The Right Thing
For several years, I featured a 1998 speech by Bill Clinton to commemorate Martin Luther King Day. In 2005, I wrote this, and in the spirit of Democratic unity I'll humbly offer it up today on the occasion of King's real birthday in the hopes that it might remind us a little bit of who we are:
The Heart Of The Democratic Party
I posted this speech once before but I think it's worth a rerun. In the summer of 1998 Bill Clinton was slowly being assassinated by the death of a thousand cuts. The press was as bloodthirsty as I've ever seen it. It's hard to remember now, but the feeding frenzy was overwhelming. I can still see the looks on their faces as night after night the media held their witch burning tribunal, cackling madly as they picked over the "evidence" with prurient delight. It was a very sick time.
On the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have A Dream Speech" Bill Clinton gave the following unprepared speech. It was the most heartfelt speech I ever heard him give.
August 28, 1998
The summer of 1963 was a very eventful one for me: the summer I turned 17.
What most people know about it now is the famous picture of me shaking hands with President Kennedy in July. It was a great moment. But I think the moment we commemorate today, a moment I experienced all alone, had a more profound impact on my life.
Most of us who are old enough remember exactly where we were on Aug. 28, 1963. I was in my living room in Hot Springs, Ark.
I remember the chair I was sitting in. I remember exactly where it was in the room. I remember exactly the position of the chair when I sat and watched on national television the great March on Washington unfold.
I remember weeping uncontrollably during Martin Luther King's speech. And I remember thinking, when it was over, my country would never be the same and neither would I.
There are people all across this country who made a more intense commitment to the idea of racial equality and justice that day than they had ever made before. And so in very personal ways, all of us became better and bigger because of the work of those who brought that great day about. There are millions of people who John Lewis will never meet who are better and bigger because of what that day meant.
And the words continue to echo down to the present day, spoken to us today by children who were not even alive then. And, God willing, their grandchildren will also be inspired and moved and become better and bigger because of what happened on that increasingly distant summer day.
What I'd like to ask you to think about a little today, and to share with you -- and I'll try to do it without taking my spectacles out, but I don't write very well and I don't read too well as I get older -- is what I think this means for us today. I was trying to think about what John and Dr. King and others did and how they did it, and how it informs what I do and how I think about other things today.
And I want to ask, you all need to think about three things . . . .
No. 1, Dr. King used to speak about how we were all bound together in a "web of mutuality," which was an elegant way of saying, whether we like it or not, we're all in this life together. We are interdependent. Well, what does that mean? Well, let me give you a specific example: We had some good news today. Incomes in America went up 5 percent last year. That's a big bump in a year. We have got the best economy in a generation. That's the good news.
But we are mutually interdependent with people far beyond our borders. Yesterday, there was some more news that was troubling out of Russia, some rumor, some fact about the decline in the economy. Our stock market dropped over 350 points. And in Latin America, our most fast-growing market for American exports, all the markets went down even though, as far as we know, most of those countries are doing everything right. Why? Because we're in a tighter and tighter and tighter web of mutuality.
Asia has these economic troubles. So even though we have got the best economy in a generation, our farm exports to Asia are down 30 percent from last year. And we have states in this country where farmers, the hardest-working people in this country, can't make their mortgage payments because of things that happened half a world away they didn't have any direct influence on at all. This world is being bound together more closely.
So what is the lesson from that? Well, I should go to Russia because, as John said, anybody can come see you when you're doing well. I should go there.
And we should tell them that if they'll be strong and do the disciplined, hard things they have to do to reform their country, their economy, and get through this dark night, that we'll stick with them. . . .
The second thing.
Even if you're not a pacifist, whenever possible, peace and nonviolence is always the right thing to do.
I remember so vividly in 1994 . . .I was trying to pass this crime bill, and all of the opposition to the crime bill that was in the newspapers, all the intense opposition was coming from the N.R.A. and the others that did not want us to ban assault weapons, didn't believe that we ought to have more community policemen walking the streets, and conservatives who thought we should just punish people more and not spend more money trying to keep kids out of trouble in the first place. And it was a huge fight.
