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William Jefferson Clinton Commencement Address

Transcript of remarks to graduating seniors at Knox College

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Thank you very much, President Taylor. I must say, that's the most creatively humorous presentation of an honorary degree I have ever heard. I am ready at this very moment, Professor Factor, to accept a job. And since I have a good pension, I can work cheap. I'd like to thank President Taylor, the members of the board, and the elected officials in the audience.

I also am honored to be receiving an honorary degree with Professor Wilson, whose work I very much admire. I read Honor's Voice when I was President and was quite moved by it. And with Janet McKinley, who does such wonderful work with Oxfam and with Grameen USA.

For those of you who are looking for something good to do in the world to empower people to work themselves out of poverty, I recommend the microcredit movement. I was pleased last year when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus from Bangladesh, whom Janet knows, and for whom I campaigned relentlessly for 14 years to get the Nobel Prize. He told me that after he received it, the Nobel committee said, "Maybe Bill Clinton will quit calling us now."

Many people know that this microcredit movement is a grassroots movement where 97 percent of the loans, at least in Bangladesh, go to village women, where the repayment rate is almost 99 percent, higher than the commercial bank repayment rate. But for the purposes that bring me here, the most important statistic is this: 58 percent of the people use those loans, in a country with a per capita income of little more than a dollar a day, to lift themselves above the international poverty line. That is part of what I want to talk about, because you live in a world where intelligence, ability, energy, and dreams are pretty well evenly distributed, but education, opportunity, organization, and investment are not.

I spent most of my life in politics, and I loved it. I got tickled listening to the parallel stories of Abraham Lincoln coming here as a Republican and me coming as a Democrat. I was thinking that Knox has always been remarkably consistent. This university was born in the throes of the anti-slavery movement and was revolutionary from its beginning in being open to people of color and to women. So this is not such a balancing act after all, because if I had been alive when you gave the degree to Abraham Lincoln, I would have been a Republican. And if he were alive today, I think he'd be a Democrat.

The fifth debate Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas had here was an interesting one because it contained at the time Lincoln's most passionate attack on slavery. But that has tended to obscure what I think were the good intentions of his fellow citizen of Illinois, Stephen Douglas, as they were setting up what would later become their contest for the Presidency in 1860. Both of them were moving away from the extremes in their parties, struggling to find a way to hold the country together. When Lincoln ran for President in 1860, the truth is that's why he got this honorary degree. Your college was trying to help him get elected, and you wanted to give him a little boost. One hundred forty-six years later, you gave Stephen Colbert a degree to give his ratings a boost. That's what Al Gore now calls an assault on reason. In 2007, you're giving me an honorary degree so I can be attacked by Stephen Colbert.

John Quincy Adams once said after leaving the White House that there is nothing in life so pathetic as a former President. The good news is you can say whatever you want; the bad news is no one cares what you have to say anymore.

I want to say something seriously about what you're going to do with the rest of your life, whatever you get a degree in. I'm here for one reason, because John Podesta, class of 1971, was my chief of staff, has been my friend for about 37 years, is one of the ablest public servants and finest human beings I have ever known, and I would do anything he asked me to do. For eight years, we were arm in arm in the great struggles to prepare our country for the 21st century, to provide opportunity to all the people in America, to create a genuine sense of community of responsible citizens, and to move the world toward peace and prosperity and harmony.

I believe that is consistent with the driving passion of Abraham Lincoln's life, for he wanted, above all, to preserve the Union. He knew it required both individual liberties and rational compromises.

In the modern world, we are engaged anew and more urgently in a search for unity. It is a global search, but also a local one. You live in a time when knowledge is doubling every five years or so. Just in the couple of weeks before you came here to celebrate your commencement, there have been two astonishing scientific discoveries. One is all the people who are plumbing the depths of the human genome have discovered two variances which appear to be very high predictors of vulnerability to diabetes. This is really important in the aftermath of a recent study predicting that as many as one in three children born in this decade may develop diabetes, when the rising rates of childhood obesity have given us statistically significant numbers of children with what we used to call adult onset diabetes, something that never happened before. Last year we had a 9-year-old in Harlem, where my office is, diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. So finding these mysteries is important, and if we can do something to head this off, it will avoid running the risk that the youngest generation of Americans could become the first to have shorter lifespans than their parents. It's a big deal.

Then a couple days after that, I picked up the paper and I read that in one of the 100 stars closest to our own solar system, of all of the hundreds of billions of bodies in the universe, there is a planet orbiting which appears to have atmospheric conditions so close to our own that life might be possible. Alas, because it's still 20 million light years away, we can't find out. That is, unless you know some families here in Galesburg who are willing to commit to three or four generations on a spaceship. Otherwise, we'll just have to wait for them to come to us.

