Bill Clinton’s 2016 Hall of Fame Speech

President Bill Clinton. Photo: Margaret Purcell

Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here. I thank you for the award. Ambassador Anderson, thank you for your kind remarks and for taking us all down memory lane a little bit. I want to congratulate the other honorees.

General Martin Dempsey, I thank you for your outstanding service to our nation.

Edward Kenney, thank you.

Eileen Collins, thank you. I was actually president when she was an astronaut, and she reminded me that she escorted John Glenn when we celebrated his going into space at the age of 77. Sometimes people in government are reluctant to take ultimate responsibility – they made me personally approve a 77-year-old man going into space. Turns out he was in better shape than all the rest of us.

And thank you Pete Hamill, one of the most remarkable and thoughtful journalists the country ever produced. And congratulations, all of you, on this award.

Niall O’Dowd, I thank you and your newspaper and your founding editor here for being the voice of Ireland through all these years. And to all of my friends in the audience who have worked with me both during that tumultuous time and in the 20 years since, to try to help to support Ireland and Northern Ireland and make reconciliation work, I thank you.

I had a very moving experience out here when we were taking the pictures. I got to see an original copy of the 1916 declaration. I stood there and read it very carefully, word for word, over again. And if you have a minute of your own time, I urge you to do it, because it is document of its time. WWI was raging and yet the Irish longed for their freedom, a freedom which they mentioned then, one year before the constitutional amendment that America passed giving women the vote, women are mentioned as equal partners in the future of Ireland three times in that document.

It is a document that says that Ireland will be established for all people who believe in freedom, in constitutional government without regard to their religion, or their race or their background. In other words, it calls for what we’ve been working for for the last 20 years, and what the Irish have largely achieved through great difficulties. And the only thing that works in an independent world – inclusive economics, inclusive societies, inclusive government. Nothing else over the long run is sustainable.

It is a humble document in that it recognizes the very premise of democracy, which is nobody should have unfettered power because nobody is right all the time. And even if you’re right, if everybody disagrees with you, you can’t prevail.

So I think it’s really important today. I think the lessons of 1916 teach us a lot about what’s happening all across the world in 2016.

And I went back the other day and read words from a hell of a poem Yeats wrote around this period. And if you read them all – an Irish Protestant who supported the republican cause – two lines just leap out at you as bearing relevance to explain the tumult in Europe today – should Britain get out of the E.U.? What happens to Ireland, and particularly Northern Ireland, if it does? Why has nationalism triumphed in a right-ward way in Poland, Hungary, and, in a very distorted version, in Russia? Why has a conservative government in Germany been fought by the right because as the largest economy they’ve tried to take the largest share of Syrian refugees?

Yeats said, perhaps in his most famous poem, which begins, “Around and around in a widening gyre,” if “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” If the center does not hold, inclusive economics, inclusive societies, and inclusive governance all fall to the politics of blame.

The other line he had, which explains what’s going on today, and explained a lot then – one of the most powerful lines in the whole history of poetry in any language – “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” And he might have said, “of the head.”

What happened to me – and it sort of happened to me – began here in this city, late at night, almost exactly 24 years ago, when I was trying to win the New York primary, and I met with a group of Irish Americans. And two sympathizers who were not Irish – Harold Ickes, who was helping my campaign, and former congressman from Connecticut Bruce Morrison, who was a classmate of Hillary’s and mine – and they were grilling me about all manner of things, and I think they were surprised I was reasonably prepared.

My daughter later wrote her thesis at Stanford on the history of the Irish in America, including Irish American politics – your kids are always tough on you. So she wrote it in six weeks, hardly slept, and I said, “So, Chelsea, how did I come out?” She said, “Pretty good, dad.” She said, “You know I really think you didn’t care that much about this when you came to New York, you just wanted the Irish to vote for you” – it’s not quite true but it hurt me, you know? Close enough. She said, “But afterward you really did.”

I remember every St. Patrick’s Day. I remember how we used it to have private meetings to get people together until we created the nucleus necessary to make the agreement. I remember my first trip to Northern Ireland and going through the Shankill and the Falls and trying to illustrate ways people could live together – I remember everything.

And what I would like to say to all of you today is, particularly to those of you who are Americans, we should encourage the Irish to find some way through a splintered electorate, which is perfectly predictable in the time in which we live. But to remind them that what made them great in the modern age and a model far beyond their population and size, was a way of coming together, of learning from what happened 100 years ago and for almost 300 years before that. That somehow in the end, we have to decide that what we have in common is more important than our interesting differences. And when we do, good things happen.

All across the world today, wherever people are reaching across the lines that divide them, good things are happening. Wherever people are striving for total conquest based on absolute purity and conquest, good things are not happening.

One of the reasons that I admire the Rwandans, though they’re not perfect, is after the worst genocide in terms of [inaudible] population loss in a short time is they were led into a state of mind where they could no longer be victims, where everybody should be empowered, where they would know their past, acknowledge it, and let it go so they could create the future. That is a challenge facing everyone today – how to remember, and use it as a spur to live in the present and imagine the future. So remember that today. If you’re Irish, yeah it’s okay to be concerned that they don’t have a government yet, but they’ll figure it out.

Yes, Northern Ireland would really get whacked if Britain were to [be removed?] from the European Union. And I hope they don’t, because it’s too easy to believe that the solution to the modern world is to hunker down. It’s a dangerous place out there. And in a world where all the borders look more like this – walls – and even if you shut the people out you can’t shut the [inaudible] social media out. It’s easy to turn away, but it’s better to go forward, because the enemies of freedom, the people who don’t really believe in diversity, they will always find a way to pierce the walls. So we need a stronger fence, we need a strong diplomacy. But we also need never to lose our willingness to reach across the barriers – and that is the great test.

We are so close, ironically, in this country, to being back to the point where we can all go together again. We are much more likely to live together again – at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade for instance. But our great vice seems to be, that having shed so much of our bigotry, we just don’t want to be around anybody that disagrees with us anymore. This is a problem in both parties – “There’s something wrong with you if you don’t see it my way.” Just remember, the Northern Ireland Agreement, the Good Friday Accord, ratified by both sides, institutionalized inclusive governance, a special relationship with both the United Kingdom and the Irish republic, a way forward for inclusive prosperity, for inclusive politics.

We can never let our hearts turn to stone. And we can never let things fall apart so much that we cannot build a dynamic center where the future of our children counts more than the scars of our past. That is the ultimate lesson of every single thing that has happened from 100 years ago when that declaration was issued, down to all that has happened since 1995. And I hope you will be the torchbearers for that message of hope.

Thank you; God bless you. ♦


For more on Bill Clinton, read Irish America’s April / May profile here.

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