TV & Radio
Clinton's Fight Against AIDS
Jan. 1, 2006 CBS 60 minutes
(CBS) What do you do if you’re a former president, besides making millions writing your memoirs? If you’re Jimmy Carter, you help cure river blindness in Africa and build habitats for humanity. And if you’re George Bush and Bill Clinton, you raise money for hurricane and tsunami victims.
Or you try to accomplish something you admit you weren’t able to do in office as well as your successor, and in Mr. Clinton’s case, that’s fighting the world-wide AIDS epidemic.
Former President Bill Clinton talked to Correspondent Dan Rather about the fight against AIDS, his intriguing relationship with the Bush White House, and about his wife’s political future.
60 Minutes traveled with Mr. Clinton deep into China, into an area rarely visited by westerners. The rural area is known as the Golden Triangle, near the borders of Vietnam and Myanmar, which used to be known as Burma. It is a remote agricultural area, is extremely poor, and it has become a breeding ground for AIDS, which has infected a million Chinese citizens. It is estimated that number could rise to ten million in five years.
It is in Yunnan province in southeast China that health officials have documented the largest number of AIDS cases. It’s bad, they say, and getting worse. The area has long been a major drug pipeline and AIDS is spread here mostly through IV drug users and prostitutes, and by migrant workers from the countryside who are streaming by the millions into urban areas.
AIDS is exploding, not only in China but worldwide. But Mr. Clinton is convinced he can make a difference.
"There are over 40 million people that are HIV-positive. So it just seemed to me that this was a problem that cried out for organization and a little entrepreneurial skill, and for a relatively small amount of money we could have a huge impact," says Clinton.
60 Minutes flew with Mr. Clinton by private plane to Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province. It wasn’t Air Force One, but Mr. Clinton was treated like a celebrity when he arrived. From the airport he went directly to a local hospital where, to dramatize the AIDS problem, Mr. Clinton invited in the media and then, with cameras rolling, met with a young woman who is HIV infected.
This woman is the face of AIDS in China, Clinton wanted everyone to know. She says she has never used drugs, never worked in the sex trade and insists her only recent sex partner is her husband.
People in her village don't understand, she said, and some even stop talking to her when they learn she is infected.
"I looked at this kid and I thought, she’s my daughter’s age, you know," says Clinton. "I want people to see her as a human being. And to see that there’s nothing wrong with touching them, people with HIV and AIDS. There’s nothing wrong with embracing them. And there’s everything right with fighting for them to have a normal life."
President Clinton’s foundation is helping to fund an AIDS testing lab in Kunming. A thousand new workers are being trained.
"There are two different tests typically performed. One is the CD4, which shows you know how you’re doing as you go along. And the other is the viral load showing the amount of virus drops in the blood. We have cut the cost of these tests dramatically, by 80, 85 percent," he says.
Mr. Clinton has also used the media to convince China it has an AIDS problem. Two years ago, in Beijing, he hugged a man who was infected, and he did it on Chinese television.
U.N. Undersecretary General Peter Piot, who is in charge of the United Nations AIDS programs, says it was a defining moment. He says President Clinton has been successful in convincing many world leaders they have to deal with the stigma and the reality of AIDS.
"AIDS has to do with sex and drugs. And these are difficult, sensitive issues in any society. I’ve heard it so many times in Asia. You hear it in India. 'We’re different. We’re not like these Africans. We’re not like those Americans or these Europeans. We don’t do these things,' " says Piot. "There’s denial."
Has there been a cover-up of the AIDS problem?
"I think there has been a cover-up in many provinces. The best example, or the worst example, is Henan province," says Piot.
Henan Province is not as remote as Yunnan but AIDS is a problem here, too, less because of drugs and prostitution than because of blood transfusions. Poor farmers sold their blood for cash and in the process were contaminated by the blood of other donors who had AIDS. Local government officials were aware of what was going on, but by most accounts ignored, even covered up, the AIDS problem. Now the disease has been passed on to the farmers’ children. Clinton’s foundation is trying to save them by giving them drugs for free.
But President Clinton was thrown a sudden curve ball in Henan province, about an hour’s flight south of Beijing. He was supposed to meet inside a hospital with some of the 100 kids his foundation has been treating for AIDS, the first program of its kind in this country. But in a last-minute switch, the government, which has been accused of downplaying or even denying the full extent of the spread of AIDS here, told the President he couldn’t meet with the kids inside the hospital, so the whole operation had to be shifted quickly to a hotel.
