The event at a New York Hotel last June was called "Colombia Is Passion," but it was really a celebration of its guest of honor, Bill Clinton. Eager to repair its image in the United States and help boost support for a controversial United States-Colombia free-trade agreement, the beleaguered government of Alvaro Uribe came up with a clever PR move: give Clinton an award at a banquet, where the popular former president would say nice things about the country. According to lobbying records filed with the Justice Department, publicity for the event was handled by Burson-Marsteller, the powerhouse public-relations firm headed by Mark Penn, Bill Clinton's longtime pollster. While he was representing Colombia under a $300,000 contract to promote the pact, Penn was also working as chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
Uribe certainly needed an image boost. Allegations that his government was tied to murderous paramilitary groups (linked to the deaths of hundreds of trade unionists) had eroded support in Congress for the free-trade agreement. In April, former vice president Al Gore had pulled out of an environmental conference in Miami rather than appear with the Colombian president. But Bill Clinton, who had a friendly relationship with Uribe and had long been a free-trade booster, had no such qualms. In 2005, Clinton had first touted the virtues of a free-trade pact with Colombia during a tour of Latin America that netted him $800,000 in speaking fees.
At the June gala, Clinton's hosts played a video depicting him as a hero to Colombia; Uribe praised him as the country's unofficial minister of tourism because of his many trips there. Clinton then took the microphone and praised Uribe for reducing violence in the country. Without explicitly endorsing it, he touched briefly on the "debate that is taking place in Washington" over the trade deal. "We need to remember that we are friends," Clinton said.
At the time, nobody seemed to notice a potentially awkward problem with the event: while Bill Clinton was praising the Colombian leader, candidate Hillary Clinton was taking a hard line against free- trade agreements with Latin America. More recently, stumping for blue-collar votes and union endorsements in Pennsylvania, Hillary has intensified her opposition to the Colombian trade pact and denounced the Uribe government's human-rights record.
Last week, the intersecting and sometimes conflicting interests of Uribe, Penn and the two Clintons erupted as a campaign issue—and became a new distraction for the New York senator's presidential bid. When The Wall Street Journal reported that Penn had recently met with Colombia's ambassador, Penn tried to explain it away as an "error of judgment." The Colombians, offended by the remark, promptly fired him. Hillary then removed him as top strategist. She could not defend a senior aide who was being paid by a foreign government to promote policies at odds with her own campaign positions. (Some in the campaign saw the incident as a pretext for easing out Penn, a prickly character whom many insiders blame for giving Hillary bad advice.)
It was one thing for Hillary to push out a key adviser. But she could hardly fire her husband. "Like other married couples who disagree on issues from time to time," Clinton spokesman Jay Carson tells NEWSWEEK, "she disagrees with her husband on this issue." He adds: "President Clinton did not have any involvement in Burson's contract or any discussions regarding it with the Colombian government."
Since leaving office in January 2001, Bill Clinton has circled the globe raising money for his charitable foundation, giving speeches to private corporations and foundations—and, until recently, pursuing business activities through his role as a senior adviser with Yucaipa, the private investment group headed by his close friend Ronald Burkle. Bill Clinton's private ventures have made the Clintons wealthy, and account for nearly two thirds of the $109 million the couple earned between 2000 and 2007, according to their tax returns released this month. But they have also created potentially difficult conflicts for his wife that may go beyond Colombia.
In recent weeks, Senator Clinton has taken a hard line against the Chinese government's human-rights record and its crackdown in Tibet. This month, she called on President Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies of this summer's Beijing Olympics and condemned the Chinese government's policies on trade issues. "We are going to stem outsourcing and get tough on China," she said while campaigning in Indiana. Yet Bill Clinton, as a private citizen, has cultivated his own personal ties to China. Between 2001 and 2006, he gave seven speeches there that netted him $1.3 million. In 2002, he gave a speech in Sydney, Australia, to a "worldwide congress" for the "peaceful reunification of China." The event was staged by an organization that Western intelligence officials believe is closely tied to the Beijing government. Clinton's appearance at the conference—for a fee of $300,000—drew angry protests from pro-Taiwanese demonstrators. The prominent Chinese dissident and former political prisoner Wei Jingsheng (whom Clinton had invited to the White House in 1999) flew to Sydney to protest Clinton's speech, charging that the former president was taking "whitewashed" money from Beijing to participate in a conference that was promoting the Chinese government's foreign-policy goals. "I felt a sense of betrayal," Wei tells NEWSWEEK about Clinton's speech. Carson, the Clinton spokesman, says, "There is no conflict between a speech given by President Clinton six years ago and Senator Clinton's call for President Bush to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics last week." Carson further says that the Clintons are "dedicated public servants who strive to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest."
On the campaign trail, Hillary has brushed aside questions about Bill's business dealings and has said that nobody, not even her husband, can dissuade her from her beliefs. "I am against the Colombia free-trade deal," she said in a news conference last week. "It doesn't matter who talks to me. It doesn't matter any circumstances. I have been against it. I am against it. I will be against it absent the kind of changes in behavior that I have been calling for from the Colombian government." At the press conference, she was blunt about her husband's advocacy for the trade deal: "Everyone is free to express their opinion," she said.