Thank you, Chris, for your introduction, for your leadership, for the new energy and innovation you’ve brought to The New Republic. I thank you and Guy and Frank and all The New Republic team for inviting me here tonight. I’m honored to be here in the presence of Justice Ginsburg, one of my better appointments.
And my—I want to thank Representatives Chris Van Hollen, Keith Ellison, Xavier Becerra, Jared Polis, and Sean Patrick Maloney for being here. I think Senator Schumer was here, and I think Nancy Pelosi is coming. And I can’t run for anything, so now I’ll say what I think.
It’s a great thing, you know, being an ex-president. You can say whatever you want. And the sad thing is, no one cares anymore.
Unless your wife might run for office. Then they care if you…
Then they care if you mess up.
Sometimes I forget what Washington’s like, and then I’m rudely reminded. Tonight I had a reporter come up to me and said, “You were elected and The New Republic heralded you that you were elected. And then they spent eight years trashing you. Do you have hard feelings?”
I should have said, “No, that was so long ago, I don’t remember.” I did say, truthfully, that in the last two months, I had lived to go to my 50th high school reunion, I have become a grandfather, and my daughter took her leadership at our foundation, and Hillary and Chelsea and I had been there. I was ill-suited to give public speeches during the recent election season because I wasn’t mad at anybody.
I know I’m mad about some conditions that exist here and around the world, but that’s one of the things that I would like to say. When my long-term friend, Wynton Marsalis, who enjoys the distinction, I believe, of being the greatest trumpet player in the world in both the jazz and classical genres… was—he was up here playing that tune, and I wondered if—he didn’t say, but if it was written in 1914. It could have been. It was a little rag. But I thought we ought to begin there.
In 1914, the wealthy countries of the world were actually slightly more trade-dependent as a percentage of their GDP than they are today. And many people believe that because we have such economic interconnections, the prospect of a war was unthinkable. Then the Archduke gets bumped off and, before you know it, we’re in this unbelievable conflict. And it was unusually bloody because we fought with 20th century weapons and 19th century battle tactics, leading to inexplicable carnage far beyond anything any of the participants could have anticipated or wanted.
Nevertheless, The New Republic was being born, and former President Theodore Roosevelt was excited enough to invite its founders to talk about it, because he understood quite clearly that he had had the great good fortune to be president when we were moving from an agricultural to an industrial society, a largely settled population, but one with a lot of immigrants. And he tried in each of his public roles to both catapult America onto the world stage, but also to change America in a way that would give every person a reasonable chance to succeed and to live in dignity and decency.
In that sense, he was trying to create a new republic, which is what our founders always intended. When they pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor to form a more perfect union, that was 18th century speak for an always modern message. In modern language, it is, “Hey, we’re not perfect. I mean, look at us. We got slavery. We discounted slaves as 6/10th of a person. You got to be a male property-owner to vote. How crazy is all this?”
Thomas Jefferson said he trembled to think that God was just whenever he thought of slavery. He never ever freed his slaves, unlike Washington.
The mission was: We’re not perfect, we’ll never be perfect, we can always do better. It was, in beautiful language, the encapsulation of what former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said about campaigning and governing. He said, “We campaign in poetry, but we must govern in prose.” That’s what the phrase to form the more perfect union meant.
So here we are in the middle of this enterprise, and Teddy Roosevelt had made his contributions, and then there was a back-sliding period, and much of what he began would be completed by his cousin, FDR, when he became president, again, facing a great war. But you have seen a lot and shared with us a lot in the pages of The New Republic about these last 100 years. And I thought, by the way, the essay book was stunning. It’s really amazing, the people who have written for The New Republic from the very beginning, that they knew how they saw things, how they got people to think.
And so what I would like to do tonight is to say: We’re all pretty familiar with what’s happened in the last 100 years, but I think it’s important not to airbrush it too much. And by that, I mean that every attempt to make America’s republic new, every attempt to form a more perfect union (inaudible) every attempt to create a world we would like to live in and we would like our children and grandchildren to grow up in and flourish in, all of those were met with obstacles, had periods of great hope, followed by setbacks, followed by small steps, followed by struggles.
History is a messy thing. We like to think, you know, it’s just a rushing river. It may be, but there’s a lot of rocks in the river. And all of this you have chronicled. And people all along the road who have read it have benefited.
