There's lots of pomp and circumstance at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York, but a lot of substance too.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Part of the deal at the Clinton Global Initiative currently taking place in midtown Manhattan is that when someone agrees to commit money to a project, they get to come up on stage with President Clinton, sign a document, and get a picture.
So they all file up on stage, looking a little bit embarrassed and a little bit proud. (Ayn Rand would have a field day.) No one besides Clinton speaks - the exception was a young woman who said, "Thank you, President Clinton" into the microphone. In the audience, here was a definite rustle of surprise at her temerity.
A few of us in the press were trying to decide what the spectacle most resembled. Is it kindergarten show and tell? (And little Jimmy gets a gold star!) Is it "The Price is Right?" (This commitment is worth $80 million! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, $80 million!) Or is it a guy hawking time-shares? (Look who's vacationing in lovely Bemidji, Minnesota! You could be just like them and spend some money, too!)
Like all things Clinton, CGI is plenty of pomp and circumstance. There seemed to be an awful lot of perfectly coiffed blond hair in the audience, which consisted of a lot of important people. (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, President Pervez Musharraf, King Abdullah and Queen Rania, Richard Branson, to name but a few.) The press was treated as a nuisance - there was a large army of people whose job was to tell reporters "You can't go in there!" and "You can't sit here!" - which I suppose we are.
And I shouldn't be hard on my handlers, because my peers were even more ruthless. As I tried to take a seat, a cameraman shoved me so hard I almost tipped over. (OK, I am wearing heels.) "You can't sit here," he shrieked.
But there's also a lot of substance at CGI. Yesterday, Bill Gates, along with Clinton, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Hernando de Soto, the president of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy, participated in a panel called "Effective Action, Lasting Results."
De Soto was the most thought-provoking and (not incidentally) the most humorous. "We always thought the market was automatic. It's not true," he said. As for Gates, he didn't say much, but he did raise an interesting question: "When are we going to have a presidential debate where developing country aid is a topic?" he asked. "Most of us are either going to run out of money or time or both," was my favorite line from Clinton.
Today, Cisco (Charts) CEO John Chambers, Siemens (Charts) CEO Klaus Kleinfeld, Mohammed Unis of the Grameen Bank, and Al Gore held a panel called "Building a Sustainable Future." Chambers did a lot of CEO speak, by which I mean he spoke without saying much of anything. (Maybe I was simply too distracted by the pushing and shoving in the press area to understand him, but once he said that "we are a company that dreams and says, how can we make dreams happen?" he lost me.) But he did also say that Cisco is attempting to reduce its emissions by cutting travel 20 percent, using technology like video conferencing instead to maintain customer contact. "If it works, why can't every company in the world do this?" he asked. Not a heart-warming idea for the airlines, I'm sure.
Gore, though, was the star of the show. He's more substantial - physically as well as verbally - than he was during his vice-presidential years, and full of real passion for the environment. So what if his speech occasionally smacks of student activism, as a fellow journalist whispered to me?
"It's government that sets the rules under which business competes," he said, as he advocated a change in the tax laws: "Stop taxing payrolls. Start taxing pollution." "People will do what you pay them to do."
He invoked a sense of emergency, saying that "We don't have time to play around with this. The planet has a fever. If your child has a fever, you go to the doctor." And he excoriated Exxon Mobil (Charts) for "spending money to confuse people."
The panel concluded on a nice note, with each member describing for the audience a problem they're currently working on. ("Problems everywhere!" said Unis.) Gore's request: "I need advice on how to more effectively change people's minds about the reality of this situation."