It's a stunning time. And the more we learn about all this, the more those of you who have a good education can take advantage of it.

It's also a more interesting time. Think about the difference in what this student body looks like and what it looked like when Mr. Lincoln got his honorary degree. Or what it looked like when Presidents McKinley and Taft were here. Or what it looked like just 30 years ago. You have students from virtually every American state, over 40 foreign nations, people from every different racial and ethnic group and different religious backgrounds. It's sort of a microcosm of the globally interdependent world which you will soon enter.

It's a much more interesting class and a more interesting world than it was 30 years ago, because we're bumping up against one another. But it has some significant challenges that you must meet if you'd like your grandchildren to be here 50 years from now. Climate change and the depletion of resources from trees and water and topsoil and plant and animal species and even oil itself make this an unsustainable time. We have to develop a way to grow that will permit others to follow us. Terror and weapons of mass destruction and the prospect of global disease epidemics like avian influenza make it an unstable time. We have to find a way to work together to minimize the forces of destruction and maximize those of unity.

This is also a dramatically unequal time, due to poverty, disease, the fact that 130 million kids never go to school, and one-fourth of all deaths this year will come from AIDS, TB, malaria, infections related to dirty water. Eighty percent of the people in the last category are under five years old. Even in America in the six years of recovery, which have been very good to people like me, median wages are stagnant and there's been an increase in the percentage of people working full-time falling below the poverty line and losing their health insurance. It's an unequal time here and around the world.

Complicating our ability to do what we need to do to deal with unsustainable, unstable, and unequal factors is the prevalence of a politics that is far more primitive at home and around the world than the problems we must confront, and one which tends to lag behind the consciousness of people who are thinking about what's going on.

We tend to be divided, all around the world, by religious, political, even psychological differences between those who need an enemy and those who are trying to make a friend, between those who believe our differences matter more than our common humanity and those who believe that our differences make life interesting and aid the search for truth, but our common humanity must always matter more.

Therefore, your first decision must be in which camp you will plant your banner. Do you need an enemy or, like Lincoln, will you accept one only if there is no other alternative? Do you relish your differences, but recognize that our common humanity is more important? Is your very identity caught up in the idea that you have to look at some other people with negative reference for religious, political, or other reasons, or do you feel more fulfilled when you look with pride on someone else's accomplishments and identify with their longings, their dreams, their successes, and their disappointments?

All the education in the world, all the knowledge in the world will not empower you to solve the problems of the current day or guarantee that your grandchildren can be in a place like this 50 years from now if you don't answer that first question in the right way.

Citizens today have more power to do public good than ever before without regard to their politics. I appreciate the mention of former President Bush. He and I have become very, very close friends. We've worked around the world on the tsunami, we worked in the Gulf Coast area in the aftermath of Katrina. Every summer I schedule a day to go spend with him and let him drive me around in that crazy speedboat of his, acting like he's younger than I am. He's 82 years old, still jumping out of airplanes. When I was President, I fell off a 10-inch step and tore my quadriceps in half. I love the guy.

Do we have differences of opinion? Absolutely. Do we argue and fight over this or that issue? Of course we do. But I believe at bottom he is a good human being. I revere the 50 years of service he's given to our country. I do not feel the need to look down on him to feel better about my party, my politics, or my life.

The sequencing of the human genome was completed when John and I were in our last year of service in Washington in 2000. I put lots of your money into that human genome research. I wanted to get to the end of the road before I left office so that we could begin to study all the mysteries and find solutions to all the physical problems that I believe genomic research will permit.

But the most important thing that I learned as a layperson from the sequencing of the human genome, with 3 billion of them in our bodies, is that every human being on earth genetically is 99.9 percent the same. Go figure. Just look around this crowd. Every difference you see between yourself and someone else, the color of your skin, the color of your hair, the color of your eyes, the shape of your body, every single thing is rooted in one-tenth of one percent of your genetic makeup. And yet, think about how all of us basically spend 90 percent of our time thinking about that one-tenth of one percent. Right? We do. We don't have to be a fanatic to be like that. I think, "Oh, I wish I were as thin as he is. I'd like to be as young as he is, but at least I'm not as old as he is. I can't hit a golf ball 300 yards anymore, but at least I can do better than that old coot."

All of us think like this, right? And it's all rooted in one-tenth of one percent. It's okay, because that's also the source of our creative juices and differences. But we need the emotional and psychological freedom that being aware of our common humanity gives us. That's what leads us into service. That's what leads us to make the most of our ability as private citizens to do public good.

