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Our current polarized political climate started in the Clinton years

Nov 19, 2015

I went to Michigan State University last night to see former President Bill Clinton, who was the keynote speaker at a new annual event, the Jim Blanchard Public Service Forum.

Clinton’s hair is silver these days. He’s thinner than you may remember. He is vibrant, but no longer looks much younger than he is, but he still has it. 

His personality still fills a room, and he has that priceless gift of making whomever he is talking to feel as if, for those few moments, he or she is the only person on the planet.

Former Governor and Ambassador Jim Blanchard gave MSU a million dollars to establish the forum and an annual statesmanship award. Getting Bill Clinton was both a coup, and a logical first speaker.

Blanchard has been close to the Clintons since both were boyish-looking governors back in the 1980s.

Had he not lost his own reelection bid in 1990, he might well have been Clinton’s running mate, or been awarded a major cabinet post. Instead, Blanchard eventually became the man Canadians still regard as the best ambassador Washington ever sent.

Michigan State has been an important place for Bill Clinton. Twenty-four years ago, it was the site of that year’s final presidential debate, where Clinton not only took on the first President Bush but also H. Ross Perot, the most popular third-party candidate in our lifetimes.

Clinton won that debate, and the election.

Twenty years ago, I saw Clinton speak at Michigan State again. His presidency was at a low point; Democrats had just lost both houses of Congress for the first time in more than 40 years. But Clinton delivered a riveting, nationally praised commencement speech focused in part on how to cope with terrorism.

Ironically, that was just days after the Oklahoma City bombing, just as last night’s appearance came days after Paris. Clinton spoke last night for nearly an hour without notes, holding a hungry audience of more than 700 people largely spellbound.

Some felt that if it wasn’t for the 22nd Amendment, Clinton might now be running for a seventh term.

But as I listened, I also reflected that Clinton’s was the first modern presidency in a negative sense.

He was the first post-Cold War president. The first since Woodrow Wilson to take office in a world where there was no Soviet Union, and in a year in which the World Wide Web and a consumer-friendly Internet first burst on the scene. That should have been the start of a wonderful new era, but in many ways, it was the opposite.

Prior to that, there was a saying that politics stopped at the water’s edge. During the Clinton years, bipartisan cooperation began to vanish, even in foreign affairs. We saw the beginning of the current polarization and nastiness that has largely ruined both politics and much of the media today.

Today, that’s worse than ever, and the Clintons, of course, are in another presidential campaign. Last night, the former president recommended a book on bipartisanship.

But though he knows more about a wider range of policy options than almost anyone, I don’t think Clinton has any more idea than the rest of us as to how to get there.

Which is, fundamentally, sad.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.