Bill Clinton delivers closing keynote address at U.Va.’s Presidential Ideas Festival

Former U.S. president calls for unity to create a “more perfect union”

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Former U.S. President Bill Clinton joined nearly 100 speakers on Grounds, including policymakers, former White House administration officials and U.Va. faculty members who discussed topics such as America’s role in international affairs, the role of the press and women in leadership.

Geremia Di Maro | Cavalier Daily

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited the University on Thursday to address a packed audience in Old Cabell Hall on the state of democracy and the future of the American presidency. His self-written speech marked the conclusion of the three-day Presidential Ideas Festival, hosted by the University’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and the University’s Democracy Initiative as part of U.Va.’s Bicentennial founding celebration.

Introduced by University President Jim Ryan, Clinton began his speech by recalling his previous visit to Grounds in 1989, when then-President George H.W. Bush hosted a two-day national education summit at U.Va. He said it was “one of the most rewarding weekends” in his life of public service because he had to lead a delegation of governors and present both Republican and Democratic viewpoints in an act of bipartisanship that is less common today. 

Clinton said the country has become increasingly politically polarized since he left office in 2001, making it more important than ever to evaluate the job and expectations of the presidency in order to find effective ways for the executive and legislative branches to work together. He asked the audience to consider that the fundamental role of the president is stated in the preamble to the Constitution, which begins with "We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…"

“That becomes the responsibility of the president, to work for ‘We the People’ forming a more perfect union,” Clinton said. “Every single president, from George Washington to Donald Trump, consciously or not, has had to define what ‘a more perfect Union’ means, and in order to do that, must first decide who constitutes ‘We the People.’”

He asked whether the preamble to the Constitution refers to all eligible voters or only the people who look like them and share the same values. In order to see how past presidents answered this question, Clinton took the audience on a “walk through history” spanning over 200 years to examine whether they “succeeded in forming a more perfect Union.”

William Antholis, the director and CEO of the Miller Center who previously served as director of international economic affairs for the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration, said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily that it is rare to hear a president provide extensive discourse on the history of the presidency and comment on past presidents. 

“A striking part of the speech was him talking about presidents who we revere, and he reveres, as all being challenged both in their personal life and in the things that they didn’t accomplish but the net of their presidencies was to lead to a more perfect Union,” Antholis said.

Clinton urged all elected officials to work together across the aisle, just as previous presidents from both parties have worked to expand legal immigration and protect the environment. The president, he said, needs to speak “for a bigger ‘We the People,’ not a smaller one.”

During his speech, Clinton also praised his longtime friend and former Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe — who was in the audience — for his response to the deadly white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. 

“Sadly, the response we got at that time from the White House was, ‘Well, there were nice people on both sides,’” he said. “The governor of Virginia on that day was my president when he said there was no place is this commonwealth for racism, anti-semitism, or any form of religious bigotry, bullying or violence. Get out of here, and do not come back.”

Clinton ended his speech by advising the audience to expand their definition of ‘We the People’ and to not return hateful rhetoric with more of the same. “If we keep doing our part, chances are we’ll get a president, and he — and, I hope to God, one day, she — will do the same,” Clinton said.

According to Antholis, a clear theme of the speech was that diverse groups are better at leading others than homogenous groups. 

“President Clinton is somebody who believes passionately in expanding the definition of ‘We the People,’ but who also believes in always trying to see the good in the other side — in not dismissing people because they’re an opponent,” he said. “The subtitle of our conference was ‘Democracy in Dialogue’ and that is one of President Clinton's most redemptive qualities — that he really believes in a dialogue despite difference.”

Clinton joined nearly 100 speakers on Grounds, including policymakers, former White House administration officials and U.Va. faculty members who discussed topics such as America’s role in international affairs, the role of the press and women in leadership. 

“It was a great moment, for the Miller Center and for the University, to host a conference that is about looking at democracy through the presidency,” President Ryan said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “Hosting something like this is an opportunity to bring in a truly remarkable array of people and is both useful for the conversations, but also to shine a spotlight on what we're doing in the important area of democracy.”

Antholis said that the Prez Fest panels throughout the week were targeted towards individuals who can influence the presidency, including presidential scholars, the media, the public, and those who served or may serve a president in the future. He estimated that about 2,000 people attended the festival in total.

CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent John Dickerson, a University alumni who moderated a panel on foreign relations and national security with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, used the event to interview panelists for a book he is writing on the history of the presidency. 

“We drew a terrific audience, including a network of people who have worked in the White House before, some of whom we know very well through our Oral History Program,” Antholis said. “We hope that the publicity and attention that the Prez Fest drew will continue to open doors for us, the same with a wider network of policymakers and the media and the public.”

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