Feel­ing the fa­mous Clin­ton charisma

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To be in New York this week is like stum­bling into a real-life Madame Tus­sauds. It’s when the United Na­tions Gen­eral As­sem­bly con­verges with the Clin­ton Global Ini­tia­tive, mean­ing ev­ery world leader and celebrity with lofty in­tel­lec­tual pre­ten­sions con­verges on the city at the same time. The traf­fic’s ter­ri­ble but the le­gend-spot­ting is fan­tas­tic.

To give you some idea, I was hav­ing lunch with fash­ion king Ozwald Boateng at Michael’s restau­rant in Man­hat­tan today, when we re­alised we had the flam­boy­antly at­tired King of Nepal on one side of us and Christy Turling­ton the other.

This prompted me to tweet this bizarre fact af­ter they’d both left. Sec­onds later, Christy — who even Cindy Craw­ford once told me was the most beau­ti­ful of all the su­per­mod­els — tweeted back: ‘ Why didn’t you say hello?’

‘I was just play­ing hard to get,’ I replied, un­con­vinc­ingly.

Tonight, I at­tended a very ex­clu­sive party of just 50 peo­ple for for­mer (al­though US lead­ers never lose the ti­tle) Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, who I’m in­ter­view­ing to­mor­row for CNN.

He spot­ted me above the fray (he’s 6ft 2in) and sig­nalled me to come over. ‘Piers, how are you, my friend?’ was his pleas­ingly loud open­ing line.

‘I’m good, thanks, Mr Pres­i­dent. I saw Tony Blair ear­lier and he says you’re on great form.’

‘He did? Well we just got back from the Ukraine, where we spent some fun time to­gether.’

I raised an eye­brow. ‘Busi­ness!’ he laughed. ‘ We were at the Yalta meet­ing.’

Clin­ton, as many have tes­ti­fied, has bril­liant peo­ple skills. He greets you with a rock-hard hand­shake, his eyes never avert from yours dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, he’s warm and friendly, and very tac­tile.

He’s also fe­ro­ciously clever, and cun­ning.

I asked him if he’d trust Rus­sian leader Vladimir Putin, the man cur rent ly sav­ing the world — sup­pos­edly — with his Syria peace

‘Putin and I used to kick ev­ery­one out of the room, then go at it with each other,’ said Bill Clin­ton

plan. ‘Putin’s a hard man,’ he replied. ‘A very hard man. But he re­spects strength. We used to kick ev­ery­one out of the room, then go at it with each other. And I mean GO at it. It would get bru­tally blunt in there. But we’d get stuff done, and agree on things.’

‘Did he keep his word to you once you’d agreed them?’

‘Yes, he did. Ev­ery time. I al­ways be­lieved you should try and be very hon­est with peo­ple in pri­vate and if you want them to help you, try to avoid em­bar­rass­ing them in pub­lic.’

Then he con­tin­ued. ‘But the thing about do­ing busi­ness with peo­ple, whether it’s Putin, or Iran, or the Repub­li­cans, or who­ever, is that you don’t have to be­lieve ev­ery­thing they say. It’s not nec­es­sary to trust some­body to take them up on a good of­fer.’

A fas­ci­nat­ing guide to di­plo­macy from one of the great­est diplo­mats the world has ever seen.

Clin­ton wears a colour­ful cloth band on his right wrist. ‘What is that?’ I asked. ‘It was given to me by some Colom­bian kids who sang and danced for peace against the drug- traf­fick­ers. Their spon­sor, the coun­try’s cul­ture min­is­ter, was a brave, ex­tra­or­di­nary woman who was mur­dered be­cause she helped them.’

Clin­ton then told me the whole in­cred­i­bly mov­ing back story, his arm locked firmly around my shoul­der as he did so. At the end, his eyes filled with tears. ‘Ev­ery time I feel sorry for my­self, I look down at this bracelet and re­alise life’s not so bad af­ter all.’

We spent half an hour chat­ting. And I was mes­merised. If there’s a more com­pelling politi­cian in the world, I haven’t met him or her yet. Ear­lier in the day, Bono had per­formed a su­perb im­promptu Clin­ton im­pres­sion. ‘Can you do a Bono?’ I asked the vic­tim. Clin­ton smirked and half-nod­ded. ‘If you do, come pre­pared to­mor­row…’


Be­fore my Clin­ton in­ter­view be­gan, I hung out back­stage with Sean Penn, Amer­ica ‘Ugly Betty’ Fer­rera, Geena Davis and Hil­lary and Chelsea Clin­ton. ‘Ah!’ ex­claimed Hil­lary, as we met for the first time, ‘I know you. You’re the man off the tele­vi­sion!’ Well, I’ve been called worse. Bill walked on stage. ‘Mr Pres­i­dent,’ I be­gan, ‘ there’s only one thing ev­ery­one in New York’s talk­ing about.’ I played the Bono im­pres­sion. ‘ Now’s your chance to re­turn the favour, Mr Pres­i­dent…’

Clin­ton reached slowly into his jacket pocket and pulled out some large dark sun­glasses which he put on. Then he slipped into a thick, hoarse Ir­ish ac­cent. ‘I’ve been singing so long, I’ve got to be care­ful with my voice.’ The crowd fell about laugh­ing. ‘That’s why all my char­i­ties have only three-let­ter names: One... Red… and even that’s more ef­fort than U2!’

The rest of the in­ter­view was just as en­ter­tain­ing.

‘ Who would make the bet ter pres­i­dent, your wife or your daugh­ter?’ I asked.

‘The day af­ter to­mor­row, my wife, be­cause she’s had more ex­pe­ri­ence. ‘Over the long run, Chelsea — she knows more than we do about ev­ery­thing.’

Later, I in­ter­viewed the for­mi­da­bly smart and charm­ing Chelsea, who dead-bat­ted the same ques­tion. But she did re­veal who wins which board games in the Clin­ton house­hold.

‘My mother’s the best Scrab­bler. I win the tra­di­tional games like Backgam­mon and Check­ers, and Dad’s best at Bog­gle.’

Bog­gle, of course, is a word game that re­quires an ex­pert com­mand of English and a shrewd abil­ity to chal­lenge the va­lid­ity of other play­ers’ ver­bal claims.

No sur­prise, then, to learn that Bill Clin­ton’s very good at it.

Be­low: For­mer US Pres­i­dent

Bill Clin­ton

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