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Bill Clinton at the U: From Humphrey and Civil Rights Act to today’s partisan gridlock

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
After accepting his award, the former president gave the latest in a series of talks marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

Former President Bill Clinton thinks the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a very good thing. Without the passage of the Civil Rights Act, he himself could never have become president, he said, nor could Jimmy Carter, nor could Barack Obama.

He thinks Hubert Humphrey (who led the campaign to break a Senate filibuster enabling the Civil Rights Act to pass) did a very good job and Clinton wasn’t shy about telling this to a Minnesota audience last night at the University of Minnesota (where Clinton was also given an award for leadership by Dean Eric Schwartz of the U of M’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs).

Clinton good-naturedly embarrassed Schwartz by noting that, as president, he had appointed Schwartz to various important jobs.

After accepting his award, the former president gave the latest in a series of talks marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Clinton spoke for more than an hour (evincing a loquaciousness for which he is well known).

Did he ramble? Fair-minded observers might say so. Did he have a point? Many, although they seemed to be drawn from all over the solar system. Did he speak from notes? No. Did he have a plan? Hard to say, but if so, it was a plan of great subtlety, not easily grasped.  

Humphrey’s long effort to break the 1964 filibuster looks odd from today’s standpoint, Clinton noted, because Humphrey was a Democrat but so were the leaders of the filibuster. Nowadays, the two-party system has sorted itself out so every issue breaks down along party lines, mostly across the issue of government itself, with Republicans believing that “government can’t do anything for them” so their attitude is “let’s not let government do anything to them.”

The issue of trust

Passage of the Civil Rights Act required trust, compromise and strategic retreats, Clinton said. The original bill included what later became the Voting Rights Act, but Humphrey had to drop that section in order to break the filibuster and get the rest of the bill through. The voting rights stuff was added the following year, by which time Humphrey was vice president.

Lyndon Johnson was, of course, also a large figure in the tale, although he occupied a small place in Clinton’s telling of it. Clinton made joshing reference to the current Broadway hit, “All the Way,” which is about the passage of the Civil Rights Act and for which actor Bryan Cranston, who portrays LBJ, recently won a Tony award. Playing Johnson was “a step up from playing a meth dealer – at least members of my party think so,” Clinton joked. (That’s a reference to Cranston’s long-running role as a drug dealer on AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”)

Trust, even across party lines, was necessary to get the civil-rights bill through, Clinton said. Without trust, nothing can be accomplished in politics. This led to a surprising side trip into Clinton’s experience as a Middle East peacemaker during his own presidency, and a crisis over the need for a road around Hebron to link Jericho and the Gaza Strip (the “Gaza-Jericho agreement” of 1994). There wasn’t time before the agreement had to be signed for Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to work out a written agreement but Rabin promised Arafat that they had a deal for a road and Arafat said of Rabin (according to Clinton last night), “his word is worth more than a written agreement.”

But I digress. Clinton’s point was that trust is vital and is largely absent in today’s Washington.

Political courage — and a confusing moment

Also political courage is needed. Clinton made no reference to his wife’s likely 2016 run for president. In fact, the only reference I recall hearing to Hillary Clinton last night was an accidental one. Talking about political courage and the passage of his own 1993 budget, by a single vote, Clinton said that “my wife’s mother-in-law” lost her seat in Congress because she voted for that budget. This was supposed to be about political courage, except that it made no sense. Clinton may have noticed confusion in the audience because he stopped himself a moment later. He meant to say his daughter’s mother-in-law, he said, and that is true. Hillary Clinton’s mother-in-law, Clinton said (as he worked out the mat of his slip) would have been Bill Clinton’s own mother, who never served in Congress (although Clinton said it would have been interesting if she had).

After a while, references to Humphrey and the Civil Rights Act receded and Clinton began a long list of issues that our country needs urgently and obviously to deal with but cannot because of partisan and ideological gridlock.

