Bill Clinton had barely begun his third year in the Oval Office when the beleaguered president, reeling from a stunning political backlash that left Republicans in control of Congress, insisted at a rare prime-time news conference — carried live by only a single broadcast network — that he still had “relevance.”
That, of course, turned out to be an understatement. And throughout an enthusiastically received Zellerbach Hall appearance Wednesday afternoon, citizen Clinton loomed perhaps more relevant than ever — especially to Berkeley undergrads, who, as Chancellor Robert Birgeneau noted in his introduction, were pre-teens during the final years of the turbulent Clinton presidency.
Waiting in line before the event, Joy Sui, a junior majoring in political science, explained his current appeal this way: “I think it’s really interesting that I get a chance to see a president, because how many times do you get a chance to do that? So it’s a great opportunity. And what he’s talking about, turning your intentions into positive action. I think he’s preaching to the right crowd — Berkeley students in this time period right now.”
Junior Kevin Berlin, a molecular and cell biology major, said Clinton was the first U.S. president he can remember, “so there’s a nostalgia element. I was impressed with his tenure as president, so I’m really excited to hear what he has to say about being a global citizen.”
What the 42nd U.S. president delivered was a mostly sober message about inequality, global poverty, and the need for “communitarianism,” a form of social responsibility and activism in which private citizens step up to address “the gaps in the social fabric” unfilled by governments. As one example, he lauded the work of the campus’s Blum Center for Developing Economies, the event’s sponsor. And he urged students to apply to attend a three-day April session in Miami of Clinton Global Initiative University, a project of his nonprofit foundation aimed at enabling those in higher education to “turn ideas into action.”
Speaking to some 2,000 Berkeley staff, faculty, and students — many of whom are enrolled in Blum Center classes — Clinton displayed his famous mastery of the public-policy realm, talking with only glancing reference to notes on issues ranging from sanitation in Haiti to global climate change, the trouble with cable news, and the crisis in California’s higher-ed system.
But the thrust of his 50-plus-minute talk — his second in Zellerbach Hall, where in January 2002 he was awarded the Berkeley Medal, the campus’s highest honor — was communitarianism, “the idea that we are in an interdependent world, and we will either make a community of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities, or we will pay the price. … What we do affects others. What others do affects us.”
Clinton stressed the growing importance of nongovernmental organizations in alleviating the problems created by global poverty, and the need for today’s students to “put yourselves on the line” to combat inequality.
“The world is entirely too unequal,” asserted Clinton, noting that half of its people — including three-quarters of those in Haiti, his chief focus since January’s devastating earthquake — live on less than $2 a day. A billion people lack access to clean water, he added, and more than twice that number lack access to sanitation.
“Here you are in the crown jewel of the finest system of public higher education ever developed by anybody anywhere — and it’s under assault because of the economic conditions of our time — but you think about how many people there are who were born with the same mental capacity as you have, but never got to spend even a day in school.”
The world is also too unstable, Clinton said, citing the way the global financial crisis cascaded from the United States on down to large and small countries alike, and the ability of Middle Eastern terrorists to leverage technology for operations far from their geographic base.
And finally, the world is unsustainable “because of the way we produce and consume energy,” he said. Calculating that every $1 billion spent retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency yields 7,000 jobs, for example, Clinton called reform of U.S. energy policies “the No. 1 ticket” to a prosperous economy.
“I never ask people to lose money who work with me,” he said of enlisting the private sector in his foundation’s efforts. “I ask them to make money in a different way.”
Clinton closed with a plea that students realize that “one of the best ways to change other people’s minds” is to demonstrate that proposed solutions actually work. For example, “the fear that we can’t change the way we produce and consume energy without wrecking the economy can best be answered by a physical manifestation that proves it’s not so.”
The same holds true, he added, for fears that “we can’t change health care without somehow taking wonderful treatments away from people like me who want to live forever.” The 63-year-old Clinton, who underwent quadruple-bypass surgery in 2004, had routine stent surgery just two weeks ago after experiencing chest pains.
“For all of your frustrations,” declared the man from Hope, Ark., “I have to tell you, you’re living in a time in human history when the individual citizen… can have more influence over the outcome of affairs than ever before. The future is in your hands.”