And so they came to see me, and he said, "Well, John Lewis is not going to vote for this bill." And I said, "Why?" and they said, "Because it increases the number of crimes subject to the Federal death penalty and he's not for it. And he's not in bed with all those other people, he thinks they're wrong, but he can't vote for it." And I said, "Well, let him alone. There's no point in calling him" because he's lived a lifetime dedicated to an idea and while I may not be a pacifist, whenever possible, it's always the right thing to do to try to be peaceable and nonviolent.
What does that mean for today? Well, there's a lot of good news. It's like the economy: the crime rate's at a 25-year low, juvenile crime's finally coming down. . . .
Half a world away, terrorists trying to hurt Americans blow up two embassies in Africa, and they killed some of our people, some of our best people -- of, I might add, very many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, American citizens, including a distinguished career African-American diplomat and his son -- but they also killed almost 300 Africans and wounded 5,000 others.
We see their pictures in the morning paper, two of them who did that. We were bringing them home. And they look like active, confident young people. What happened inside them that made them feel so much hatred toward us that they could justify not only an act of violence against innocent diplomats and other public servants, but the collateral consequences to Africans whom they would never know? They had children, too.
So it is always best to remember that we have to try to work for peace in the Middle East, for peace in Northern Ireland, for an end to terrorism, for protections against biological and chemical weapons being used in the first place.
The night before we took action against the terrorist operations in Afghanistan and Sudan, I was here on this island up till 2:30 in the morning trying to make absolutely sure that at that chemical plant there was no night shift. I believed I had to take the action I did, but I didn't want some person who was a nobody to me, but who may have a family to feed and a life to live, and probably had no earthly idea what else was going on there, to die needlessly. I learned that, and it's another reason we ought to pay our debt to the United Nations, because if we can work together, together we can find more peaceful solutions. Now I didn't learn that when I became President; I learned it from John Lewis and the civil rights movement a long time ago.
And the last thing I learned from them on which all these other things depend, without which we cannot build a world of peace or one America in an increasingly peaceful world bound together in this web of mutuality, is that you can't get there unless you're willing to forgive your enemies. I never will forget one of the most -- I don't think I have ever spoken about this in public before -- but one of the most meaningful personal moments I have had as President was a conversation I had with Nelson Mandela.
And I said to him -- I said: "You know, I have read your book, and I have heard you speak.
And you spent time with my wife and daughter, and you have talked about inviting your jailers to your inauguration." And I said, "It's very moving." And I said: "You're a shrewd as well as a great man. But come on now, how did you really do that? You can't make me believe you didn't hate those people who did that to you for 27 years?"
He said, "I did hate them for quite a long time. After all, they abused me physically and emotionally. They separated me from my wife, and it eventually broke my family up. They kept me from seeing my children grow up." He said, "For quite a long time, I hated them."
And then he said: "I realized one day, breaking rocks, that they could take everything away from me, everything, but my mind and heart. Now, those things I would have to give away, and I simply decided I would not give them away."
So as you look around the world, you see -- how do you explain these three children who were killed in Ireland or all the people who were killed in the square when the people were told to leave the City Hall, there was a bomb there, and then they walked out toward the bomb?
What about all those families in Africa? I don't know. I can't pick up the telephone and call them and say, "I am so sorry this happened." How do we find that spirit?
All of you know I'm having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness. And I ----. It gets a little easier the more you do it. And if you have a family, an Administration, a Congress and a whole country to ask, you're going to get a lot of practice.
But I have to tell that in these last days it has come home to me again, something I first learned as President, but it wasn't burned in my bones -- and that is that in order to get it, you have to be willing to give it. And all of us -- the anger, the resentment, the bitterness, the desire for recrimination against people you believe have wronged you -- they harden the heart and deaden the spirit and lead to self-inflicted wounds.
