Former president Bill Clinton has had his own struggles with obesity. Now he's tackling the issue through his foundation as well. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jon Meacham last week at the magazine's Executive Forum in Washington. Excerpts:
I wanted to ask you to talk about your personal experiences with childhood obesity. And obviously, you've had some recent heart issues as well.
Well, first, I was born right after World War II, when the prevailing wisdom was that the only healthy babies were fat babies. And I had food shoved down my gullet from the time I was an infant. Also, the stuff was bad. You know—Southern fried food. But I lost a lot of weight when I was in high school, and I started running seriously in law school. But even so, in my early 30s, I had my first recorded incidence of high cholesterol. So I started eating a lot of oat bran and all those other things that cut it naturally. And I was doing fine. I passed all my stress tests, including the one I took immediately before I had problems. I noticed that I was particularly exhausted taking these long, fast walks up steep hills, but I never had any tightness in my chest unrelated to exercise—until the night I came back from my book tour in 2004, and I knew something was wrong. I went to the hospital, and they found I had this massive blockage, and the next day they did the surgery. So I was doing fine. Then I passed all my stress tests again. But I looked kind of pale. And I was tired all the time. So I went to the doctor. He said, "I think you dropped a vein." So I stayed awake [during surgery] and watched them put stents in me. I have been even more careful with my diet since I came back. I completely stopped eating red meat except once a month, and now I'm almost all vegetables and fruits. And besides, my daughter's getting married this summer, and she says it's the most important day of her life and I need to look better walking down the aisle than I do right now.
What is your foundation doing on this front?
I think the agreement we made with the soft-drink industry and the one we made with the snack-food industry are a good beginning. We've had an 88 percent reduction in the caloric content of the beverages shipped to schools in the first six months of this year as compared to five years ago, before we started this. I try to treat the soft-drink companies the way I did with the people who supply AIDS drugs to my foundation. I don't ask them not to make money. I ask them to make money in a different way. They got into low-calorie drinks and no-calorie drinks and smaller portions for the calorie drinks, and over a period of years, that's a breathtaking change.
Is this a case of moral suasion or have you been able to reorient their economic interests?
I was only half-joking the first time we met and I said, you know, if you keep doing this to these kids and filling their bodies with sugar, they're going to have approximately 20 years less to be your customers. So what is morally right is also good economics over the long run.
Put this in global context, if you would.
It's becoming a global problem [as] other countries become middle-class countries with middle-class squeeze. So, for example, the United Kingdom and Ireland both have national efforts on childhood obesity like the one that I started, or now what the first lady is doing here. India now has the world's biggest middle class. But a lot of them, like middle-class people everywhere, find that being in the middle class is not the same thing as being able to pay your bills and have much left over. And they're busier and busier in mega-cities. So millions of Indians are busily chucking what I think is maybe the most interesting diet on the planet in favor of Western-style fast food. China is beginning to see a rise in heart-attack and stroke and obesity problems as their cities explode and people have limited money and go to fast-food places. So this seems to be much more a product of being on the short end of the modern global society than anything else.
How has partisanship changed since you were in office?
Washington is an inherently more partisan place than most any other place in America. There are objective reasons that huge numbers of Americans are confused, angry, frustrated, and afraid. In that environment, the proper response is relentless explanation. The president made a real effort to move away from conventional eloquence toward explanation in the State of the Union speech. That's the right move. Everybody knows he can give a pretty speech. But if you give me a pretty speech and I'm scared to death, I think you're trying to put something over on me. Whereas if you explain something to me, even if I don't entirely understand it, even if I don't agree with you, you have nevertheless honored me. And so it was partisan then, it's partisan now. I got better at dealing with it and so has he. If they can make this health-care thing work between now and November, [they take] some job-generating actions in the energy area, and show that he's credible on the budget thing, then it will probably work out well for him. My gut is, the worst is past for us.