Three years after leaving office, Bill Clinton is starting to show AIDS activists the leadership they wanted to see during his presidency.
They say he is using his celebrity clout and fund-raising prowess to fight AIDS around the globe as never before.
He has negotiated deals with several major pharmaceutical companies to supply AIDS drugs at discounted prices to the Third World. He has sent policy experts to help countries deal with the outbreak. And he has steered hundreds of millions in private donations and contributions from governments to AIDS-stricken parts of the world — especially Africa, where the disease is rampant — for treatment and public education.
J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Clinton administration would go down in history as "distracted and unfocused" on AIDS in the 1990s.
But now, in his post-presidency, "Clinton's popularity and the esteem with which he is held in India, China and southern and eastern Africa is an enormous advantage in entering conversations on AIDS," Morrison said.
While some of Mr. Clinton's work is criticized as Hollywood-style showboating, he has drawn comparisons to former President Carter in the way he has burnished his legacy through his post-White House public service.
Mr. Carter, who left office 23 years ago, and is noted for his efforts in democracy-building, housing for the poor, and prevention of Third World parasitic diseases.
President Clinton, for his part, has approached the task with a keen sense of history.
"Back in the 14th century, when the Black Plague killed one-third of Europe, people did not know what caused it, how it was spread, or how to treat it. They could hide behind their ignorance while millions died," he said on World AIDS Day in December.
"We do not have that excuse. We know what AIDS is, how it is spread, and how to treat people and extend their lives. It is our duty as children of the same God and citizens of the same planet to pool our energies and banish the scourge of AIDS from the headlines of our newspapers to the chapters of our history books once and for all."
About 40 million people worldwide are infected with the AIDS virus, 30 million or so in Africa.
In the past month, the Little Rock-based William J. Clinton Foundation, through its Boston-based HIV-AIDS Initiative, has struck agreements with China and the U.N. World Food Program to deliver cheaper services to AIDS patients.
Separately, it used donations from Canada and Ireland to like Mozambique, Rwanda and Tanzania.
And it struck a deal with the United Nations last month to improve the flow of food to AIDS patients and their families.
Mr. Clinton's world stature was credited with bringing about and a sudden change in policy by South African President Thabo Mbeki, who once denied the basic connection between HIV and AIDS but is now overseeing expanded AIDS education in his country.
"As much as I and others can work hard and organize well, we can never get near as far as we've gotten without President Clinton mobilizing people," said Ira Magaziner, a White House policy aide under Mr. Clinton who now heads the former president's HIV-AIDS project. "When he goes to a place, he's like a rock star, and we pulled together close to 100 volunteers because of him."
In defense of Mr. Clinton's presidency, Magaziner said: "He did more on the AIDS front during the '90s than any other leader in the world. But having said that, we would all say that none of us understood the magnitude of what was happening in Africa until '99-2000."
Historian Douglas Brinkley, author of a Carter biography and a professor at the University of New Orleans, disputed comparisons between Carter and Clinton's good works post-presidency.
"Clinton's AIDS involvement is to resonate with the Hollywood community, whereas Guinea worm and river blindness aren't on the radar screen," Brinkley said. "Carter has a Baptist missionary mentality. I like Clinton, but I think he's in the humanitarian business for mass approval."
He added: "Jimmy Carter would spend Thanksgiving sleeping on a cot in Zambia surrounded by mosquito-infested waters. What won him the Nobel was walking the walk, not just talking the talk."
© 2004 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.