This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in New York.
If you've tuned in to hear SCIENCE FRIDAY, stay with us. Ira Flatow will join us a little later in the program.
Our guest this hour is former President Bill Clinton, this week in the news in his role as United Nations special envoy for tsunami recovery, also the author of an autobiography, "My Life," which came out in paperback editions this week. If you have questions for President Clinton about politics, history or science, his presidency, his life since the presidency, our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. President Clinton joins us here in our New York bureau.
And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Former President BILL CLINTON: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: You just returned from some of the tsunami-stricken areas. I know you had to cancel a couple of visits there. We were told it was exhaustion. How are you feeling?
Mr. CLINTON: I feel great. It was--the story was rather overblown. I had--when I got in the Maldives, I had arrived in my 11th country in 13 days after 14 stops. And I simply asked if I could start a little later the next day. They said, `Sure.' So the next day--we were supposed to fly to one other island. The next day, the weather came up and we couldn't fly anyway. So I got to rest a half a day, and I felt like a new person. But I actually think I've recovered pretty fully from my surgery, not quite a hundred percent, but almost there. And I'm working on it.
CONAN: It's six months almost since the tsunami. During your recent trip, you met with a lot of people who said aid is still not reaching them. People are suffering. Why is it taking so long?
Mr. CLINTON: Well, I think first of all the world did a good job in the beginning, you know, helping people with their emergencies, averting disasters--no health disasters, no starvation. Secondly, there is a lot of aid still reaching people. That is, lots of money been spent on temporary housing and continuing food, medical care, sanitation, things of that kind. What is not reaching them is the pace of permanent housing being built, the pace of economic recovery long-term, and that--it just takes time to get the plans and the contracts let out.
For example, the government of Indonesia, which had the biggest losses, established a whole new government agency, which is probably a good idea, to cut through all the bureaucratic red tape. They just let almost 200 contracts worth $700 million. And that doesn't include the 200-and-something million dollars the American government's going to give them to rebuild their major road. And about $500 million of this contract is coming from the non-governmental organizations, the kind of contributions Americans made in droves. So I think--give us a few more months, and I think you'll see some real movement. It--you know, keep in mind, most of these countries didn't have a federal emergency management agency like we did. They had never had anything like this happen of this magnitude. And it took them a while to get organized. Furthermore, most of the non-governmental organizations and governments that are going to give money to this, they want to spend the money, but they don't want to spend it before they know it'll be spent effectively, well and in an open, transparent, accountable way. So all that takes a little time to get worked out. But I think on balance, we're working through the tough parts. And I expect in the next month or so you'll see some forward progress.
CONAN: One of the issues I know that you're involved in, in your global initiative--and we'll get to that later--but one of them is governance. And I wonder what have you learned in this role visiting these areas struggling to recover from this disaster about governance and about the efficiency of government, and about corruption as well?
Mr. CLINTON: Well, one thing I've learned is that even--take the Indonesians, which historically have had a problem with corruption. Now you've got a universally acclaimed government committed to an honest approach to this. But it still took them a while not just to be free of corruption, but to have the capacity to move forward. And, you know, I spent a lot of time--I just got back from Romania, for example. I stopped in Romania before I went to the Far East. And I work in other former Communist countries. I work in other fragile countries in Africa and the Caribbean with my AIDS initiative. And I would say for every place that corruption's a problem, the lack of capacity to solve problems, provide good, open, honest government, is a problem in four or five times as many places. So I think this is a big issue. And we're going to try to use this tsunami to develop the capacity of the local and national governments in all the countries that want us to be involved.
CONAN: As you've traveled though these areas, many of them Muslim areas, I know you've expressed concern about the negative image of the United States in the world. One thing fueling that perception are the disclosures about the US treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, obviously at Abu Ghraib prison as well. Do you take issue with the current US policy on detainees? Is it acceptable to you, given the war on terrorism?
Mr. CLINTON: Well, I think the real issue is to what extent is this policy and to what extent is this somebody going too far who should be investigated, tried, and convicted. The president says this is a case where when people do wrong, they get investigated and charged. The--Amnesty International said this is a pattern and practice sanctioned by the United States government. All I know now is what I read about this, you know. I'm not in the line of information anymore. But my belief is that it's somewhere in between. That is, I think the country was so traumatized by what happened on 9/11 and the people in authority were so nervous about letting anybody into the country again who might do this kind of damage, that I think two errors have been made based on the clear evidence.