Now, you say the theme of this night is a new century of idealism and innovation. Well, the good news is, there’s plenty of innovation. It’s interesting, I pick up the paper in New York and I know I’m an old guy reading about a new world when the big struggle is, should Uber be allowed to drive along with the cabs and should Airbnb be allowed to put people up along with the Regis, St. Regis Hotel? I mean, it’s an interesting time to be alive. There’s lots of innovation. And the social networks are flourishing.
And on a more serious note, we’re getting profound benefits from the sequencing of the human genome. I spent $3 billion of your tax money on that. And it was worth every penny.
It really was. I worry about us underfunding basic research and science and technology, but…
But we announced the first sequencing in 2000, but, boy, it’s exploded since then. And there was a study about a year ago that said already $180 billion worth of economic benefits had flowed just to the United States from this effort, never mind what’s happening around the world.
Tomorrow, Hillary is going down to the St. Jude Hospital in Memphis, which I really admire. It’s the biggest children’s cancer treatment center, you know, and they don’t charge anybody. You want to give them money, you can, but they—they don’t charge. And they do a lot of research in applying the—what we know about the genome. They discovered, for example, one form of relatively rare child cancer that was already a patented, FDA-approved drug, but with 100 percent success at curing children, except when it wasn’t and it was 100 percent fatal. And they knew the drug had something to do with causing the early demise of these children.
So before they could do the pictures, the guy on a—basically, an experiment, cut the dose in half about the time they were able to track the genomic variances. And they found that, to the group that was dying, they all got well when they took the half a dose and the group that all lived didn’t get any better with a half a dose. They had to have a whole dose to get well.
Now, thanks to technology, they open-source every finding and a cancer center my foundation helped to build with Dr. Paul Farmer in Partners in Health in Butaro in Rwanda, near the Ugandan border, is the only real cancer center in that part of Central Africa. They get all that stuff 24 hours after it’s validated. And so does every other center all over the world.
There’s a lot to feel good about. The Millennium Development Goals expire next year, and I hope they’ll be replaced by a new set, but we are going to reach the goal in reducing extreme poverty. And we are going to reach the goal…
We are going to reach the goal in health care, thanks to the precipitous decline in the mortality rate for AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, infections related to dirty water. Now, a whole new set of other challenges richer countries get the more like we do and start to get sick and die like we do. There are a lot more heart disease, strokes, cancer developing in emerging countries. But there’s—there are beneath all these really troubling headlines a lot of good trend lines.
One of the things I always liked about The New Republic is you could hear unique commentary on the headlines, but there’d always be an article or two about the trend lines, whether positive or negative. And I think it’s a real dilemma now, because of the economics of running magazines and newspapers, or even online sites, being able to disaggregate between a legitimate daily headline and a long-term trend line which may at least cause people to pause before they become suicidal over the daily headline. Or euphoric over the daily headline.
So what I would like to say about the innovation, there’s going to be a lot of it. And it’ll be more good than bad. There is a lot of idealism among young people which is unevenly expressed at election time. That’s a delicate way of saying sometimes they show up and sometimes they don’t.
But through it all, there’s been this evolving progressive vision that began first by stopping bad things, ending child labor, ending the 80- or 90-hour workweek. And then came along the minimum wage. And then came along basic working conditions and the rise of the labor movement and the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement and the environmental movement, and then the astonishing progress in the gay rights movement just in the last couple of years.
So there is a progressive vision that people ought to be able to prepare themselves for work and earn a decent living that will support themselves and their children. They ought to be able to educate their kids. They ought to be able to get another job with a different set of training if their job disappears. And they should be judged, to paraphrase Dr. King, not by the color of their skin or by their gender or their sexual orientation or their religion or whatever, but by the content of their character and the landscape of their capacity.
We have come a long way toward that vision in the last 100 years. But there is still a lot of work to build a 21st century vision of our republic, to make the union more perfect, to widen the circle of opportunity, to extend the reach of freedom, to expand the definition of community. That’s how I define building a more perfect union.
The world is again beset by identity politics. I so hoped when I was president and we made the peace in Northern Ireland and in the Balkans, in Bosnia, and Kosovo worked out pretty well, and we resolved a lot of smaller, thornier projects, and even had eight years of progress toward peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, that this new century would see a containment of identity politics.
But ISIL persecutes Yazidis, an ancient tiny sect, and beheads people in the name of identity politics. Boko Haram kidnaps kids and tries to turn young girls into property, including involving them in what amounts to slave marriages, in the name of identity politics, masquerading as religion. Identity politics is behind what stirs up all the popular fervor in what Russia has done in eastern Ukraine.
