Drought, earthquakes, ethnic cleansing, famine, flooding, genocide, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, warfare.
The world and its many problems can seem overwhelming. Disasters of various kinds test the limits of mighty nations and dedicated relief organizations. What, in the face of such dire events, can a mere individual do?
Plenty, according to Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, a new book by former President Bill Clinton that offers a blueprint for altruistic engagement.
Before getting into those specifics, however, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Yes, Clinton’s many critics will dismiss Giving as just more taking, and it is true the text can be self-aggrandizing, as the ex-president mentions his own Clinton Foundation numerous times.
Yes, Clinton is getting major media attention because of the book; he’s on the October cover of The Atlantic, for example. And yes, the book can’t help but be a good piece of public relations as another Clinton makes a run for the White House.
Anyone who can get past the noise, though, will find a well-organized, even inspiring book that provides idea after idea for people who want to make a difference.
A key point: We’re not all rich. Giving includes an excellent chapter on “Giving Skills” that serves as a reminder that money is not the only human commodity, perhaps not even the most important one.
“Most of us know how to do something not everyone can do as well as we can,” Clinton writes. “Transferring that knowledge and the ability to use it can empower others in amazing ways.”
Among his examples: Reading tutors; Women for Women International, which aids women in war-ravaged regions; and the National Academy Foundation, a not-for-profit organization trying to address America’s growing shortage of engineers and other technologically oriented disciplines.
As he does for each of the other chapters, Clinton provides, at the back of the book, a resource list for anyone wishing to get involved with such efforts.
“Giving Things” is another useful chapter. Your old baseball cards won’t do a starving child much good, but as Clinton notes, most “individuals, families, and enterprises in wealthy countries have things they can easily give away to people who need them,” including “books, school supplies ... clothing, sewing machines, agricultural tools and other items.”
None of these ideas is especially radical, of course. But as with many other elements of our society, the charitable sector has become highly specialized. One challenge, then, is to let people know about the many worthy organizations that exist and direct them to ways they can help.
Giving does that quite well. This book is superior to the doorstop-dimensioned My Life, Clinton’s 2004 memoir. With this new work, Clinton adds to a growing library of similar books by former presidents.
Think of Jimmy Carter, who has penned Leading a Worthy Life and The Community of Kindness or George H.W. Bush, who collaborated with Clinton on For America: Simple Things Each of Us Can Do to Make Our Country Better.
The elder George Bush and Clinton have, in fact, worked together in recent times on several projects, and their partnership has offered a great example.
They were opponents in the 1992 presidential contest. One lives on the left of the political spectrum, the other on the right. Yet they both realized there are bigger things than their own opinions.
Political rancor is, unfortunately, a fact of life, and as the 2008 election looms, there remain many bitter divisions concerning America’s role on the world stage, its economic and social responsibilities to its own citizens, and so on.
But some problems transcend ideology. It’s hard to see how anyone could be “against” feeding the hungry or helping victims of a natural disaster, and Clinton works hard in Giving to tap into the natural human impulse to lend a hand: “There’s a whole world out there that needs you,” he writes, “down the street or across the ocean.”
NO MEMOIRS, PLEASE
Presidential memoirs are usually very flawed in some ways. Fortunately, some of our former chief executives and other prominent politicians have written other kinds of books, ranging from whimsical to religious to thoughtful. Here’s a brief look at some notable ones.
Hard Call by John McCain and Mark Salter. Arizona senator and presidential candidate McCain teams up with his writing partner for another worthy book, this one subtitled “Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them.” The subjects include Winston Churchill and Branch Rickey, who integrated baseball by taking Jackie Robinson to the major leagues.
Millie’s Book by Barbara Bush. Stop your jeering. Millie, a springer spaniel, was the First Dog. She was cute, as most dogs are. Sure, the book’s a piece of fluff, but as animal lovers know, fluff can be comforting. Besides, this book spent weeks and weeks on various best-seller lists.
The Reagan Diaries by Ronald Reagan. In May, HarperCollins released this 784-page edition of the personal journal Reagan kept when he was president, 1981-89. The informal nature of the work makes for inviting reading, and Reagan’s friendly tone will only enhance his reputation as less of a “hail to the chief” kind of guy and more an American Everyman. The length, though, may lead to more browsing than through-line reading.
An Hour Before Daylight: Memoirs of a Rural Boyhood by Jimmy Carter. He has many “social conscience” books to his credit, but this reverie about his youth remains one of his most charming, accessible and best-selling.
Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. But was it really by Kennedy? Was it ghostwritten? Written by committee? All these allegations still swirl; one need only look at Amazon.com to see that. Still, the book remains compelling, with its stories of other senators in American history who stood up for various causes.