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HOFSTRA UNIVERSITY, HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - A heavily-attended personal address by America's 42nd president, William Jefferson Clinton, was the highlight of a day of panels and forums examining his administration as part of the 11th Hofstra Presidential Conference, William Jefferson Clinton: The "New Democrat" from Hope.
The highly-anticipated Presidential Conference Address drew a full house to the Hofstra Arena late Thursday afternoon, as conference attendees looked forward to hearing the former president speak. Following a pre-address performance by the Hofstra University Wind Ensemble and Symphonic Band and an introduction by his former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Clinton took the stage, embraced by the audience's loud ovation.
Speaking before an audience with a large percentage of students, Clinton had a message for the younger members of the crowd. The mix of warning and encouragement covered the advantages and downsides of a life in politics. Despite the troubles he's seen, he enjoyed the ride.
"If I could live my life over again, I would not avoid a life of public service," said Clinton. "With all its slings and arrows, I would do it all over again."
For much of his address, Clinton delivered his own relatively unflinching review of his career in the White House, discussing the positives of his presidency while also noting his failures, including public controversies such as the slaughters in Rwanda, Bosnia and Haiti; and the Whitewater affair, which he described as a "four-year charade" he put the country through; and the Waco firefight.
"I regret going into Waco instead of waiting them out," said Clinton about the siege that killed 10 people. "I was responsible."
Frequently the former President was interrupted by outbreaks of applause when he brought up his successes, including advances in gay rights, debt reduction and social programs such as Americorps, as well as his battles with a Republican Congress. Occasional jobs at his political opponents drew laughter, though he expressed respect when talking about his bi-partisan relationship with George H.W. Bush. Overall, Clinton was often quite poignant in his words, as when discussing his part in the Middle East peace process.
"America should always try in the Middle East," Clinton said. "Less people die when America tries in the Middle East."
Wrapping up his address, the former President made a plea to judge his time in the White House based on what he did as America's leader, and not on the impeachment that marred his second term, as he said historian Douglas Brinkley does. Publicly disagreeing with Brinkley, he labeled the process that impeached him as "an egregious abuse of the Constitution" and that he should receive plaudits for taking it on. His defiant stance led to another burst of applause, as he reflected on how he expects history to view him in the end.
"When I go to my grave, I expect to have a smile on my face," said Clinton.
Following his speech, Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz presented Clinton with an honorary degree from the University .
Earlier in the day, one of the first academic panels of the conference, "Presidential Elections," was kicked off by remarks from Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Peter Kalikow, who earlier in the week endowed a chair in Presidential Studies at Hofstra. His brief comments on his interests in presidential politics set the stage for Cazenovia College history and humanities professor John Robert Greene, who examined the success of Clinton's first presidential campaign, and attempted to dispel the idea that only the state of the American economy led to George H.W. Bush's electoral defeat.
"More so than either Bush or [Ross] Perot," said Greene, "Clinton understood that a successful candidate could not rely on the luxury of consistency."
Delivered by James D. King, of the University of Wyoming, the panel's second paper focused on the Clinton Administration's second term, and the changes that occurred within the White House, in comparison to other presidencies.
The presence of a pair of Clinton's presidential advisers made for a high-powered lineup, starting with CNN personality Paul Begala. Calling on the skills that made him a valued spokesman for Clinton's administration, Begala had the crowd laughing with an entertaining, anecdote-punctuated commentary that began by drawing a parallel between Clinton and the race horse Secretariat, and revealed that Al Gore would not have been his own choice for a vice-presidential candidate.
"'I may die,'" remembered Begala, repeating the reason for the choice Clinton told him, illustrating the way Clinton thought about his Presidential responsibilities before he was ever elected.
Clinton senior adviser Stanley B. Greenberg followed Begala, starting out by admitting he preferred to not follow him, which earned him some laughs. More straightforward in his delivery, Greenberg shared his thoughts on both papers, the Clinton campaign strategy and the failures of Bush as a candidate and president, explaining that the main topics of the 1992 campaign were key to Clinton's victory, as he battled for the "forgotten middle class."