And so we are now dealing with a world where modern technology and innovation may be in the service of brilliant social innovators all over the world, in and out of government, or may be in the service of people who want to drive a stake right in the heart of The New Republic’s progressive vision all over the world, with the use of new technology, driven by ancient and often primitive impulses.
So we’re back to the struggle we’re in, the chase. And every citizen, I believe, has an obligation in some form or another to build up the positive and reduce the negative forces of our interdependence, because one thing we do know—and it’s the reason I’m—I’ve been so upset about the shape of this immigration debate in America is, in a world where borders look more like nets than walls, we are interdependent, whether we like it or not.
So the only thing that remains is to define the terms of our interdependence. And they will be defined in either positive or negative terms or, human nature being what it is, in both.
The president’s going to make his immigration comments tomorrow. As far as I can tell, every governor—every president in the modern era has issued some executive orders affecting immigration. So I think it—I imagine he’s on pretty firm legal footing.
But here’s what I want to say about that. The United States is the best-positioned big country in the world for the next 20 years, positioned. We are younger than every wealthy country but my tiny homeland, Ireland. We are more diverse. We have this thicket of high-tech innovation and great universities. And we are beginning to improve our capacity to train people for jobs that are actually there.
We have a good venture capital network. We are beginning to see money flow into investments, instead of just casino trading now. We have manufacturing coming back, and we live in a world now where the cost of manufacturing is much more dependent on materials and energy and transportation and much less dependent on labor, so we can make everything in America again, if we choose.
We are very well-positioned. We have three problems. We have a dysfunctional economy where all the gains are still going to people in the top 3 percent to 5 percent, mostly through and up.
We have dysfunctional politics, where people say they want us all to work together across party lines, but if you read the election results, they don’t bear it out. They beat the living daylights out of people that have a really good record of working with members of the other parties. They said, thank you very much (inaudible) go away.
And we live in a world where the future of cooperation for creative purposes is still somewhat uncertain, whether it’s the paralysis of the Eurozone in setting an economic policy that would plainly work and restore more growth, or all the other conflicts that we’ve been talking about.
So we should be working for a world of inclusive economic growth and prosperity with more jobs, rising wages, declining poverty, and more social mobility. That’s the most important thing of all. And we should be working for a government where they fight like crazy over what they honestly disagree with each other on, but they do it the way that people did—our founders at the Constitutional Convention. Eventually, they make a deal. If you read the Constitution and you look at the limitations, it ought to be subtitled, “Let’s Make a Deal.”
If you saw the great movie, “Lincoln,” which earned Daniel Day-Lewis an Academy Award, it almost looked like if you didn’t know it was Abraham Lincoln and you wiped away all your preconceptions of his deity-like qualities, it was pretty messy there trying to get that 13th Amendment passed. Mark Twain said, “The only two things people should never see being made are sausage and laws.” But he did it. He made the system work.
So we need inclusive economics. We need inclusive governance. And we have to give back to systems of cooperation which minimize the happening of big, bad things and maximize the chances that good things will flow. And we have to do it through networks. That is the business of the 21st century. We can do it. But you can’t do it by ignoring the evidence and going back to economic strategies that always fail on that score, and top-down economics does every time. It never works. And you can’t do it if you refuse to talk to people that disagree with you and to work with them.
You know, Americans have come so far since, let’s say, the era of Joe McCarthy. I mean, think about it. We’re less racist. We’re less sexist. We’re less homophobic than we used to be. We only have one remaining bigotry. We don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us. And if you look, actually residential patterns in America are changing. I mean, not just on by Congressional Districts. I mean fixed-line borders, like counties, the internal, social and political complexion of them are changing, and we also are siloing our information sources.
I read the other day that 47 percent of self-identified conservatives will only watch Fox News on television. That’s good for Fox News. I mean, it’s a good business model. My mother-in-law, who died a couple years ago at 91, and whom I love dearly and who lived with Hillary in our Washington home while she was secretary of state and senator, was the most liberal member of our family. She watched Fox News every day. I asked her if she was trying to give herself a heart attack. She said, “No, I’m just trying to keep my blood pumping.”
But then my—but then she seriously said—she said, first of all, Bill, I need to know what they’re saying so I have an answer and I need to know what they’re saying in case they’re right. She said, nobody’s wrong all the time. It’s like almost biologically impossible.
So it was really interesting to see for me—as I had time to study this in the last few years—how much we are disaggregating ourselves from people who disagree with us.
