Former U.S. President Bill Clinton on Monday (June 9) again deftly displayed his storytelling skills to an almost packed house at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium. Amidst his tales, the 42nd president sadly noted today’s present political landscape. Politicians must start speaking honestly about issues that concern all Americans, Clinton said, even if that means they “must risk” not being elected or re-elected.
Clinton spoke to a packed house at an event by the school’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The former president is among “some twenty individuals from a broad range of perspectives” invited this year as part of the Keeping Faith with a Legacy of Justice: The 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 series, which continues through July.
“I know Hubert Humphrey is one of Bill Clinton’s heroes,” said Minnesota President Eric Kaler, who told the audience before the former chief executive came on stage how fitting it was that Clinton was being honored by the school named after the late U.S. senator and vice-president with a public leadership award. He also took part in a fundraiser for scholarships.
During his nearly one-hour talk, Clinton told “short” stories, including one about how then-Senator Hubert Humphrey, as U.S. Senate floor leader, helped end a filibuster on the Civil Rights Act. Humphrey opened the floor for debate, leading to the ultimate passage of the landmark legislation.
“I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have become president, or Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama if it hadn’t been for the Civil Rights Act,” admitted Clinton, who told the audience that one of his last messages to Congress before leaving office in 2000 was that the work to eliminate all racial disparities and inequalities was still needed.
His speech Monday was part reminiscing about the past and part decrying the present lack of bi-partisanship in Washington. It wasn’t easy, but the lawmakers saw the bigger picture 50 years ago, he recalled.
Clinton recalled, in particular, “that as deeply and passionate [as Hubert Humphrey] was about these politics and the ideas behind them, he was still a politician. As strongly as he felt about civil rights, there was something about his makeup that, even though there were some that disagreed with him, they could do it without hating him.”
“The ultimate case of the Civil Rights Act was the common humanity,” Clinton said. That “common humanity” approach to solving problems seems missing today, he pointed out. Today, too many Americans, elected officials and ordinary citizens alike, would rather “hang with our own crowd” and are down on government, explained Clinton. “They are believing that government can do nothing for them so they should vote to make sure that government do nothing to them.”
Clinton said the current state of polarization in this country first began back in the mid-1970 after Watergate. “We need a little more [trust] in Washington today,” he said. “Without trust, no matter how close you like something, the other side will find wiggle room. Once destroyed, it’s hard to rebuild. Humphrey had that – people trusted his word.” It also took compromise to pass the 1964 bill, he added.
“We have been drifting apart . . . politically, philosophically and physically” in this country, says Clinton. “We don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.”
He strongly advised the audience “to not only know the basic facts but [also] to ask yourself what does this all mean today? Do you say that you are really grateful to those people that they made history or do you say I want people to come here 50 years from now and celebrate the work that we continued and the efforts to extend the opportunity to embrace our common humanity, to give people access to a better life?”
Finally, today’s elected officials must be more than willing to “risk an honest debate . . . to have the courage to say” things that might not win elections or get them re-elected but instead “speak to all Americans,” said Clinton. “The Founding Fathers were smart and knew that there never could be a more perfect union but put in a system that was designed to build in continuing progress.”
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