Number one, we probably cast the net too wide in picking up people trying to come into the country and detained some innocent people for too long, which in itself is bad. And number two, when we had people at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and other places, we have seen some people really go over the line. And I think it's clear from the evidence that they thought they had the freedom to go over the line, to go beyond the Geneva Conventions.
Do I think we should do it? I absolutely do not. Why? For two reasons. One is it's a violation of international law and elemental feelings of human rights. But secondly, it's counterproductive if you care whether the people you're interrogating or imprisoning are guilty or not. That is, if you live in a society where you just have to find scapegoats and punish them, and you don't care whether they're guilty or not, if you beat people bad enough, they'll confess to anything. But one of the reasons that so many people in the military are worried about what they see coming out of this is they know that if you beat people, they may confess to anything. And then they won't really be guilty. And then people who are guilty will just simply elude capture. So I think that on human rights grounds, legal grounds and practical security grounds, this is a very bad idea to have the level of abuse that we seem to have had. I don't think Amnesty International's right that it's a total, all-out government policy, but neither do I think it's just an occasional individual going too far. And we need to really take a look at it. I know that Senator Biden has a bill in the Congress to establish a commission to look at it, and I think it should be done.
CONAN: We'll get to the calls in just a minute, but I--did you say that you--in your opinion, this is a violation of international law?
Mr. CLINTON: Well, even the White House doesn't dispute that--the White House has said they feel bound by the Geneva Convention. The White House has said that when people do violate international law, it's also a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and they take action against them. That's the White House position. But there's been no systematic policy to support that. Amnesty International says there has been. And as I've told you, for reasons I think are completely understandable but not acceptable, the truth falls somewhere in between.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in. This is your opportunity to speak with former President Bill Clinton. Our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let's begin with James. James is calling from Friday Harbor in Washington.
JAMES (Caller): Hey, good afternoon. Thank you, Mr. President, for taking the call. I got a question about American culture. You have your finger on the pulse of America, which I certainly don't--I'm a Western liberal living on a little island. And you come from a state and you've seen this country in ways in which most of us haven't. And my perception as a Western liberal is that we are becoming far more intolerant of ourselves and our differences among us, be it prayer or abortion or gay rights, gay marriage, what have you--a number of cultural issues. And I can't find the harm--you know, Thomas Jefferson defined harm as being something that either, you know, picks your pocket or breaks your leg. And I can't see the harm necessarily in becoming a more tolerant culture. And I wanted to ask your opinion about whether you could comment about, you know, who we are and why we're going in the direction--and whether you think my perception of where we're going is a misguided one or...
Mr. CLINTON: No, I think--I don't think there's any question that the cultural conservatives and the religious fundamentalists have increased their political influence in recent years. And I think they have more adherents. I think there are a couple of reasons for this.
First of all, a lot of people feel that our culture is not only decadent but uncaring. They feel cut loose; they feel alone; they feel they're having to raise their children in a hostile world. And a lot of them join these large, conservative megachurches because they're delightful places to be inside. They embrace people; they provide child care for your kids; they provide counseling if you have marriage problems or if somebody's an alcoholic in your family. They basically create a safe haven in what most people think is a hostile world. And I think that ironically the economic insecurity so many people feel and the sense that the government can't do anything about it tends to make people vote more on those kind of cultural issues. So I do think you're correct that this is more of a factor than it was, say, 20 years ago.
On the other hand, I don't think that's the primary reason the president was re-elected, because it seems to me clear that it was a security election. And I think that there's also been a reaction--there are people like you who feel that this is wrong. And I think in the end, a more tolerant view will have to prevail because the problem with turning personal conservatism into a political program or religious conservatism into a political program is that you have to claim that you have the whole truth and that the majority has a right to impose its will on the minority. And it's very hard in a country with increasing diversity. We have to find a way to say our differences matter, but our common humanity matters more, therefore we have to cooperate.
And so I think actually time is on your side. But it's perfectly understandable why there has been a reaction which has led to the rise of a lot of culturally conservative politics.
CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call.
JAMES: Thank you for your service, Mr. President.
Mr. CLINTON: Thank you.
CONAN: We're going to take a short break. Our guest is William Jefferson Clinton, the former president of the United States. We're talking your calls at (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail: email@example.com.
I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is a special edition of TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in New York City.
You usually hear SCIENCE FRIDAY at this time, and Ira Flatow will be with us in just a few moments to join our conversation with former President Bill Clinton. The paperback versions of his autobiography, "My Life," are out this week. And right now we want your calls. What do you want to ask the president about what he's doing now or about what he's done in the past? Our number is (800) 989-8255. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let's get another caller on the line. This is Joe. Joe is with us--if I'm pushing the proper button. Joe, are you there?
