On April 30, President Bill Clinton will give the second of a four-part lecture series at Georgetown University, focusing on the people, events, lessons, and guiding principles that have shaped his career in public service. In April 2013, President Clinton gave the first lecture of the series, sharing stories about people who have impacted and shaped his career. Read an excerpt of last year’s lecture at Georgetown and tune in to watch the second lecture on policy and public service live at 10:30 a.m. ET.
I want to talk about people, purpose, policy, and politics. To me, the most important thing is the first. Most people get in real trouble when they forget that the purpose of their power is not to impose their will on others, but to let other people be empowered to live their lives better—or as I always say, to have better stories. I want to start this series by talking about that.
People ask me all the time how in the world I ever got elected President. It’s a mystery to me, too. Only two governors of small states have ever been elected, and when I was born in Arkansas at the end of World War II, our per capita income was only 56 percent of the national average. Only Mississippi was lower. No one in my direct family had ever been to college. My father was killed in a car wreck before I was born. My mother went back to nursing school and my grandparents raised me until I was four, with a lot of help from my great uncle and his wife. People talk about this like it was a disadvantage. It was actually probably the key to all my later success. You can’t imagine life without a cell phone and a computer, but I was born to a family without a television or even a private telephone line. We were on what you would call party lines. You think people are snooping today? Your neighbors could pick up the phone and listen to who you were chewing out, and you had to wait until your neighbors got off the phone to make a call. So Arkansas was by conventional standards poor, and deeply segregated, but in both the black and white communities, families were more coherent up and down the economic spectrum than they are today. There were more two-parent households, there was less divorce, and there was more “character building,” if you will, at home.
I have employed at one time or another four members of the Kearney family, an African-American family from a tiny town of 1,000 in the southeast corner of Arkansas. There were nineteen of them: seventeen kids, a mom, and a dad. The father was a sharecropper and the mother was a domestic worker. Thirteen of the seventeen kids got college degrees, and the other four did really well—one of them joked that he made more than almost all of his college-graduate siblings combined. All of them had a first name that started with a J. One graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law School, and I made him the chairman of the Public Service Commission in Arkansas; one was my diarist in the White House; one worked for me when I was Attorney General; and another one I gave a big appointment. I always said that as long as I could get the Kearney family to vote for me, I couldn’t lose any election. They had a family reunion that included a stop in the White House when I was there. Fifteen of the seventeen kids were still alive, and so was the dad, at 102. I’m telling you about the Kearney family because people are not defined by just their income. There are incredibly powerful, dignified people who manage to compose a life and escape their poverty, and from them we can learn how to help other people and their children get out of poverty. This is true all over the world.
I used to love to go and stay with my great grandfather, the longest-living man in my family. He lived to be seventy-six, and since then nobody’s made it as long as I have. I’d like to emulate my great grandfather, but it seems impossible. He was never out of overalls and hobnail boots. He lived in an old house out in the country. It was an unpainted wooden house, built up off the ground, and you had to have a storm cellar in Arkansas because it was the tornado capital of America. His was a hole in the ground with a cot and an oil lantern, and I used to go down there very often accompanied by snakes that would slither in and out. My great grandfather was a very, very good man, and my great grandmother was a very good woman. I learned a lot from them—things that are still valuable to me today. But most of the lessons I got in my childhood were from my grandfather and from my great uncle.
To give you an idea of how different things were then than they are now—even though a lot of you may be worried about student loan debt and finding jobs—25 percent of American were out of work in the Great Depression. My grandfather worked on an ice truck. Back then refrigerators were called iceboxes, and they actually took ice blocks and put them in part of the refrigerator to keep the food cold. My grandfather, who weighed about 150 pounds, carried 200-pound blocks of ice on his back with thongs that he hooked on to the ice.
So fast-forward, this is why my stories are important. In 1976, I was running for Attorney General of Arkansas. I went back to the little town where I was born, and I went to see this guy who was a judge—he was an elected judge, so he could be active in politics. He said, “I have to be for you. Whether I want to or not, I have to be.” I asked why, and he said, “Because in the Depression, when I was ten years old, your grandfather—who had no money himself—still hired boys like me to ride on that ice truck with him, and he’d pay us a quarter. We thought a quarter was all the money in the world. As a matter of fact, the first time I got paid, and your granddad gave me a quarter, I asked him if I could instead have two dimes and a nickel so I would feel richer walking home. And walking home, I started shaking the coins in my pocket and one of the dimes fell out into the grass by the sidewalk. I looked for that thing for an hour and a half until I had to go home, and it got dark and I never found it.” He said, “I never go by that spot without stopping and looking for that dime.” We take certain things for granted, and it’s very important if you want to do this work to realize something I learned from my grandfather and from my great uncle: a lot of people have some kind of story like that.
My great uncle had a sixth-grade education and an IQ of 180, at least. He was the smartest man in my family. He was a fireman and a farmer. Even after everyone moved to towns in Arkansas, people still remembered the Depression—so if they could afford it, they’d keep an acre of land out in the country and grow as much of their own food as they could. I used to go out to my uncle’s place when I was a kid and farm with him. He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever seen, and his kids were funny. We’d have these meals where I would sit there with them and laugh until I cried, just listening to them talk about ordinary people in our town—the guy that ran the drug store or the grocery store or the factory my aunt worked at. Why am I telling you this? Because people ask me all the time where I learned to speak, and I say that I learned to speak by learning to listen. In our family, no one could afford a vacation. There was one movie theater in our town and it didn’t change movies very often. My family had hunting, fishing, and meals. The meals were a feast because people just told stories. When you were a kid like me, you couldn’t tell a story unless you proved you could listen to one. So someone would tell a story, and then my uncle or my aunt would look at me and say, “Did you understand that?” I would say, “I think so.” And they would say, “What did you just hear?” You had to do that two or three times, and then if you had a story to tell, you could tell it.
What I learned from all this is that everybody has a story, and everybody’s life has things about it that are inherently interesting and valuable to the rest of us—even though most people can’t get it out because they’re too self-conscious or shy. In the beginning, I learned that you can’t really speak in a way that people can hear unless you can listen. I see it today in a lot of these verbal spats going on here in Washington. Whenever you see it, wherever it’s coming from, ask yourself, “Did this person say that to genuinely be heard by people who disagree with him or her? Or did this person say it in that way because they wanted to be on television, or because they wanted to reassure their own crowd that they were carrying the spirit forward?” In a free society, if you want democracy to work, people have to be able to hear each other. Whether or not someone can hear you depends in part on what you say, but maybe even more on how you say it and whether you have first listened to what they have to say.
When my great uncle was nearly ninety, he still remembered the names of hunting dogs he had had in the 1930s, who sold him the dogs, the way he bargained for them, and how they ran in the springtime when the frost lifted. I could have been listening to Pavarotti sing, the way he told a story. He made his life have meaning and interest. I’m not trying to romanticize poverty—I like everyone who gets rid of it. I’m trying to tell you not to belittle people who know less than you do, or have less than you do, or are less credentialed than you are. There is a reason why the Jesuits have spent centuries now serving the poor. There is a reason why all the scriptures of all the different faiths acknowledge that what we have in common in our soul is important. It helps me today, when we try to help farmers in Rwanda and Malawi, to have heard when I was young the stories of people who seem to be poor but in fact were rich in spirit. Don’t ever romanticize poverty—it is way overrated—but don’t denigrate the people who live in it, because there is a mountain of evidence that there is a lot of dignity and potential there. I saw that when I was young.