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Joe Conason: A Moral Victory for Bill Clinton — And His Foundation

Late on the afternoon of Sept. 21 — almost exactly 11 years after Bill Clinton inaugurated the annual Clinton Global Initiative conferences in New York City — the former president offered closing remarks there for the very last time.

Having watched this innovative organization grow from a casual idea into a formidable entity credited for delivering quality health care, clean water, modern education, disaster relief and other essential benefits to millions of people around the world, he told its members and supporters gathered in a midtown hotel ballroom that "CGI has worked out better than I ever dreamed."

It was understandable and probably wise for Clinton to declare victory, having profoundly changed the mindset and practice of modern philanthropy.

But as the sound of John Lennon's "Imagine" filled the room, it was impossible to ignore another aspect of CGI's conclusion — the angry, exaggerated and almost always inaccurate attacks on the initiative from political adversaries of Bill and Hillary Clinton, bristling with accusations of "corruption" and "favoritism."

Such nasty assaults were almost never heard until Hillary Clinton became the favored presidential candidate to succeed Barack Obama in the White House. Over the years since CGI began, in fact, its membership and operations were resolutely nonpartisan, with the participation of many Republicans and independents who shared the desire to do good for the world.

Republican businessmen like John Chambers of Cisco Systems joined CGI, provided financial support, and undertook the "commitments to action" that were at the heart of its mission.

Republican politicians like John McCain, Mitt Romney and Carly Fiorina came to the annual conference and offered high praise for its work.

But that was then — and now, with Hillary Clinton as the historic nominee of the Democratic Party, what Republicans once lauded as a font of good works is jeered as a sewer of venality.

While scarcely a word of the criticism is true, that doesn't matter as much as the opportunity to smear the Clintons for political advantage.

The most illuminating example was a widely publicized press release that falsely depicted a 2005 CGI "commitment" by Bahrain's crown prince as a bribe to sway the secretary of state in 2010.

Like so many other slanders surrounding the Clintons' philanthropy, that "expose" from the right-wing claque Judicial Watch was a clumsy fraud, yet the media fell for it — and reputations were damaged.

Both Bill and Hillary Clinton are accustomed to such attacks after a quarter-century under the national spotlight. As he sometimes quotes: "Politics ain't beanbag."

But the vicious attacks on the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative don't only injure those two battle-hardened politicians. The collateral damage includes many decent, hardworking people who have toiled for years on foundation and CGI projects, including thousands of volunteers, whose pride in helping humanity has been turned to ashes by this sustained propaganda campaign.

Pouring abuse on the people who do hard work to save lives is vile — and as James Carville observed recently, "somebody is going to hell for this."

If there is a just God, Carville is right. Meanwhile, as the liars and slanderers contemplate eternal damnation, the rest of the American people — and indeed, people around the world — ought to learn something about what the Clinton Foundation and in particular the Clinton Global Initiative have actually achieved during the past decade or so.

Much of the story is told, from the beginning, in my new book, "Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton," in which I try to apportion credit to at least a few of the many people who have worked with him over the years.

Two years ago, on CGI's 10th anniversary, the data-processing giant Palantir released a study of its work that reached some startling conclusions — and that report is very much worth reading on the foundation website.

That website also provides detailed information on many of the individual commitments undertaken by nonprofits and corporations that have joined with CGI, such as Procter & Gamble's massive project that has delivered billions of gallons of potable water to families in the developing world.

Not everything tried by Clinton Global Initiative members has succeeded, as Bill Clinton and his staff are quick to acknowledge. But as he likes to put it, at least they got caught trying to improve the world. They deserve to be thanked and congratulate rather than shamed.

That is far more than anyone can say for their mean-spirited and mendacious critics.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JoeConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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