JOE (Caller): Yes, I am. Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Ah. Joe is with us from Washington, DC. Go ahead.
JOE: Yes, Mr. President, it's a pleasure to speak with you. I was wondering if you feel that you've received enough credit during your time in the White House for the many controversial compromises that you made, especially when it came to welfare reform and the environment.
Mr. CLINTON: Well, first of all, I don't know about the credit, but I don't thin I made any controversial compromises on the environment. I think you have to go back nearly a hundred years to Theodore Roosevelt to find an administration that had a better environmental record than we did. We set aside more land in preservation than any administration since Roosevelt in the lower 48 states. The Audubon Society said my protection of almost 60 million acres in the National Forest was the most important conservation move in 40 years, one I might add that's been completely reversed by the Bush administration. And we had 43 million Americans, more Americans breathing air that met federal standards. We had safer food. We had cleaner water. The policy's been reversed by the administration. So I think if you look at the environmental record, it's pretty good. We also were the primary architects of the Kyoto accord, which I still believe in. So I'm proud of my environmental record, and I don't think it had much compromise. I didn't get a rise in CAFE standards for cars because the Congress wouldn't pass it, but I couldn't make the Congress pass a bill that they didn't want to pass. And even when the Democrats were a majority, they wouldn't do that.
Now on welfare reform, there is a common perception that I signed a welfare bill I didn't want to sign because of the election pending. That's simply not true. I vetoed two bills passed by the Republican Congress because they would've taken away the guarantee to poor children and their families of food and medical care. The fact that the states were allowed to set benefit levels was really no different than had been the law since 1974. The only thing I hated about welfare reform was in an unrelated section it took away most of the benefits legal immigrants had. I thought that was cruel and wrong. But I thought the benefits to changing the welfare system to make it more work-oriented, family-oriented, education-oriented and less dependency-oriented justified signing the bill. And in that sense, it was a compromise. I promised when I did it I would spend the rest of my term restoring benefits to legal immigrants. And by the time I left office, we had restored almost all the benefits which had been cut, and welfare reform plainly had resulted in both a reduction in welfare roll and a decline in poverty, an increase in middle-class income for the first time in over 20 years.
CONAN: Thanks for the call.
JOE: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail question, this from Lee Lines in Wilton Manors, Florida. `Mr. President, I've long been a great fan and supporter of you and your presidency. My question is this: Given the current attack on gay persons' rights by the religious right and their conservative political allies, do you now regret the `don't ask, don't tell' policy and the Defense of Marriage Act?
Mr. CLINTON: No, but for different reasons. I regret the `don't ask, don't tell' policy because it's been abused, and by people who were anti-gay, to try to make the situation worse than it was before. I did not agree to `don't ask, don't tell' until both houses of Congress, by veto-proof margins, had made it perfectly clear they were going to make my policy illegal. My policy was to allow qualified gay people to serve in the military; it's still what I think is the practically and morally right thing to do, and what virtually every other country does. But keep in mind, most people think I just caved in to pressure. That's not true. We had votes. The Congress had voted by a veto-proof majority to express its sentiment that they were going to make this illegal. So I thought I was salvaging the best of all worlds, and Colin Powell did, too. And we had all kinds of guidelines for `don't ask, don't tell,' virtually all of which have now been disregarded. So I regret it very, very deeply.
On the Defense of Marriage Act, I thought then and I think now that it was the right law. Keep in mind, I oppose the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. All the Defense of Marriage Act said was one state's decision on gay marriage is not binding on another state. That's all it said. And I think that's the right position. Marriage has been a matter of religious doctrine and state law since the beginning of this republic. It's a sufficiently controversial issue that I think that we shouldn't impose one state's decision on another. So I still believe I was right about that, and I believe that--my view is the gay community in this last election should've used the existence of this Defense of Marriage Act to ask the Republicans why they were trying to upset over two centuries of settled law leaving marriages to the religious institutions and the state governments. Why were we acting like the sky was falling here?
CONAN: The global initiative--this is a gathering that you're going to be sponsoring that's built around the next UN General Assembly session come this fall in this city. Leaders you're inviting from all over the world--different kinds, not just political leaders, but all kinds of thinkers. The difference between this and a lot of other--well, I guess there aren't all that many other similar gatherings, but other gatherings like Davos or--you're asking people to come prepared to do something.
