President Clinton, Harvard welcomes you!
Mr. President, usually to get a crowd half this large together at Harvard we have to give away diplomas. Today it’s only your presence.
Let me thank the many people who made this event possible. Cathy McLaughlin and her staff at the Institute of Politics. Our athletic director, Bob Scalise, who had something to do with that 9 and 0 season we’re celebrating. And the Institute of Politics’ director, David Pryor.
David, I’ve studied your career closely, and one of your final accomplishments as governor of Arkansas was ensuring that you were succeeded by William Jefferson Clinton. And now as you prepare to leave, at the end of the year, the Institute of Politics, we are looking for you to succeed again by finding us the right director of our Institute of Politics.
I want to recognize the elected officials who are here with us. Harvard’s mayor, Anthony Galluccio of the City of Cambridge, State Representative Alice Wolfe, Congressman McGovern, Congressman Capuano, Boston Council President Yancey, and all the members of the Boston and Cambridge City Councils. All of us are grateful for everything that you do.
Mr. President, our archives contain a videotape of the speech you gave almost exactly 10 years ago today at Harvard University. At that time you were running for the presidency of the United States, and you came to Harvard to describe the “New Covenant” that you envisioned America’s government forming with the American people. And what have the results of that New Covenant been?
The longest period of economic growth in our history. America’s successful transition from an industrial to an information age. A post-Cold War world that is more free and interdependent than before. Twice as much college aid. The greatest expansion of college opportunity since the GI Bill. And America crossing an important milestone with more than half our African-American students having the opportunity to attend college. Because of what you have done, the education system of this country is stronger, more diverse, and more accessible than ever.
Now, Mr. President, as I visit with students and visit with many others, they often say to me, “What was Bill Clinton really like?” Let me tell you what I say. I always say to them, “Think of the person in your college class who seemed to have the most time for everyone, certainly the most time for parties; who pulled the most effective all-nighters on the night before exams were due or term papers needed to be completed; knew the most people on the campus; did better than just about anyone else on most of the exams. He had managed to do this in a way where people did not envy him, but instead wanted to follow him. I don’t know what your study habits were exactly like when you were in school, Mr. President, but that is how I describe you.
In all seriousness, now after September 11, when leadership, when responsibility, are so very important, I want to comment briefly on the three attributes of President Clinton’s leadership that made the biggest impression on me as I served him through the eight years of his administration.
The first was the President’s constant commitment and demonstration that serious and successful leadership must be based on deep knowledge and understanding. The President never ceased to amaze me and all who worked with him with how much he knew and how much he studied. Whether it was the weekly quiz on the contents of The Economist Magazine – to which I was subject – the searching examination of Professor Danny Roderick’s book – which I didn’t actually agree with, but the President did – on globalization, the President on every subject knew as much or more than those who worked for him specializing in that particular subject.
The second thing the President demonstrated again and again and again was that when the chips are down, you have to have the courage to do what is right. I remember the night in January of 1995 when Bob Rubin and I and a group of others were in the Oval Office to tell the President that Mexico was on the brink of default with potentially grave consequences for the global economy, for Mexico, for Latin America. There was a little bit of misunderstanding in the room, and one of the President’s advisors said to Bob Rubin, “Bob, you’re suggesting a $25 million program for Mexico, right?” And Bob said, “No,” he was suggesting a $25 billion program for Mexico. A certain pall fell over the room. One of those present suggested that if we lent Mexico money and it did not come back, there could be grave consequences at the time of the next election.
I remember the President’s response. He said, “Look, I’ve got only two questions. If we don’t act, will something catastrophic quite likely happen?” We said, “Yes.” And second, “Is there a reasonable prospect that if we do act, a catastrophe will be averted?” And the answer was “Yes” again. And then the President said, “I could not sleep at night if we did not do this. This is the right thing to do. It is to make decisions like this that we are all here, and it is on those decisions and their consequences that we should be judged.”
Mr. President, because of your strength and your conviction, catastrophe was averted and the relationship between Mexico and the United States has never been stronger. And it was that way again and again.
Third, Mr. President, for eight years as you worked to build that storied bridge, or at least much-repeated bridge, to the 21st century, you always inspired a belief in the importance of public service and the fundamental value of public service. You challenged all of us who worked with you and all in America to be bigger than we thought we could be. The most recent and poignant reminder of the nobility of public service came on September 11, when the only people in America whose job it was to go up the stairs of the World Trade Center were public servants, people who worked for the government, supported, yes, by taxes.
Mr. President, it was a great honor to serve in your administration, and it is a great honor to ask everyone here to join me in welcoming to Harvard the 42nd President of the United States of America, William Jefferson Clinton.