Feeling the famous Clinton charisma
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 24
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…’
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 25
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