ABC Honors Bill Clinton with Interview on 'His Work to Save a Continent'

ABC’s Good Morning America interviewed Bill Clinton on Thursday morning, and while he made the news for saying Iraq is hopeless ("There is no military victory here"), the interview was also notable as another opportunity for ABC to honor Clinton as a global statesman and ask him softball questions for almost nine minutes. Co-host Diane Sawyer reported he was in Africa to see Nelson Mandela and do his AIDS work: "And President Bill Clinton weighs in, speaking out on the war, his work to save a continent and Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign. An exclusive interview."

When the interview began nine minutes into the show, Sawyer lauded his humanitarian foundation work again, saving hundreds of thousands of people: "And we turn now to an exclusive interview with former President Bill Clinton, who is in Johannesburg South Africa this week as part of his life’s work with his foundation which has provided life saving treatment for nearly 800,000 children and adults with AIDS in Africa and also simple solutions like fertilizer to revolutionize agricultural production."

Are these tributes coming from the heart, or are they a condition of getting the exclusive interview? You’d have to guess they’re heartfelt, since even when the former president grants interviews to all the national outlets, the questions are typically soft as the Snuggle bear.

MRC's Scott Whitlock provided the transcript and noted the interview segment lasted eight minutes and 57 seconds. The ABC graphic during the interview was "Bill Clinton One on One: On the War And His Mission." Sawyer’s first question was on Iraq. She included the note that generals Peter Pace and Raymond Odierno are seeing some progress in Iraq as she introduced her taped interview:

Sawyer: "Mr. President, so good to have you with us this morning. Thank you. If you were still president and these were your generals, these were your generals, saying give me more time, would you give them more time?"

Former President Bill Clinton: "I think the problem is, first of all, I think there is some evidence that changes from day to day. But while the violence is going up in many places, where we have more soldiers and where the Iraqis are fighting the outside insurgents like the al Qaeda insurgents in the Sunni areas, we've had some evidence of progress. The point is, that there is no military victory here. And there is no evidence that, whether we have a good or bad day in a particular community or region in Iraq, that we have either the political reconciliation process within the country working or any diplomatic process that's got a chance to help with the neighbors. That, it seems to me, is the larger point."

Sawyer: "So there's nothing General Petraeus could be saying in September that would convince you of anything, but start pulling the troops out?"

Clinton: "Well, I believe that General Petraeus is a very able man. And I don't have any doubt that they'll win some battles. And I hope this works. I think every American hopes this works. But it can't work beyond winning a few battles. It has to, it has to be accompanied by, and he has a few weeks, the Iraqis have a few weeks to do it, it has to be accompanied by progress on the political front. The President has weathered the challenge in the Senate because of the filibuster. As long as he can hold more than 40 senators, he can stop the Senate from voting for a change in course. But in the end, September will come, and it won't be long."

Next, Sawyer turned to the Elizabeth Edwards comments to Salon.com, and to her credit, Sawyer didn’t clip the harsher line about Hillary behaving "as a man" by avoiding "women’s issues." (A Kate Snow story on the ABC web site edited out that line, though.) Sawyer read the line, and then only asked vaguely for a response. It wasn’t designed to ruffle his feathers.

Sawyer: "A very quick question about some political news this morning and then I want to turn to the important work in Africa. As you know, the wife of Senator John Edwards, Elizabeth Edwards, has said of Senator Clinton, ‘I'm not convinced she'd be as good an advocate for women,’ meaning as Senator Edwards would be, and says, ‘Sometimes you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women's issues. I'm sympathetic. She wants to be commander in chief.’ Do you have a response to her?"

Clinton: "No. You know, I like Elizabeth Edwards and I admire the struggle she's going through and I admire the fact that she's supporting her husband. She ought to be. But the thing I like about this presidential race is I don't have to be against any of these candidates. I like them all. But if you look at the record on women's issues, I defy you to find anybody who has run for office in recent history whose got a longer history of working for women, for families and children, than Hillary does. I'm proud of Hillary's record and her lifetime commitment and I don't think she's trying to be a man. I don't think it's inconsistent with being a woman that you can also be knowledgeable on military and security affairs and be strong when the occasion demands it. That’s– I don't consider that being manly. I consider that being a leader."

