Former President Bill Clinton (SFS ’68) delivered the second lecture in his Georgetown series Wednesday, focusing on the importance of understanding policy in broader political debates.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unexpectedly attended the event, sitting next to University President John J. DeGioia and her former chief of staff, Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who is now executive director of Georgetown’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Hillary Clinton was last on campus in February to present the 2014 Hillary Rodham Clinton Awards for Advancing Women in Peace and Security. Many former Clinton aides also attended the lecture in Gaston Hall.
When he took the stage, Clinton joked about his wife’s presence.
“It’s been a long time,” he said. “She hasn’t had to sit through one of these in ages.”
This year’s event took place one year to the date after Clinton’s first speech in the series, which covered influences on Clinton’s political views and his commitment to public service. Clinton will give two more lectures in the series over the next few years. The next will focus on politics, he said today.
In his lecture, Clinton covered three main policies: economic strategy during his time in office, welfare reform and peace processes in the Middle East. The bulk of the lecture focused on economic policy, comparing details from Clinton’s terms to the economic situation after the 2008 financial crisis.
Throughout his speech, Clinton compared the “storyline” of a policy to its effects and details, criticizing media coverage of the Affordable Care Act and policies from his terms, including the 1993 budget, the 1997 Balanced Budget Act and his increase of the earned income tax credit.
“If a policymaker is a political leader and is covered primarily by the political press, there is a craving that borders on addictive to have a storyline,” Clinton said. “And then once people settle on the storyline, there is a craving that borders on blindness to shoehorn every fact, every development, every thing that happens into the storyline, even if it’s not the story.”
Throughout the portion of his speech devoted to economics, Clinton incorporated charts and graphs, pointing to a PowerPoint slideshow with occasional technical difficulties. One graph compared growth during Clinton’s administration to growth under President Ronald Reagan, which Clinton used in his criticism of supply-side economics.
“We had a plan that restored fiscal responsibility, increased investment where it would do the most economic good and structured the tax system and a lot of our programs to lift middle class wages,” Clinton said. “I made deals when necessary, but I’ll talk about that next time.”
In his discussion of his 1996 welfare reform, Clinton also compared the dominant “storyline” to his experience, pointing out that he had worked on welfare reform since 1980 as governor of Arkansas.
“The storyline when I signed the welfare reform bill was, ‘The Republicans have got Clinton now, they forced him to sign this horrible bill because he wants to get re-elected,’” Clinton said. “Now, the facts were different.”
Clinton ended by talking about peace processes in the Middle East, he said, “because they’re relevant to today and I think I almost never hear it reported accurately.”
Of peace processes, Clinton said it is most important for negotiators to realize, “It’s not about you — it’s about them.”
He referenced his time negotiating peace in Ireland and Kosovo before discussing his efforts as a peacemaker between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in 2000.
After the lecture, Diondra Hicks (COL ’15) led a question-and-answer session with Clinton, for which questions were screened in advance, as they were for lectures by Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) earlier this year. A faculty member from the Speech and Expression Committee, the president of the Georgetown University Lecture Fund and a Clinton staffer chose questions that covered science and technology, the effects of an aging U.S. population and economic growth in areas that have been especially hurt by the recession.
Because of the lecture series’ theme of “a life in public service,” the Clinton Foundation chose Hicks to moderate the question-and-answer session from a list of students involved in social justice provided by Student Affairs and the Center for Social Justice, according to Maggie Moore, communications officer for arts and sciences. Last year’s question-and-answer period with Clinton was led by former Georgetown University Student Association President Clara Gustafson (SFS ’13).
Students began lining up in earnest around 4:30 a.m. for the 10:30 a.m. lecture. Emily Stephens (SFS ’17) and Matt Martin (COL ’16) were the first in line at 3 a.m., ending up with seats in the back of Gaston Hall’s ground floor.
“I think it was worth it,” Martin said. “I loved the surprise Hillary appearance.”