By V. Sonig Kradjian
I had the serendipitous good fortune to meet former US president William Jefferson Clinton during my visit as a guest to the Clinton Foundation’s annual gala in New York City in March 2015.
Once a year, a big fundraising gala night is organized, at which wealthy philanthropists who believe in the foundation’s mission and accomplishments contribute generously. There is also a lottery for lesser supporters. The winner is invited — all expenses paid – to attend the smorgasbord of activities the foundation holds in order to acquaint donors with its work, which includes efforts at reducing childhood obesity; improving the quality of students’ meals; helping small farms in Africa; providing drugs to almost 10 million AIDs patients; and launching reforestation initiatives in many countries. According to published reports, the foundation has more than 3,100 commitments in action improving more than 430 million lives around the world. It has pledged more than $36 million in support to Haiti (several million of which has been allotted to a reforestation initiative that’s being carried out in tandem with Yunus Social Business Haiti and Virgin Unite), and more than 75 million people across the United States have benefitted from its investments in disease prevention.
This year, I and my life partner, Dr. Ernest M. Barsamian, were the lucky winners of the lottery and were invited to attend the gala and to meet President Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Unfortunately, Ernest could not attend, so he suggested that I invite my friend Mrs. Nada Lal, of Endicott, NY, who gladly accepted and joined me. During my visit, I made a point to speak of my Armenian heritage, which seemed particularly appropriate, as it was just one month before the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.
First, on March 8, I went to Mr. Clinton’s offices, both in Harlem and mid-Manhattan. There, I learned quite a bit about American history. We were greeted and guided by Amy
Kuhn, the former president’s manager of correspondence. Later in the day, I had the pleasure of talking with Tina Flournoy, Mr. Clinton’s chief of staff, as well as with other personnel. It is truly exciting to learn about the daily routine of the former president and all the various matters he cares about and attends to. His office in Harlem, which will be converted into a museum in the future, is full of memorabilia, souvenirs and gifts from leaders of the world and close friends, who are all history makers.
After touring the Harlem office, we made a stop at the legendary Apollo Theatre nearby. Zak Miller, one of the Foundation’s development assistants accompanied us. Along with a nice group of tourists, we learned the history of the theatre. It was a pleasure to get acquainted with the other guests and enjoy their talents. The executive director of the theatre invited volunteers to participate in an impromptu program.
This was an occasion not to miss. I knew I had to participate to talk about Armenia and let them know that I am an Armenian American and the daughter of a genocide survivor. I gave them a taste of our Armenian culture by singing Dzaghgigner dzaghigner and made sure that they know about Lake Sevan and other bits of our geography. Many of the ladies and gentlemen in the audience came to me afterwards to tell me about their Armenian friends, and to ask me about the history of Armenia and about the Genocide. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to educate my fellow Americans about how Armenians were the first nation to adopt Christianity as our official religion, about Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, which is older than Rome, and our rich culture in art, literature, craftsmanship and music.
After our theatre tour, we were treated to a sumptuous lunch at the famous Harlem Restaurant, the Red Rooster. From there, we were taken to the midtown offices of the foundation where we were greeted by Justin Brady, the development officer, and Joseph Leskody, development assistant. What amazed me was the impeccable atmosphere and the impressive efficiency of the employees, which total 2,300.
At 5 p.m., we were taken to one of lower Manhattan’s most architecturally and historically significant edifices, Cipriani on Broadway, to attend the cocktail hour. After the president and his chief of staff arrived, my self-esteem skyrocketed when Ms. Tina, who is a Harvard graduate and who has held many important legal and political positions with the Democratic Party, told me that I had left an impression on the president, who had spoken to her about me and my Harvard connection via my life partner.
There were many familiar faces present that we usually see on TV. It was exhilarating to be able to talk with Donna Shalala, president of Miami University who was promoted to be the CEO of the foundation, and with Lanny Davis, author and famous lawyer, who had served as special counsel to the former president and was a classmate of Hillary Clinton.
When we were invited to take photographs with Mr. Clinton, I took the opportunity to speak about Armenian history. I started by telling him that, in my humble opinion, President Barack Obama won the election because of his speech at the Democratic Convention and Mitt Romney’s 42 percent. I mentioned that I hoped he would use his charm and persuasive ability to make sure that the United States would finally elect a woman president. I added that this year is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and that US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau was the first to alert the world that the Ottoman Empire was committing genocide. The Near East Relief Organization, which was the largest charitable organization in U.S. history, was formed to help Armenian orphans. Turkey’s denial adds an extra layer of depth to the heinous cruelty of the massacres.
At the dinner/gala, the program started with welcoming remarks by Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, followed by a special musical performance by Carole King, and a live auction by George McNeely. Mr. Clinton made the closing remarks. It was a most memorable evening.
This was the second time in my life that I had met the president personally, the first being in the late 1990s when he had come to Binghamton, NY to raise funds for his wife when she was running for senator in New York. At that time, I had also taken the opportunity to speak of my Armenian heritage and of the insufferable pain of all
Armenians eagerly awaiting the day when until the genocide would be recognized by the U.S. and Turkey. After talking to him for a bit, I slipped a small booklet of William Saroyan’s poetry into his hand.
After our first meeting, President Clinton sent me a thank you note from the White House; this time he sent us an autographed book of his Select Remarks of 2014 with his January 2015 reading list and a beautiful tote bag with the inscription of the Clinton Foundation.
It is true as many have said that when President Clinton is talking with you, you feel you are the only person he cares about at that moment, and you understand why this man has won the hearts of all who have been in contact with him. This is one of the secrets of his popularity.
The entire trip was an unforgettable experience and one of the highlights of my life. To top it all, Mr. Clinton’s personal thank you letter makes you feel so special that you appreciate this world and this life more, and I have to thank President Clinton for that.