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The Christmas Spirit

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Thursday, December 25, 2008

In the eight years since he left the White House, Bill Clinton has worked tirelessly to save the lives of children in some of the most miserable places on the planet. He has traveled to Africa more than most of us travel to see relatives, in order to bring much-needed medicines for AIDS and malaria to those who would die without them and to support economic development in places like Rwanda and Malawi.

He has used his contacts with philanthropists, billionaires and barons, governments and foundations, to raise hundreds of millions of dollars not for himself, but for those in need. He has negotiated agreements with drug companies to bring treatment to those who can't afford it and can't live without it.

For all of this, his wife should be denied confirmation as secretary of state?

If foreigners want to give Bill Clinton's foundation money, fine. If financiers want to help, fine. If super-size hustlers are willing to give millions in exchange for the chance to hobnob with the former president, then my only wish is that he will have the good health and energy and patience to keep hobnobbing.

The release of the list of donors to the Clinton Foundation is a testament to the depth and breadth of the "Friends of Bill," not a reason to vote against his wife for secretary of state. I wish I could afford to give millions. I'm glad that others can. Frankly, I don't give a damn who they are. If anyone thinks that giving Bill Clinton money to cure malaria will change the foreign policy of the United States, they clearly don't have much respect for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

But what about that bad guy from Kazakhstan? What about him?

After years of fighting for limits on campaign contributions to candidates themselves -- a far more powerful force for offensive influence-peddling than charitable donations to the very independent spouse of a presidential appointee -- I have all but given up on the hope of restricting the sale of access and influence to the highest bidder. Ban corporate contributions, and corporate executives bundle their individual donations. Limit direct contributions, and you get party committees. Ban donations by foreign governments, and their well-paid Washington lobbyists pony up instead. Ban soft money, and you get independent expenditures. I'm not saying we should give up, just that we should get real.

In the long run, the best protection -- if there is one -- is transparency. Disclose and scrutinize. Even then, money can be hidden, but the more disclosure, the better; the greater the transparency, the less givers get for their buck.

So I think it was well and good that President Clinton disclosed his donors. If anyone wants to give special scrutiny when Hillary deals with the folks from Kazakhstan, or Ukraine, or wherever else Bill Clinton has far-flung and well-heeled friends, go right ahead.

I'm not sure what our policies are, or how they might be influenced by the charitable donations to the Clinton Foundation, but by all means give strict scrutiny to the decisions Mrs. Clinton makes that could have some impact on those who have made charitable donations to her husband's foundation. It's more than what we do right now, frankly, with respect to members of Congress whose spouses are on the payroll of the very industries they regulate (did someone say Debbie Dingell?).

The worst thing that could come of the Clinton disclosure is that a very talented, strong and deserving candidate for secretary of state, the President-elect's choice for that office, would lose the chance to serve her country in that capacity. I don't think that will happen.

The second worst thing, almost as bad, is that Bill Clinton's effort to deal with Third World malaria and save the lives of children who die in infancy from curable diseases would be blocked by those who have invested so much in Clinton-bashing that they can't stop themselves.

I found myself on television recently with one such Clinton-hater, who was reduced to sputtering about the former president using his contacts for personal wealth. Personal wealth? By saving children from malaria? By getting AIDS medicine to Africa? By finding ways that people in Rwanda can actually earn a day's pay? What is wrong with these people?

If he wanted to, Bill Clinton could spend his days and nights playing golf and partying. Instead, he's still trying to save the world. He might not succeed, but it's a better place for his efforts -- and those who would try to stop him, or punish his wife for it, need to take a long, hard look at their own motives.

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