This observation led to a discussion by the former president of Bill Bishop’s 2008 book, “The Big Sort,” about how Americans have sorted themselves out along party lines so that we mostly live in red or blue neighborhoods. Great progress has been made against racial differences since the Civil Rights Act, Clinton said, and in place of race bigotry “our one remaining bigotry is that we don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.”

Urgent issues and partisan polarization

The list of urgent problems with which American cannot deal because of partisan polarization actually took up the biggest chunk of Clinton’s speech. It included immigration, growing income inequality, the cost of college and the problem of people who start but don’t finish college, the craziness of having half of the states expand Medicaid under the Obamacare law and half refusing to do so.

For each of these, Clinton said, there’s a Republican and a Democratic approach, but neither can be adopted and the chances of compromise seem low. (I’m not sure that that is true on the Medicaid expansion piece.)

Somehow, Clinton came around to the 2012 book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” by biologist E.O. Wilson, which had to do with human similarities to various species of insects, including at least ants and bees, the degree to which their success has to do with social skills, cooperation and stuff like that.

Clinton’s talk was part of a long series marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, sponsored by the Humphrey School in honor of the school’s namesake and his role in the passage of the act. The previous episode in the series that got significant attention was an April talk by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that attracted protests over her role in Bush-era treatment of prisoners. Rice received $150,000 for her talk, which was also controversial, although the university did not pay for it. Clinton spoke for no fee and the proceeds of the event (tickets were $50 apiece) will be used for scholarships to promote diversity at the Humphrey School.

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Dan Kaufman on 06/10/2014 - 01:32 pm.

    The last 2 sentences are excellent

    Overall, an interesting piece and nice review of this speech by Clinton.

    I thought the last 2 sentences says everything you need to know about Bill Clinton vs Condi Rice, and maybe about Democrats vs Republicans in general. Rice gets paid $150,000 to speak at Northrup. I don’t care where the money comes from (not University funds), this is a lot of money for a speech. Clinton comes to the same auditorium as part of the same series of talks and does not get paid, and in fact allows money to go back to promote diversity at the University. This really shows the priorities of the two speakers- money for oneself, or money for others.

    It would be great to see an article on political speaker fees- what different speakers get, what accommodations they get (flights, hotel rooms, etc), and if anyway to generalize what should be acceptable and what is excessive.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/10/2014 - 02:16 pm.


      Condi Rice draws a salary as an academic at Stanford. She’s not a wealthy woman. While Bill Clinton’s net worth is estimated at $80 million and he doesn’t even have a job. How does that happen?

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/10/2014 - 03:42 pm.

        Net worth

        Condo Rice has a net worth of about four million dollars.
        Not quite in Bill Clinton’s class, but I’d call that wealthy.
        And while she has a research appointment at Stanford, they do not list her as teaching any courses.
        Clinton, of course, runs a foundation, which is definitely a job with responsibilities. He pays for his own office in Harlem.

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 06/11/2014 - 07:35 am.

          Speaking Fees

          Yeah, Condi Rice is the problem here. She doesn’t have to pay for office space in Harlem, so she doesn’t need the $200 million that the Clintons are worth. I’m sorry, but this argument is very strange.
          There is a decent question about the ethics of these speaking arrangements. Here’s MotherJones (I assume you’ll give them a hearing) on the issue:
          “Hillary’s for-profit speaking gigs raise a serious question for a possible presidential candidate: Is she being courted by and/or providing access to the well-heeled companies and industry groups—including Goldman Sachs, the Carlyle Group, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the National Association of Realtors, and the US Green Building Council, among many others—that have paid her to speak? “This is a great way for a company to get access to her, to hear what she’s thinking, to be remembered if and when she does run for office, and to help her grow that nice little nest egg that she and her husband have been intent on building,” says Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center.”

          If a $2000 donation is enough to provide suspicion of corruption, why isn’t a $200,000 speaking fee? It’s hard to believe that a speech, even one from the vastly wise Clintons, can give $200,000 worth of value to a corporation. (Even if you count all of their actual business experience.) Why isn’t there more worry here?

          • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/11/2014 - 09:04 am.

