The Ringling College Library Association brings the former president to town.
By Kay Kipling
The Ringling College Library Association celebrated the start of its 30th anniversary of bringing Town Hall guest speakers to Sarasota with quite a big catch: Former President Bill Clinton filled the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall Wednesday night, addressing a crowd made up of Town Hall regulars, longtime Clinton supporters, high school students especially chosen to attend because of their community service work, and anyone else curious to hear what he had to say.
As befits a former president, Clinton’s talk was not really about politics; he chose to focus instead on his foundation and the initiatives he’s worked on since leaving office to effect change in the world at large. This was after making a few amusing welcoming remarks: “I’m glad to be here,” he said, but then, commenting on the discord of some recent town hall meetings and Sarasota’s reputation as a Republican community, added, “I was halfway scared to show up,” too.
Clinton mentioned that he had been to Florida “a zillion times’ during his campaigns, and had always wanted to come to Sarasota, the hometown of his longtime assistant, Doug Band, son of well-known Sarasotans David and Myrna. (Doug’s brother, Roger, is a doctor who also frequently accompanies Clinton on overseas trips to keep him healthy.) He went on to speak of the commitments, in both time and money, made by people from all walks of life through his various initiatives, which include the Clinton Economic Opportunity Initiative, the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative, the Clinton Climate Initiative and the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative.
The former president also touched on life as a politician, calling it “an honorable profession”; the need for a “civic society,” where individual private citizens, in addition to the public sector and private foundations, work to improve daily life in their communities; and how much he enjoys the new roles he and wife Hillary play, she as Secretary of State and he in his current mode as a private citizen serving in a different way. “The great thing about not being President is you can say whatever you want and no one really cares any more,” he joked, “unless your wife gets appointed Secretary of State. Then they care if you make a mistake.”
But Clinton spent much of his speech time talking about interdependence among the world’s nations and peoples, and how that can be either (or both) a good thing and a bad thing. “We’re stuck in a little boat on a big sea,” he said, “and we’re going up or down together” when it comes to issues of climate change, world poverty, lack of education and clean water and many other problems. In general, he said, we all have to deal with matters of inequality, instability and unsustainability in the world today. And to applause from the audience, he added, “Cynicism is a copout. It’s not an excuse for doing nothing.”
Clinton, who had played a round of golf earlier in the day and enjoyed a typical Sarasota sunset, took questions from Town Hall chair Olivia Thomas after his lecture, ranging from his advice to young people about choosing careers to the defining moment, as a teenager, when he decided on a life in politics, to what gives him joy today (“weekend walks with the Secretary of State, every single moment I can spend with my daughter,” including a recent visit to the Village Vanguard in Manhattan to hear Barbra Streisand). His next stop: Haiti, where he’s working on a plan to bring 500,000 people without electricity solar-powered lighting.