We all do better when we work together. Our differences do matter, but our common humanity matters more. – Bill Clinton
Former President Bill Clinton spoke at Temple University in Philadelphia last week in an event Andrea and I had the privilege of attending. He provided the keynote address at a benefit for the Temple Law Foundation, which helps repay the student loans of recent law graduates committed to careers in public service. He was, as always, an engaging speaker. Funny, warm and passionate, he is a master story teller and educator, an inspiring motivator and thoughtful commentator. In listening to his talk, and the question-and-answer session with Governor Ed Rendell afterwards, I was reminded of his intellectual depth and mental sharpness, of how easily he speaks with authority and historical perspective on almost any topic. Personal failings notwithstanding, he easily ranks among the best and brightest of 20th century presidents.
Looking trim and fit, if slightly older and greyer than when I met him briefly in 1998, President Clinton conversed freely and easily about a wide range of topics. He spoke about his days as a young law student at Yale, when he worked six jobs over a three-year span to pay his way through school; of his early years as a law professor at the University of Arkansas, where he taught everything from Admiralty and Federal Jurisdiction to Constitutional Law before seeking a career in politics. He joked about the day his law professor caught him in class reading a novel by Garcia Gabriel Marquez, which he insisted was far more interesting than the law of taxation. The former president had the crowd of several thousand in attendance at the Liacouras Center in the palm of his hands.
A pair of reading glasses resting on his nose, President Clinton discussed the importance of the rule of law to the economic and social progress of developing nations; and to equality of opportunity, inclusive government, and the advance of democracy. He praised individuals willing to dedicate their lives to public service and work for the common good. He explained that “public service” need not be limited to a life in government and emphasized the benefits of non-governmental organizations to finding solutions to the world’s problems. He noted the work of the Clinton Global Initiative in helping reduce the price of life-saving drugs in the world’s poorest countries, an effort that has saved millions of lives in Africa and Asia.
Clinton noted that we live in the most globally interdependent age in history, a fact fraught with opportunities and challenges. It is why a commitment to public service is so important. “Service liberates you,” he explained, “because you cannot serve without understanding the importance of our common humanity.” Individually and collectively, we must continue to “develop habits of mind and practice that bring us together rather than tear us apart.” It is a refreshing message in this era of ideological rigidity.
I had just begun my fifth year as an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia when Clinton was first elected President in 1992. Although the role of a federal prosecutor varies little from one presidential administration to the next, I was exalted and relieved when Clinton took the oath of office the following January. Twelve years earlier, the Reagan Revolution had swept into Washington on an anti-government, anti-public servant platform that defined the times and altered the nation’s course. Since arriving in Washington as a young law student in 1982, I heard almost every day that government was the problem, not the solution. Although I had never worked harder or with more passion than when I was a front-line prosecutor trying criminal cases in the District of Columbia, the Gospel according to Reagan taught that government service was not something of which to be proud, that as a government employee I was simply the source of the country’s economic and fiscal woes. That I worked long hours under intense pressure representing the people of the city and the United States, contending with defense attorneys, judges, and hostile witnesses while defending the actions of law enforcement officers and crime victims in an often futile effort to make the streets a little safer, was little appreciated by the anti-government crowd.
For me, it was as if the sun rose the morning Clinton took office. “I challenge a new generation of young Americans to a season of service,” he said in his inaugural address on that bright January day. “There is so much to be done.” A pro-business Democrat, he understood that government could not solve all of the nation’s ills, but he recognized what Presidents Reagan and, to a lesser extent, Bush, did not – that the vast majority of public servants are committed to good government and good citizenship. I knew and worked with hundreds of truly dedicated people who took seriously their work and who felt a sense of duty and mission to their country – prosecutors and public defenders, social workers and researchers, scientists and engineers, doctors and health care workers, diplomats and security experts. Finally, we had a president who believed in what we did and recognized our efforts to make the world a better place.
Clinton was smart and energetic and wanted to instill the spirit of service that the nation’s leaders had abandoned and ridiculed for so long. The world truly seemed brighter when Clinton took over as President. “We must do what America does best,” he declared, “offer more opportunity to all and demand more responsibility from all.” As Maya Angelou elegantly stated during the inaugural poem:
Here on the pulse of this new day, you may have the grace to look up and out; and into your sister’s eyes; and into your brother’s face, your country; and say simply, very simply, with hope: Good morning.
Clinton understands instinctually the complex nature of government and politics. As president, he combined fiscal discipline with investments in education, health care, and technology. In his first year in office, he established the AmeriCorps program and signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act. Over the objections of some in his own party, he opened foreign markets and expanded the avenues of global trade. Despite strong Republican opposition, he passed budgets that combined needed tax increases with appropriate cuts in government spending, achieving by the end of his presidency the largest budget surpluses and debt reduction in American history. And he did it all without sacrificing major advances in environmental protection, scientific research, job training, and military preparedness. Throughout his two terms, U.S. poverty levels fell, over 22.5 million jobs were created, home ownership reached its highest levels ever, and unemployment reached its lowest levels since the 1960’s.
Like all presidents before and since, President Clinton was far from perfect and made his share of mistakes. He miscalculated the entrenched culture of politics and partisanship that had enveloped the nation’s capital since the days of Watergate. And his personal failings in the Lewinsky mess will forever taint his legacy. But his presidency is rightly remembered as one of the most successful of the 20th century. It brought us eight years of peace and prosperity and created a stronger, more vibrant nation at the turn of the century.
We live in an increasingly cynical age, when everything presidents do is viewed through a political lens. Ex-presidents have the luxury of speaking more freely and candidly than when in office. But what impressed me about President Clinton in listening to him speak the other night was what has always impressed me about the man – his openness to ideas regardless of ideological origin; and his comprehensive understanding of the complex entanglements of history, politics, ideology, and practical reality. As he wrote in Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy (Knopf, 2011), “our constitution was designed by people who were idealistic but not ideological. There’s a big difference.” One can be liberal or conservative and remain open to opposing viewpoints, practical experience, and compromise. But when you start believing that you possess the absolute truth, only then does evidence and experience become irrelevant, and compromise impossible.
Perhaps these are lessons learned from many years of leading and governing a nation during a time of intense division and hostility. But they are lessons we still need to learn. “Criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy,” Clinton said during a speech in 2010. “No one is right all the time. But we should remember that there is a big difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who enforce our laws.”
I will remain forever grateful to President Clinton for restoring my faith in government at a time when America most needed it. For all of his political battles and hardened opposition, the former president has not lost his sense of idealism and hope. As he said on that bright January day in 1993: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”