"[Clinton] would talk about the ladder," said Greenberg, "how there needs to be the opportunity for responsibility at the top and the bottom. He was for making a broke and corrupt government work for average Americans."
In a post-panel question-and-answer session, Begala again commanded the crowd's attention, tackling the questions of faith, the Democrats' effectiveness, Clinton's efforts to modernize the party and what advice he would give the current President. Comparing Clinton to Michael Jordan and his effect on the Chicago Bulls and slamming Sen. John Kerry's campaign as "awful", the former staffer was animated as he imitated his former boss, criticized him for lying about his affair and spoke about George W. Bush's troubles.
"He's got to clean house," said Begala, as he laid out the challenges Bush and his staff have faced, naming Iraq as the biggest problem. "I don't have a way to get out of there, and I don't think he does either. It's like that song by The Clash, `Should I Stay or Should I Go.' `If I stay there will be trouble, if I leave it will be double.'"
Begala had another pop-culture reference handy as he spoke about a possible change to a conservative Supreme Court.
"If [the Supreme Court] were to overturn Roe v. Wade," Begala said, "Democrats would win the next elections in every single state. And I come from Texas. We elect Republicans to every office. It's like Coke v. New Coke. They took Coke off the shelves and people freaked out. They overturn Roe v. Wade, and you'll see the same thing."
In a transformed Physical Fitness Center, the Presidential Conference Luncheon capped off a successful first morning for the three-day event. Hundreds of conference attendees enjoyed a Luncheon Address by former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin. Before Rubin took the microphone though, President Clinton made his arrival at the PFC, to a soundtrack provided by the Hofstra University Jazz Ensemble. The short walk to his seat on the dais at the side of President Rabinowitz drew the audience to their feet. Once the crowd found their seats, introductions by Rabinowitz and Hofstra Trustee Frank Zarb welcomed Rubin to the podium.
Laying out the legacy of Clinton's economic policies, including an increase in jobs, productivity and income, and a decrease in national debt, Rubin illustrated the former president's unwillingness to back down in the face of political risk when he believed his plans would help, often being rewarded in the end for not playing to his critics.
"Ideology is a very poor guide for economic policy," Rubin said, reflecting on Clinton's efforts to bring together two traditionally disparate economic views, in strong roles for markets and government. "Effective decision making is not believing in absolutes through thick and thin.[but] taking into account change and weighing the cost."
Speaking on the domestic and international economic policies of Clinton's administration, Rubin discussed the opposition faced by Clinton's financial plans for America after his election. He also shared his opinion that the plans that worked in 1993 could work today as well, when, as Rubin feels, the risk of increased economic trouble for America is looming.
More pointed statements were delivered by former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, who said Thursday that had the current administration of George Bush paid attention to the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on National Security, "we might have avoided 9/11."
Hart, who co-chaired the commission, made his remarks as part of a panel on "Confronting Terrorism" during the Clinton administration. But Hart, who never served in that administration, spoke about the role of the commission and the 50 recommendations it made on Jan. 31, 2001, including how to prepare for terrorist attacks.
Hart said his last attempt to get the administration to heed the commission's report came in a meeting with then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice on Sept, 6, 2001, just five days before the attack on the World Trade Center.
As the day wound to an end, discussion focused on the environmental community William Jefferson Clinton was working towards through executive decisions during his days as President of the United States and his legacy.
Panelists speaking on environmental issues at the conference poked holes in that view. Speaking on the issue of declaring National Monuments and creating environmental awareness, Jeanne N. Clarke of University of Arizona and Graham G. Dodds of Concordia University both said that Clinton wanted to create controversy for Republican government officials and said that the issues surrounding these decisions were more of a "pay back" towards impeachment proceedings.
John Podesta, former Chief of Staff of the Clinton Administration for the last three years of presidency, fought back on that notion, saying that these decisions should "not (be) described as payback, but more like a pay forward." He stated that Clinton wanted what was best for the environment with these decisions in mind and wanted to push the government to "the right regime...and take the right kind of investments."