'THE ESSENCE OF FREEDOM:' President Bill Clinton spoke at a banquet celebrating the 200 year anniversary of the Arkansas Gazette, saying its work is crucial to the future of democracy. Brian Chilson

President Bill Clinton spoke to a large crowd at a banquet for the 200 year anniversary of the Arkansas Gazette at the Statehouse Convention Center on Thursday evening. Clinton reflected on the history of the paper, the importance of newspapers to the future of democracy and the vastness of outer space.

Rex Nelson, senior editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, opened the event, and journalist Ernie Dumas, who co-chaired the celebration’s planning committee, spoke about the winding history of the Gazette and its influence in Arkansas.

Eliza Gaines, Dumas’s co-chair on the committee, introduced* Walter Hussman, Gaines’s father and publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette since he bought the Gazette in 1991 after a lengthy newspaper war with the Arkansas Democrat. Hussman remarked on the legacy of the Gazette and its employees.

“Arkansans can be proud of a tradition of good journalism in Arkansas, and it was the Arkansas Gazette that set that standard,” Hussman said. “So we are in debt to a lot of great men and women whose great calling and passion was great journalism. Tonight, we celebrate them and their newspaper as we embark on the third century of newspaper publishing in Arkansas.”

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Hussman then introduced Mack McLarty, who formerly served as Clinton’s chief of staff. McLarty called Clinton one of “Arkansas’s great history-making ambassadors” and described the relationship between Clinton and the Gazette as “one of mutual respect and epic achievement.” He also remarked on the current status of the relationship between media and politicians.

“At at time when noble politics [are] perhaps in peril, and when that necessarily adversarial relationship [between politicians and newspapers] can find itself turned into destructive animosity, we can take comfort tonight in remembering that times have been healthier,” McLarty said. “And we can resolve, to the extent that we’re able, to make them healthier again.”

McLarty then introduced Clinton, who took the stage to a standing ovation and “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac, the song used by Clinton during his 1992 presidential campaign and frequently during appearances since. Clinton’s comments focused on the Gazette’s legacy as a tool for knowledge, saying that “old-fashioned newspapers are important because they tell us what’s going on.” He also spoke about the effect of misinformation on the future of democracy.

“I think it’s really important to understand that both technology and the movement toward authoritarianism, all over the world today, are driving us to the point where ordinary people may find it impossible to tell fact from fiction, or truth from a bald-faced lie,” Clinton said. “If that happens, then it will be impossible to sustain meaningful democratic governance.”

Clinton called for more humanity and tolerance, saying to applause, “We need to think again. We need to feel again. We need to look at people and see them as three dimensional human beings, not cardboard cutouts.”

Clinton’s comments also took on a philosophical tone as he remarked on the insignificance of the human race in relation to the universe at large. He said that while serving his second term as president, he was presented with a rock from the moon, which NASA scientists told him was dated at 3.6 billion years old. He asked the NASA director to borrow the rock, and he kept it on a table in the Oval Office. While meeting with congressional Republicans and Democrats, he drew their attention to the lunar stone.

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“I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait. Look at that rock. That rock came off the moon. It is 3.6 billion years old. Now, we are just passing through here. What do you say we settle down and get something done?'” Clinton told the crowd. “It worked like a charm.”

The president continued to muse on the wonders of space, describing his excitement upon recently seeing the first picture ever captured of a black hole. Clinton said he read an interview with a physicist about the magnetic power of the black hole, who said, “If the entire solar system, of which we on Earth are a part, were to slide by the black hole close enough, it would be sucked in and immediately crushed into a pile of dust that would fit in a thimble.”

“Kind of makes you think it doesn’t so much matter who’s on Mount Rushmore,” Clinton said to laughter. “But it matters more how much you treat the next person you meet, how you think about your children’s futures, or your grandchildren’s futures, because it’s all you’ve got.”

“Your imagination is great,” he added, “your sense of self-importance matters. But we are all passing through. And we do know that knowing is better than not knowing.”

Clinton then referenced Vladimir Putin’s infiltration of the 2016 election and social media feeds of American citizens, saying the leader’s “real goal was to destroy the faith of voters in whether what they were reading was true.”

“These guys were playing the long game,” Clinton said. “Their real goal is to break the conviction that we can know, and we can act on what we know, and we can predict the consequences of acting on what we know. In other words, the essence of freedom.”

Clinton ended his comments by commending the “legacy” kept alive by the Democrat-Gazette, saying the ability to know is “all we have the right to ask for,” and thanking the newspaper for “keeping the right to know —and the responsibility to tell — alive.”

“There’s a lot pressuring the media,” Clinton said. “But if you can prove that your solution works, you can keep on the business of making sure people know. If we blow what we know, that’s on us.”

*Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Ernie Dumas introduced Walter Hussman. 

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