The Lied Center’s seats were filled Monday with a buzzing audience that included 600 KU students, and its vaulted ceilings housed with them high expectations. Former President Bill Clinton was set to accept the 2015 Dole Leadership Prize from KU’s Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics.
Clinton himself launched KU’s Dole Lecture Series back in 2004, and those in the audience said they were eager to hear what he had to say.
Kim Rosen, former KU student, explained the excitement for the statesman.
“I would want to go see any politician,” Rosen said. “I feel it’s really interesting to get their perspective even if I don’t agree with their party lines. I happen to agree with Bill Clinton’s, and he was actually the first president that I voted for in kid’s voting. The first time I ever voted I voted for him. He’s a historic figure, and I can’t wait to hear what he has to say.”
As security guards started staking out positions, and the lecture was about to begin, would the 2016 election creep its way into the discussion?
“I think there might be more than a few little jokes,” Rosen said. “I mean, it’s basically a free campaign stop for him, and I feel like they’re going to start ramping up.”
Mike Kelly, K-State graduate of 2007, thought Clinton would keep the campaigning out of the event.
“I doubt it’ll be much of a stump speech, I imagine he’ll be back here for that before next fall’s election,” Kelly said. “I think he’ll keep it pretty substantive today, or at least I hope he does.”
Kelly’s wife, Elizabeth, even gave the odds for what would have been some surprising dramatics.
“I’ll just tell you that in my heart of hearts there is a 7 percent chance that Hillary is going to walk out on stage,” she said.
So what were the expectations for Clinton’s focus, especially given the award honoring Kansas’ famous Senator with which he was being presented?
“I kind of expect, based on the prize, that he’ll mention the economic work that he did, reaching across the aisle with Mr. Gingrich,” Mike Kelly said. “I imagine he’ll also connect that with current issues, not only gridlock in Washington, but I imagine also with international issues like the current events in Europe and throughout the Middle East.”
And indeed he did focus the talk on bipartisanship and human cooperation, with some veiled nods to the roots of global conflict and recent events featured throughout.
Clinton started off his hour-long talk by taking a minute to connect with his Kansas audience, thanking amongst others, former Kansas Govs. John Carlin and Kathleen Sebelius, and former Kansas Rep. Jim Slattery, and even mentioned that he thought “Kansas City had the most complete baseball team I have seen in the last 30 or 40 years.”
Clinton then launched in the main subject of the day’s event: bipartisanship.
“The polarization of American politics is present not just in Washington, but in American life,” Clinton said. “You just look at how many of our collective bigotries we have overcome in America in the last hundred years. We are less racist than we used to be. We are less sexist than we used to be. We are less religiously bigoted than we used to be. We are less homophobic than we used to be. We have one remaining bigotry – we don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us.”
The speech focused on the strength and necessity of collaboration, famously embodied by politicians like himself and Bob Dole, who were together able to often find common ground.
“One of the things I always liked about Bob Dole is that he could fight you like no tomorrow, but he never closed the door to actually doing something that might benefit a real person,” Clinton said. “I kept my door open, he kept his open, we never lost our sense of humor, and we found a way to do what seemed to be best for the American people.”
The point of contention between people, he contended, was born out of circumstance.
“The great struggle in America to restore some sort of balance to our politics is a reflection of the awful anxieties that many of our people feel because of the combination of economic disappointment, and cultural conflicts and change,” he said.
Clinton made the point that cooperation, however, is born out of the American identity.
“The question of how we relate to each other in America is part of a larger identity challenge that is a function of the age of interdependence that goes beyond trade and travel to basically total immersion of instantaneous access to information of all kinds,” Clinton said. “The power of technology, the rise of social media, the staggering capacity of the simple cell phone to do good and evil. That’s what we live in.”
Clinton said that the bad we see comes from a “self-concept of negative identity. That is, in order for me to think well of myself, I have to think less of you, to the extent that you are different from me, or my religion or my ideology as I define it.”
And on the good and making progress?
“It is almost always the product of networks of cooperation rooted in positive identity,” Clinton said. “That is, ‘Hey I kind of like who I am, I’m proud of my race, my faith, my gender, my whatever it is, but I think what we have in common matters more, so why don’t we figure out how we can work together?’”
Clinton also took the time to deliver a direct message to the youth listening.
“Will our interdependence be positive, or negative?,” Clinton said. “Human nature being what it is, it’s a little bit of both. But it is clear that for every one of the young people here, the students, for the children you hope to have, the grandchildren I hope you live to see, our job is to build up the positive and reduce the negative forces of our interdependence.”
Or put another way, Clinton said it is a responsibility as global citizens to make sure “people understand what the promise as well as the peril is of the age in which we live.”
In those times when people struggle to see eye to eye, or even struggle to work toward face the same direction, the former president’s advice was to appreciate commonality, and the spirit of the human collective.
“It is an act of supreme arrogance to believe that our differences are more important than our common humanity,” Clinton said. “And is a recipe for disaster in an interdependent world.”