CHARLOTTESVILLE — In an increasingly politically polarized country, former President Bill Clinton said finding ways to work together is the best way to build the United States into a “more perfect union.”
Clinton was the closing keynote speaker Thursday for the University of Virginia’s first-ever Presidential Ideas Festival. A tie-in to UVA’s bicentennial founding celebration, PrezFest featured more than 60 White House veterans, journalists and scholars discussing the state of the American presidency.
As the only former president to speak at the event, Clinton offered a unique perspective.
The small Old Cabell Hall auditorium was packed with people eager to hear Clinton’s address, a mixture of curiosity and contemplation reflected on their faces.
Backlit by the soft-blue lights, the 72-year-old former commander in chief took the stage to share stories of his time in office and reflect on the ways the office has changed since he left in January 2001.
“It’s really important for you to decide, what is the job? What do you expect from the president? What is he supposed to do?” he said at the beginning of his speech.
Clinton mentioned his longtime friend Terry McAuliffe and in particular highlighted the former Virginia governor’s response in 2017 to the deadly white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer. The day of the rally, President Donald Trump was criticized for saying there were “very fine people” on “both sides” of the rally and for not specifically condemning white supremacy, though he has done so on several occasions in the months since.
Clinton said he was proud of how McAuliffe — who was in the audience — had handled the situation.
“One of the things we need when our conflicts are laid bare and our future is uncertain is for someone to stand up and say, ‘Look, we do or don’t favor division by race, by religion, by power, by gender, by sexuality — you name it,’” he said. “We do or we don’t allow bullying and, in one sad case here, killing people who don’t see things the way we do.
“Sadly, the response we got at that time from the White House was, ‘Well, there were nice people on both sides,’” he said. “The governor of Virginia on that day was my president when he said there was no place is this commonwealth for racism, for anti-Semitism, for any form of religious bigotry and for violence.”
McAuliffe elected against a run for the White House in 2020, instead saying he will focus on aiding campaigns in Virginia.
The rest of Clinton’s nearly two-hour speech revolved around the complex and ever-evolving role of the U.S. presidency, an office that he said at its core should seek to create a “more perfect union.”
“I think the best guide for what the main mission of the head of state is not in Article II of the Constitution, but in the simple, one-sentence preamble to the entire document,” he said.
Every president has had to define what a more perfect union means, Clinton said, and in order to do that they must decide who “we the people” is. To many other presidents, he continued, “we the people” meant not just those who looked like them or shared their same values, but the breadth of the nation’s diverse population.
“We should not be despairing if we’re worried about America dividing,” he said. “There have never been permanent gains or permanent losses in human affairs, and we’ve got a lot of hay in the barn — we just need to saddle up,” he said.
Clinton closed his speech on a hopeful note, encouraging the audience to keep expanding the definition of “we the people” and not to return hateful rhetoric with more of the same.
“Here we are on this little planet, living a miraculous life, given the responsibility to keep expanding ‘we the people’ and keep making our union more perfect,” he said. “If we keep doing our part, chances are we’ll get a president, and he — and, I hope to God, one day, she — certainly will do the same.”