            You raise

            a very good point. I hadn’t heard that Hillary Clinton is charging $200,000 per speech. I quite agree that charging a speaking fee of $200,000 to a group consisting of Goldman Sachs, Kohlberg, Carlyl, etc. is little more than a campaign contribution. I suppose Clinton rationalizes this by the idea that the campaign finance laws do not kick in until she is an official candidate and she has a right to charge what the market will bear to those who will pay to hear her.

            But as you correctly point out,l what value can the expenditure of $200K give to any of these corporations? They have no ears, they cannot hear. They cannot vote. The problem is in allowing nonvoting, legally fictitious like corporations to be used as conduits through which to funnel vast loads of cash for purposes which can have no other purpose but to curry favor and influence with those who wield power, if not to own and control them outright.

            • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 06/12/2014 - 07:48 am.


              So what’s your solution here? (I’m taking your last paragraph as an extension of the ‘corporations aren’t people so they shouldn’t be able to donate to campaigns’ argument. Please correct me if I’m wrong.) I literally don’t know anyone on the right that doesn’t think that corporations won’t try to use the government towards their ends. There has been a huge discussion about this. Just google ‘crony-capitalism’.
              So what do we do about Goldman Sachs, etc? Do we forbid them from paying speakers? Do we forbid them from giving jobs to relatives and spouses of politicians? (That’s another huge route for influence.) Should corporations be stopped from giving grants to foundations run by or favored by pols? I can’t imagine any of that would pass a legal challenge. And I’m not sure what kind or rule could even be drafted to try and stop it.
              See, the problem doesn’t lie on the business side. Of course, corporations will try to influence things but we can’t stop the various alleys that they try to work through. The problem has to be addressed on the government side. I can think of a few ways to try this.
              The easiest would be to make bills much smaller for passage. You can hide all kinds of things in a 1000 page omnibus bill but a 10 pager is much more transparent. You could also draft pledges from pols on both sides to avoid special carve outs and then shame any that violate this (though I doubt this would be as effective).
              But maybe I’m missing something here? How would you address the speaking fee loophole?

              • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/12/2014 - 06:55 pm.

                My solution

                Is to replace the current slate of ideologue justices on the US Supreme Court that will overrule the bad decisions Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas (and Lewis Powell too) and the rest have hung us with. Corporations are juridical entities and have no “free speech” rights. Period. There needs to be stricter legislative controls. Justice Black and Douglas once wrote a dissent in which the laid out the case for overruling the 1884 Santa Clara County decision where the Court simply declared that “corporations are persons” under the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court overrules its precedents all the time, sometimes overtly and often by just ignoring them.

                Another solution is to enact a federal incorporation statute that made registration as such a corporation a condition of selling securities on public exchanges. Then, make it clear that another condition is that no funds of that corporation can be used directly or indirectly to pay for advertising in any campaign or for any issue in which a public vote is being held.

                Another solution is to make all campaign and elections publicly funded and simply outlaw all expenditures.

                You might never be able to stop a Lloyd Bankfine of David Koch from spending a billion of their “hard earned dollars” on issues advertising. But you can smoke them out and stop them from hiding behind corporate facades and phony front organizations like Citizens United.

                • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 06/12/2014 - 09:16 pm.


                  So your solution to the speakers fee loophole is to . . . limit contributions. And your solution to the situation where family members are hired is presumably the same. Got it.

  2. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 06/11/2014 - 07:39 am.


    One reason for the distrust is because of misrepresentations like this: “Nowadays, the two-party system has sorted itself out so every issue breaks down along party lines, mostly across the issue of government itself, with Republicans believing that “government can’t do anything for them” so their attitude is “let’s not let government do anything to them.”’

    We seem to be drifting further and further from a place where even basic understanding of the other sides arguments is common.

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/11/2014 - 08:47 am.

      Other side’s arguments

      It’s obvious to me that at least one side doesn’t have a basic understanding of the other side’s arguments. My observation is that that side does not want to understand the other side’s arguments. This may arise because of an increasingly dogmatic libertarianism of that side that has made a fetish of nonexistent “free markets” and has no idea of his governments make any market workable, if not feasible.

