Today the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University presented the Shell Distinguished Lecture Series Presentation, “Embracing Our Common Humanity: Meeting the Challenges of Global Interdependence in the 21st Century” by The Honorable William J. Clinton, 42nd President of the United States.
I went to stand in the Faculty & Staff line at 1:30pm for a 3pm speech. The presentation was Rice community and invited guests only, but the lines were still quite long. While we sat in the bleachers (the speech was at Autry Court, where Rice plays basketball), the VIPs gathered in chairs on the floor. My coworkers amused themselves by identifying various Houston/Rice bigwigs. I didn’t get excited over any of them until we spotted John Glenn in conversation with someone. That was cool.
Clinton’s remarks were exceptional. I am not extremely politically savvy, but I fancy that I try to pay attention. This man had the events and people of the world at his fingertips; I wish we had more presidents as articulate.
I took some notes on the speech, although trying to recreate it would be folly. The man has a great presence, and it did feel very casual for all the security and VIP seating and whatnot. He concentrated on the idea of a worldview, which is a concept I’ve explored in other contexts, mostly religious, before. Here are my notes:
What is the fundamental character of the 21st century world? Interdependence.
Is it good? Yes, but… the world is unequal (that one is obvious), unstable (a new sense of shared vulnerability), and unsustainable (climate change, economic instability). He mentioned that while 70% of our oil is used for transportation, it’s the other 30% that is the real problem, because we have no viable substitutes for those products. (Hello, medical plastics…)
A solution? go from simple interdependence to integrated community, characterized by 1)shared responsibility, 2) shared benefits, and 3) a shared sense of genuine belonging, not just living on the same land.
This would involve revitalizing the military to be more efficient, but also revitalizing diplomacy. There are limits to how far anyone can impose their will. Building a world with more partners instead of more enemies is cheaper than going to war.
Paths to progress on these goals: relentless home improvement, here and abroad. Small governments cannot grow when they suffer corruption or incapacity. But also, the new world is dependent upon the American Dream being renewed at home, improving the lot of middle and working class Americans.
We, the Rice community and VIPs, represented a slice of the elite, and he acknowledged that several times. We, as a group of individuals, have more power to do than any group before… and there is a lot of doing that needs to be done.
After the speech Clinton took questions submitted by students. This was where I went all starry-eyed with admiration. The questions were sufficiently detailed and complicated that I had trouble even following the syntax for some of them. Almost all of them concerned foreign policy. Clinton took every question in stride, and answered them with clarity, sincerity, and knowledge – I’m sure he prepared ahead of time since the questions were pre-approved, but there was a big stack of cards and he only got about five of them. I was very impressed at the sheer amount of information he managed throughout the later part of the afternoon.
And at one point, someone asked him if he would comment on James Baker’s role in the Supreme Court decision on the Florida election in 2000. This was especially pointed as James Baker was sitting to Clinton’s left, having introduced the speech as Honorary Chair of the Institute with his name. Clinton laughed, and actually stomped his feet with what looked like glee as the question was asked, and Baker leaned over to Rice President Leebron and made a “whoo-hoo” sort of twirling gesture with one hand. That was just fun.
It was an entirely worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours of my day, even on the incredibly uncomfortable bench seating in the court.