So one of the things that I hope The New Republic will do in the coming century of its life and innovation is to actually make people debate an issue instead of labeling each other. I was shocked—you know, campaigns I used to be a part of, you’d see these negative ads or positive ads. But they were usually like reasonable ads subject to fact-checking, like, “My opponent wants to vaccinate cows against mad cow disease, and I think it’s a terrible waste of money.” And the other one said, “No, we really should do this, because just one mad cow can make a lot of people sick.”
In other words, they would hit each other over something real. This was, “My opponent voted with the president 93 percent of the time.” Well, what did they vote on? Would that include all the budgets? What is it? There’s all this sort of dark labeling business going on. And I think the differences are healthy, but not if they’re meaningless designed to shut people’s brains down instead of fire them up, because unfortunately if you want to return to the kind of broad-based prosperity we had in the 1990s, it will require some really clever thought.
For example, I was blessed because the information technology revolution moved out of Silicon Valley, and the exchange companies here in northern Virginia, and the videogame companies in Texas, and Route 28, and it went into every aspect of the American economy. So all I had to do was put the pedal to the metal and try to figure out how to get it to places and people that would otherwise be left out and left behind. And it was 8 percent of our employment, 20 percent of our job growth, 33 percent of our wage growth, guaranteeing broad-based prosperity. The bottom 20 percent of our workforce’s income grew as much as the top 5 percent, the only time in more than 40 years. A hundred times as many people moved out of poverty into the middle class as during the Reagan presidency, which was the high point of trickle-down economics.
Now there are people who say, if you look at Uber, Airbnb, all the fun stuff, that now we’re on the 100 percent downside of that and all these technological innovations are by definition using less labor and not starting enough economic activity in some other place to generate more jobs. I don’t believe that, by the way, because we’re still a couple million jobs or more we could be generating in America on the energy revolution, which would in turn create a lot of other jobs, and because the biotechnology revolution is just getting underway, and because there are four or five categories in which there will be more jobs created in health care, even if we continue to implement the law and we continue to lower the price of it relative to our competitors.
But this is the first thing we have to do. We have got to focus on having an economy where prosperity is more broadly shared. And we have to think about it for the rest of the world, too, because a lot of the appeal of a lot of these groups comes to young, angry people who don’t have anything to do when they get up in the morning and don’t have anything to look forward to and think, unless they go pick up a rifle or a bomb, every tomorrow will be just like yesterday.
When I was born at the end of World War II, more than half The New Republic’s life ago—alas, way more than half—my native state’s income was 56 percent, I think, of the national average, the second poorest state in the country. But if you could put clothes on your back and food on the table and feed a neighbor who walked up unannounced, nobody really thought they were poor. And it was relatively rare to see somebody who had nothing to do and no way to earn any money.
When I was in law school, I had six jobs, never more than three at once. I never felt burdened or put upon, because I always knew that I could do something. I became a lawyer because I wanted a job where nobody could ever force me to retire. I wanted to die with my boots on, so I’m a little—I still have boots on—I’m atypical, I guess, for—now that I’m a certified senior citizen.
But the point is there was this sense of possibility in our country. So we had to do the civil rights revolution, because we were cutting too many people out of it, but once we did that, there was a sense of possibility. We have got to recover that. And we have to understand, in my opinion, that immigration reform is a part of that.
Having lost it, I can tell you: Youth matters. The youth of a workforce matters. One of the problems is, according to Fareed Zakaria’s show last Sunday, Americans think 31 percent of our population are immigrants. And in fact, it’s about 12 percent or 13 percent.
But I really was almost physically ill at the—what some people say when all those Central American immigrants showed up at the border. I don’t even know if everybody here knows this, but there had been zero net in-migration from Mexico in the last four years. Zero net in-migration from Mexico, partly because the previous president, Mr. Calderon, established 140 tuition-free universities. And last year, Mexico, barely a third our population, graduated 113,000 engineers, the United States 120,000. They’re in the innovation business. All you got to do is go to Mexico City now and look around.
But people from Central America came up, because the narcotraffickers and the gangs that back them went into the three poorest countries in Central America with no capacity. The fourth of the very poor countries, Nicaragua, whether we agree with the politics of Mr. Ortega or not, they got a tough army and a tough police force, and they can protect their people from those forces.
George W. Bush signed a bipartisan bill saying that if somebody showed up on our border and they felt they were at risk, they had a right to a hearing. It was a good and decent thing. It’s fine if the administration is trying to protect people where they live so they can process there and they’re not all lined up on the border, but to think that this means, oh, the border’s out of control, the world’s coming to an end, we don’t need immigration reform, it’s wrong. Those people will make America’s future.
