MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Tomorrow, a three-day conference starts at the University of Texas in Austin, a conference that brings together a diverse cast of luminaries addressing some of the most daunting challenges of the age: education, climate change, poverty, global health. The luminaries include university presidents, political activists, some Hollywood celebrities.
The public policy impresario who brings together Donna Shalala and Drew Barrymore, Paul Begala and Natalie Portman, is former President Bill Clinton. It's the Clinton Global Initiative University and President Clinton is joining us to talk about it.
President BILL CLINTON: Hello.
SIEGEL: We associate the Clinton Global Initiative with pledges of support for important causes. Should we expect to hear university presidents pledge their support in research or activism for those causes this weekend?
Pres. CLINTON: Absolutely. This is the second one of these CGI University meetings we've had. We had one in New Orleans last year and we're now at the University of Texas. And we asked the students, the non-governmental groups they're a part of, and the universities and university presidents - there'll be about 80 university presidents there - to also make specific commitments.
The students have already filled out forms and we know we'll have more than 1,000 student commitments alone, and probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 commitments by universities and national youth organizations.
SIEGEL: What might be a typical university commitment to you might exact?
Pres. CLINTON: One student at the University of Texas has committed to organize the capture of all the grease at the dining halls and the typical eateries of the university students to make bio-diesel fuel to run small cars and to run lawnmowers and generators on the campus. That's an example.
About half the commitments are made overseas in Africa, Latin America and Asia, about half the commitments in the United States, about half the commitments in education and healthcare; the other half in poverty, human rights and energy.
SIEGEL: The Clinton Global Initiative thrived in the time of President George W. Bush, which frankly, was a time when the leader of the United States advocated less government. Today, President Obama in his inaugural address said we, our country, is ready to lead once more. If the government's doing that, doesn't that in some way lessen the significance of private efforts like yours?
Pres. CLINTON: I don't think so. I think that what I hope will happen is that the government will do more, particularly in the area of foreign assistance, as well as aggressively rebuilding the American economy. And that will enable us to target our efforts more. But if you look at the areas where President Bush was most active, in promoting funds for AIDS and malaria overseas, that actually gave us more to do.
Why? Because even with all that government money, a lot of these countries didn't have any health care systems to be able to use the medicine. So I, the Gates Foundation, others, we went out across the world and tried to help poor countries build health systems.
So, in a way, the greater activity that I hope will come out of the Obama administration should create more opportunities for people to try to fill in the gaps, as citizens.
SIEGEL: Have you, though, already experienced the effects of the world economic recession?
Pres. CLINTON: Oh, absolutely. We, my foundation and many other charitable organizations were hit very hard last year, after the collapse of the - the failure of Lehman Brothers, which started this long downward fall in the values of stock and assets. The world's lost about, I don't know, $30 trillion worth of wealth in the last five months. So it's a big challenge.
I think all of us are going to have to go back to the drawing boards and try to broaden our donor base and be competitive with small donors.
SIEGEL: Are there grants that you would have sought but have not, or places you would have gone but haven't gone to in the past couple of months because of the conditions you accepted upon Mrs. Clinton becoming Secretary of State?
Pres. CLINTON: No. No. Actually, virtually everything that I agreed to do I would have done on my own. That is, I would be more careful with her assuming that office even than I was when President Bush was there, in terms of vetting foreign individuals or foreign governments that might want to contribute to our work.
SIEGEL: So it hasn't changed. It hasn't changed your...
Pres. CLINTON: No. No. The only thing that's cramping us is the global financial crisis. The agreement I made with the Obama administration I thought was a very sound agreement. It just requires us to be more transparent and to make sure we vet anything that we have even the remotest question about, so that there can be no question of the appearance of anything wrong.
SIEGEL: Just one last point. We don't get to hear from former presidents all that often here. So we have a new president who's not quite a month in the White House right now. Advice about things that happened very early in your administration, and what they auger for the rest of it?
Pres. CLINTON: Well, I think, first of all, no one comes to the job knowing everything. I think he's off to a great start. When everything happens at once and you start, there are going to be some inevitable glitches, as there were in the appointments process that he faced, that I faced. Those things just happen. And the only advice I have is just to get up every day and keep thinking about the future, keep staying on your game plan, even as you respond to conditions.
And the only other thing is advice that he's clearly already taken. You have to realize you could work 24 hours a day and still leave work on the table. So there has to be some time carved out for your family, for your friends, for some balance in life. And he seems to be adapting to that very well. So, I think he's doing just fine without my advice, and I think we all wish him well.
SIEGEL: Former President Bill Clinton, thanks a lot for talking with us today.
Pres. CLINTON: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Bill Clinton, we spoke to him before he flew to Austin for this weekend's conference of the Clinton Global Initiative University.