Bill Not the Only Presidential Clinton at Initiative Gala

Make no mistake about the main attraction at this year’s meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.

While the biggest name feted at the gathering’s opening last night was actor Leonardo DiCaprio, for his environmental activism, the starring role was cast for Hillary Clinton as she mixes with CEOs, philanthropists, stars and donors ahead of an announcement on whether she’ll run for president again in 2016.

“Live from New York, it’s CGI!” the former first lady and secretary of state declared, imitating the opening of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” program, dressed in royal blue, after taking the stage solo to kick off last night’s Clinton Global Citizen Awards.

“At a time when we see so many forces around the world appearing intent on tearing down, this is a chance to celebrate those who are building up,” she said. DiCaprio and Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga were among the honorees.

“President Clinton is here -- give it up -- and so is Bill,” joked late-night TV host Seth Meyers, who hosted the nonprofit’s awards dinner. And while Clinton hasn’t said she’ll run, Meyers said, her recent appearance in Iowa -- where the first election caucuses are held -- is a pretty good sign because if you don’t have family in Iowa “you’re probably going for ’president reasons.’”

Donna Karan

Clinton will open today’s CGI program with a discussion with World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim and International Business Machines Corp. Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty. On Wednesday, she’ll close the conference on panels with philanthropist Melinda Gates on empowering women and girls, and with her husband on unlocking innovation.

The annual gathering draws CEOs, world leaders, celebrities and donors, many of whom Clinton may lean on if she runs.

“Hillary, my love! She’s brilliant!” gushed one such backer, fashion designer Donna Karan, hair pulled back and dressed in black. “She already has showcased her strengths. This is just a continuation of everything she does.”

Among this year’s scheduled attendees at CGI are actor Matt Damon, who cooled to President Barack Obama after backing him earlier and has praised the prospect of Hillary Clinton as president; Mary Barra, chief executive officer of General Motors; John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems Inc.; and Jack Ma, executive chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

Brand Building

Obama is scheduled to speak to the group tomorrow. None of the prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidates are on the program. Nor are two Democrats who may be contenders if Clinton does not run -- Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Ann Canela, a Virginia nonprofit executive and Clinton fan attending this week’s meeting, said she’ll watch her at CGI with an eye to 2016 and Clinton’s “brand building.”

“I’ve been to several events over the past year where she has been a keynote speaker or that she has been associated with,” Canela said. “It does seem she’s using these events as a platform for something.”

CGI attendees tend to represent top tiers of business and philanthropy and shape opinions. “It’s the right people in the room,” she said.

One challenge for Clinton may be translating the enthusiasm for her in such rarefied circles to the masses in her party’s base who cite concerns that her wealth has made her out of touch, that she is too hawkish, or too comfortable with corporate America.

Hours before the gala and one block away, Anne Isaak, 67, joined other environmental activists participating in a People’s Climate March that organizers said drew 310,000 people.

“I’m probably going to be a Hillary Clinton person although I might be an Elizabeth Warren person,” said Isaak, who backed Obama over Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.

She said while she’ll be interested in what Clinton has to say at CGI, she’ll also keep a dose of skepticism.

“I’m so tired of rhetoric,” Isaak said. “It’s not really that meaningful.”

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