Mr. CLINTON: That's right. Look, I like Davos, and I go myself--not quite every year, but as often as I can. Thousands of people gather. They discuss scores of topics. And frankly, as a result, there are literally hundreds of business leaders primarily around the world who know things and do things about international problems that would otherwise just have escaped them. So I like it. But it's awfully big, it's not really action-oriented, and they discuss a lot of things.
So what I decided to do was not to try to compete with Davos, but to use the fact that the UN opens in September in New York. My foundation is here. So we're going to have a smaller meeting, somewhere between 500 and a thousand people--we may go a little over a thousand--for two days only, to discuss four topics only. And everyone's told before they come, `Now at the end of this discussion, you have to promise to take a specific action in one of these four topics, to basically fight poverty and AIDS and ignorance--you know, to achieve the millennium goals; to do something on climate change and global warming; to do something on religious reconciliation in an area; or to improve the quality of governance in fragile new democracies so more people will invest in them.' And if you're not prepared to promise to do something, don't come to our conference. Save your money, stay home, go somewhere else because if you come here, you've got to promise to do something. I figure if we can do this every year for a decade, we could have a huge positive impact on the 21st century.
CONAN: Tony Blair has agreed to come?
Mr. CLINTON: Tony Blair's coming, King Abdullah is coming, Queen Raina is coming. Lots of people from all over the world, lots of my friends from Latin America and Asia are coming. So, you know, I think it'll be a wonderful occasion. People will get to meet all kinds of world leaders, and they'll all be oriented toward doing something.
CONAN: Will President Bush be invited?
Mr. CLINTON: Oh, he's been invited, and I hope he will come. I very much hope he will come. I hope he and the vice president and some members of the Cabinet will show up.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Yani(ph) in Detroit.
YANI (Caller): President Clinton, it's an honor to speak with you. My question is this: What impact will the rise in the rapid growth of the Chinese economy have on the evolving US economy that's going from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, and how do we ensure, seeing that China is one of our largest lenders, that they'll practice fair standards for labor and such?
Mr. CLINTON: Well, first of all, you ask what impact it will have. I think the honest short answer is, it depends. That is, in general, we should be happy for the growing prosperity of the Chinese and the Indians, the two biggest countries on Earth. We have no right to claim a certain standard of living that we think should be denied to others. So we should want them to generate more opportunity for themselves and their children and indeed people in that situation all across the world.
The question is, can it be done in a way that increases not only wealth but human rights within China, and can it be done in a way that gives America and other rich countries the transition time they need to preserve a decent middle-class standard of living? And the answer to that is, yes, but not if we continue to do what we're doing now. That is, we basically, as you pointed out, expect the Chinese to loan us money every single day to cover Bill Clinton's tax cut. I mean, it doesn't make any sense. You've got a country not nearly as wealthy as we are, but they want to keep our dollar high. So we have these ridiculous deficits which would normally drive our dollar down. The Chinese have to keep the value of our dollar up. Why? So we can buy between 35 and 40 percent of their exports, which is way more than our quota. We only have 20 percent of the world's wealth, and we buy 35 to 40 percent of their exports. How do they do that? They do it by buying our debt at an affordable interest rate. But this debt is primarily caused by the tax cuts. So, I mean, it seems--I think over the long run, if we don't correct it, it will lower Americans' living standards, make us more vulnerable, and make the ultimate transition we'll have to go through much sharper.
The second thing I would say to you is, if we're going to adjust to a world where we have hundreds of millions of more competitors at lower wages with very high levels of education and skills and productivity right across the board--in manufacturing in China, in information technology in India--then we have to keep improving education in America, we have to keep opening our doors to immigrants in the right way, I think. And we have to also keep finding new generations of American jobs.
And that brings me to the last point, which is, we've got to change our energy policy; we've got to go for a clean-energy future. And it's the most evident and the easiest way for us to create a new generation of high-wage, high-tech jobs. And that will enable us to manage the transition with China and with India better. So that's why I say it depends. It depends on us getting our fiscal house in order, getting rid of this deficit, stopping asking poor countries to loan us money to pay rich people's tax cuts, like mine, and creating new jobs in a new area.
CONAN: Yani, thanks very much for the call.
And, Mr. President, you misspoke. You called them `Bill Clinton's tax cuts.' I think they were--the White House would want to take credit for them.
Mr. CLINTON: Oh, they're George Bush's tax cuts, but they go to Bill Clinton's benefit.
CONAN: I see.