Do we have to have fair rules? Do we have to make people wait in line, do you not want people jumping? Yeah, all of that’s true. But the more prosperous our neighbors get, the less illegal immigration we’ll have and the more we’ll want people to come here and, if they get an education, to stay here, particularly, and contribute to us. So I’m looking forward to what will be said tomorrow.
Same thing about health care. Several of the criticisms of health care have been valid, but they never start with this statement: “Whatever happens, it can’t be as bad as what we had before the law passed.” We had 17.8 percent of our income going to health care before the law passed. The next big rich country was France at 11.8 percent. That’s $1 trillion a year. A trillion dollars explains a lot of no pay raises, stagnant wages, people stuck, less social mobility. It’s now down to 17.2 percent and dropping.
In my native state, Arkansas, we finally rank first in something good. We had the largest reduction in uninsured in the country because my governor took the Medicaid expansion and convinced the Republican legislature to take it and flip it into a private policy that Blue Cross wrote for basically the administrative fees. As a result, 100 percent of the people have been helped, because with no uncompensated care, insurance rates are going down there. They’re going up in the states around.
But nobody understands it or believes it, so everything he tried to say in the last election, people said, “I just don’t believe you. The federal law could not have had anything to do with this. I have been told too many times how lousy it is.” So they voted against the governor with his 72 percent approval rating for people who said they’d get rid of it.
The New Republic can affect that, not by pretending there’s only one side of the story, but making sure people at least know what’s going on. We’ve got—if you want to have inclusive governance, there has to be a conversation that has some rough relationship to the facts. And I don’t mean just the facts that are useful in a political debate. Everybody in a busy life has to be careful not to become vulnerable to the storyline and have it then turn out to be inconsistent with the story.
But I’m just telling you, you should not be pessimistic about America. And you should not be pessimistic about the world. These guys are not going to win over the long run in the Middle East with the strategy of decapitating everybody that disagrees with them. The local people (inaudible) now, the Kurds are fighting back. It may be a long, hard fight, so nobody wants to live that way. They are recruiting by and large who are looking for a quick trip to Heaven because they think all those tomorrows on Earth are going to be just like yesterday.
The most important thing we can do in America is to return to a spirit of innovation and idealism and optimism and possibility. It’s not about material gain. It’s about making sure people have enough. And you should feel hopeful the objective circumstances within our grasp to shape the future are there. Our big problem is we don’t have inclusive economics, we don’t have inclusive politics, and we don’t have enough networks of cooperation around the world to make a lot of good things happen and keep the big, bad things from happening.
What we have to do is fairly simple, fairly straightforward, but the details are complex. That’s where The New Republic comes in. That’s why you’ll be needed for another 100 years. That’s because developments being what they are, half of what I just said tonight will probably be out of order in 20 years, maybe in 20 minutes, for all I know, but I think more like 20 years. The next 20 years look good to me if we can develop inclusive economics with inclusive politics and we can get back to working together to make good things happen around the world.
It’s still a pretty great country or we wouldn’t still be here after all this time. It’s still the longest-lasting continuous democracy in human history. The New Republic has chronicled 100 years of it, from two world wars, a Great Depression, this financial crash, and every other calamity that could be thought.
I just finished reading a book about the modern decisions about interrogation and torture and everything that George Washington had to make in the Revolutionary War. And I was reminded that he didn’t win many battles in the beginning and he was often derided as a mediocre surveyor with a bad set of false teeth.
Everybody that’s bet against America has lost money so far. But if we forget who we are, and if we forget we all need to be judged by the same set of rules—not one set for one group and another for another—we will be in trouble.
The New Republic can help us, not free of criticism for the progressives, but to fill our heads with something worth remembering. I remember I was criticized by someone in that first term of President Bush, who said that—he criticized me and, ironically, Colin Powell, and to (inaudible) he said that our big problem was that we were trapped in a reality-based world and that in a world where we were the only superpower, we could make reality. And I was asked to comment. I said, “Man, I grew up in an alcoholic home. I spent my whole childhood trying to get into the reality-based world. I like it here, and I would like to stay.”
I have people—you know, I had people laughing about it, but you can keep us in the reality-based world, without undermining innovation, without undermining idealism, without undermining hope. And that’s pretty well what this magazine’s mission has been for 100 years. I wish you 100 more. We need you now maybe more than ever. Thank you very much.
(h/t The New Republic)