JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) – Bill Clinton charmed crowds in South Africa this week, showing the diplomatic skills he could put to use if his wife becomes America’s first female president.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has said that she would make the former president a roaming ambassador, using his talent to repair the tattered image of the United States abroad.
Guests at a birthday function Bill Clinton attended Thursday for former South African President Nelson Mandela wanted to know if the American was ready for a role reversal.
“You bet!” Clinton said, sitting next to a chuckling Mandela.
He added he hoped he would not have to give up his Clinton Foundation work on AIDS, malaria and climate change. His current trip includes visits to a soccer youth outreach program in Zambia and a rural hospital in Malawi.
Clinton has used his prestige and contacts to negotiate lower prices on lifesaving AIDS drugs in Africa. He’s also worked with former President George H.W. Bush in raising funds for victims of the 2004 tsunami.
Like Bush and Jimmy Carter, Clinton has put the lessons learned as president to use internationally in his post-presidential career, said Theodore J. Lowi, a professor of American government at Cornell University who has written extensively on the presidency.
If Hillary Clinton is elected president, employing her husband as a roving ambassador would be smart in terms in foreign policy – and also in terms of establishing her own authority in the White House, Lowi said.
Bill Clinton “is held in very high esteem in this country,” said Elizabeth Mataka, an AIDS activist in Zambia who was recently appointed the United Nations’ special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.
Richard Cornwell of the Pretoria-based Institute for Strategic Studies said Clinton’s presidential legacy on the continent was worth studying.
“I don’t think Africa really occupied a massive part on his global scheme. If you look back in retrospect on his administration Africa barely features in its index,” he said, saying Bill Clinton’s Sudan policy was “singularly directionless” and noting he apologized for moving too slowly to stop the Rwandan genocide.
Clinton demonstrated his popular touch Friday after listening to a farmer discussing problems facing subsistence peasants in Malawi, one of the poorest southern African countries.
“When a farmer speaks as well as you have done, he quits and joins politics,” he grinned.
In Malawi, where televisions are rare, most had heard of Clinton prior to his visit. But there was uncertainty over his wife.
When asked his opinion about Hillary Clinton running for office, carpenter Tapuwa Shiri said: “For which country?”
He then turned his attention back to Bill. “I wish he run for office here because with his wealth all of us can be rich. We can start using dollars.”
South Africans were curious about one of Hillary Clinton’s rivals, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., whose father was Kenyan and who was met with great excitement when he traveled through Africa last year.
Did Bill Clinton wish for a “Clinton-Obama, Obama-Clinton ticket?”
“It would be foolish for Hillary, or, frankly, for any of the others running to contemplate who their vice president’s going to be. We’ve got a race to win first. Then I will entertain such questions, if I am asked. And if I am not asked I will keep my thoughts to myself.”
Associated Press Writer Joseph J. Schatz in Lusaka, Zambia and Amy Jeffries in Johannesburg contributed to this report.