operation Christmas Child, a project undertaken by a Christian organization headed by Billy Graham’s son Franklin that over fourteen years in more than 125 countries has donated some 50 million boxes of toys, school supplies, and hygiene products.

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As inspiring as these stories are, however, they are not the principal thrust of Giving, or for that matter of the former President’s own philanthropic work. Instead, Clinton devotes a large part of the book to urging his readers to become engaged in a different kind of selfless activity: lobbying business and government to achieve “the public good.”

A personal case in point is the “Clinton Development Initiative,” a kind of privately sponsored foreign-aid program directed at producing “national growth strategies” in Africa by improving health care, education, and agriculture. Through his own foundation, Clinton writes, he and his associates have also been trying to persuade drug companies to lower the price of AIDS treatments, as well as to promote the spread of environmentally correct architecture and technology. He commends longtime political activists like Amory Lovins, a champion of wind power and other forms of supposedly sustainable energy, and Al Gore, his former vice president, for combating global warming.

Although Clinton does not acknowledge it, this kind of philanthropy is not exactly new. In recent decades, many foundations and wealthy individuals have underwritten similarly ambitious programs. Attempts at transforming urban schooling, developing new energy policies, and overhauling health- care systems dot the records of innumerable nonprofit groups.

But the record of accomplishment is far from unmixed. Some initiatives—one thinks of the “Green Revolution,” a foundation-supported effort to develop heartier strains of grain and other crops for famine-prone regions—have done well. But most have had slim results at best, and some have done outright harm, such as an ill-conceived Ford Foundation effort in the 1960’s to foster community control of New York City’s schools.

If Clinton is aware of this record, he does not show it. Nor does he offer any real reasons to think that the programs he himself touts—most of which are indeed relatively new—will do better than the failed efforts of the past. As economic and social planners long ago found out, the world has a way of resisting grand designs dreamed up by smart people with ample resources, and the needy do not always cooperate with those who seek to help them.

Nor does Clinton acknowledge that his ideas on how to do good may not be everyone’s. Although Giving describes charter schools and other efforts to help children do better academically, it pointedly disregards the large number of donors who have supported vouchers and scholarships to aid inner-city students escape from failing public schools. While he extols programs he and others have started to assist welfare mothers enter the work force, he overlooks groups seeking to reduce illegitimate births or strengthen families. And even as he writes passionately about projects aimed at fostering reconciliation among warring parties in Africa and elsewhere, he is silent about attempts to promote civil liberties or create democratic institutions that might have a significantly greater bearing on these countries’ long-term success.

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In a short book, some omissions are inevitable. But in Giving, the projects Clinton ignores are invariably those that break with the kinds of remedies long espoused by liberal politicians. To the former President, as indeed to many in philanthropy, changing the world involves only leftward turns—toward more restrictions on business and private life, toward a more active government, toward more forms of special treatment for favored groups, and toward more “dialogue” as the key to resolving conflict in international affairs.

The fact that these approaches have often proved wanting, and that they have lost political traction in recent years, may help to explain Clinton’s interest in having wealthy benefactors step in. By promoting philanthropic efforts to realize specifically liberal goals, he is in effect seeking to convey the impression that these programs are not in fact political but rather beyond politics, simply the kinds of efforts that all compassionate people should embrace.

To judge by the former President’s success in portraying himself as a world-class giver, and in enlisting foundations and others to join in, his strategy seems to be working. But whether championed by politicians or philanthropists, misguided ideas are still misguided ideas. Insofar as donors devote more of their time and money to backing them, traditional expressions of generosity will suffer, and so will those who might really benefit from scholarships, libraries, and clinics.

In the end, much of what Clinton writes about under the rubric of “giving” turns out to be not much more than his (and his wife’s) familiar agenda under another name. In this sense, even as he professes to have eschewed politics in favor of philanthropy, he has not really left his old line of work after all.

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