Monday, February 18, 2008

When Bill Clinton Rode a Unity Pony 

Bill Clinton, Georgetown University, July 1995:
Today I want to have more of a conversation than deliver a formal speech about the great debate now raging in our nation, a conversation not so much about what we should do, but about how we should resolve these great questions, here in Washington and in communities all across our country. I want to talk about the obligation of citizenship imposed on the President and people in power and upon all Americans to find common ground....

Politics has become more and more fractured and pluralized, just like the rest of our lives. It's exciting in some ways. But as we divide into more and more sharply defined organized groups around more and more stratified issues, as we communicate more and more with people in extreme rhetoric through talk radio, mass mailings or sometimes semi-hysterical telephone messages right before elections, or 30-second ads designed far more to inflame than to inform, as we see politicians actually getting language lessons on how to turn their adversaries into aliens, it is difficult to draw the conclusion that our political system is producing the sort of discussion that will give us the kind of results we need....


We can do these things--and it's not an "either/or." You don't have to choose between being personally right and having common goals.


I believe - and you've got to decide whether you believe this - that a democracy requires a certain amount of common ground. I don't believe you can solve complex questions like this at the grass-roots level or at the national level or anywhere in between if you have too much extremism of rhetoric and excessive partisanship. Times are changing too fast. We need to keep our eyes open. We need to keep our ears open. We need to be flexible. We need to have new solutions based on old values.

We can't get there unless we can establish some common ground. And that seems to me to impose certain specific responsibilities on citizens and on political leaders.


So I say to every citizen, do you have the information you need? Do you ever have a discussion with somebody who is different from you? Not just people who agree with you but somebody who's different. Do you ever listen to one of those radio programs that has the opposite point of view to yours, even if you have to grind your teeth? And what kind of language do you use when you talk to people who are of different political parties with different views? Is it the language of respect or language that sees a suspect? How do you deal with people? This is a huge thing.


I think we have got to move beyond division and resentment to common ground. We've got to go beyond cynicism to a sense of possibility. America is an idea. We're not one race. We're not one ethnic group. We're not one religious group. We do share a common piece of ground here. When you read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and you'll find that this country is an idea. And it is still going now in our 220th year because we all had a sense of possibility. We never thought there was a mountain we couldn't climb, a river we couldn't ford, or a problem we couldn't solve.

We need to respect our differences and hear them, but it means instead of having shrill voices of discord, we need a chorus of harmony. In a chorus of harmony you know there are lots of differences, but you can hear all the voices and we can hear the notes we have in common. And that is important.


In our hour of the greatest peril and the greatest division when we were fighting over the issue which we still have not fully resolved, Abraham Lincoln said, "We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies."

My friends, amidst all our differences, let us find a new, common ground.

Thank you very much.

Excerpts above from Bill Clinton's "Common Ground" speech, Georgetown University 1995.


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