5 Things Clinton Teaches Us

Published: October 10, 2012

By Jim Lichtman
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After the 1998 scandal that rocked his presidency, President Bill Clinton was not one of my favorite people. When Clinton cheated with intern Monica Lewinsky he cheated the rest of the country at a time when things were dramatically improving.

When he left office, Clinton left the country with the first federal budget surplus in nearly 30 years. However, with much of his second term embroiled in scandal, and an independent counsel looking to implicate anyone and everyone connected to him, any legacy of success quickly faded along with my earlier opinion of him.

All that changed with the Clinton Global Initiative whose purpose, its website says, is “turning ideas into action.” But it’s Clinton’s TIME magazine cover story (Oct.1) that really got my attention.

In The Case for Optimism, Bill Clinton shines a bright light on “…five areas [Justice, Equality, Technology, Economy and Health] in which there has been concrete, measurable and reproducible progress.” I’ll let you read the essay for yourself. However, I want to highlight 5 things the former president teaches us:

1. You can come back –

After a public scandal costing too much time, resources and acrimony, a disgraced president can come back.

Since leaving the White House, Clinton’s been busy. His 2007 book, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, shares a variety of examples where organizations and individuals have shared their time, resources, and skill in solving problems “down the street and around the world.” He teamed up with former President George H.W. Bush to establish the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund and Bush-Clinton Tsunami Fund to help disaster victims. For their work, they were awarded the 2006 Philadelphia Liberty Medal.

In 2002, Clinton began the Clinton Foundation which fostered the Clinton Health Access, Economic Opportunity, and Climate Initiatives – all focused on specific global problems. The foundation recently celebrated its tenth year of operation.

2. A new model of philanthropy –

In 2005, Clinton began his biggest contribution and challenge to date. “After a lifetime of attending meetings where issues were discussed but no action was taken,” Clinton writes, he begins his Global Initiative. Its purpose is “to convene world leaders, forward-looking CEOs, and philanthropists to commit to take action on pressing global challenges. Over the course of seven annual meetings, members have made 2,100 commitments totaling $69.2 billion that will improve nearly 400 million lives.”

3. Business needs to change its focus –

Business needs to focus less on what Washington can’t do and focus more on what business can do for itself.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has not been sitting on the sidelines waiting for Washington to create the “right” economic climate. He’s doing it himself. In March 2012, Shultz addressed an audience of shareholders on the importance of morality in business whereby, “The value of your company is driven by your company’s values,” Schultz says. In 2007, Schultz received the FIRST magazine Responsible Capitalism Award. That same year, he received the Reverend Theodor M. Hesburgh Award for Ethics in Business. And in 2011, the Starbucks CEO was awarded the Businessperson of the Year“for his initiatives in the economy and job market.”

4. “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier” –

Colin Powell said it. Clinton proves it.

But it’s not just Clinton and Powell. According to a 2007 study published in the journal NATURE, “Optimism may be so necessary to our survival that it’s hardwired in our brains. [The study] further confirms the idea that having a rosy outlook is a personality trait with deep, neurological roots. Researchers found that the brains of optimistic people actually light up differently on a scan than those who tend to be more pessimistic when they think about future events. …

“For example, those who hold fatalistic beliefs about cancer have shown to be at greater risk of the disease because they not take preventative measures like eating vegetables or quitting smoking. On the opposite end, a body of research has linked optimism to better health. A landmark study of 999 elderly men and women found that optimism significantly lowered the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.”

Further, author Tali Sharot observes, “Collectively we can grow pessimistic — about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient. A survey conducted in 2007 found that while 70% thought families in general were less successful than in their parents’ day, 76% of respondents were optimistic about the future of their own family.”

5. We are all interdependent –

Clinton reminds us that “Our world is more interdependent than ever. Borders have become more like nets than walls, and while this means that wealth, ideas, information and talent can move freely around the globe, so can the negative forces shaping our shared fates… I firmly believe that progress changes consciousness, and when you change people’s consciousness, then their awareness of what is possible changes as well – a virtuous circle.”

“Improving the world starts with ourselves.”

That’s how one New Hampshire student summarized ethics. A straightforward message not far from Gandhi’s assertion that we must “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Bill Clinton affirms that all of us can be that change.


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