September 26, 2005 12:00 PM

The scene is a spartan hospital room in Kunming, China, nearly 8,000 miles from home in suburban New York, but Bill Clinton seems utterly at ease doing what he does best—offering compassion. “I want you to grow older,” he tells Zhang Xiaohua, a 24-year-old woman with AIDS. She confesses that she is ashamed of her swollen face and, as the daughter of a farmer, can’t afford drugs she needs to survive. Clinton clasps her hand. “Years from now,” he tells her, “I want you to say, ‘I remember when that old man came to see me and told me I was going” to be all right.'”

Just 48 hours earlier, the ex-President had reached out to an entirely different set of victims—some 6,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees huddled in Houston’s Reliant Center—and, after lightning-fast stops in India and Kazakhstan, on Sept. 15, he planned to convene 48 heads of state and hundreds of other world leaders in New York City for the Clinton Global Initiative, a three-day summit tackling global poverty and environmental threats. Does this man think he’s still in the White House? “When you’re a former President of the United States,” Clinton, 59, told People during his recent trip to China, “you’ve got three choices: just go play golf, spend the rest of your life wishing you were still President—or find a new and exciting life.”

For a while after leaving office in 2001, it wasn’t clear which choice Clinton would make. As recently as last fall, friends say, after finishing his bestselling autobiography My Life—which has earned him an estimated $10 million—and presiding over the opening of the Clinton library in Little Rock, Ark., the former President seemed restless and in search of direction. But now, barely a year after quadruple-bypass heart surgery that many thought would slow him down, his calendar is jammed with the major AIDS initiative that brought him to China and a formal role, with former President George H.W. Bush, in aiding victims of both the tsunami and Katrina. “He’s pushing himself very hard,” says Clinton’s former AIDS czar Sandy Thurman, a friend who applauds his work but questions his pace. “Everybody is worried about his health,” says Donna Shalala, a former member of Clinton’s cabinet. “But if he slows down, it would destroy him.”

On this trip to a rarely visited region of China, one of 19 countries that has accepted Clinton’s offer to help lower the cost of AIDS drugs, the ex-President rode in a borrowed corporate jet with a bed in the back—but had barely slept in 52 hours. “This is my third night in a row on an airplane,” he says, his husky voice and bloodshot eyes recalling days on the campaign trail.

Though Clinton says he was profoundly affected by his heart surgery—”It made me sort of grateful for every day,” he says—it didn’t completely change him. He eats an in-flight lunch consisting of a McDonald’s hamburger, fistfuls of fries, a few McNuggets and fried apple pie—while admitting “I shouldn’t be eating this.” According to friends, he exercises faithfully and sticks to steamed chicken and vegetables when at home in the five-bedroom house in Chappaqua, N.Y., where he says he and his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) spend about four nights together each week. On the road, though, it’s a different story. “Clinton had this huge steak last time he visited Africa,” says one pal. “He talks a good game but doesn’t always stay with the program.”

Clinton’s HIV/AIDS Initiative springs in part from a source close to his heart: his daughter. Chelsea, now 25 and working in New York City for the McKinsey corporate-consulting group, wrote her Oxford postgrad thesis on the global efforts to fight the disease and had for years been telling her dad “he wasn’t doing enough,” says Thurman, now president of the International AIDS Trust. Adds one longtime Clinton advisor: “Chelsea is the most important person in his life. He wants her approval more than anything.”

So far, Clinton has scored impressive results, lobbying pharmaceutical executives to slash the cost of AIDS drugs and offering funds to treat thousands of young people a year in such countries as Cambodia and Rwanda. Of course, where some see a man with a renewed sense of purpose, others see a master politician at work—and one whose wife is widely seen as having her eye on the Oval Office. “The man who craves the spotlight has managed to keep the spotlight,” says presidential scholar Allan Lichtman of American University in Washington, D.C.

When it comes to criticism, Clinton has a new take on that too. While he doesn’t go so far as to say the scandal over his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky was good for him, he does say it was humbling and that it has its benefits. “As a human being,” he says, “once you’ve been humiliated before the entire globe, you’ve got nothing left to hide. It was a wacko deal for the nation, but it turned out to be kind of liberating for me. It’s easier to beat your demons if you let them go, and I have.”

Nancy Jeffrey. Sandra Sobieraj Westfall in Zhengzhou and Jane Sims Podesta and Robert Schlesinger in Washington, D.C.

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