There are professors who pretend to be populists and populists who pretend to be professors. But there have never been a head and heart so perfectly matched as the pair within William Jefferson Clinton. It’s an impossible equilibrium: wonky intellectual meets “Oh, hell” card player, oxygen and hydrogen. He defies the laws of physics as his daily exercise, but without him the universe just wouldn’t be as friendly to humans. Especially those who have it the toughest. And there was no tougher place to be on Jan. 12, 2010, than Haiti.
Bill Clinton, 63, has been in love with this tiny, captivating country for a long, long time. In love with Haiti as it is — and in love with the idea of what Haiti could be.
That’s why he was a brilliant choice to coordinate U.S. support earlier this year, along with President George W. Bush. And a brilliant choice by the U.N. to be its envoy to Haiti in 2009. Involved long before the earthquake struck, he will be there long after the buildings are back up, working alongside Haitians to make sure things do not return to normal but are better — much better — than before.
That’s a much harder job than bricks and mortar. He knows that the catastrophe in Haiti is not, in fact, a natural one.
Tackling extreme poverty is something Clinton is no stranger to — he has worked in Africa for many years, kicking off debt cancellation, which resulted in an additional 42 million African children going to school. He had a huge hand in slashing the price of AIDS drugs for people who couldn’t afford them.
Where I’m from, he’s a mythic figure. Ditto Haiti, ditto Africa — a huge crowd puller wherever he goes. Rock stars can’t be President (lucky for you), but we’ve all got reason to be thankful that Presidents can be rock stars.
Bono, the lead singer of U2 and co-founder of ONE and (RED), was honored Wednesday with the Atlantic Council’s Distinguished Humanitarian Leadership Award. Bill Clinton was honored with the Distinguished International Leadership Award the same night. This essay previously appeared as part of the 2010 TIME 100.