"I would have preferred to go to the hospital, but I have worked with the Chinese for a long time. And I understand that the inferences that we draw are now as important as whether they are, in fact, committed to this pediatric program. As long as these kids are going to live, I’ll meet with them on the penthouse here. If they wanted to meet me in my suite and drink tea, it’d be fine with me," says Clinton.
It ended up looking a little like a political campaign event. But Clinton seemed pleased and surprised when he met some of the 100 children his foundation is treating. Soon, Clinton’s foundation hopes to be treating nearly 10,000 kids in China.
Clinton says if these children don’t get the medication, they'll all die. "They could all live normal lives. Virtually all of them can be saved," he says.
But not without medication. Clinton’s foundation was able to convince companies in India to sell AIDS drugs very cheaply, for just $230 per child per year. The price surprised 60 Minutes, and when we caught up later with Mr. Clinton in his New York office, we wanted to find out why he can’t negotiate the same price from American companies.
"We’re in Harlem doing this interview. And there’s an AIDS center right around the corner, which I visited. All those people get medicine under the Medicaid program if they can’t afford it, at $10,000 a person a year," says Clinton.
Are the drug companies price-gouging for AIDS medicines?
"Their view is they're protecting their intellectual property," Clinton says. "Well, in my mind, I think they could sell them for a lot less without losing money. I do think that."
American companies do charge less overseas for their drugs, sometimes far less, but so far they have not matched the price Clinton negotiated in India. With lower prices and small staffs, Mr. Clinton says that foundations like his and the one run by Bill Gates can be more efficient and cost-effective fighting AIDS than some government programs. But he also acknowledges that AIDS worldwide spread dramatically while he was president and that President Bush has poured much more money than his administration did into the fight against the disease.
Does he wish he had done more during his presidency?
"Well, I don’t think I could have done more. It was like pulling teeth to get any foreign money out of Congress when I was there. And when they had a president of their own party and they had their core Christian conservative constituents saying, 'Okay, we want to fight this,' then it became much easier. I wish I could have gotten more, but I don’t believe I could have," says Clinton.
Since we were talking about President Bush, we decided to switch gears and ask Mr. Clinton about all the work he’s doing these days for the Republican administration.
Clinton acknowledges his work with Republicans his unusual but says he doesn't think it's strange. "Former President Bush is someone I have admired always, including when I ran against him," says Clinton.
Which is why, Clinton says, he agreed to work on tsunami relief and Katrina hurricane relief with former President Bush.
"In the process of doing this, I spent more time around the current President Bush. And again, I never held it against him for being mad at me for beating his dad. I thought that was a good thing for a son to feel. And I never held it against him that he sees the world very differently than I do and we disagree on a whole raft of things," says Clinton.
Clinton says he doesn't miss the trappings of the presidency. Does he ever think about flying on board Air Force One in the capacity of first husband?
"Well, the answer to that is no," Clinton says, laughing. "I don’t think about that. And I have urged all of Hillary’s supporters not to think about that, because she’s got to run for re-election. And it’s a big hazard for anybody who’s up for re-election to think about anything but re-election."
There already is a woman president on TV, played by Geena Davis. Is America ready for a female commander in chief?
"I don’t know. My gut is, yes, that if a woman came across as strong and seasoned and well prepared, if you said the right things in the right way and you had a good record to back it up, my gut is, yes. But the hard truth is we won’t know until it happens," says Clinton.
For now, Mr. Clinton says he’s concentrating his efforts on AIDS. But globe-trotting can take its toll. In China, the President seemed grayer and thinner than the last time we had seen him.
"I did five cities in China, seven cities in eight days, halfway across the world, and I was truly exhausted. But I want to work hard. I don’t know how much time I’ve got to live, and I want to make as much difference as I can," says Clinton.
But why not try to make a difference on problems closer to home?
"This is our problem," says Clinton. "Eight thousand people die of AIDS in the world every single day. It’s our problem. It’s a big problem. Look, I’m working hard on trying to help the victims of Katrina. I’m working hard on trying to help the victims of the tsunami. But we have a tsunami-like death toll once a month with AIDS."