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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Whenever a former president speaks, people tend to listen. And this week Bill Clinton is speaking about what it means to give. His new book is "Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World." President Clinton sat down to talk to us yesterday after he'd signed 700 of those books at the independent Books and Books in Coral Gables, Florida.

MONTAGNE: You include several examples in this book of celebrities, billionaires, the Gates, of course, regular folks who've given money or their time to try and make a difference; but one woman in Mississippi you called the most astonishing. She dropped out of grade school to care for a sick relative and then spent the rest of her life ironing and washing. Tell us the rest of her story.

President BILL CLINTON: Well, Oseola McCarty, I think, never earned more than about a dollar a load for being a washerwoman. She never owned a car. When she was 87 years old she was still pushing her own shopping cart a mile from her house to the nearest grocery store to get food, but she saved money all her life. And near the end of her life she gave 60 percent of all of her savings, $150,000, to endow a scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi for a young person to get a college education because she never got one. So I always thought it was a great example of how everyone can give, because most people have other family obligations and can never save the percentage of their income that Oseola did, but if she can do that much, then all of us can do something, and if not in money then in time.

MONTAGNE: And you know, in the book you tie her story to a story about an organization called Kiva...

Pres. CLINTON: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...which is one of many organizations that exists nowadays that allows people of modest means to give.

Pres. CLINTON: See, I think that's one of the most important things, because - largely because of the Internet. People who have very modest means, that they all care about the same thing at the same time, can put more funds into it than Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. They can move the world, and what...

MONTAGNE: You mean in the aggregate.

Pres. CLINTON: In the aggregate.

MONTAGNE: All together?

Pres. CLINTON: Yes. Now, Kiva is an attempt to do that in a way that personally connects with people in the developing world. So with Kiva, you can make a small business loan of as little as $25 to a businessman or a woman whom you select on the Kiva Web site. It will be delivered through a local, non-governmental organization that can be trusted to monitor the progress of the business and make sure the money gets paid back. They have an enormous repayment rate. And then when you see what your loan did when it's repaid, you can either turn around and loan the money to a new Kiva recipient or you can take your money back.

MONTAGNE: You write that there are now a half million non-governmental organizations in the U.S. and twice the number as back in 2000, that there are hundreds of thousands that have sprung up in places, you know, better known for needing than giving - India, Russia, China. You could come away from reading your book, and these inspirational stories and numbers, and think why look to the government for help? The private and nonprofit sector is more effective.

Pres. CLINTON: Well, I hope that nobody gets that impression. The point I tried to make at the beginning of the book is that if you have bad government policy or inadequate government policy, there's an even greater need for people as private givers to do public good, to step into this breach. But even if the time comes when everyone you vote for wins and they do everything you think they ought to do, there will still be a gap between where we are and where we ought to be or where someone and the rest of the world is. So I think this book is meant to see citizen service as a complement to government policies when they're good and as - when they're not so good, as something that can put the brakes and keep it from being worse and help a lot of people.

MONTAGNE: Let's turn for a moment to talk about a government policy that it will indeed affect most Americans. As you well know, the military's top commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, will report on the surge at the beginning of next week. And plenty has already been reported on what he will say - basically that there's enough progress to keep this - what's being called the surge going. You have a rare vantage point on this. So let me ask you, would you, if you were president now, would you simply take that recommendation?

Pres. CLINTON: I don't know exactly what he's going to say and I don't - everybody thinks they do, but I don't.

But let's look exactly what anything he says will be based on. In at least two places in the Sunni section of Iraq, there has been progress using the surged American forces to work with Sunni groups that previously fought Americans. So the local militia groups - they have the insurgents locally, they have a political objective. They want to be part of the government. They want to be politically recognized. So it doesn't surprise me that now that we provided more forces there and we're following a local agenda rather than our own, there's been some success.

But my reaction to it is the following. Number one, we don't have the forces to do that every place in the country. Number two, the success only proves the larger point, which is that this is fundamentally a political conflict that has to be resolved by political means, bringing all the people into the system who are willing to play by the rules and obey the rule of law and give up violence. Number three, there's another point which nobody seems to be making.

I think for our own national security we almost have no choice but to have a substantial troop drawdown in Iraq this year, because we already have badly overstressed the Army, the Marine Corps, the Guard and the Reserves. If we had a genuine national security emergency in this country tomorrow that required ground forces, they would have to be supplied with the Navy and the Air Force.

So I think that it is true that they have succeeded where they have succeeded, but it only proves in a larger sense, in my opinion, why we have no choice but to have a substantial drawdown of American troops and to have it this year.

MONTAGNE: And if that doesn't happen?

Pres. CLINTON: Well, that's what you have elections for. The American people get to decide what they want the future of the country to be.

MONTAGNE: Bill Clinton's new book is "Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World." Thank you very much.

Pres. CLINTON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Bill Clinton answers one more question at our Web site: Would America get two for one if it elects Hillary Clinton president?

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