Defining a Lifetime of Service


One of the first things I learned when I became a speechwriter for President Clinton in the fall of 1998 was to include, in almost every set of remarks I prepared, three magic words: opportunity, responsibility, community. The formulation was meant to sum up the administration’s vision of a new relationship between government and the people, a “New Covenant” as the president described it in a series of speeches during the 1992 campaign. Government’s role is to make opportunity available to all, but the individual is responsible for making the most of those opportunities and for giving something back in order to strengthen the American community.

This trinity of words was included prominently in the first state of the union address I contributed to, in 1999, when the president talked of his efforts to create a government “rooted in our oldest values of opportunity, responsibility and community…determined to give our people the tools they need to make the most of their own lives in the 21st century.”

That last line was especially important, for it conveyed the idea that government must neither suffocate nor neglect its citizens, but rather equip them for success. As a concrete example, he offered this proposal in the section of that speech devoted to education:

"[W]e must empower parents with more information and more choices. In too many communities it's easier to get information on the quality of the local restaurants than on the quality of the local schools.

Every school district should issue report cards on every school. And parents should be given more choices in selecting their public schools."

The idea of providing parents with more information about the performance of their public schools, and choices among public schools—thereby not only creating better options for students but stronger incentives for schools to improve--began in the Clinton administration. But it was taken up and expanded upon by two subsequent administrations, evidence of the staying power of President Clinton’s vision.    

That same vision obviously animates the work of the Clinton Foundation. Whether convening meetings of world leaders, CEOs, and philanthropists and challenging them to commit resources and form partnerships, or through its own direct actions, the Foundation aims to build a more inclusive global community by creating conditions in which people can help themselves.

For instance, in Malawi, where deforestation has devastated the soil, the Clinton Foundation, through the Clinton Development Initiative, has established more than 200 profitable, self-sustaining community nurseries, which in turn have helped over 2000 smallholder farmers plant over 2 million hardwood and fruit trees. Since the trees will help reduce carbon, the farmers receive income from the sale of “carbon offsets” in world markets—income that can sustain the farmers in the years it will take for the trees to mature and become productive. In that one small example can be seen the continuing relevance and the immense promise of those three magic words: opportunity, responsibility, community.