by Sebastian Smith Sebastian Smith Wed Sep 23, 10:13 am ET
NEW YORK (AFP) – World leaders gathering in New York to resolve global problems? Sounds like the UN General Assembly -- well, except when they're all across town with Bill Clinton.
The Democratic Party legend basked Tuesday in his unofficial role of world problem solver as he opened the fifth annual session of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), timed to coincide with the huge UN meeting a few blocks away.
Swelling, movie-style music accompanied the white-haired Clinton as he took the stage at the Sheraton hotel where he joked of having been afraid, following the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, that "we'd throw a party and no one would come."
Not that there were real worries on that score.
President Barack Obama gave the keynote speech, saying "Bill Clinton has helped improve and save the lives of millions."
In the audience sat another 60 current and former heads of state, along with the chief executives of Coca-Cola, Nissan, ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs, while Hollywood stars like Matt Damon and Demi Moore added the sort of pizazz the United Nations rarely enjoys.
Unlike at the UN building there was no dissension in the Sheraton and, contrasting with the famously slow-moving United Nations, the CGI emphasized the need to turn good words into deeds.
Among its accomplishments, the CGI says, are commitments to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 60 million tons, treat 34 million people for tropical diseases, give 10 million children better education, and provide safe drinking water to three million people in Asia.
The annual four-day networking, brain-storming and fundraising session also gives Clinton an extraordinarily high-profile platform eight years after leaving the White House.
His wife Hillary may be secretary of state, but the 42nd president remains as famous, if not more so -- a status boosted by his successful mission to Pyongyang in August to bring back two US journalists arrested in North Korea.
As Obama said, Clinton could "have settled for a life of quiet, a life of ease, a life of improved golf scores -- my understanding is they have not improved that much since he was in office -- but he chose a different path."
"This global initiative reminds us of what we can each do as individuals."
During last year's presidential campaign Clinton was not always as friendly with Obama, who took on and ultimately defeated Hillary for the Democratic nomination.
But on Tuesday, Obama could not praise his one-time rival too warmly, jokingly recounting how Clinton's famous schmoozing skills had persuaded him to attend.
"I think everyone knows what it's like when Bill Clinton asks you to make a commitment," Obama said.
"He looks you in the eye, he feels your pain, he makes you feel like you're the only person in the room. What could I say? I was vulnerable, just like all of you have been vulnerable, to his charms."
Clinton said he had only one complaint about his family's high-flying lifestyle: not getting to see enough of his "favorite member of the Obama administration."
He'll see her on Friday -- at the CGI where Hillary Clinton was scheduled to make the final key note speech.