Clinton speaks at Northrop

The former president did not face protest while on campus.

Martin Jaakola

Walking into Northrop Auditorium earlier this week, I had mixed feelings about seeing former President Bill Clinton speak. After all, it was only a few months ago that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited campus to speak for the same Humphrey School of Public Affairs event series on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

During that fiasco, there were protests, debate over Rice’s outrageous speaking fee of $150,000 and even a colloquium that included a number of distinguished professors, some of whom questioned the value of her speech. However, approaching a protest-free Northrop immediately squelched my uneasy feelings.

After a number of succinct introductions from Humphrey School Dean Eric Schwartz and University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, Clinton accepted the Dean’s Award for Public Leadership from the Humphrey School.

Gracious yet humble, Clinton immediately pointed out that while a summary of his successes sounds good, people should not forget his failings — joking that he only takes introductions from people he has given a good job (referencing Schwartz’s position under Clinton working as a special assistant).

Through the lens of the Civil Rights Act, for which former Sen. Hubert Humphrey instrumentally garnered votes, Clinton delved into the past while continuing the fight to keep this legacy alive.

The importance of bipartisanship and cooperation was prevalent throughout his nearly 70-minute speech. Clinton covered a range of topics, including student debt, overpopulated prisons, immigration, health care and LGBT rights.

In addition, Clinton said he found that including differing views was beneficial in building successful economic policies during his administration. Clinton said Nelson Mandela was his inspiration to cooperate. At the end of South Africa’s era of apartheid, Mandela included members of the party that had originally put him in prison because the new government required people who had experience running the country. Putting differences aside, they were able to progress as a nation.

At the end of his speech, one of my questions remained. By all accounts, Rice, a successful black woman speaking about civil rights, should be far less controversial and more awe-inspiring than Clinton, a rich white guy. So, how did the opposite occur?

My answer is twofold. First, Clinton set a precedent by not speaking for a fee. In fact, the Humphrey School will use event proceeds (Schwarz estimates about $120,000 to $150,000) to support scholarships that promote diversity. Second, Clinton didn’t focus only on his successes or try to justify his failures. Instead, he geared the majority of his speech toward explaining how we can continue progress on civil rights issues through cooperation.

Unfortunately, a Q-and-A session didn’t follow Clinton’s speech, which is my only concern for this yearlong series of events. Having a dialogue in which the public can question important leaders is important, if only to symbolically show that no one is too important to participate in a dialogue.

Overall, I felt that Clinton’s speech was a positive development from Rice’s. Hopefully, future speakers will continue to embody Clinton’s values and also bring a healthy dialogue about significant, national issues to campus.