LAWRENCE – Former President Bill Clinton delivered an ode to bipartisanship and to his one-time political foe, former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, when he accepted a leadership award at the University of Kansas on Monday.
Clinton, who defeated Dole in the 1996 presidential election, said the Kansas icon exemplified bipartisanship.
“One of the things that I always liked about Bob Dole is that he could fight you like no tomorrow, but he never closed the door to actually do something that could benefit a real person,” Clinton recalled about Dole’s leadership of Senate Republicans during the first term of Clinton’s presidency.
“I kept my door open. He kept his door open,” Clinton added.
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The Dole Institute of Politics at KU cited the country’s economic expansion and balanced budget under Clinton in awarding him the 2015 Dole Leadership Award, which honors public service.
Clinton’s speech covered a broad range of topics: the Bosnian War during his presidency, how cellphones are spurring economic development in areas of Southeast Asia damaged by the 2004 tsunami, and the study of the human genome.
The genome study showed that physical differences of race, gender and body shape account for only half a percent of each person’s genome.
“It means that we’re 99.5 percent the same,” he said, contending that it’s disastrous to believe that our differences outweigh our commonalities.
Clinton said the country has become more racially tolerant and less homophobic in recent decades, but there is still “one remaining bigotry: We don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.”
One remaining bigotry: We don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.
Former President Bill Clinton, speaking Monday in Lawrence
The U.S. Constitution is designed to encourage compromise, Clinton said, joking that it should have been subtitled “Let’s Make a Deal.”
“If you want public service that addresses the great concerns of the age … we’ve got to go back to that,” he said.
Message of cooperation over conflict
Clinton told KU students that he would trade in his time as president to be 20 again, saying that they live in an age that is potentially one of the most glorious in human history – and potentially one of the scariest.
Stephonn Alcorn, a junior studying finance who is involved in KU’s student government, said “for what we’re dealing with on campus and in the student Senate, his conversation couldn’t have been any more timely.”
Three of KU’s student leaders are facing impeachment related to complaints that they haven’t done enough to address racism on campus. Alcorn said Clinton’s message of cooperation over conflict is one the KU community needed to hear.
Clinton was impeached by the U.S. House in 1998 but was acquitted by the U.S. Senate. Every member of the Kansas delegation supported impeachment or conviction at the time, including then-Sen. Sam Brownback.
Ashley Reece, a freshman studying political science who identified herself as a Republican, said she agreed with Clinton’s assertion that the country has become too polarized.
“We really need to work across the board if we want to get things done,” said Reece, who hopes to go into politics one day. She doesn’t agree with Clinton’s political views but said the experience of seeing a former president speak “was awesome – just the fact that he would take time out of his day to come to KU.”
Sebelius: ‘Most likely’ will back Hillary Clinton
Clinton’s visit to Kansas comes while his wife, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president. He did not mention his wife’s candidacy during the speech.
Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was among those attending the sold-out event.
“It was fabulous. Once again, I think Bill Clinton sounded the right themes in this day and age, that we’re interdependent, we rely on each other, we’re much more alike than different …and that’s exactly the message I think that’s so important right now,” Sebelius said.
Sebelius said she would “most likely” back Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, also at the speech, said Kansas lawmakers could learn from Clinton’s and Dole’s ability to work together.
“Remember what he said,” Ward said. “His door was open, and Bob Dole’s door was open. Unfortunately in Topeka, too often the door on the other side is closed, and ‘we’ve made our decision, take it or leave it.’ ”
The Dole Leadership Award comes with a $25,000 prize, which Clinton has donated to the institute to help fund a women in leadership program. One previous winner is former President George H.W. Bush, who Clinton bested in the 1992 election.
After his visit to KU, Clinton headed to Pittsburg State University.