NOTIONS: An interdependent interaction with Bill Clinton

November 14, 2005

A few months ago, Butler University announced that former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush would be among the speakers appearing on its Indianapolis campus during the school's 2005-2006 sesquicentennial celebration.

Within hours of the news breaking, my niece, a Butler junior and political science major, sent an e-mail asking if I'd like to join her for the first of these appearances, the one by Clinton on Nov. 8.

Having long ago rounded up my fellow neighborhood kids for a Richard Nixon rally in Fort Wayne, having photographed a Gerald Ford speech for the Lincoln, Neb., newspaper, having met Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan while working media crises in Fort Wayne, and having taken my wife and sons to Clinton's 1994 appearance at the Indianapolis dedication of a Martin Luther King-Robert Kennedy memorial, I've come to adore the pomp and circumstance of presidential visits, and the manic rope-line rush for an afterspeech handshake.

So I said yes.

Between the two of us, we acquired eight of the hard-to-get Clinton tickets, and doled them out to Republican and Democratic family members, friends and co-workers of a political and intellectual bent. Sunday night, most of us met for dinner, agreed to attend the elder Bush's speech next spring, then hiked through several blocks of hubbub to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.

During his hour-long remarks, Clinton asked the 10,000 assembled what we thought would most affect the lives of my niece and her fellow Butler students during their lifetimes. The answer, he said, was not the predictable "globalization," as that's essentially a one-dimensional economic concept.

Instead, he said, the big impact would come from global interdependence-the notion that anything anyone chooses to do anywhere increasingly affects everyone everywhere.

This got me thinking through lots of examples-some derived from Clinton's, some my own:

If you insist on driving gas-guzzling vehicles and spewing ozone-damaging exhaust into the air, glaciers and ice caps will continue to melt, ocean levels will rise, coastlands will flood, croplands will burn up, food prices will soar, and someone, somewhere will starve.

If you insist on flying airplanes into skyscrapers, buildings will collapse, people will die, wars will be started, soldiers will get shot, immigration be tightened, international students will be denied visas, domestic tuition will rise and some kid from some town close to home won't be able to afford a college education.

If you insist on smoking around my family, your DNA might protect you, but my wife's DNA might not protect her, so she'll get cancer, and run up $300,000 in medical bills, which will be covered by higher health insurance rates, which some employer will no longer be able to afford, so he'll drop his coverage, leaving his employees without, and one of them will get emphysema (also from your smoke) and go into bankruptcy when she can't pay the bills, and get her medical care from the government, which will fund it by borrowing from your kids and mine, thereby forcing them to fund our fiscal folly with higher taxes 20 years from now.

As Clinton said several times, "You may not agree with it, but you can't disagree this is how it works."

So what's a fiercely independent all-America spirit supposed to do in an increasingly interdependent world?

In essence, in our personal, professional and civic lives, we have two choices: We can hide in our rooms, flaunt our autonomy and insist on going it alone; or we can come out and play.

Clinton suggested that engaging the rest of the world-despite our occasional differences-is a better course if we're to "build the positive forces of interdependence and reduce the negatives."

He cited, as an example, attitudes toward the United States in Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic nation, prior to our providing tsunami relief and after. Clinton said there was 36-percent support for the United States and 58 percent for Osama bin Laden prior to the tsunami.

After our relief efforts-including massive fund raising by Clinton and the elder Bush-support for the United States was 60 percent, compared to only 28 percent for bin Laden.

Engagement based on shared human values, not isolation based on differing philosophies, moved minds.

"We have a shared responsibility to reap shared benefits based on shared values," Clinton said. And how do we discover one another's common ground?

Clinton argued, on a personal and political level, that joining with others, meeting face-to-face and building personal relationships-especially with those with whom we differ-is far more effective than passing judgment based on assumptions, refusing to interact, insisting on adversarial roles and practicing the very evils we'd like others to avoid.

"We have to celebrate our differences and understand each other," Clinton said. "Our differences matter, but our similarities matter more."

Coming in March: The view from the Bush I rope line.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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