      But what about the side that says “government can do something” to help? I count myself on that side. How has that side misunderstood the other side’s arguments?

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/11/2014 - 11:04 am.

        What worries the Right

        is that other people WILL understand them!

        • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/11/2014 - 01:39 pm.

          The Right isn’t worried

          The Right is dismayed. It’s become obvious that the tipping point has been reached and that the Founding Fathers’ warning has come to pass. The majority of the people have chosen to ride in the wagon as opposed to pulling it.

          That doesn’t bode well for those with hopes of a free and prosperous society based on people pulling their own weight.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/11/2014 - 04:28 pm.

        Nonexistent free markets?

        One of the biggest mysteries of the universe is how people can be raised in and live their daily lives in a free market economy and not only not recognize it, but deny that it even exists. I’m continually amazed at how bad their government education could have been that they missed the lesson on capitalism and the benefits of free markets.

        A free market exists wherever you have a choice of products or services. When you go into a grocery store and walk down the cereal isle, you have a choice of about 80 different cereals. That choice you face is the basis of the free market. When you buy a car or rent an apartment, that choice you have is because of the free market. Not everyone in this world has that choice. You take what the government gives you.

        The value of a free market economy, other than consumer choice, is that the competition for your dollar is the incentive for the players in that market to continually improve their product, reduce their prices, or otherwise make you want to buy their product instead of the other guy’s.

        Granted, this phenomenon does not exist in the world of monopolistic government services. They will stay in business regardless how bad their product or service is. They have no competition. They don’t care if their customers are happy. Why? Where else are you going to get your potable water, or your drivers license or your medical care if you’re a veteran? And this probably explains why government bureaucrats don’t care or understand the concept of improving quality of products or services because they don’t have to. But good grief, they still personally experience and benefit from the free market economy in the rest of their lives so they should at least recognize it when they see it.

        So when the Left doesn’t understand where the Right’s coming from, a large part of that reason is probably because the Left slept through 8th grade economics.


        • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/11/2014 - 09:40 pm.

          Answer to your question

          In the spirit of offering a better understanding of my leftish understanding of “free markets”, I’ll try to explain. If your understanding of a “free market” is that it exists whenever you have choice between competing products or services, that’s not what I understand the “Right” means when it is taking a position on government noninterference. Do you have a choice when you want to obtain a mortgage? An internet provider? An electric company? Or even a house or apartment?

          Economics teaches that in a competitive market, you have many buyers and sellers where the price is determined by supply and demand. By that criteria, our economy is not so free. Not only do not have many sellers (or in some cases not so many buyers), but choice for the majority of our people in the US is limited by their income and wealth. Many people have no choice but to live in their cars or under bridges. The Right blames these people for their lack of moral character. Many homeless people are afflicted involuntarily by mental illness or other disability.

          What choice does one have in transportation in the US today other than cars? In Minneapolis/St. Paul proper, one can take a bus, or, if you have the money, a taxi. Or you can ride a bike or walk. But our transportation choices are limited by the Right which claims that “transportation funding” from the public should be limited to building more highways or maintaining the ones we already have.

          Granted, you do have what looks like a choice when you have 80 cereals in the aisle at the grocery store. Do you have a choice when all of them contain additives like high fructose corn syrup that would never even be aware of without government regulations that make the cereal factories put this on their labels. The Right objects to regulations like this or to regulations that would limit the market power of concentrated industries to fix prices or standards for products and services.

          I’ll take a recent example of what I understand the Right means in terms of noninterference from your own take on “net neutrality”. As I recall, you were adamantly opposed to FCC proposed regulations that would treat internet providers like Comcast as public utilities. What argument is there that “free market” exists for internet service when the only companies in their areas have exclusive franchises to provide the access for the internet in their area?

          From my experience, I conclude that the “free market” is an ideal (or, for the Right, because it believes there’s no such thing as an “unfree market”, a fetish) which exists only in the mind. In the real world, markets exist, if it all, as often as not because of government intervention. The securities, money and commodity markets which have been brought back from complete meltdown and death on a number of occasions by government intervention come to mind. Government can intervene to improve the performance of markets to make them operate more like they are supposed to in the ideal.

          • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/12/2014 - 07:47 am.

            Government intervention

            “Government can intervene to improve the performance of markets to make them operate more like they are supposed to in the ideal.” If government has to intervene in a market to “make it operate like it’s supposed to,” then that market doesn’t really exist.

            Bottom line, conservatives believe that when governments attempt to control the economy for the good of the people, they end up controlling the people for the good of the economy. And the Left has no problem with that whatsoever.


            • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/12/2014 - 08:31 am.

              No problem for the left

              There’s some truth in your comment that “governments end up controlling the people for the good of the economy.” I disagree that the Left has no problem with that. Except that the Left would say that the Right has no problem with the government controlling the people for the good of the rich, substituting the word “rich” for the word “economy.”

              Maybe part of the misunderstanding between the Right and Left is in defining what has exactly been the trend and how the rich have become the “people” for whom the government controls the economy. The Right conveniently forgets that the economy and the nonrich did well enough from 1945 to about 1977 when a host of government interventions were in force. The Right doesn’t think huge disparities in wealth and income which has emerged in the relative recent past is of any concern. But between 1945 and 1977 those disparities were markedly less. America still had a viable middle class then.

              The Right’s solution to every economic problem since 1980 has been tax cuts to the rich, as if the rich aren’t rich enough and the abandonment of those policies which maintained adequate spending power in “the people.” We can thank the Right for dismantling and abandoning quite a few of the policies that ensured that the many enjoyed the benefits of their labor, not just the privileged few. So today we have union busting and the virtual elimination of unions and collective bargaining and little or no safety net to assist those whom the “free market” crushed. Despite massive increases in labor productivity since 1980, wages have remained stagnant, the people have no savings and the safety net that was erected by our grandparents and great-grandparents has been removed. We have a 1% who are doing VERY WELL but a vast majority facing retirement in poverty. Great job, Right wing!

              I’d say the left has a BIG problem with that. My question is why doesn’t the Right?

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 06/12/2014 - 07:53 am.

          Free Markets

          Room for education, I guess. Here is a quote from recent primary winner, David Brat, on free markets:

          “Instead of lecturing the most vulnerable about the moral beauty of the marketplace, Brat targets the most well off. “Free markets!” he declared in Hanover, like a teacher about to reveal the essence of the lesson. “In a nutshell, what does it mean?”

          It means no one is shown favoritism. Everyone is treated equally. Every firm, every business, and you compete fairly. And no one, if you’re big or small, is shown special attention. And we’re losing that.”

          This matches up with my understanding of free markets.

          • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/12/2014 - 08:59 am.

            Brat was referring to crony-capitalism

            When politicians provide tax incentives, subsidies, or other favoritism towards individual industries or companies, they’re picking winners and losers in the marketplace.

            That’s what Brat, the conservative and economics professor was railing against. And that is why the tea partiers picked up his banner, because that’s been a major issue with conservatives. In a free market, all players are treated the same, which means NO government intervention, no government subsidies (farm, ethanol, solar power, electric cars, etc.).

            Let an idea, product or service succeed or fail on its own. Which is what we mean when they say “let the market decide.”

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/12/2014 - 11:31 am.

              Fling out the banner, let it float

              There were a number of factor’s behind Rep. Cantor’s defeat. The ones most mentioned by the actual voters was that he was out of touch with his district, spending most of his time cultivating a national reputation. There was also the national right-wing media harping on his position on immigration (“Amnesty!!!”). Some theoretical discussions about free markets don’t seem to have entered into the discussion too much.

              • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/12/2014 - 08:08 pm.

                And his defeat in a Republican primary

                was by the Right Wing
                of the
                Right Wing.
                Says little about national elections.

            • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 06/12/2014 - 09:18 pm.

              Wrong Reply

              Dennis, I replied to the wrong button. You’re exactly right as to what Brat was speaking about and I agree that this has been a major issue. We’re on the same page here. Sorry.

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