Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Honorable William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd President of the United States

On Sunday, November 6, 2005, at 7:30 pm my son Ben and I enjoyed the rare opportunity to see a former US President speak in person. The location was Butler University in Indianapolis and his appearance was part of the University's Celebration of Diversity Distinguished Lecture Series honoring the university's Sesquicentennail. When I first learned President Clinton would be speaking at Butler I thought what a wonderful opportunity it would be for my son to experience seeing a hearing a former president in person. I had only seen one US President in my lifetime and that was Lyndon B. Johnson ("LBJ") when he was in Indianapolis speaking on Monument Circle just three years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy ("JFK") which occurred November 22, 1963.

I took the Monday morning off when tickets were first being distributed on Butler's campus; arriving at 7:00 am I stood in the rain with an already lengthy line of ticket hopefuls, complete with local news teams shooting footage and interviewing many who had braved the weather in hopes of having the opportunity to hear our former president speak. The morning actually went by quickly; by 10:00 am I had two tickets in hand for me and Ben. As I drove home and anticipated the impact I hoped this would have on my son, I reflected upon my own experience seeing and hearing LBJ 39 years earlier in our hometown of Indianapolis.

President Johnson's speech was on the west steps of Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis, on July 23, 1966. The day also included a speech at the Indianapolis Athletic Club, located at 350 N. Meridian Street; formerly a predominately democratic club open to members only. This site is now condominums called "Athletic Club".

I remember the day so well. In those days Presidents rarely came to Indianapolis (and for the most part that is still true) so the excitement surrounding the appearance of our President was significant, particulary considering the extraordinary degree of social change and unrest ccuring in our country during LBJ's presidency.

Upon reflection, during this time our nation was recovering from the recent assassination of President Kennedy. This in itself was difficult for a nation who lost an immensely popular, charismatic leader and the youngest president ever elected in our country. Additionally, the degree of profound historical events that were occuring at this time would also present to our nation some of the most troubling, significant, historical, and radical times our country has experienced during a presidency. These include:

Lastly, on a positive note during these difficult times for our country and the presidency, we witnessed Martin Luther King, Jr., become the youngest man ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1964 in Oslo, Norway.

Research from the the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas reveals in 1966, "on July 23 -- Johnson warned African Americans that riots impede reforms, Indianapolis, Ind., after racial tensions caused riots in Omaha (July 3-5); Chicago, Il. (July 12-15), Brooklyn, NY (July 15-22), Jacksonville, Fl. (July 18) and Cleveland, Ohio (July 18-23).

In a speech at the Indianapolis Athletic Club, he said: Riots in the streets do not bring about lasting reforms. They tear at the very fabric of community. They set neighbor against neighbor and create walls of distrust and fear between them. They make reform more difficult by turning away the very people who can and must support reform. They start a chain reaction the consequences of which always fall most heavily on those who begin them".

My brother, mother and father all went down to see LBJ and it was a memorable event. On top of the Circle Tower Building you could easily observe in full sight many secret service agents with rifles; this was a period of time when a strong and visable presence of federal and local law enforcement in all public appearances of the President was expected due to the recent assassination of President Kennedy.

Now, sitting with my 17 year old son in Hinkle Fieldhouse 39 years later, I hear the only other President I have seen in person begin with "Tonight I want to have a conversation", and President Clinton went on to ask the crowd a provacative question that set the tone for the rest of the speech: "If you were asked to describe this era in one work, what would it be?" He said most people would probably answer globalization, but suggested it should be interdependence. "There is no more stunning example of global interdependence than the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. We need to move away from interdependance and move towards a set of integrated communities."

Clinton addresed serious issues concerning the world today, but he kept the evening light hearted with his typical smooth sense of humor and casualness that he is noted for. "The great thing about being a former president is being able to say what you think," and then added "Of course, no one cares what you think." He also began his speech, after the long standing applause by saying "it is great to be in Hinkle Fieldhouse, Hoosiers is on of my all time favorite movies". The crowd cheered loudly.

He went on to say he had lots of friends in Indianapolis and remembers well spending time here while working on the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign with his wife Hillary and enjoys coming back here often.

Perhaps more indicative of his ability to wax humor in his opening remarks he said "I am also happy to be here for Butler's Sesquicentennial, I never knew what that word meant until I was governor of Arkansas and the state celebrated their Sesquicentennial during my term - I learned how to say this and after some practice and it's a fun word to say, but once you master it, only one in four people know what it means".

On a serious note he said "You have to make a world with more partners and fewer enemies". That "we're out there telling Iran they can't have nuclear weapons, but we can have a few more?", and talked about the great economic theory he brought to the White House to balance the budget, "Arithmetic", and went on to say "we voted in 2000 to adandon arithmetic".

I thought his commentary on the human condition to be most salient:"one half of the people in the world live on $2 a day and one quarter of the people in the world die of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria or diarrhea-related infections. He said that it is statistics like this that drive him to donate so much of his time and money".

President Clinton closed the evening by saying, "You have the power to make a difference and I urge you to use it." All 9600 people in Hinkle Fieldhouse stood and applauded for several minutes. Clinton then answered pre-written questions from students where the course name and instructor was mentioned first. Upon conclusion of the question and answer session, he spent probably 20 minutes standing in front of the stage shaking hands and talking with as many people as he could who waited around for an opportunity to meet him briefly.

This was an outstanding evening for me and my son. It took almost 40 years for me to see a President again. I am glad we had this experience together, as I did with my father many years earlier. It leaves a profound memory.