July 3, 2019
Episode #4: Special Episode — “We, the People”
In this special episode for Independence Day, President Bill Clinton traces the evolution of the presidency from America’s founding through the present day and explores how the best presidents used the office to build an America that more closely resembled our highest ideals and aspirations.
The episode features President Clinton’s keynote speech from this year’s Presidential Ideas Festival at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center with commentary by David Blight, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” and professor of American History at Yale University.
Professor Blight says the speech is a “rare blend of learned history and lived experience … This speech is a reminder of what the future of the institution of the presidency can still be.”
As a historian, I’ve spent much of my career studying the ever-evolving ways that Americans and groups of Americans have told the story of who we are and how we got here. For generations, there has been a hunger for a unifying narrative that answers those questions. But history is not so simple.
Since our founding, America has been shaped by triumphs and tragedies, progress and reaction, inclusion and exclusion. Our history is complicated and contradictory because it was made by real human beings, who by our very nature are contradictory. As frustrating as that may be when we want quick and easy answers from the past, it gives us all a great deal to think about, debate, interpret, and reinterpret, which is what history does. And in a time when the dangers of historical ignorance are all too evident, it is an investment that’s worth the effort.
So why am I telling you this?
Well a few weeks ago, I listened to President Bill Clinton’s keynote speech from the Presidential Ideas Festival hosted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. I found the speech remarkable for the President’s serious engagement with the text of the Constitution. But even more so for his historical grasp of this institution of the presidency over time.
President Clinton traces the evolution of the Presidency from our founding through the present day, and explores how different Presidents at key moments used the office and its powers to build an America that more closely resembled our highest aspirations. As well as, how some Presidents may have misused or stretched their powers.
Early in the speech President Clinton argues that every President has, consciously or not, made two essential decisions that shaped the direction of his Presidency: one, who constitutes “We the People,” and two, what does “a more perfect union” look like? Much like American history has been marked by alternating periods of progress and reaction, President Clinton argues that some Presidents have governed with broad definitions of who is included in “We the People,” and others with much narrower ones.
Indeed it is worth our remembering that two thirds of our presidents before Abraham Lincoln were either slave holders or sympathizers with slavery and worked to preserve that institution.
He covers a vast subject with impressive nuance—and having seen some of the handwritten notes he prepared, there was a lot more he hoped to address in just an hour-long speech, from the role of the Civil Rights Movement and other citizen-led crusades as drivers of change, to the many achievements of President Carter and President Obama in expanding the definition of “We the People.”
President Clinton’s speech is unique because it is a rare blend of learned history and lived experience. Only 45 people have ever been President of the United States, and only five of them are alive today. To hear one of them reflect so thoughtfully on the institution is a treasure, and a bracing reminder of why history matters.
As the great James Baldwin wrote in a 1965 essay, “History is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise,” concluded Baldwin, “since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”
That passage, perhaps as much as any, captures the value of studying history. Ultimately, President Clinton’s speech is not a retelling of the past, but a challenge to meet the demands of the present. Past and present are always mingled. This speech is a reminder of what the future of the institution of the Presidency can still be.
Especially as we celebrate Independence Day, I hope you’ll enjoy listening as much as I did.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Thank you. I think it’s really important you’re having this Presidential Ideas Festival, it’s really important for you to decide, what is the job? What do you expect of the president, what’s the president’s supposed to do? I want to start by saying this, I’m very proud of the job that Governor McAuliffe did as governor, but I was never more proud of him than at Charlottesville, because one of the jobs that we need when our conflicts are laid bare and our future is uncertain is for somebody to just stand up and say, ““Look, we do or don’t favor division and by race, by religion, by politics, by gender, by sexual identity, by you name it, and we do or we don’t favor bullying, beating and in one sad case here, killing people who don’t see things the way we do.””
Sadly, the response that we got at that time from the White House was, ““Well there were a lot of nice people on both sides.”” But the governor of Virginia, on that day, was my president when he said, ““There is no place in this Commonwealth for racism, for antisemitism, for any form of religious bigotry, for bullying and for violence. Get out of here and do not come back.””
So … thank you, thank you.