Mr. CLINTON: That's what I meant. For me and other upper-income Americans, to have our tax cuts financed by deficits, which are paid for by money from China and Korea and Japan and Saudi Arabia, strikes me as not good for America in the long run. It'll weaken our standard of living, and it compromises our political integrity.
CONAN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. My colleague, Ira Flatow, is here with us in the studio.
Ira, why don't you take over?
FLATOW: Thank you, Neal.
Mr. President, picking up on your energy policy that you were talking about before, critics would say--and they have told--they have said to us--that you had eight years to develop a strategy for renewable energy, for cleaner energy, but five to seven times as much money was spent on fossil and nuclear fuels than renewable energy during your administration. Why didn't you do more then to develop these renewables?
Mr. CLINTON: Well, I think there are two or three answers to that. First of all, we got a big increase in both expenditures and tax credits early on in my term when it wasn't particularly a hot issue, in '93 and '94. And we launched a program to green the White House, to improve energy efficiency and to have more clean energy. It saved over 800 tons of greenhouse gases; took the effect of 600 cars off the road, just what we did in the White House. We launched a program to put all the federal vehicles that could possibly be put on cleaner fuel on clean fuel. It--to put a million solar roofs out there. We--and then in '90--in my second term, I proposed a sweeping proposal of tax incentives and research and development and product development in every area from electricity generation to clean energy products and conservation products to greater efficiency in all the materials and equipment of our society. And it just got beat. So that's the second reason--is that we had a Republican Congress that liked the old energy economy. They basically liked oil and coal. I joke with Newt Gingrich that I thought one of the great achievements of my second term in office was that I had finally found a tax cut they would oppose. And so that's true.
Then the final reason is oil was cheap at the time, and the economy was growing. And it was hard to get public interest or press interest, but I just would ask that somebody go back and look at the record, they look at the Partnership for the Next Generation vehicle, look at the attempts we made to lift the visibility of the energy issue. I think we did about all we could, given the price of oil, the composition of the Congress and other intruding priorities. And, keep in mind, Al Gore and I and Stu Eisenstadt on our team, we were the driving engines behind the Kyoto accord, really. It couldn't have been done if we hadn't agreed to go along, and so I think we did all we could have done under the circumstances.
The one thing I have been criticized for is not raising the CAFE standards on cars, but even a Democratic Congress wouldn't vote for that...
Mr. CLINTON: ...again, because we had too many people caught in the old energy economy.
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow with Neal Conan, and the president is here with us, President Clinton.
Moving on a bit to the stem cell research policy. This has been all over the news lately. I'm sure you're aware that President Bush said that he would--threatened to veto any legislation that's currently coming across his desk. Do you feel like maybe you should have moved a little faster before your administration was over to establish a federal precedent for the use of embryonic stem cells and research, so that it would have been more difficult for then-candidate George Bush...
Mr. CLINTON: Yeah.
FLATOW: ...to have done something?
Mr. CLINTON: Perhaps. I don't recall being asked to do it and declining to do it, but you know, I disagree with the president on this. I understand where he's coming from. But I don't think an unfertilized embryo is the same as, you know, a fetus growing in a mother's body, even if you have a strict pro-life position. They do--they've extended the definition and--constantly of this, and I think the promise of stem cell research is staggering. My support for it and for medical research, generally, is one of the reasons, ironically, I got the early support of my chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, because of the kinds of medical maladies his own family had had. We tried to strongly support increased biomedical research in all areas and also to complete the human genome sequencing, which we did in 2000. And it may be that I should have done more on the policy thing, and it may be that I was asked to do more and just don't remember it. But I certainly have wished in this debate that we had a clear and different policy by the time I left office.
FLATOW: We still don't have a health-care system that covers 40 million people. Our schools are turning out students who can't find high-tech jobs. We're going to take a break. When we come back, I want to ask you about how is it--how do we tackle big issues now?
Mr. CLINTON: Yeah, let's talk about that.
FLATOW: It doesn't seem that we can tackle big meaty issues that take maybe decades to solve.
Mr. CLINTON: We might be able to do this one now.
Mr. CLINTON: We'll talk about it.
FLATOW: All right. Yeah.
CONAN: We'll finish up our conversation with President Clinton after a short break and take more of your calls and e-mails. I'm Neal Conan with Ira Flatow in New York. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is a special edition of TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in New York City with SCIENCE FRIDAY's Ira Flatow. We're back with former President Bill Clinton and taking your calls, (800) 989-8255. The e-mail address: email@example.com.
FLATOW: Thank you, Neal.
