TEXARKANA, Ark. (AP) — Former President Bill Clinton's past in Hope, Arkansas, as well as his hometown's future prospects, were the main topics of his recent remarks.
Clinton was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting and banquet of the Hope/Hempstead County Chamber of Commerce. Hundreds braved drenching rain to attend the event at Hempstead Hall on the campus of University of Arkansas Community College at Hope.
Clinton reminisced with two men he has known since kindergarten in Hope, Joe Purvis, who served as an assistant attorney general when Clinton was governor of Arkansas, and Mack McLarty, Clinton's first White House chief of staff.
The conversation started with discussion of how the values Clinton learned in Hope informed his life and political career.
"I tell everybody who'll listen I'm the luckiest person in the world because I was born at the end of World War II before the television culture. I was born in a small town where people knew each other's stories and saw each other. Hope was three-dimensional people, not little cartoons like we're all portrayed on TV in one place or another. And I think that's something that I really value," Clinton said to the Texarkana Gazette.
He added that the culture of interpersonal relationships he grew up in — a culture based on listening, "paying attention," as he put it — would improve how people get along.
"You know, what we had here was gospel singings, square dancing, the county fair and storytelling. It wouldn't do any harm in an America so divided and upset if people learned each other's story. Because once I hear your story, you're a person more than a Republican or Democrat, or black, white or brown, or Jewish, Christian or Muslim, or anything else.
"Once I hear your story, first you're a person. Then I get to take all that other stuff into account. If you start taking everything else into account before you know who the person is, you're almost always gonna be wrong, either too gullible or too hardhearted and dunderheaded. So I owe that to all of you and mostly to your parents and grandparents. But I had a great time, and it's stunning what I can remember from when I was 4, 5 and 6.
"I think one of the things that's hurting — all over the world, by the way, not just the United States — that's hurting the vibrancy of democracy is that we come to these debates all loaded with preconceptions we got from somebody else instead of an encounter we got from whoever it is they're judging. So there's a real blessing to being brought up in a small town and being raised on storytelling," Clinton said.
The economic prospects for rural America are looking up, largely because of the internet, and communities such as Hope should look to other, similar places where business is thriving as examples, he said.
"Now in theory, with the rise of the internet, if you have cheap, affordable access to the internet in theory there are thousands of jobs that can be created in rural America just as well as in urban America, and since the cost of operation and living is smaller, you actually in theory should, if people are trained for it, be able to go faster.
"It is still much harder to create jobs in rural America than urban America or suburban America because of the concentration of potential consumers and providers of capital and other things. But it's easier now than it has been in times in the past, and I think that's the most important thing," he said.
UACCH is key to economic development in Hope, Clinton said.
"You've got all you need here at this university. I'm telling you, this is by far the most important asset you've got now, by far, in my opinion. Because it will enable you to create an economy for five years, and then if it's changing like crazy you can create another economy for five years. You can get information right now about are there any jobs available for which people aren't skilled. But more importantly, what are the projections for five years from now, the jobs that will be in driving distance? You can train for that," he said, adding that the community should reach for the unexpected.
"Somebody, probably somebody here at this institution of higher education, should be tasked with getting a committee of you together and come up with one thing nobody expects you to do, so that if it breaks, you might get a hundred-to-one return.
"Find that something where we might hit gold, where we might redefine the future, and our kids can stay home and build something truly beautiful," he said.
On the topic of friendship, Clinton brought up his post-presidency relationship with the late former Pres. George H.W. Bush.
"When the East Asian tsunami hit and then when Katrina hit, both times the president, Bush 43 (George W. Bush), asked his dad (George H.W. Bush) and me to work together. And our then-20-year-old friendship, almost, was rekindled. I've always been very grateful to George W. Bush for doing that, and the relationship I had with the elder President Bush lasted until his last day on Earth, and I adored him.
"And I think it's a bad thing that we have to agree with somebody on every political issue to be friends with them. And it's a bad thing if we can't love somebody and disagree with them at the same time. It's like we're not free to think. We've gotta turn each other into two-dimensional cartoons, not three-dimensional people. Big mistake," he said.
Clinton laid out his thoughts on how a president should handle foreign policy and reflected on his record in that regard.
"If you're president, and you care about the national security, there are three things you have to keep in mind, not just one. One is, try to do what you promise to do, and we all promise to keep the country strong and have an effective military. Number two, deal with the incoming fire. Then number three, look down the road and see what you think your successors might want to face, and try to maximize the fertile ground you leave for the people behind, so they too can meet new challenges.
"It's what I tried to do, and you know, I think the record on peace and security is good. I wish it were better. I wish we had moved quicker to stop some of the killing in Rwanda, and I wish Yasser Arafat had been smart enough to take the peace deal I got for him. It's a long way away now, nobody can imagine.
"It was an honor. It worked out pretty well for us. I'm sorry I didn't get Bin laden. Lord knows I tried to before he did what he did. And I'm grateful that my wife was in the room when they had to decide whether they had to take a big chance on infuriating the whole world to gamble that he was where they thought he was, and they did it," he said.
Love of country should be the basis of any foreign policy debate, Clinton said.
"You should want every American president, without regard to party, to succeed in national security. There's a way to talk about these issues without looking like you're not a loyal American. We should all be pulling for the country. And don't forget this: In over 200 years, critics on the right and the left have proclaimed our demise. So far, they've all lost money.
"It's fine to debate national security issues, which weapons systems should we do, should we put more here or there — we all need that. But it should be done with an attitude of humility and reverence that we have lives to save here and a future to protect. And we should respect people who respectfully disagree with us and say, 'No, here's a better way to do it.' Because this is a problem that will never go away as long as we're all on Earth, it's just taken new forms like this cybersecurity problem. And we've just got to stay at it. There's no permanent solution, but there is so far nothing that approaches permanent defeat," he said.