At the Clinton Global Initiative, a day of policy, celebrities and political intrigue

Holly Bailey
Former U.S. Secretary of State and former first lady Hillary Clinton (C) and daughter Chelsea Clinton chat with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative 2013 (CGI) in New York September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
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Former U.S. Secretary of State and former first lady Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea chat with former U.S. President Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative 2013 in New York

NEW YORK — The man lingered for minutes, whispering to a colleague and motioning toward a woman with a slight nod of his head. He moved closer and slyly held up his iPhone, squinting at the screen. He snapped a photo when he thought no one was looking.

The man made a more assertive move moments later, tentatively tapping the woman on the shoulder.

“Goldie,” the man stammered in a heavily French accent. “Goldie, I really admire the philanthropic work you do.”

The actress Goldie Hawn whirled around. She was dressed in tight gray jeans and a black tank top — Southern California chic on a cool New York day. “Oh,” she cheerfully told the man, “thank you.”

“I really do,” the man said. “Um ... would you take a picture with me?”

Hawn obliged and posed for several.

It was a scene that played out several times on Tuesday on the opening day of the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in New York — former President Bill Clinton’s annual confab focused on the do-gooder projects his foundation supports. While the schedule was heavy on panels focusing on issues like promoting women around the world and helping develop better drinking water in Africa, CGI also has the air of a very exclusive cocktail party, allowing policy types to mingle with Clinton’s celebrity friends who turn out for the yearly event, like Hawn, Sean Penn and U2 singer Bono, who joined the former president on a panel on Tuesday morning.

The odd blend of policy and celebrity sometimes results in an unusual situation, like when a woman approached supermodel Christy Turlington in the ladies' room to tell her she had once worked with her on a Ralph Lauren campaign. “Oh, I haven’t seen Ralph in forever,” Turlington replied.

Later that day, in the same bathroom, a woman gasped when she spied the actress Sienna Miller, who is set to speak later this week on a panel about humanitarian aid. “Did you see who that was?!” the woman said to a friend, after Miller had rushed past, avoiding eye contact.

Of course, there was no bigger celebrity than Clinton himself, who attracted a crowd everywhere he went. After a morning session, he presided over a huge throng of fans, who snapped pictures with their smartphones and sought to shake his hand. At the back of the pack: Jesse Jackson, who waited with the masses for his chance to talk to Clinton.

A short while later, Clinton caused another stir when he was spotted marching down the hall animatedly talking to a woman — so engrossed that he almost walked with her into the men’s restroom. “Oh, I’m sorry,” the ex-president said. “Hang on.”

Thirty seconds later, he walked out of the restroom and resumed the conversation as if nothing had happened. Across the hall, a woman holding an iPhone captured a photo of the moment. “Wow,” she said.

But it was more than just celebrity intrigue at CGI. The meeting comes amid plenty of intrigue in the Clinton world, including whether Hillary Clinton will run for president.

At a session with CNN medical reporter Sanjay Gupta, the former secretary of state continued to dodge questions about her future, but she allowed that electing a female president would be “important” and a “strong statement.”

“I hope it happens,” she said, prefacing her answer by saying she was not including herself in that equation.

At the same time, the hundreds of reporters who showed up to cover the event were keeping a lookout for two staffers who have been at the center of reported drama in Clintonland.

They included Doug Band, a longtime Bill Clinton aide who is reportedly on the outs with the former president over allegations that he promoted his ties to Clinton to score business for his consulting firm. While Band was not seen with Clinton, reporters were atwitter after they spotted him in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel, where this week’s meetings are taking place.

That encounter came after Hillary Clinton appeared in the early morning session with her longtime aide Huma Abedin, who has largely avoided the public eye after her husband, former Rep. Anthony Weiner, confessed to more sexting with women he met online after he was forced out of Congress over the issue. Weiner roundly lost his bid for New York City mayor over the issue.

In a story published over the weekend, an anonymous Clinton aide told New York Magazine that Abedin would not be allowed to work for a potential Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign if she were still married to Weiner.

“Huma has a choice to make,” the aide said. “Does she go with Anthony, or does she go with Hillary?”

But there were no signs of tension on Tuesday — as Abedin followed her boss through the crowd, as people turned to stare.

In the back of the room, a woman raised her camera to take a photo.

“Poor girl,” she said.

While Hillary Clinton played coy on the prospect of a 2016 run, the event itself had echoes of a presidential campaign event--at least in terms of media logistics.

Staffers worked to limit interactions between attendees of the event and the press--forcing reporters to be escorted everywhere, including to the bathroom, by staffers. Those who were caught mingling with attendees without staff were quickly directed back to a press filing area two levels below where the meetings were being held.

"Does it feel like you are in jail?" a staffer joked at one point.

During Hillary Clinton's interview with Gupta, one staffer approached the small group of reporters who had been allowed into the event and suggested they leave in order to secure seats for a health care talk nearly two hours later between President Clinton and President Barack Obama.

The reporters objected, pointing out there was more than 30 minutes left in the former secretary of state's talk, and asked if it would be possible to save seats at the Clinton/Obama event. The staffer initially said it wouldn't be possible--but reversed course when reporters complained.