Mr. President, I was saying before the break that there are a lot of issues around that are really tough issues and going to take a long time to solve. We have health care that has not been finished. Our schools are not turning out students who can find high-tech jobs; you talked about that a little bit yourself before. We have an electrical grid that gets attention only when the lights go out. I could go on and on. My question is: It seems we have lost our ability politically, as a nation, to take the time to struggle with these big issues and to think them out and to maybe pay the price in the short term, to suffer a bit, so that in the long term they might benefit us. How do we get back that ability?
Mr. CLINTON: Well, I think, first of all, it's better if you have bipartisan cooperation. For example, we now have some Republicans genuinely interested in global warming. So Hillary went to the northernmost settlement on Earth, an island 600 miles north of Norway, with Senator McCain and Senator Graham and a couple of other Republicans. So if you have a bipartisan willingness to look into it, that's easier. Secondly, I think the country is growing a little weary of these kind of cultural war elections. You know, if you elect somebody based on one of these hot-button cultural issues, you're hiring a person for a job based on issues that will take less than 1 percent of that person's time and ignoring what they'll be doing with 99 percent of their time. I think that there's a sense that it's time to see these political jobs as jobs again and get people to go to work at them.
And then I think there's a rising public awareness that we need to tackle health care, energy and education, the three big stumbling blocks to our future. And, finally, we got organized interest groups caring about it. I'll just give you--let's just take health care. You've got this story in the newspaper in the last three or four days that a liberal group, Families USA, has got all these people from The Heritage Foundation meeting with them. You've got business and labor people meeting with them. Why is that? Because, finally, the country sees what I tried to argue back in 1992 and '93. We've got problems of cost, coverage and quality. We're the only advanced country that doesn't cover everybody. We get no better health outcomes than anybody else, worse than some. And we're spending 4 percent of our GDP, more than any other country on Earth, on health care. We're at 15 percent. Nobody else is even quite to 11.
And what I'd like to see us do with health care, which I think might lead to solutions in other areas, is see, first of all, if we can say, `What are the problems with health care?' Everybody should agree: cost, coverage, quality. What are the causes of it? I believe it's easy to document, and the business community will support this. First is the crazy way we insure people--we have all these different insurance policies--and we don't insure people. And the administrative nightmare it creates for insurers and others means that we spend 34 percent of our health dollar on administration. No other country is higher than 19; that's 15 percent difference, or about 2 percent of our GDP. That's staggering.
Second big problem is the price of drugs. We're the only country that gives the patent and you can use them for a long time, and there's no price control. And then we have other problem with the FDA. All this is made worse by that Medicare drug bill. Third problem is defensive medicine. The fourth problem is end of life. We spend more money on end of life than anybody else. And the fifth problem is lifestyle, which is why I'm working on this childhood obesity thing.
If we could agree on what the problems were, then you just take one element of it at a time and hammer it out. I think we may have a chance on health care. I think we may have a chance on energy now. I see Jeff Immelt, the head of GE, saying that he's going to spend a billion and a half dollars to build a clean energy future. That's the best thing that I've heard in a long time. I think the oil companies ought to be saying it, too.
CONAN: Well, he makes those wind turbines. GE makes big wind turbines, so...
Mr. CLINTON: Yeah, but you know--but I've got...
CONAN: ...(Unintelligible). Yeah?
Mr. CLINTON: ...306 solar panels in the roof of my library, where I'm going when I leave you tonight. I have hard bamboo floors and miles and miles of tubing underneath that have cold water in the summertime and hot water in the wintertime, and I cut the usage by 34 percent. And it'll have a total payout in 18 months, after which it'll be pure profit to my library and foundation and my successors and interest long after I'm gone. You know, this is crazy. We can create all these jobs in America with a clean energy future, and I think to have--but somebody's got to take the lead, and I think a bipartisan group and a business leader like Mr. Immelt, that's a good beginning.
CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line, and this is Freda. Freda's with us from Los Angeles.
FREDA (Caller): Hello, Mr. President. This is a real privilege to speak to you. I'm a playwright, and I'm an American, and I'm about to go to Europe. I'm going to France, in point of fact, where they think we're too arrogant. And I want to know if you've come up with any ways for us Americans to improve our image around the world. I don't want to go over there and say, `You're right, it's terrible. We're doing awful things. I don't know what's happened to my country. I don't recognize it anymore,' which are the thoughts I've been thinking for the past several years. And I don't want to go over and say that to them. What can we, as Americans, do to improve our image in the rest of the world?--if you have anything.
