President Bill Clinton closed the Presidential Ideas Festival with an expansive assessment of the office of the presidency inspired by two particular phrases from the preamble to the Constitution.
“We the People--that becomes the responsibility of the president, to work for 'we the people' in forming a more perfect union,” Clinton said. “So, to do that, every single president, from George Washington to Donald Trump, consciously or not, has had to define what ‘more perfect union’ means. And in order to do that, [the president] must first decide who, according to the preamble, constitutes ‘we the people.’ ”
When he was in the White House, Clinton said, he consumed biographies and histories of his predecessors.
“Over the course of eight years, I made a genuine effort to understand what their strengths and weaknesses were, and how they did and did not fit with the time, and how they defined what it meant to be president,” Clinton said.
Clinton emphasized the importance of learning from history in trying to interpret the present. The former president often returned to this theme as he traced the legislative acts, decisions, and challenges that many former presidents faced, from George Washington and the subject of slavery, Thomas Jefferson and the expansionist ideals of Lewis & Clark, or Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.
“At the cost of his life, he did make our union more perfect,” Clinton said of Lincoln.
Clinton noted that at the start of the 19th century, immigrants flocked to America. But as the Civil War began, some immigrants promoted sedition against the national government because they feared that if the North won the war, Lincoln would free the slaves, who would then travel to New York and take their jobs.
“Sound familiar?” Clinton asked.
Emphasizing cooperation over conflict, Clinton shared several examples of presidents attempting to bring opposing political parties together for collaboration rather than dissention.
Still, as he pointed out, whenever history revealed progress, there was inevitable reaction, “in fact or in practice.” After slaves were freed, the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson declared that “you can absolutely practice legal segregation, as long as it’s separate and equal, but everyone knew it was definitely separate, and most definitely not equal.”
In the 20th century, whether it was President Truman working toward the creation of the United Nations, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, or the attacks on suspected Communists during the Red Scare, leaders continued to re-define their interpretation of “we the people.”
“We have to decide now some fundamental things,” Clinton said. “We are living in the most interdependent time in history, and we are still the best-positioned country in the world, but we are not as big as China. And we are not going to be able to keep them down, but we should be able to keep them honest in trade deals and in matters of national security, involving particularly cybersecurity. So, what’s the best way to do that?”
Working with opposing political parties, Clinton offered as one answer, detailing his work with President George W. Bush in a leadership project that brings together people from both parties for a six-month tour and learning sessions inside the presidential libraries.
“It is my experience that it is almost impossible to extinguish the urge to make our Union more perfect,” Clinton said. “But there are forces who would, by making sure that it becomes more ideological, more racially homogenous, less engaged with the rest of the world, and more dedicated to having one set of rules for ‘them’ and another set for ‘us.’ ”
Pointing to immigrants journeying to the United States today because of fears of violence and death in their home countries, Clinton said: “We need the president to speak for a bigger ‘we the people,’ not a smaller one.”
In closing, Clinton reminded the audience of the recent viral photo of a black hole in the universe, 55 million light years away, and how ours is just one of more than a billion galaxies. “I think life is short, and that should make you feel bigger, not smaller,” Clinton said. “When I get discouraged, I try to think of something big like that--that puts our lives into perspective.”
Ultimately, we should all do our part to continue to push “we the people” and the formation of a more perfect Union, Clinton said.
“If we do our part, chances are, we’ll get a president, and he—and I hope to God, some day, she—who certainly will do the same.”