And so it is important that we are able to forgive those we believe have wronged us, even as we ask for forgiveness from people we have wronged.
And I heard that first -- first -- in the civil rights movement. "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
I never doubted Clinton's sincere commitment to racial justice, but that speech illuminated something for me that I'd never quite understood before. The Democratic party is dysfunctional in so many ways, and it makes me crazy with its lack of discipline. (Just as Clinton did.) But, considering this country's sordid racial history, being the party of African Americans is the heart of what we stand for. It's what gives us our soul.
We like to think that we are about reason and rationality while the other side is all hot emotionality. But, we are all humans blessed with the full spectrum of human attributes. The difference, it seems to me, is which human qualities lead us and where they take us.
The civil rights movement gives us the perfect window. Democrats led with their hearts on that issue. Although they knew it was politically dangerous, they did it anyway because they were moved as human beings to do the right thing against their own political best interests.
Immediately, the Republicans coolly and methodically set out to take advantage of the opening. The party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had no personal stake in the issue of racial justice. The Republican party had, since Lincoln, been the African Americans' home. Both of those men were from California, so they also had no regional attachment to the "southern culture" that would have made them nostalgic for the old ways. Their Southern Strategy was pure, cold political calculation and it served them very well. A look at the 2004 electoral map confirms it.
We led with our hearts on civil rights and they led with their heads. And we were right. I believed Bill Clinton when he said that he'd cried when he heard the "I have A Dream Speech." Many, many people did. That moment symbolized the crucible of American racial culture. It challenged us to rise above the original sin of slavery and do the right thing. The people who heard that call were the people who formed the heart of the modern Democratic Party.
And when we hear some of our own complain about the Congressional Black Caucus "mau-mauing" somebody or say derisively that the African American constituency should be less race based and more class based, we need to remember that the congressional black caucus is also the fighting liberal caucus. (They were the first and loudest to protest the bogus impeachment, a fact which Clinton knew that day very well.) They are Democrats because the Democratic Party invited them in and asked them to sit at the table when it was politically difficult to do. They knew that Bill Clinton, for all his foibles, understood that and appreciated what that meant. And they stood by him when he was being persecuted by the other side. If there is today a more reliable constituency of authentic courageous liberal Democrats, I don't know what it is.
Martin Luther King was murdered before his dream could be realized. But it's getting better --- slowly but surely. There will be no going back. It's an enormous achievement for a screwed up country like ours that we've finally managed to make progress in spite of the huge structural and cultural obstacles that were virtually built into our political system from the very beginning.
Democrats led the way on civil rights and paid a huge political price. For all the talk of spinelessness and weakness that you hear out there today (and not without reason), when the chips were down, the Democratic Party showed then that it would stand up for what was right.
There is no doubt which party Martin Luther King would choose today.
I'm not evolved enough, I'm afraid, to be forgiving for what the Republicans have done to this country these last few years. I'll need some time to come to that. But, I appreciate the notion that we can't let them sour us and turn inward. Nothing will ever change if we do that. And no matter what, I figure as long as African Americans are in our party fighting the good fight, the least I can do is stand beside them.
I was talking to a friend yesterday about the fact that once again, Democrats are taking the rougher road for the right reasons. They are in the strongest position they've been in in years to become a real governing majority. The Republicans are dazed and bloated from their gluttonous binge on tax dollars and war and now there is another window for the Democrats for the first time in decades. And yet, rather than play it safe with a possibly comfortable victory in sight, they are using this singular moment of opportunity to break down the barriers to women and African Americans that have existed forever in our political system.
Regardless of the recent ugliness (and that which is bound to come when the Republicans finally engage) that fact makes me proud to be a Democrat and honored to support any of the candidates, all of whom have been brave enough to run in an historic campaign at a time when the Party could have hoarded its "political capital" and won easily. It's pretty idealistic stuff in a time of great cynicism and I don't think we appreciate that as we should.
Update: This is the smartest blog post I've read about the historical dynamics we are seeing played out in this race.