By Mike Unger
President Bill Clinton returned to American University January 27 to accept the school's inaugural Wonk of the Year award.
"I loved when people made fun of me for being wonkish because I figured people wanted a president who actually knew something," Clinton said.
Engaging a riveted crowd of thousands in Bender Arena, the 42nd president then asked the students, alumni, faculty, and staff to "tap your inner wonk," as he delivered a wide-ranging speech entitled "Embracing our Common Humanity."
"I want you to think with me tonight," he said. "Here's a question I want you to ask yourself. What kind of world do you want to live in? I believe this is the most interdependent age in human history. It's far more than globalization. You don't have to go anywhere to get on the Internet. In 30 seconds a 10 year old can find something I had to go to college to learn.
President Clinton was named Wonk of the Year by the Kennedy Political Union, a student group created in 1968 to establish a stronger link between AU and the halls of power downtown. KPU was named for the Kennedy family to acknowledge their service to the U.S. government and to society.
KPU created the award to recognize a person who embodies the characteristics valued at American University.
"Someone smart, passionate, focused, and engaged who uses their knowledge and influence to create meaningful change," Alex Kreger '14, director of KPU, said in introducing Clinton. "I think we can all agree that the world wouldn't be the same today without President Clinton's more than 35 years of public service."
AU president Neil Kerwin opened the event by welcoming Clinton back to campus.
"Twice, as president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton honored American University with his presence. He returns to us this evening a highly influential world leader who has worked tirelessly and on every corner of the planet to improve the quality of life for those most in need, and in the process, improve the lives of all."
Clinton began his remarks by recounting a discussion he had with his longtime friend and political advisor, James Carville, when he was running for president.
"He's from Louisiana. He said guv'nuh, you can't be a wonk and a redneck," Clinton said. "You've got to be a wonk or a redneck, there ain't never been a wonk redneck.
"I said, 'Well, there's a first time for everything.'"
When the laughter died down, Clinton spoke of "breathtaking" scientific advances in physics and the mapping of the human genome.
"By far the most important finding is that we are all at least 99.5 percent the same," he said. "As we look around the room today, every non-age-related difference you can see in each other, whether you're tall or short, wide or narrow, whether you have some sort of disability, the color of your skin and the color of your eyes, is rooted in one half of a percent of your genome.
"The biggest constraints on building the world you want are in our minds and hearts and in our imaginations."
Since leaving the White House, Clinton has played a large role in shaping the future around the world. In 2005 the William J. Clinton Foundation created the Clinton Global Initiative, an annual conference that to date has garnered more than 2,100 commitments, improving the lives of nearly 400 million people in more than 180 countries. When fully funded and implemented, these commitments will be valued at $69.2 billion.
"I loved politics. Even the bad days were good," he said. "But I'm telling you that when it's over, what keeps you going, what keeps you driving, is knowing that whatever it is you do, you can make a difference. It's what animates me today."
Perhaps more than any other person on the planet, Clinton's unique experiences have enabled him to understand the machinery of effective problem solving.
"In modern politics, not just here but all around the world, what seems to work is conflict and organized division driving the biggest stake you can through the opposition," he said. "But in the real world what works is cooperation and networking. We have got to somehow bring it in a little bit and throw America into the future a little more."
At the end of the remarkable evening, Clinton answered questions from students selected by Professor James Thurber, director of AU's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. A particularly poignant one dealt with empathy. Clinton responded by telling a story about his eighth-grade science teacher, the moral of which was this:
"Everyone wants to believe they're beautiful," he said. "Empathy is nothing more than imagining how the world is received by someone who is not you."
More than an hour after he took the stage, AU's Wonk of the Year left it to a standing ovation. As most people filed out of the arena and some made their way toward the stage to snap a photo of the president or shake his hand, Emily Roseman '12 captured the mood perfectly with a tweet.