Acuity, passion, the ability to hold several conflicting ideas at the same time, a wide-ranging and detailed understanding of the world we live in, and an ability to articulate a broad intellectual and moral vision -- watching Bill Clinton last Monday night at the Universal Ampitheatre made me realize how much I miss these attributes in a president.
This is not a criticism of George W. Bush. I imagine he would be the first to acknowledge, with some pride, that he's no Bill Clinton. Among the crowd that pressed to touch flesh with Clinton in a post-speech reception, several people admitted that Clinton would probably have done no better, and maybe worse, than Bush in executing the war against Al Qaeda. Different men, different strengths and weaknesses.
But last Monday night, it was Clinton's gifts that were on display.
There he was, leading 6,000 listeners through the nest of paradoxes that comprise our new century. "What happens after the war on terror?" he asked. The remarkable success the developed world enjoys in the areas of prosperity, health and technology brings with it a set of darker doppelgangers -- rampant poverty, the spread of AIDS and breakdown of public health services, and the abuse of technology by what he called "the organized forces of destruction."
This audience, gathered as part of the University of Judaism's (UJ) lecture series, was as close to a hometown crowd as Clinton could find outside of Hope, Ark. He could have pandered, but he didn't. He avoided applause lines, was subdued, thoughtful, reflective.
But his talents were not the only ones on display last Monday night.
Rabbi Robert Wexler, UJ president; Gady Levy, dean of the Department of Continuing Education; and Peter Lowy, president of the UJ Board of Trustees, their staff and lay leaders deserve praise not just for envisioning and executing such a program, but for doing so despite certain partisan criticism. Current events do not reflect well on the architects of the Oslo accords. But to give them a forum to explain, justify, analyze and reflect on what went wrong is a worthy communal service.
In one of the evening's more revealing moments, Clinton acknowledged the failure of Oslo, but maintained that all roads lead back to a negotiated settlement. "There is not a military or terrorist solution to the problem," he said.
It is de riguer these days not to mention Clinton without pining over his wasted potential. Yes, the time and energy he spent fighting a battle he brought upon himself could have been used shoring up a legacy he now must work to ensure. The man who now dissects progress's dark side was almost undone by his own.
But for the audience who welcomed his insights with several ovations, Clinton's intelligence trumped his recklessness. Was it any wonder as he took the stage that night, a voice in the crowd rang out, "Run again!"