President Clinton leads by example

Laura McPhee

Our differences matter," President Bill Clinton told the crowd of more than 9,000 during his appearance at Butler University's Hinkle Fieldhouse last Sunday evening, "but our common humanity matters more."

It's a fitting remark for Butler's 150th anniversary celebration. In 1855, Indianapolis attorney Ovid Butler founded the school, in part on his belief that education should be available to all, regardless of race or gender. Of the university's first 20 students, 10 had been expelled from a Virginia college because of their abolitionist beliefs.

It's also a fitting remark for President Clinton. Since leaving office, he has formed partnerships with former political enemies and set an example for all Americans about how to put aside our differences and work for a common good.

Clinton soundly defeated his opponents both times he was elected president of the United States. Their respective defeats by Clinton could have easily marked a disappointing end to the admirable creers of President George H.W. Bush and Sen. Bob Dole.

By the same token, Clinton's fall from grace was public and pronounced. He too could have retired from public life on a disparaging note. But in each case, these men have set aside political differences and public defeat to serve a cause greater than their own.

Presidents Bush and Clinton have been working together since January to raise money and oversee relief efforts for victims of the tsunami in Indonesia, and the partnership continues as they now work on behalf of Hurricane Katrina victims. Since 2001, President Clinton has co-chaired the Families for Freedom Fund with Sen. Dole, raising more than $100 million in scholarship money for the families of those killed on September 11th.

The irony of Clinton's partnerships with Bush and Dole shouldn't be lost on anyone. But neither should the partnerships' genuine humility.

All three of these men rose to the most prominent offices in our country, and all three have experienced humiliating defeat. Politics defined their careers and shaped their character. Opposing political views defined their relationships with one another.

It is not hyperbole to say Dole and Bush saw Clinton as a political rival, if not enemy, and vice versa. And yet they have managed to set all that history and rancor aside, in favor of forming partnerships that serve a greater good for a large number of people.

Their differences matter, but their common humanity matters more.

For nearly a year, Americans have opened their hearts and wallets to support a variety of causes meant to alleviate the suffering of those brought low by an unprecedented number of devastating natural disasters.

The tsunami in Indonesia, the earthquake in Kashmir, flooding in India, hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, and now tornadoes in Southern Indiana.

We watch in horror as lives, families, and homes are ripped apart by unpredictable and unmerciful acts of nature. And we can't help but be moved to act. We can't help but set aside our ethnic, racial, economic, gender, religious, and political differences because our common humanity matters more.

But why do we, and our politicians, limit our capacity for true community and true partnership to the wake of natural disasters?

In a few days the 150 men and women we have elected to the Indiana General Assembly will gather at the state house for the traditional Organization Day. In theory, it is a day when agendas are set, priorities are discussed, and partnerships are forged.

In reality, these 150 individuals will divide into two groups - Republicans and Democrats, aka the Majority and the Minority. Every discussion, every debate, every vote, indeed nearly every day will be defined by political differences. And while those political differences matter, our common humanity should matter more.

Before any one of us is a Republican or Democrat, we are human beings. Before any one of us is Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist, or Agnostic, we are human beings. Before we are American, African, Indian, Indonesian, or even French, we are human beings. Before we are black, white, brown, male, female, rich, poor, young, old, gay, or straight - we are human beings.

And while our differences certainly matter, our common humanity should matter more - not just when responding to natural disasters, but in running a state government as well.