Mr. CLINTON: Well, I have thought of a lot of it. I think, for one thing, we have a golden example in the tsunami. When former President Bush and I went to Indonesia and Thailand and Sri Lanka and the Maldives and when I just returned and made most of those countries, plus India, I saw a dramatically different view of America in the eyes of people. You take Indonesia, the most Muslim country in the world. All we did there was send the military and the USAID and lots of American non-governmental organizations and millions of ordinary Americans' contributions there to try to help people deal with the human tragedy. Before the tsunami, our favorable rating as a country in Indonesia was 36 percent; after it was 60 percent. Bin Laden's favorable rating dropped from 58 to 28 percent, and he didn't do anything wrong. He just didn't do anything.
These people realized that we were relating to them as people. America approached them with no motive, and that's what I think you should do in France. Instead of saying, `Oh, I hate my country.' You can say, `Well, look, I don't agree with every decision that the president makes, but you surely don't agree with every decision your president makes. You just rejected the EU Constitution. But over the long run we have more in common than divides us, so why don't we talk it through in an atmosphere of, you know, respect, looking for something we've got in common here?'
I think that too often we get diverted by the headlines of the day or even by four years of political trends, and we forget that the friendships between countries and cultures as well as people are lifetime events, and we need to just, you know, kind of get grounded again. But I think America specifically should look for ways like the tsunami relief where we help people with no agenda. We do it just because it's the right thing to do, and, therefore, they see us as people.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Freda.
FREDA: Thank you.
CONAN: Mr. President, a lot of people have the impression that this president and, to some degree, this administration are not interested in talking things through: `You're either with us or against us.'
Mr. CLINTON: I think that was how they felt after 9/11 and how they felt when they were kind of mad when these people that--didn't agree with them on Iraq. But I believe there's been a difference. You know, the--look, the president's reached out to me, and I've tried to respond. I haven't asked him to change any of his positions, and he hasn't asked me to change any of mine. And we state our positions, and our differences are deep and profound and clear. But when we can do things in common, like I help on the tsunami or--and one or two things they've asked me to do that haven't been so well-publicized, I think we should do that. I think, you know, the fact that he's bringing Karen Hughes back from Texas to handle public diplomacy should tell you that he cares very much about America, building more friends around the world now. The fact that he's relying on European diplomacy as the first line of defense in the Iranian nuclear struggle should tell you that he cares about this thing.
You know, sooner or later you find out in an interdependent world, whether you agree with Iraq or not--let's say you agree with it--you still have to admit that it's something we can't do everywhere--Right?--because it causes enormous military overstretch. So we live in a world where we can't possibly kill or jail or occupy all our enemies; therefore, we have to make more partners and fewer enemies, even while we're pursuing a security policy. I think that's the--I think he's moving more in that direction, and I think it's all to the good.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail question, if I can just get back up to the top of the screen. This--`our eighth-grade class is listening to you today from Clinton Middle School, not named after your guest, and want to know these two things. What are the funnest things you do these days on a personal level, not having to do with issues or government or anything serious, just for fun?' And this is from Mr. Joe Paris'(ph) eighth-grade class at Clinton Middle School in Clinton, Arkansas.
Mr. CLINTON: First of all, I love your hometown. I've been up there many times, and it's not named after me, but I'd be proud if it were. I'd--what I do for fun is I read books, go to movies, play golf. And, you know, I like to travel, so whenever I'm in a foreign country, I try to have some time off to just walk the streets and look and see how people live and talk to people who come up to me. And I think that's probably the most fun thing I do. You know, in this last trip, I got to look around Copenhagen, Denmark, where they have one of the most beautiful amusement parks in the world called Tivoli, where Hans Christian Andersen got the inspiration for a lot of his fairy tales. And then I got to look around Bern, Switzerland, a beautiful town; Bucharest, Romania; Dublin, Ireland, one of my favorite places on Earth. And I walked the streets of Rome, one of the most magnificent places in the world. And then I got to go to Asia and do it all over again. So that's what I really like to do. I like going--the most fun thing for me is being around different people and seeing and learning things about them and their history and their culture.
CONAN: Our guest is William Jefferson Clinton, former president of the United States. I'm Neal Conan, along with Ira Flatow on this SCIENCE FRIDAY. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another caller on the line. This is in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, I believe.
SONNY (Caller): Yes, Sonny.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead.
