“The great thing about being a former President is you can say whatever you want. The sad thing is, nobody cares anymore,” said Bill Clinton last night. Yet we did listen as he outlined the three major challenges facing the world — economic inequality, political and financial instability, and environmental unsustainability — and called for America to build for the future.
Clinton stood alone on a vast stage in San Francisco’s Moscone Centre, 60 metres wide. Behind him, a sky-blue backdrop — empty except for the logo of cloud computing provider Salesforce.com, whose annual conference this was. Either side, his TV portrait was projected eight metres high. In front of him were 15,000 customer service managers, geeks and assorted sales types — 200 serried rows of chairs disappearing back into the dark beneath the roof’s curved concrete supports.
Oh, and a solitary visible Secret Service bodyguard, erect but with hands clasped in front of him, eyes scanning the crowd.
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Over the previous two days this same crowd had queued for an hour to see CEO and chief showman Marc Benioff pitch the company’s new products — a performance so evangelical that even one of his senior executives referred to the room as “the main tent”.
They’d partied on — geeks and suits and middle-aged women all heels, bleach and Botox alike — to Stevie Wonder and Will.I.am and a bottomless free bar and mini-burgers and something labelled “Thai chicken focaccia pizza”. Yeasty focaccia an inch thick, cheese, capsicum, tomato paste, bacon, chicken and sweet chilli sauce. Awful.
They’d heard people murder the English language, talking about products that would both “take it to the next level” and “go viral”. They used “platforming” as a verb. Well, as a gerund.
But now it was the event’s closing keynote. Seemingly regardless of their personal political persuasions, regardless of their hangover status, they packed the room to listen, in that respectful American way, to their former President.
Except Clinton was late. Bad weather delayed his plane. Benioff, once more the master of ceremonies, introduced “a good friend” who’d spend some time sharing his life story. “Please welcome Stevland Morris.” Who? Oh. Stevie Wonder.
So 15,000 people who’d already been waiting up to an hour sat or stood for another 35 minutes and listened to Stevie’s quiet fireside chat — a story in itself — before introducing Clinton.
“After a lifetime as a mediocre musician, I never thought that Stevie Wonder would be the opening act for me,” Clinton quipped, and then onto business.
Clinton’s three “huge problems” globally — inequality, instability and environmental unsustainability — were familiar and have been reported today by the Wall Street Journal. He presented them clearly and with quiet passion. Word is he speaks on these issues frequently. But this time the WikiLeaks crisis was included as a sign of that global instability.
“This is the beginning,” said Clinton, expressing surprise that the crisis could have been caused by one young soldier “displeased with the Iraq War”.
“The information on Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t create enough of a stir, and just by coincidence all the diplomatic cables of the United States had been given to the Defence Department in a new effort to share information — which was a good thing for America — after 9/11. And it turned out that gossip in the diplomatic cables has gotten more press than all the information that we had on Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t know what that says about all of this, but it’s true.”
Reiterating concerns for the safety of US informants and the long-term impact on American interests, Clinton asked, “How many people may now be reluctant to talk with us for fear that our cyber security is so weak that there will never be any such a thing as confidential conversation again if it’s memorialised electronically?”
Clinton highlighted a series of metrics in which the US lags behind other wealthy nations — most notably health and education. If Obama had done it, he’d have been accused of denying American exceptionalism. But Clinton focused on the practicalities.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said, before calling for an end to the politics of Democrat versus Republican, and liberal versus conservative. Analyse issues in terms of whether they look to yesterday or to tomorrow, he advised. Ask how things could be done. Look to other nations and learn from them.
“You are all sitting in these chairs because you are in the tomorrow business,” Clinton told the crowd. “Throughout most of human history, including today, most people who have walked across this earth have worked to live, so they could not live for their work. If you have an opportunity to do that, you have to make the most of it, and give other people the same chance.”
And they applauded. Long and loud.
*Stilgherrian is in San Francisco as a guest of Salesforce.com.