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Clinton draws on star power to spur global change

Luis Fábregas
| Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008

NEW YORK -- They have money, power and fame -- and they want to solve the world's most complex issues.

Some of the world's most influential leaders and celebrities descended here this week, rubbing shoulders at a high-powered, nonpolitical gathering hosted by former President Bill Clinton.

The meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative is a petri dish of A-list movers and shakers, from world leaders such as Queen Rania of Jordan to corporate leaders such as Bill Gates and celebrities including Muhammad Ali and U2's Bono.

Their presence left even the most successful-looking businessmen starstruck.

"I'm riding the elevator, and who comes in but Henry Kissinger -- no security, no one, I kid you not," a man in a pinstriped suit said as he walked out of the Sheraton Hotel & Towers, site of the three-day event.

The star power comes courtesy of Clinton, who since leaving office in 2000 has worked hard to do something tangible about global issues such as health, education, poverty.

"Clinton has power," the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of the power brokers attending the conference, told the Trib. "He works on a subject of eternal moral interest."

The 42nd president began the conference four years ago to bring attention to problems he views as serious world threats. As a result, Clinton said, 8 million children worldwide have access to school for the first time and more than 11 million people have access to improved health services.

On Wednesday, Clinton used the nation's financial upheaval to highlight how his project is more important then ever.

"This crisis is not an excuse to walk away from the world's soundness but a compelling reason to intensify efforts to meet them around the corner and around the world," Clinton said in his opening remarks.

Clinton's project has gained enormous traction, as evidenced by the nearly $30 billion in commitments from the deep-pocketed personalities he lured. Clinton treated his guests to a talk-style conversation with a panel that included a jeans-clad Bono, Rania, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Coca-Cola chairman Neville Isdell and former Vice President Al Gore.

Seated next to Clinton, Rania spoke with passion and charm about an education program she has shepherded in Jordan to renovate about 500 public schools over five years.

"Education is not just the responsibility of the government," she said. "It's everyone's responsibility."

The crowd reserved most of its applause for Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France's seven-time winner, who will try for his eighth title.

Armstrong, 37, called Clinton a "good friend" and announced an $8 million commitment over the next five years to start a global initiative to create awareness about cancer. The illness, which Armstrong knows firsthand after battling testicular cancer in 1996, kills about 8 million people every year, he said.

"This must be a global health priority," Armstrong said. "We are failing morally and ethically. That must change."

He hopes his return to cycling will continue to shine the spotlight on cancer, which he said kills more people than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

"I can't guarantee an 8th tour victory, but I can guarantee the 'Livestrong' message will touch all aspects of our society," he said.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Clinton and Armstrong's continued commitment to cancer awareness. Armstrong's foundation has raised more than $260 million since 1997.

"They just don't talk about the problem," Bloomberg said. "They do something about it and that deserves admiration."

In an interview, Jackson said his attraction to Clinton's program stems from its focus on poverty, an uncontrollable issue that he said continues to spread despite today's advances in technology.

"The life of a poor person is hell and full of fear," he said, pointing to oversized pictures of impoverished children posted in the Sheraton lobby. "These are people who need drinkable water, people who need food, people who need access to loans. They are struggling against the odds."

Jackson, who made headlines in July after making crude remarks about presidential candidate Barack Obama, said the potential election of the first black president would be a "transformative moment for America."

"The economic collapse should be further evidence that we need change," Jackson said. "Not just changes in administration but changes in direction."

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