SONNY: Hi, Mr. Clinton. I have a question for you, going back to the energy policy. I don't know whether or not you're aware of the proposal that's before the CEQ, the Center for Environmental Quality, that advises the president. It's founded TheHydrogenSolution.com. But whether you know about that one or any other ways that you feel like that the federal government can encourage both private industry and, also, federally funded programs to move more towards a hydrogen economy--what you think, in particular, the federal government could do to encourage that...
Mr. CLINTON: Well...
SONNY: ...both with dollars and with policy.
Mr. CLINTON: ...I actually think President Bush has had a pretty good policy on hydrogen. My program with it is it's--most people believe that it's several years down the road. And the way the funding on research and development and tax incentives has worked is that as we put more money into that, we put less money into things that are more easily available now, like hybrid vehicles or electric vehicles or compressed natural gas vehicles or more efficient electric distribution systems or solar and wind power. But let me give you the short answer that I think would explain my view on all this because I think we should be spending much more money and giving much more tax incentives. I'd gladly give every penny in tax cuts that I have received in the last four years and will receive again back to the government to give to consumers and entrepreneurs to develop new energy economy because here's the fundamental problem.
The old energy economy, the oil and coal economy, is highly centralized, very well-financed with massive access to money and political influence. The new energy economy is decentralized, entrepreneurial, undercapitalized without clear markets. For example, I still have people tell me solar energy's not economical because you can't build these big, big panels anywhere and put them immediately into electric generators. Well, that's not what solar energy's for. Solar energy should be used on a micro basis, building by building, operation by operation. So I think what we've got to do is realize this is an entrepreneur's dream, but it's undercapitalized. And people don't understand that there's already a $1 trillion market for clean energy out there. Then I think we definitely should go to hydrogen...
Mr. CLINTON: ...over the long run but not to the exclusion of doing these things now. We can't wait.
FLATOW: What is your position on nuclear power? We seem to have a rejuvenation, and a lot of green people are saying, you know, maybe nuclear power is the way. You can make hydrogen using nuclear power as a tradeoff against global greenhouse gases.
Mr. CLINTON: Well, I think it's something we really have to look seriously at because it's clear that we can have safe nuclear power plants; that they don't--you know, we know how to avoid the Chernobyl problems. We know what the design flaws were. We can run safe nuclear plants. But the fundamental problem we have to ask ourselves is: Will we get enough benefits out of nuclear in the short run, given the enormous capital requirements of nuclear power plants? Is it worth it, or should we be using that same money to develop a whole new and sustainable energy economy?--number one.
Number two, should we go out and build 40 more nuclear plants before we know that we can do something with the waste? You know, if we're still fighting over Yucca Mountain in Nevada, where the people in Nevada had a very good case that they were picked for political non-environmental reasons, and all the evidence seems to indicate that they were. So if we're going to have that, should we get into all these nuclear power plants? Number four, do we have really good studies showing that nuclear is more cost-effective than letting a thousand flowers bloom with other ways of saving energy through conservation and smaller-scale energy development through wind and solar and biomass and other things?
CONAN: We just have a couple of minutes left with you, Mr. President. Penny in Eugene, Oregon, sends an e-mail question: `I'm concerned what's happening in Darfur. Since you were president during a similar situation in Rwanda, can you give an explanation of why we end up doing so little during these kinds of tragedies?'
Mr. CLINTON: Well, first of all, in my book I try to talk about Rwanda. It was my great, great regret in international affairs. We didn't move into Rwanda because it was so soon after the end of the Cold War. We'd had a bad experience in Somalia. I was trying to build the support in America to go in and stop the genocide in Bosnia. And it happened in a hundred days. It's not like--this Darfur thing is drug out. It happened--literally, all those people were killed in a hundred days with machetes. That's not--doesn't let me off the hook. I should have sent people in there. We should have done something about it. And I'm spending a lot of my life now trying to make it up to the Rwandans. We have a big AIDS project there, and I've tried to help them with other things. But we just sort of missed the boat.
Now in Darfur, the president didn't miss the boat. He's called it genocide. But, quite frankly, most of the Africans have said, `We want to handle this. We just need American and other help in a supplementary role.' Then they haven't sent enough soldiers in. And America has got its military assets tied up in Iraq. So even if we wanted to, we're limited. But I think it's terrible. It's clear the Sudanese government is responsible for not fixing this, and we should do more.
CONAN: Bill Clinton's autobiography, "My Life," is out in paperback editions this week.
Mr. President, thank you so much for being with us today.
Mr. CLINTON: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
CONAN: I'm Neal Conan along with Ira Flatow. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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