Now, let’s try to put this back into the context of the whole sweep of American history. I hope when I finish you will be more optimistic than you might be, after the news of the last couple of days. I want to thank Bill Antholis of the Miller Center for organizing this session and for a really, truly serious and devoted study of the presidency. For all the hundreds of thousands of pages that have been written about the presidency and specific presidents, there’s still quite amount of mystery about it. It remains an intensely debated institution and it’s always evolving. And that’s the one thing I want you to focus on today, that it’s the Constitution talks about the presidency, but we know that what people thought it was 200 years ago is not what they think it is today.
We know that many of our early presidents thought that they should have a restrained view of the office. John Kennedy saw it as a vital center of action.
We know that we feel close to some presidents, alienated from others and that the further they get away from us, the more we see them through a filter that somebody else built for us.
So I want you to just think tonight, today I mean, about the institution. The job. When I was in the White House, I had, there’s a little room off the White House, off the Oval Office, that presidents have used for various things, but I put an old fashioned bookshelf up and I filled it with biographies and histories featuring my predecessors, mostly my less well known predecessors. I made over the course of eight years, a genuine effort to understand what their strengths and weaknesses were and how they did or did not fit with the time and how they defined what it meant to be the president.
One thing about the University of Virginia, I talked to some of you about it already today, 30 years ago this year, I was here at one of the most rewarding endeavors of my public life, the National Education Summit called by President George H.W. Bush, with prior agreement of all the governors to bring the governments here with the charge of spending an elevated couple of days in the physical and psychic shadow of Thomas Jefferson to develop national education goals for the country.
I’m telling you this and I think, “You know, I’m becoming a troglodyte.” You know, I’ve lived in a time no longer relevant for the current circumstance.
And I know this is a big tendency for people that used to be something or another to spend too much time reminiscing and thinking about how well they did. I have really tried hard not to do this. I try everyday to live in the present and live for the future. But I do think history is important in trying to get to where we understand what is the potential of the presidency, what are the obligations of the presidency, what are the choices before us today? So, the first interesting thing about the presidency is that the framers created what was at the time, a fairly unique position, a democratically elected title, that is both a job, Chief Executive, and a position, Head of State. The Voice of the Nation.
Now, we all know that when we started, the framers were obsessed with preventing abuses of power that they found inherent in monarchies, whether they were hereditary or imposed. So they tried to give us a government that was strong enough to do important things, flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances, but full enough of checks and balances to prevent a slide into tyranny.
I think, and I hope they did a good job of all three. They were sobered by the French Revolution and so they distrusted unrestrained popular opinion. And provided instead for the selection of a president through electors selected by state legislatures, with the right to vote, just being advisory anyway and still confined to white male property owners. And if God forbid, after all these barriers were unsuccessful in giving us an appropriate selection and there was a tie in the Electoral College, as Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr discovered, the decision was deferred to the House of Representatives.
Well, imagine what would happen today there, where we have a margin of 40 and we would still lose because every state only gets one vote, no matter how big it is. It’s even more unequal than the Electoral College.
I mean, we, my party, but they were trying to limit abuses of power and to slowly make the country ready for democracy. Well, thankfully, as we all know, the franchise, it’s gone way beyond the white male property owners. The voices of the electorates at least, now have to reflect the popular vote in their states, but the Electoral College does make us less democratic. Small d.
Article II states the basic powers and responsibilities of the Presidency. Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, can call Congress into special session, has the ability to enter treaties and nominate judicial and executive officials, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and can issue pardons. From time to time the President is required to give information to Congress on the state of the union and must faithfully execute the law.
Beyond that position is the head of state. Which in effect, requires every president in some form or fashion to align all the policies, appointments and initiatives into a larger mission, being the voice of the nation. A role most important in dealing with other countries and in speaking to and for all Americans in trying times. I think the best guide for what the mission of the head of state is, is found not in Article II, but in the simple one sentence preamble to the entire document. Since every new president, must swear an oath to uphold the whole shebang. We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our prosperity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States. We the people, that becomes the responsibility of the president to work for “we the people” in forming a more perfect union. So, to do that every single president from George Washington to Donald Trump, consciously or not, has had to define what “more perfect union” means.
And in order to do that, must first decide who, according to the preamble, constitutes “we the people”. And I’m telling you, you can analyze every president from George Washington to Donald Trump. If you can answer, who did they think constitutes “we the people” that they work for, and answer to, and what do they believe, or did they believe, if they’ve passed on, constituted a “more perfect union”?
Now, who is “we the people”? Is it just the people who supported and voted for you?
Is it all the people who are eligible to vote but otherwise can’t do anything for you? Is it just people who look like you? Pray like you, love like you, speak the same mother tongue as you do?
And do you really believe that the Declaration of Independence is right and that we are all created equal, entitled to the same rights and freedoms, where they have every opportunity to freely make our own future and the life of our country? Or instead, do you think the most important thing is the current dominant position of your crowd? However you define that. And do you think it’s okay to have one set of rules for you and your crowd and a different set for everybody else? Now, this question has been answered vastly differently over 200 years, some more than 200 years, and sometimes even differently within a single presidency depending on what the question is. It’s best not to be too sanctimonious about this, but it’s still important. It’s very hard for a democracy to endure if you really believe you can institutionalize one set of rules for your crowd and another for everybody else.
So at best, when you have a presidential election anyway, it’s this vast job interview, the greatest job interview in the world. And all the people who vote are your employers. They get to hire you, or somebody. And the greatest thing is every four years beyond the bare words of The Constitution, you get hired to do a job that they define every four years, so you’ve got to keep on your toes if you run more than once, because you’re not … It doesn’t work, what you did before. You’ve got to keep up with the changes. In effect, the American people say, “At this moment in history, here are problems. Solve them. Here are our opportunities. Seize them. Here are our fears. Ease them. Here are our dreams. Make them come true.” And then we have an election to argue about what all that means.
Today’s complex national elections, with the rise of social media and the difficulties of cybersecurity and all this stuff you know a lot about, are still largely determined by the culture and the free disposition members of a given culture have to vote in a certain way by the conditions extant at the time of the election, which include not just the condition of the economy, but the condition of the election apparatus, whether that clean air is good, whether in Flint they could get water for their kids, conditions. Then the candidates and their campaigns and finally the coverage of them in both traditional and social media. Because the more people who are in the electorate, the further away you are, the more dependent you are on someone else’s filter. Then, still through an institution that outlived its usefulness a long long time ago, the Electoral College, we figure out who’s going to be president. And then you know. How the leader defines we the people and how defines forming a more perfect union.
Will the new president take us forward or backward? Will the new president make us more united or more divided? Will we all feel heard, valued, seen, no matter who we voted for? Or will we just sit around and mope till the next election? I think the best presidents have sought to define we the people in a way that broadens both the idea and the reality of who counts in this country. They have basically committed each in their own way, given the options before them, given the constraints they faced to see we the people expand from the few to the many. So far, all of our presidents have acknowledged an obligation not to block off entire parts of the nation who didn’t vote for them, not to deprive people in those places of their rights or restrict their participation in the life of the nation. So far, they’ve had enough humility to know that no one is right all the time and power must be exercised with some care. And they’ve had enough confidence to accept Benjamin Franklin’s wry observation that our enemies are our friends for they sow us our faults.
As president, my often stated definition of making our union more perfect was this. I thought my job was to widen the circle of opportunity, to deepen the meaning of freedom and to strengthen the bonds of our community. I believe cooperation works better than conflict. I believe diverse groups make better decisions than homogenous ones or lone geniuses. I believe over the long run in an interdependent world full of vast opportunities and profound challenges, including not just climate change, but the fastest way to species destruction in 10,000 years. I think we need all hands on deck, and we need a climate in which we are looking for anybody that knows anything with any kind of new idea. So, let’s just take a real quick walk through history and look at a few of our presidents, and see whether by any reasonable definition, but take mine, they succeeded in forming a more perfect union.
George Washington started with a blank slate and a big agenda, and he was wildly popular. He won. He gave life to the Constitution’s definition of the union, building a new national capitol, establishing the first Executive Office and Cabinet, appointing the first Supreme Court, supporting the creation of the national economy and with special attention to the symbolic power of being head of state, voluntarily leaving office after two terms. I think he did a pretty good job of making our union more perfect.
Thomas Jefferson began slowly to expand the idea of we the people to go beyond just land owners and the financial elite, to include more of the ordinary farmers and small business people of our then growing country. And then he vastly expanded the size of America by buying Louisiana from Napoleon for 15 million bucks. And so I’m pretty indebted to him because if he hadn’t done that, I could’ve never become president. He also expanded our imagination of what the country could become through the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It is very interesting that in spite of the fact that he created the first political party and was a good politician subject to significant personal attacks and rumor-mongering, he was pretty tough, and he created a party that essentially destroyed the Federalist Party that grew up around George Washington and included Alexander Hamilton and Chief Justice Marshall.
Nevertheless, he wanted on his tombstone none of the stunning array of federal positions he held. Think about it. Thomas Jefferson, president, vice president, secretary of state, envoy to France. Instead, he wanted it known that he wrote the Declaration of Independence in the statute of Virginia for religious freedom and that he was the father of this great university. He left this simple idea that the life of the mind was important, what you thought and what your values were mattered, and that public service was not necessarily of greater value than a life well-lived in another arena.
We had a lot of stability, given the electorate we should have I guess. But in our first 40 years, we had six presidents, four from Virginia, three with strong ties to this university. Good thing for you, we didn’t have an antitrust law back then. So they built the initial institutions required by Article II beginning the with the inclusion of the common man and with we the people. But they still debated just about everything else, and it was still the common man, not men and women, and the common men were all white, not black or Native Americans.
In the mid 19th century, the anti-slavery movement really rose to gain traction and massive waves of immigrants flocked to the United States from Ireland and Germany, principally. Some presidents and would-be presidents insisted on for the first time narrowing the idea of the people, that we should write into law, explicit exclusions of foreigners and African Americans. By the opening shots at Fort Sumter, ironically, many of the formerly disparaged immigrants, who had been dissed themselves, found themselves in places like New York City promoting sedition against the national government because they were terrified that having finally found a tiny foothold in New York and a job with a steady wage that if Lincoln won the war, he’d free the slaves, and they would all come to New York and throw them out of work. Sound familiar?
So, presidents had to deal with that. There were real questions about not only the character of our nation, but the role of the national government in dealing with all this. They came to a head in the Civil War, and thank God Abraham Lincoln won. He ended slavery, preserved the union, vindicated government of, by and for the people with a dramatically enlarged conception of who the people were. After issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, he gathered the votes to pass the 13th Amendment. And in his last speech, just three days before he was assassinated, he became the first president to raise the idea of full citizenship for African Americans. Alas, John Wilkes Booth was in the audience for the speech.
Lincoln’s remarkable legacy extended actually well beyond the modern matters of saving the union and freeing the slaves, and included a vision of postwar America, an America he hoped to lead to a broader future, to heal the wounds of war and ease anxieties that had driven it. He signed the Homestead Act, supported the transcontinental railroad system and established land-grant universities. The one in my home state was the first one established west of the Mississippi. At the cost of his life, he did make our union more perfect. After Lincoln’s death, the 14th and 15th Amendment granted newly freed slaves full citizenship, equal protection of the laws, and the right to vote.
Ulysses Grant, the deeply underrated general, and I think often underrated president, faithfully tried to implement Lincoln’s vision of Reconstruction. He went after the Klu Klux Klan and defeated them soundly. He protected the right of the vote. And there was a very large number … A lot of Americans today still don’t know this. There were really a very large number of African Americans elected to state and federal office in the period when the Reconstruction was being properly enforced.
Then, as always, came the reaction. And in 1876, the governor of New York, Samuel Tilden, a Democrat, was reported as winning the popular vote by 240,000 people. There was, to be fair, a lot of dispute about whether the votes in the South were fully counted and whether African Americans were legitimately able to vote. But in the beginning, the votes of Florida and two other southern states were hotly contested, and Congress agreed to set up a special commission to look into it, and then to decide that whatever the commission ruled would be how the votes would be counted. There were to be seven Republicans, seven Democrats and a judge on the Supreme Court. They had a rotation system for such things.
So the first judge was a … had been, was a Democrat from Illinois, who was a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s and pro-union. So the people who were trying to make this happen actually got him off, and he gave away the appointment to the Senate, and they appointed someone who would certainly vote to seat the Republican president, Rutherford Hayes. So a man who lost the popular vote by a quarter of a million in a country which was about 5% as populous as it is today, so the margin was quite a bit bigger than it was even in 2016, got to be president. And there was quite an outrage about it.
So Rutherford Hayes, who was a pretty distinguished union officer, made a reasonably good president in some ways. He started civil service reform, and he promised to leave after four years. But the main thing he did was to keep the burden of a deal that removed the judge from the rotation by giving them a US Senate seat, and he got the Union troops out of the south. The minute that happened, Reconstruction was over and all these laws began to be clawed back in fact or in practice.
In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the Supreme Court finally legitimized that ruling. When you worry about the Supreme Court going haywire, if you are like me, it’s not like it’s the first time it’s happened. We’ve always fought over these things. Who is we the people anyway? So Plessy says you can absolutely practice legal segregation, as long as it’s separate and equal, but everybody knew it was definitely separate and most definitely unequal.
So there we were. Reconstruction’s over. The lost cause rears its ugly head in the South again. Jim Crow becomes the order of the day. Meanwhile, we still got the immigrants coming in, now they’re from southern Europe and China and eastern Europe, reshaping our demographics just as we were entering the industrial revolution. In response to the concentration of big business and then migration to the cities and their factories of working people who used to be on the farm, the long hours, low pay and dangerous condition, men and women and child workers faced, the progressive movement emerged. Teddy Roosevelt used his bully pulpit to expand the government’s power to preserve competition and not to become a monopoly controlled country, to promote basic safeguards for labor, especially women and children, to provide for the poor and protect our natural resources from plunder.
Roosevelt and others, they made our union more perfect in their time, even as Jim Crow persisted in the South and segregation was far from unknown in the rest of the country. And still in 1896 half our country, women, were not part of the people. For decades the suffrage movement worked to secure the right to vote without a genuine champion in the White House. Finally, 100 years ago this year, in the last great act of the progressive era, the 19th amendment was ratified. Then came the reaction. It was like a bad movie. It was like Groundhog Day.
Immigration from parts of the world deemed undesirable was sharply curtailed. A resurgent KKK, you couldn’t keep them down to save your life, came back to life. Its peak membership was 3 million. And then after World War I, we had our very first Red Scare. Populous movements to unite poor sharecroppers and laborers foundered on the rocks of division over race and pressure of lost jobs. Then we got another chance. The Depression came along. It’s terrible that something terrible has to happen for us to expand the definition of we the people, but the Depression came along. Franklin Roosevelt moved to the White House. His New Deal expanded the definition of we the people and included a vast, diverse urban working class with poor farmers. They all been depressed and crushed from the Dust Bowl to the Tennessee valley, up and down the east coast.
Roosevelt used the power of the presidency to do something never before done on this scale. He put many of them back to work through the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The elderly were given a basis for dignity during social security. He encouraged the rise of industrial unions to protect the rights of workers. And like his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, he became what one author has called a wilderness warrior to protect our natural resources. And after Pearl Harbor, he led us into and through World War II, and envisioned a worldwide organization of nations committed to avoiding another world war, and another depression. We were the most important big country in the world, so being president and defining we the people, both required us to acknowledge the unavoidable responsibility of United States in the larger world.
After President Roosevelt did his part to make our union more perfect, he died shortly after his fourth inauguration, and Harry Truman led our transition into a peacetime economy, defended the labor movement, made a serious attempt to get healthcare for all, shouldered the burden of building the United Nations and the multinational organizations designed to restore our prosperity, rebuild a battered Europe and contain the aggression of the Soviet Union.
President Eisenhower ended the Korean conflict, protected South Korea, supported the Supreme Court, important to me, and ordering federal troops to enforce Brown vs. Board of Education in Little Rock, Arkansas by and by and integrating Little Rock Central High School.
Shortly before he was killed, President Kennedy asked Congress to pass the sweeping Civil Rights Bill, and Lyndon Johnson did it. When some of his advisors urged him to go slow, fearing that if he pushed civil rights, he would anger the southern leaders in Congress, derail his entire legislative agenda and cause God only knows what other kinds of crisis. And Johnson reportedly snapped back at them, “Well, what the hell is the presidency for?” That question is what this conference is all about. He knew the national unity sparked by Kennedy’s assassination, his big election victory, his big margin in Congress gave him a lot of power. And as he famously said, “I intend to use it.” And use it he did, for the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Open Housing Law, anti-poverty legislation, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and more, including an increase in the number of immigrants coming to this country. He knew he had made our union more perfect, but LBJ was no dummy. He also knew that he had destroyed his party’s hold on the South. He said for at least a generation, he was being conservative.
The post-LBJ years passed, proved that he was right. Beginning in 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon and the strong showing of George Wallace, as white working class voters south and north alike began to make their way into a party that previously had not shown much interest in their economic wellbeing, but was eager to validate their sense of cultural primacy and reinforce their opposition to what was going on in the other party. Thanks to that, the problems in Vietnam, the riots in the street, the increasing radicalism of then the left, not the right in sanctioning violence. We had a big shift in America. For most of the 20th century each party had a political base of about 40%. The other twenty would decide who our President was, and usually they reflected about how 80% of the people felt even though they may or may not have voted that way. All of a sudden one party had a 45% base, the other had a 40%. I know because I was in the 40. So between ’68 and ’93, we had twenty years of more conservative presidents, and one four-year term for President Carter. Then by 2000, when the political bases were basically even, we had what was essentially an even election decided by the Supreme Court. In an opinion that you can decide, what do you think? I think it clearly restricted We The People, and I don’t want to take any time talking about it. You should go back, and read it, and ask yourself how could we have such a momentous opinion, and be told by the Supreme Court, “This is a one off. You can never cite this again. This has no presidential value.” It basically said, we have to stop for recount. We need a recount by a uniform standard, but we can’t do it because day after tomorrow the electors have to be named according to a statute.
In response to a natural disaster, that statute had already, by court order, been ignored because who cared about it. We had lots of time to name electors. It was a deliberate attempt to restrict the definition of We The People. So, where does all that leave us? We have to decide now, some fundamental things. We are living in the most interdependent time in history, and we are still the best positioned country in the world for the 21st century, but we are not as big as China. And we are not going to be able to keep them down, but we should be able to keep them honest in trade deals, and in matters of national security involving particularly cyber security. So what’s the best way to do that? How can we make our Chinese-American friends, and other Asian immigrants feel that they have a place here? How can we convince the Chinese that we have no interest in embarrassing them, but we would like it now that they have risen so far so fast, if we could protect intellectual property, and not be forced to share our technology.
And we don’t like being interfered with with cyber attacks. Can we cut a deal or not? Is there any way we’ll ever be able to have what happened when I represented the Republicans at the Education Conference here. Will there ever be enough either verification or trust or both for us to solve this problem? These are serious problems. We do need an infrastructure program. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue if we’re going to be competitive. There are all these things that we should be talking about that could benefit everybody. We have not had anything, but increasing intensity of partisan discord by and large since the ’80s, but until now, even in the toughest times there were always manifestations of expanding our More Perfect Union. Ronald Reagan signed immigration reform in 1983. George Bush signed a bill strengthening the Clean Air Act Amendments. He signed the American’s With Disabilities Act. He did a good job bringing an end to the Cold War, and trying to support democracy in Russia. And he didn’t do anything that hastened the result we’re living with today.
Richard Nixon signed the bill creating the Environmental Protection Agency. Even presidents you might not think of as being, making our Union more perfect. They did things. Every one of them. George W. Bush passed PEPFAR, something I’ve done a lot of work with because of my foundation, and it saved Lord knows how many lives around the world, and made people think differently of the United States, and he also tried to get immigration reform. We are unlikely friends. I made friends with his dad, and I called him after he got elected. I said, “I know you don’t like me because I beat your father. It’s okay.” I said, “But I love him too, and I’ll make you a deal. I will never talk about you the way your guys talk about me. Never.” My wife’s in the Senate. She’s on the Armed Services Committee, I may disagree with you, but I will always treat you with respect, and just simply say why I disagree. If I can ever help you, I’d like to.”
We then commenced a period of two conversations a year, lasting 30 or 45 minutes, which lasted the remainder of his presidency. I did two or three errands for him, and now my favorite project in my foundation is a leadership program we run together where we take people from both parties who, are in mid career, have important projects, and we bring them together at all these presidential libraries, and make them work together for six months. And then, we… Here’s the most interesting thing, when it’s over, we have a commencement. So he meets with them once. I meet with them once, and then we do the commencement together. After the commencement, so far there’s been no exception to this, we’ve done it four or five times, the Republicans come up to me, and the Democrats go up to him, and thank us because they didn’t know anybody like the people they’ve been working with existed. Because for all of our interdependence, and all of our growing diversity, we’ve been raising walls in our minds. Partly because the curious information eco structure in which we live in, for all kinds of other reasons. I don’t want to get into that.
All I want to say is that, it is my experience that it is almost impossible to extinguish the urge to make our Union more perfect, but there are forces who would by making sure that it becomes more ideological, more racially homogenous, less engaged with the rest of the world, and more dedicated to having one set of rules for them, and another set for us. There are lots, and lots, and lots of members of the other party that don’t agree with that. The are some now, some people in our party who thinks we should take a page out of that book. Here’s what I know. I’m 72, and I’m not running for anything. Zero sum solutions in an interdependent world do not work as well as positive solutions. Diverse groups committed to the rule of law, and believing in growing We The People, will make better decisions over any relevant amount of time than homogenous groups, or even lone geniuses, we can build a future together. A lot of the differences of opinion could be resolved easily.
What you worry about today is the product of demographics in politics. Look, we can all act pious especially when we’re not running for anything. But everybody that’s ever been in politics who wanted to make change, has had to feed the beast a little bit. Do you know how much you have to do to keep the power of reaction at bay while you’re trying to make politics do something good? Don’t forget FDR, whom I admired very much, turned back the St. Louis full of desperate Jews, trying to find a place to live before he felt America was ready to go into World War II. He imprisoned Japanese citizens, including at two camps in my home state. And he waited quite a long while to get into the war, and made it look like Pearl Harbor required that. Teddy Roosevelt did a lot of progressive movement, and he was pretty good on race at home. He had Booker T. Washington come to the White House, but he didn’t think much of poor people around the world, and he was kind of an imperialist.
Lincoln even, bless his soul, in his first inauguration in a desperate attempt to save the Union, actually promised never to free the slaves. Jefferson was a smart fellow when he said in Notes on the State of Virginia, of which I have two first editions, and have read very carefully. That when he thought of slavery, he trembled to think that God is just, but he didn’t tremble enough to go sign the paper freeing all the slaves. Then people that, at least for me, weren’t interested in broadening We the People enough, would sometimes do something that would just floor you. Like I was glad President Reagan signed that immigration reform. I was glad George W. Bush wanted to have immigration reform, and he knew darn well the reason we weren’t getting it was because his political base didn’t have the same level of confidence that he did, that he could go with me to south Texas, and have any kind of community meeting, and he could walk out of there with enough votes to beat me. That’s what he believed. In other words, he wasn’t afraid to treat people like they had half good sense. Like you could make arguments, and we could do this together.
We should celebrate this. This is an old document, this constitution. It’s an old office of the presidency, yet it’s still new every day because it’s just carrying your hopes for a More Perfect Union. When I served, that’s what I tried to do. I tried to work with everybody.
So, I think we need to think about taking another bite at this inclusion apple. This is a war in America between inclusive tribalism, and divisive tribalism. You all clapped when I said it was a great UVA won the NCAA, but you didn’t want to go abduct the teams that it had to beat to get to the champion, right? I hope that’s right. But you get the point I’m trying to make. We’re all tribal. Heck, we do identity. We have identities, that’s fine. And there are good reasons why some people have resentment, but I’m just telling you we need the President to speak for a bigger We The People, not a smaller one.
So, I want you to think about all that. I also want you to know that no President ever can win them all, and I kept score when I served. I kept score in a very deliberate way about my progress for meeting those things. I know what I didn’t do. I wish I’d been able to pass universal healthcare. I wish I had closed the whole door on the Middle East Peace Deal. I wish we’d gone into Rwanda earlier. I wish a lot of things. Like that, I have very specific ideas I wish I had been able to do, and because I kept score, I know how much we did get done. It’s good to keep score, but it’s also important to know that if you try, and fail, if you keep on trying things will be better than they otherwise would. In the first four years after I left office for example, there were three times as many violent related deaths among the Israelis and the Palestinians in the previous eight years when I was there. Why? Because they all gave up on the peace process. They stopped trying for four years.
And I could give you a zillion other examples of this. So that’s the last thing I want to say.
We had this year, 20 years ago, we had I think it was 20 years ago, the 30th anniversary of the Moon Walk, so that would be 50 years ago, right? 1969 isn’t that right? So NASA brings me a moon rock in a vacuum packed deal, and it’s carbon dated 30 years old. We’re all sitting there appropriately awed, and taking pictures, the surviving astronauts were there, and I said, “How old’s that thing?” And they said, “Well, it had been carbon dated at 3.6 billion years.” I said, “May I borrow it?” You can’t just go pick up a moon rock, and I said, “Now, I’ll give it back to you, and I’ve got it well guarded as you can see. I said, “I really need this rock.”
They looked at me like, oh my God, the President’s lost his mind. I said, “I really need this rock.” So, the next day, I had a delegation from Congress come to see me. This is after the whole impeachment deal was done. The Republicans were sitting here, and the Democrats were sitting here, and all of a sudden they started fighting. And I listened to them talk two or three minutes, and I said, “Wait a minute. Everybody take a deep breath. Look at that rock.” They looked at it. I said, “That rock, I just got it. It came off the moon, and it’s 3.6 billion years old.” I said, “Now we, are all just passing through. What do you say we settle down, and get something done.” And I said… I think the job of the President is to help make our union more perfect. I think the position of Head of State on some rare, but significant days is even more important than the job of Chief Executive. That’s why I started with what Governor McAuliffe said after Charlottesville.
I think life is short, and that should make you feel bigger, not smaller, and if you have a period of time when you’re not sure you believe that we can make our Union more perfect. When you’re not sure that you can find somebody to be President who will lift us up, instead of tear us apart. When you’re not sure where you should keep knocking on the door of the current administration. Think about this. We just got to see a picture, every one of us, and I bet everybody in this audience did, in the newspaper, the first photograph ever made available to earthlings at least of a black hole in the universe, 55 million light years away, and one of the 1 billion plus not planets, galaxies in our universe. We’re on this little piece of dirt, a third rock from the sun, in one tiny, little solar system, in one galaxy of a billion.
A couple of years ago, Hillary and I went to Hawaii to see the Keck Telescope, the biggest one in the world. And we were up there talking to this scientist. I’ll never forget, it was January. It was 89 degrees on the ground, and 18 by the time we got up there. And I’m looking into Andromeda in the telescope. And then we go back and we start, we had a cup of coffee, and we’re talking. I said, “Do you guys ever argue about whether there’s life on other planets?” He said, “Oh yeah.” I said, “Is there a difference of opinion?” They said, “Huge.” I said, “How much?” He said, “Oh, there’s those of us who think it’s 85% likely, and those of us that think it’s 95% likely.” And he said, “If you look at it, that’s quite a large range because there’s a lot of stuff out there.” Now, why are they trying to say that?
When I get really discouraged, I try to think of something big like that. That puts our little fascinating lives in position. The Black Hole has such a powerful, it’s so big, and it’s magnetic pull is so great that if our entire solar system went by close enough, it would be sucked in, and disintegrated immediately into a pile of dirt that could fit in a thimble. Now, think of that. If that’s true, not so important to be on Mt. Rushmore, is it? Really. It does not make the life of any public servant less significant. It makes the trappings, the image, the B.S. less significant. You just got a little bit of time. I got through a line of taking pictures with all your undergraduates here today, and I thought, “Man, I remember this like it was yesterday,” but it wasn’t yesterday, it was more than 50 years ago. It does not take long to live a life. And we are so blessed to be here. You are blessed that Thomas Jefferson thought this was important enough to put on his tombstone.
We’re blessed to be born in America when we did. We should not be despairing if we’re worried about America being divided. There have never been permanent gains or permanent losses in human affairs. And we got a lot of hay in the barn. We just need to saddle up. So, I ask you to think of this. Do not return demeaning rhetoric with demeaning rhetoric. It drives people crazy, just stark raving crazy when you’re nice to them, and they show out. Did you know that? But that’s not why you should do it. You should do it because here we are on this little planet leading a miraculous life in a time of discovery given the responsibility to keep expanding We the People, and keep making our Union more perfect. If we do our part, chances are we’ll get a President, he, and I hope to God someday she, who certainly will do the same. Thank you.