Most of the people that I work for today didn't vote for me. They live around the world. We'll have 100,000 more kids on AIDS medicine who will now live normal lives this year. By the time they go to school and start reading newspaper articles in Africa, in India, in China, in Latin America, I'll be ancient history and they'll probably never know who I am. But it doesn't matter if we're 99.9 percent the same, because that's just about one-tenth of one percent.

That's what I wish for you: the joy that comes from all you got out of this university education to develop your mind and to enjoy what is special and unique about you. Keep in mind, with 3 billion genomes in a body, even one-tenth of one percent is a pretty healthy number. But I also wish you the peace of mind and the strength of character and the rootedness that comes from remembering what you have in common with others.

The other night I was in New York City having dinner with a bunch of friends of mine. I looked up, and about two tables over from me was Rush Limbaugh. I went over and shook his hand. It was the first time I ever had seen him, I think. I had a little visit with him. And I was so tempted after all the terrible things he'd said about me to tell him that he and I were exactly 99.9 percent the same. And I thought if I did that, the poor man will run weeping from the room and never even get his dessert. So I let it go.

Next month, I will make my annual pilgrimage to Africa to see the work we're doing in AIDS and development and to share the 89th birthday of my friend Nelson Mandela. When I look at him, I can't imagine that we're 99.9 percent the same, because even though we're friends, I hold him in such awe.

I say that to all of you to remember that if you put us together from greatest to least on this earth, you could hardly stick a straw between any of us. And I think you will find your greatest power, whatever you do for a living, if you take some time to serve. If you always work on trying to balance the enjoyment of your differences, including vigorous arguments, with the centering power of your common humanity, it is the single most significant thing that you have to do.

If you look at the troubles in the Middle East, if you look at how the Shi'a and the Sunni kill each other in Iraq, at the way the Taliban oppressed women in Afghanistan, the miseries of Darfur, people walking away from the realities of climate change, you name any problem in the world, the people driving the division without exception believe that what is special about them and their power and their money and their position is more important than their common humanity or their obligations to the next generation of humanity still to come. That is the fundamental question every single person must answer to make the most of this modern age.

The Torah says that he who turns aside a stranger might as well turn aside from the most high God. The Koran says that Allah put different people on earth not that they might despise one another, but that they might know one another and learn from one another. The Christian New Testament says that next to the commandment to love God, the second most important one is to love your neighbor as yourself. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says that you're not really human unless you feel the arrow piercing another's skin as if it had pierced your own.

So it turns out that all the ancient wisdom gets confirmed when they sequence the human genome and find out that all of our differences amount to one-tenth of one percent of our makeup, and that we really can't do anything alone.

In South Africa, where Mandela and I started a biracial youth service program like AmeriCorps that works in the townships, the kids adopted as their motto the Xhosa term "Ubuntu," which means, roughly translated into English: "I am because you are." If we cannot meaningfully exist without one another, then by definition what we have in common is more important than our differences.

I think all of you should think about that as you leave. I think nobody in this graduating class has a racist bone in their bodies. You don't have an elitist bone in your body either. I could tell that the way you clapped for the grounds staff that put the chairs up. That meant a lot to me. But you have gifts. And it is very important that we make the most of our gifts without falling too much in love with them.

North of Mandela's home, in the central highlands of Africa, where we also do our AIDS work, there's a fascinating tradition of greeting. When people meet each other on a path, the first person will say, "Hello. How are you?" But the answer is not, "I'm fine." The answer, translated into English is, "I see you." Think of that. Think of all the people in this world today who will not be seen.

The reason I was so happy that you clapped for the grounds staff is that every place there's a commencement exercise in America, we'll all get up and leave, and somebody will have to come in and clean up after us. And they'll have to fold up the chairs and clean off the litter. Some places the sod will be torn up and it will have to be resodded. And enormous numbers of the people who do that work feel like they are never seen.

So for you, I wish you the most of the modern world. I ask you to serve in some way. And I ask that your service, and your politics, whether you consider yourself conservative or liberal, Republican, Democrat, or independent, always be rooted in the unifying humility which Abraham Lincoln exhibited when he said, "We must proceed with malice toward none."

The only way you can give up your malice, your anger, and your division is if you believe that our common humanity is more important than our interesting differences, that I am because you are. And if you see your fellow human beings, all of them, and act accordingly, your grandchildren will be here 50 years from now, and you will live by a long stretch in the most fascinating time the world has ever known.

Good luck and God bless you all.

Knox College Commencement Address
Galesburg, Illinois
June 2, 2007

Bill Clinton at Knox College
President Clinton delivers the commencement address; below, with honorary degree recipients Douglas Wilson and Janet McKinley.

Douglas Wilson, Bill Clinton, Janet McKinley

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Printed on Wednesday, July 28, 2021