In The Field

AIDS: Happy birthday, Mr. President

Political leaders rarely get warm fuzzies at these AIDS conferences. But this afternoon, a crowd of hundreds of activists and scientists melted like teenage girls at the sight of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Prompted by conference co-chair Helene Gayle, the crowd serenaded Clinton, singing “Happy Birthday” to him after he delivered a wide-ranging speech on issues related to HIV and AIDS. Clinton turns 60 on Saturday.

Clinton is the third major celebrity to show up here so far; Bill Gates spoke in the meeting’s opening session, and Richard Gere talked about AIDS awareness in India yesterday. But Clinton’s enormous popularity with this crowd is pretty stunning.

Clinton can’t quite compete with Nelson Mandela, who moved people to tears at the last AIDS conference, in Bangkok . But he comes about as close as a former U.S. President could. As Clinton stepped to the microphone to begin his speech today, someone in the crowd yelled out, “We miss you!” Clinton seemed to feel the same way, basking in the adulation of the crowd, and staying late at a press conference to shake reporters’ hands.

Clinton has started a foundation that helps negotiate lower prices for treatments and other HIV interventions in poor countries. But Clinton’s popularity with this audience also comes from the fact that he’s simply not President George Bush, who is generally reviled the liberal and international crowd here. A lot of activists in this community have directed a lot of anger towards the Bush administration, and its flagship program for global AIDS aid – the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

Clinton took issue with some controversial aspects of PEPFAR today, such as its requirement that some of the program’s funding be spent on abstinence education programs. But, Clinton pointed out, you can’t overlook cold, hard, cash: if Bush meets his $15 billion commitment, the United States will have spent more on bilateral AIDS aid than any other nation. “It’s still a whopping amount of money,” Clinton told reporters after his speech today, “and that’s why I say I believe they’ve done on balance more good than harm.”


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