WASHINGTON – It was impossible to miss the reunion feel to former President Bill Clinton’s speech on the merits of “radical inclusion” at Georgetown University on Tuesday, with so many former White House aides and Hillary Clinton presidential backers crammed into Healy Hall to celebrate the past and what could be.
There was Ann Lewis in a turquoise jacket. Nearby were Al From, Bruce Lindsey, Bruce Reed. A couple rows up, Sandy Berger. Kiki McLean. By the aisle, Guy Cecil. There were former Clinton era ambassadors. “People here from the Clinton administration certainly are connected to the race Hillary has mounted,” said Melanne Verveer, executive director of the university’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security and a longtime friend and top aide to Hillary Clinton. The room, Verveer said, was filled with people who want to do “everything they can to help her.”
Bill Clinton, a Georgetown alum whose tradition of speechmaking at the university dates to 1991 and his “New Covenant” series as Arkansas governor and presidential hopeful, began his remarks Tuesday by suggesting this appearance wasn’t connected to his wife’s run for president. “For obvious reasons, I don’t intend to talk much about electoral politics,” he said. He mentioned his wife by name once.
But the themes were just beneath the surface. In his speech and a subsequent question-and-answer session, he spoke of the merits of “radical inclusion” in public service “as we work to restore broad-based prosperity.” He spoke of some of the proponents of radical inclusion he has admired most, from Nelson Mandela to Bill and Melinda Gates. Clinton recalled how he ran for president in 1992 because “I thought trickle-down economics was wrong” and about his frustration, once elected, at having to delay middle-class tax cuts.
From AIDS in South Africa to 9/11 in the U.S., Clinton said one lesson of politics is that “there’s always going to be something happening you weren’t planning for” and you have to learn how to deal with that and “pursue your original vision at the same time.”
He said for him politics was like peeling an onion that had no end, that there was always more to engage him. He recalled controversy and investigations such as “that Whitewater business” that he had to survive, saying it was “heartbreaking” but “it never made me want to quit.”
“I was raised not to quit. We’re not big on quitting in my family. You may have noticed that,” he said to laughs, adding, “I learned to just kind of wall it off.”
Clinton also got a bit existential. “None of us know how long we’re going to be here or what we’re going to do,” he said. He spoke of the merits of living a life with “purpose” and said that “we all find purpose in our own way.”
He also could not help being provocative. The Islamic State, he said, was the most interesting non-governmental organization around these days, though he declared it ultimately doomed because “they are anti-inclusion in the extreme and people are voting with their feet. It will not be the future but it cannot be ignored. It has to be countered.”
He called negotiating with Iran to contain its nuclear program “so important.”
He did not address controversies about his foundation, including foreign donations and a forthcoming book that purports to show connections between those donations and his wife’s State Department under President Barack Obama. He spoke instead about the foundation’s work to combat AIDS and other challenges. (In response to a reporter’s shouted question while he shook hands after the speech, he said he was “really proud” of the foundation’s work.)
The former president told students that technology is creating profound change in productivity and the workplace in good ways, while one challenge in their lives would be how to “keep the populous employed” as a result, and that it might necessitate “radical” changes to labor. He said most of the students in the room would live to 90 or older, while their generation might have one last chance to avert catastrophic implications of climate change. California, he said, is a “canary in a coal mine.”
Asked to recommend just one book, Clinton had an answer: “Meditations,” a collection of writings on Stoicism by the former Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.