11/05/2015

Bill Clinton and Grandfather Politics

Former President Bill Clinton is back in the news. The greatest politician of his generation is once again making headlines. Although his Clinton Foundation has been able to raise billions of dollars “to strengthen the capacity of people throughout the world to meet the challenges of global interdependence," according to its mission statement, it is as the husband of declared Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that he has once again become a focus of attention.


Former President Bill Clinton is back in the news. The greatest politician of his generation is once again making headlines. Although his Clinton Foundation has been able to raise billions of dollars “to strengthen the capacity of people throughout the world to meet the challenges of global interdependence," according to its mission statement, it is as the husband of declared Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that he has once again become a focus of attention.
In a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the 42nd President made a most interesting distinction. When asked about his role in his wife’s campaign, he said that he lacked the anger of a politician now that he is a grandfather. "In order to be effective [in politics], you probably have to be really mad most of the time. I'm not mad at anybody... My granddaughter's made me happy. I'm just blissfully happy," he said. "I'll probably be a total waste in politics."
The distinction between angry politicians and “blissfully happy” grandfathers is indeed intriguing. According to Clinton, politicians have to be angry. They are inevitably caught up in a win-lose situation whereby in order to be successful they must put down the other side.
Must this always apply? In the sports world, for example, one can play a match to one’s highest standards without necessarily being angry at the opponent. Witness the warmth between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal after their tennis matches. While they may not be best friends, there is no obvious antagonism between them. They are merely trying to play their best. Does politics necessarily have to have winners and losers? Someone will win a nomination and election, but is that all that counts? Is anger really necessary?
One of my favorite tennis players was Torben Ulrich. He was not a truly great player, but his philosophy of playing made him a standout. Ulrich always said that he played for the beauty of the game, not just to defeat his opponent. He played on the tennis tour from the late 1940s into the 1970s, and on the Tennis Grand Masters tour in the 1970s and 1980s. His accomplishments are impressive: in 1976 he was the top-ranked senior player in the world and he played more than 100 Davis Cup matches for Denmark.  He was also the oldest Davis Cup player in history, playing just one month shy of his 49th birthday. Writer, musician and filmmaker, he founded the musical group "Instead Of" in 2005. Ulrich truly beat to another drum.
Clinton’s “Grandfather Politics” has several elements. The first, and most obvious, is his sense of happiness. His granddaughter has given him a different perspective on life. He is not only happy, he is “blissfully happy”. Also, not only has his age changed his sense of time – perhaps his health problems have added to this – but the thought of his granddaughter’s future has given him a larger framework about the importance of generations to come.
Instead of a win-lose mentality, Clinton suggested in the interview, we should be looking for ways to cooperate on global issues. Instead of looking at the world through the lens of “What’s in this for me?” we should be seeing how global issues can be solved today only by working together. An expanded pie, he said, should have more than enough for everyone if we joined hands to evenly divide the slices.
Is Clinton naïve in his old age? Has he truly forgotten the down and dirty realpolitik? In fact, Clinton as president was both a charmer and skillful negotiator; he was able to work with both Democrats and Republicans. During his presidency, except for the impeachment bubble, the United States government had a period of civility woefully missing from today’s Washington gridlock.
Perhaps old age has mellowed Bill Clinton, but “Grandfather Politics” was a definite part of his charm even when he was president. He never needed anger management lessons. Remember the graciousness of his smile as he beamed down on Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat as they shook hands. “Grandfather Politics” was already at work then and a big part of Bill Clinton’s success.
“Grandfather Politics” should be part of all decision-makers’ tool box today, grandfathers or not.
Full disclosure: I am also a “blissfully happy” grandfather.

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