When Sawyer turned to AIDS in Africa, the typical pattern kicked in: Slick Willie get to start a lecture that goes on and on before a follow-up emerged. His first AIDS answer lasted a minute and forty seconds before they hit the edit button.

Sawyer: "All right. I do want to turn to Africa now. You were, I believe, the first American president ever to go to South Africa and I know for the past five years as part of the foundation you've been going every single year. Two million Africans died of AIDS last year. Is there a benchmark you can give Americans for when you think the tide can turn if enough is done?"

Clinton: "Yes. I think, when we have– I think there are two benchmarks. When we have the number of new infections going down, and when we are well over two thirds of all those who need treatment are getting it. And the reason I use two thirds is this: An enormous percentage of Africans who are HIV positive don't know they're HIV positive until they get sick. The more people we treat, the more people are willing to be tested, because they're aware of the disease, they see there is no stigma then. They know they'll live if they turn out to be HIV positive because they'll get treatment. As soon as that happens, you'll see responsible activity going up and the number of new infections going down. We now have, just in my foundation, in Africa, India, China, the Caribbean, the whole Asia, rest of Asia, we have about 750,000 people getting treatment off our contracts. And there are probably two thirds more, that is, that's about a third of those in the world getting treatment and there are about two thirds more getting treatment from the United States program, the global fund on HTB and malaria and other smaller endeavors around the world. So we've really ramped up the number of people getting treatment to about, I suppose there are about 2.2 million people, two and a quarter this year getting treatment, maybe a little more.. But I think, by the end of the year, there will be more than three million people on treatment and more and more children."

Sawyer: "The Bush administration has tied some of its funding to abstinence education. Is that a good thing or not?"

Clinton: "I think it shouldn't be mandatory. I think that abstinence plus is a good strategy and several African countries have used it to good effect. I think abstinence only is a loser in a country where either the culture is against it or where the AIDS infection rate is already so high. But I think– I have no problem. I think abstinence should be a part of the strategy, particularly when you're dealing with younger kids."

Sawyer: "As you know, a lot of Americans still ask a question, and it's a good threshold question, which is why Africa? There's so much work that needs to be done here in America."

Clinton: "I think that it's not an either/or question. I believe that we've learned in Iraq and I think we've learned in Afghanistan and I believe, ironically, we're learning in Africa from the successes. A recent international poll showed that, while opinion of America is down almost everywhere in the world, it's up in all the African countries where we have a heavy presence working on AIDS and malaria and development. It's much cheaper than defense, spending money here, and it builds a world with more partners and fewer enemies, which is important. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be working on poverty and health care and economic inequality and education in the United States. But this is a very tiny percentage of our overall budget, and so it would be good for us to do. It's also the morally right thing to do, to try to help these children grow up and have their lives. But I can tell you that it's a very good investment for America, and it's a tiny percentage of the federal government's overall funding. Americans spend much less on this kind of foreign assistance than most people know and it's much more effective than most people know."

Sawyer: "Again, Mr. President, thanks so much for being with us on this busy morning. Thank you."

Clinton: "Thank you, Diane."

Clinton’s answers – especially his deft touch on trash-talking cancer sufferer Elizabeth Edwards – are smooth. But Clinton’s smoothness has always been much enhanced by liberal interviewers who are extremely hesitant to interrupt and appalled at the notion of throwing him a high fastball. Any major-league pitch can draw one of those Fox News Sunday temper tantrums. Sawyer even concluded on a note that would make Clinton look humble:

Sawyer: "And a small foot note. As the President was leaving, I asked about the much-reported moment of mistaken identity when a couple of women saw him in the July 4th parade, started screaming excitedly and said, ‘It’s Bob Barker.’ Here is what he said."

Clinton: "I heard about that. I don't know if it's true or not. But I'll take it. Whatever it is. As long as they're screaming, that's good. At my age, any scream is a good scream. [Laughs]"

Sawyer: "A footnote from the campaign trail, Robin."

Robin Roberts: "Any scream is a good scream."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis