Amid the antics of the Republican presidential primary race — full of overheated rhetoric, exaggeration, talking points and little by way of factual discussion of issues, I got a dose of Bill Clinton last night. What a contrast.
Clinton spoke at the annual event honoring library volunteers. (I was a guest of a volunteer, my wife.) He closed with a reflection on events that happened 20 years ago. For those who think the Clinton years inconsequential, think again.
There was Oklahoma City. There was his visit to Northern Ireland and a peace accord that continues to hold, if imperfectly. There was the end of fighting in Bosnia, an uneasy peace that continues to hold. He told a remarkable story of a single male survivor of the Srebrenica massacre, now mayor, who invited the leader of Serbia to a memorial service in the interest of moving forward, not back. There was the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin following the historic agreement with Palestine, a process in which Clinton participated. There was the beginning of diplomatic relations with Vietnam, now a strong ally in Asia. And there was one little item that Clinton tied into the current debate about Syrian refugees.
This reference was to Clinton’s decision to bail out Mexico, a decision opposed by 80 percent of Americans. Mexico repaid the money early, with interest. Its economic condition has improved so much that, from 2010 to 2014, the net inflow of Mexicans to the United States has been a negative. More have returned home to Mexico than have entered the U.S. (And still Donald Trump wants to build more walls and Mike Huckabee would probably triple him.) Autodidact Clinton spun off figures about the push for college education in Mexico. By his account, the much smaller country is nearly approaching the U.S. in the annual graduation of college-educated engineers. I didn’t take notes and I had no recorder, so I can’t tell you exactly how he put it, but the essence of his message was that you do better over the long haul with neighborliness. This makes more friends than closed borders and hostility.
He spoke warmly, too, of France, referring repeatedly to the recent tragedy and praising the swift reaction by the French government to the slaughter.
He said the Clinton Library and his namesake school of public service could contribute to better understanding and predicted that a look back at 20 years of Clinton School graduates would show some politicians, some government workers, but likely a predominance of people in the private sector. But he predicted they would still be engaged in public works, too.
Clinton’s politics then and now are about accommodation and progress. He’s spoken within the last week at a tribute to former opponent Bob Dole, who he said, along with Newt Gingrich, wanted to back the Mexican bailout but were told they’d be deposed from GOP leadership roles if they supported him. A centrist, Clinton nonetheless will forever be seen as too progressive for the hard-core right. Personal aspects will forever earn condemnation by others.
But between command of the material and his eternal efforts to convert enemies and produce solutions to difficult problems, I don’t see any on the national stage his equal. One of them, at least, seems likely to have him close at hand for advice.
I wish I had a recording. It was an impressive riff (in a raspy, thin voice that suggests he’s doing a lot of talking).