I've often wondered what it would be like to be president. I've thought, surely I could walk across the White House lawn as good as anybody. Waving to the press. Boarding Air Force One. Posing for photo opportunities with world leaders. Oh yeah? And then there's that whole "leader of the free world" thing. I'm sure many of us have contemplated it. But few have experienced it. For those that have, an equally compelling question lies in what one does after they've become president. With a myriad of examples laid before him, former President Bill Clinton seems to have answered that for himself. I caught a glimpse of his answer at the June 8 lecture on peace and social justice in a post-Sept. 11 world at the Temple Beth El-Zedeck Congregation on Indianapolis' Northside.
President Bill Clinton gave a lecture last week on peace and social justice in a post-Sept. 11 world at the Temple Beth El-Zedeck Congregation on Indianapolis' Northside.
President Clinton has become ... well ... a concerned citizen. The tenor of the speech was less a treatise on security measures and terrorist attacks and more a heartfelt plea to each individual, as well as our government, to treat other nations and each other (including those with whom we disagree) with respect.
As expected, the rhetorical strategy employed by Clinton was superior. His use of ethical appeals was surpassed only by his masterful stroke of pathos. Throughout his speech, Clinton's conversational delivery captured the extemporaneous, commanding, self-effacing vulnerability that endeared him to Democratic loyalists, and garnered the ultimate respect from Republican adversaries. Not unlike the homespun candor of a black preacher in church who implores the congregation to "Stay with me now, I'm going somewhere," the audience stayed with the former president as his heartbreaking stories of tsunami survivors, AIDS victims and other impoverished citizens of the world unfolded. Then, there was the hopeful story of a tsunami mother who insisted that Clinton name her newborn child. He chose the name "Dawn" to symbolize a new beginning.
Clinton reached out to the audience (many of us who'd watched him weather the storm of eight years in the Oval Office) as if to say, "Thanks for your help, I made it through." Yet, his demeanor was not one of a frail survivor, but of a man with an impenetrable confidence that recognized the utility of his turbulent presidency. To him, the presidency served as an extremely rare opportunity to effectuate change upon society. But with it came an undying sense of personal responsibility. It could be felt in his voice and the content of his speech. And he wanted us to feel it as well. Citizen Clinton preached (and I use "preached" with all intents and purposes): "We must contain weapons of mass destruction ... We must build international institutions that share a common goal of interdependence ... We must deal with domestic challenges: energy policies, health care, education, debt reduction ... We must respect each other as humans." And like any good sermon, the audience left with a sense of not just what we can do but what we should do.
Citizen Clinton's message of interdependence was not lost in the mystique of rock-star idolatry or the ever-present cloud of sex scandals and impeachment that he knowingly carries with him. Given his skills as a politician and orator, this should come as no surprise. To witness Clinton's stirring sense of passion for making the world a better place was inspiring. And he knew it. Though, at times, I disagreed with former President Clinton's choices, I cannot dispute the sense of urgency that Citizen Clinton left his audience to ponder.
As Citizen Clinton noted, "Democracy is diminished by the belief that we must dislike those with which we disagree ... in an interdependent world we must not claim to be in the possession of absolute truth ... " The crowd response to these words was the largest of the night, possibly because he hit upon something that many of us who work toward a socially just society understand. A true commitment to peace involves accepting an enormous amount of personal responsibility for all of humankind. Citizen Clinton's call to action was that each of us hold ourselves accountable for creating the world in which we live, and working together to change it.
Bill Clinton may no longer be president, but with messages like the one in last week's lecture, contrary to his opening remarks, Citizen Clinton can rest assured that many people will continue to listen.
For more information on Bill Clinton's charitable work, visit www.clintonfoundation.org.
Al Atkins Jr. is director of forensics and lecturer in communication at IUPUI and a second-year law student at Indiana University School of Law.