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Bill Clinton jabs Richard Gere on AIDS statement

By Judy Woodruff
CNN Washington Bureau

Clinton speaking at Georgetown Unversity Tuesday.
Clinton speaking at Georgetown Unversity Tuesday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With a jab at actors, former President Bill Clinton dismissed suggestions that his administration did little to fight AIDS.

Sitting down with me Tuesday at his alma mater Georgetown University, where he was hosting a youth forum, Clinton took umbrage at a comment from actor Richard Gere.

When asked to respond to Gere's statement last week that he did nothing to fight AIDS during his eight years in office, Clinton said, "I think that's the silliest question I ever heard, and I don't blame Richard Gere, because he's an actor. He doesn't know."

Gere's criticism of Clinton came during a benefit for AIDS research where Gere was an honoree. Speaking from the podium, Gere referenced Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who had already left -- and said, "Your husband did nothing" to fight the epidemic while in office.

Clinton was animated and at times, defensive, as we discussed his efforts to combat AIDS during his presidency and what he thought about President Bush's new AIDS initiative.

Clinton insisted his administration accomplished a lot over his eight-year term . "We more than doubled domestic spending. We established the AIDS czar, the AIDS council. We started the vaccine initiative. So I am very proud of our record -- and we did it in a hostile environment," he said.

Clinton took issue with some of the Bush administration's initial actions on AIDS. "So in 2001, Sen. Jesse Helms got $500 million more for AIDS. It was wonderful. And the administration cut him back," Clinton said. "And for two years they took a position that the Global AIDS Fund couldn't pay for generic medicine. And they put this guy on the AIDS council that said that AIDS was a gay plague."

But Clinton noted that "the Evangelicals kept working and President Bush showed, I thought, great growth on this issue."

While Clinton said he applauded President Bush's new AIDS initiative, he took another jab at Gere's attack last week, saying, " I think that somebody told Richard Gere something because they were trying to score a few political points."

As for how new international AIDS money should be distributed, Clinton said he hoped the Bush administration would put more resources into the Global AIDS Fund, the multinational fund set up by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2001.

But Clinton also said there's a benefit to the U.S. creating its own AIDS program. "So if we use this unilaterally to leverage the ability of countries to organize themselves, that would be great."

The former president also spoke about another controversial issue: affirmative action. Referring to a pair of cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in which students are contesting a policy at the University of Michigan that uses racial preferences for admission, Clinton said "I don't think there's anything wrong with the University of Michigan program. It's not a quota system."

Clinton said there are other forms of preferences for college admission that foster diversity. He said that he might even be a beneficiary of one. "I may have gotten into Georgetown partly because of the affirmative action program...they had a policy of trying to get one student from every state. I wonder if I got in when there was one more person from New York that had higher college board scores than I did."

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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