Center for American Progress

President Bill Clinton Provides Guidance on Domestic Tragedies

President Bill Clinton Provides Guidance on Domestic Tragedies

Speech at CAP Action Fund Last Year Offers Lessons

President Bill Clinton's speech at an event at the CAP Action Fund last year offers lessons on tragedies such as Saturday's shooting in Tuscon, Arizona.

President Bill Clinton spoke at the Center for American Progress Action Fund on April 16, 2010 on the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. The speech's guidance provides a way to think  critically about why incidents such as yesterday's shooting in Arizona happen. (AP/Steve Helber)
President Bill Clinton spoke at the Center for American Progress Action Fund on April 16, 2010 on the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. The speech's guidance provides a way to think critically about why incidents such as yesterday's shooting in Arizona happen. (AP/Steve Helber)

We at the Center for American Progress grieve, along with the rest of the nation, over the senseless violence that occurred in Tuscon, Arizona on Saturday. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims, and we hope for a strong recovery of those who are injured.

This country was built on freedoms of assembly, freedom of speech, and domestic tranquility as outlined in the Constitution. Yet, there have been episodes in our history that have assaulted these values. In the last 24 hours, some have referenced the Oklahoma City bombing, another American tragedy in which a disturbed individual targeted the government. Last year marked the 15th anniversary of the bombing, and in commemoration, former President Bill Clinton delivered an address at the CAP Action Fund outlining lessons to be drawn from such events.

We have reposted the speech because its guidance provides a way to think critically about why such incidents happen and what we must learn from them.

This speech was originally given by President Bill Clinton at an event at the Center for American Progress Action Fund on April 16, 2010.

Download President Clinton’s remarks (pdf)

Thank you, Michael, for your remarks and for your service to our country. I want to thank John Podesta and Al From for hosting this forum 15 years after Oklahoma City. I’d like to thank the panelists, Ron Brownstein, Congressman Kendrick Meek, former Congressman Mickey Edwards, Bradley Buckles, Mark Potok and Mike Waldman and Jamie Gorelick.

I must tell you, that’s the first time I’ve seen that film and I have, as has been said, continuously gone back to Oklahoma City. I’m going back in just a few days. They’re having a week-long observation of the 15th anniversary. Even now, it seems real to me as if it happened yesterday.

There was a story in The New York Times today by a reporter who’s been positively – and I say that in a positive way – positively interested in this, drawing parallels to the time running up to Oklahoma City and a lot of the political discord that exists in our country today. That is a legitimate thing to do but I think it’s important before we overdo that to put this in the context of what happened to try to understand what happened then and what it meant for America and what it should mean to all of us in the way that we exercise our citizenship.

Before the bombing occurred, there was a sort of fever in America in the early 1990s. First, it was a time, like now, of dramatic upheaval. A lot of old arrangements had changed. The things that anchored peoples’ lives and gave a certainty to them had been unraveling. Some of them, by then, for 20 years.

Median family income began to stagnate and inequality in our country began to increase going back in the early ’70s when we went off the gold standards and we developed a global financial system before we had a global economic system or any kind of a global compact or any kind of adequate response to it. And there were huge numbers of Americans who were working longer hours for lower incomes; more and more families under enormous economic stress.

Meanwhile, the fabric of American life had been unraveling. There was a lot of violence in our cities. There was a rise of gang violence, in particular. There were people putting political spins on some of the things that the gangs were doing.

And the structure of the world we lived in where we knew who our friends and enemies were in the Cold War in a clear, bipolar world, itself, was coming to an end. Oklahoma City was a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And there was no simple, bipolar world anymore. There were just a lot of fistfights around the world based on ethnic and religious and cultural and political and longstanding geographic grievances.

But it was hard to get a hold of anything. We moved from the Cold War to an interdependent world full of positive and negative forces. We moved from an industrialized economy that built the greatest middle class in history in the United States into an information age that opened vast new vistas and posed all kinds of new problems.

And there were more and more people who had a hard time figuring out where they fit in. More and more people who had a very difficult time living with confidence and optimism in the face of change. It is true that we see some of that today.

Since this country was born in reaction to abuse of power by government – if you remember, that’s what the Boston Tea Party was about. It was about no taxation without representation. (Chuckles.) It was not about representation by people you didn’t vote for and don’t agree with but can vote out in the next election. (Laughter.)

And so a part of being an American has always been banging away at the government. When I was a young man in politics in Arkansas, any time the federal government did something we didn’t agree with, we would have a standard saying that it was the only institution in America that can mess up a two-car parade. You know, everybody said stuff like that.

But in the decade of the ’90s, and really beginning in the ’80s, there was a run-up of much more serious demonization of the government and its employees and a whole effort to legitimize violence. It was something in my lifetime I had experienced first as a young Southerner growing up and people saying it was okay to use violence against government people who were trying to promote equal opportunity and racial integration.

And then for a brief period, and the only period in my lifetime, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the idea of legitimate violence against the federal government and its employees seemed to be the province of the left, with the rise of the Weathermen and a lot of things that happened; many of you, or at least a few of you who are old enough will remember that.

But by the ’80s, we began to have the rise of violence from the fringe I suppose you could call right-wing but it was basically uncritical hatred of the government and beliefs that all taxes were illegitimate.

In the 1980s, two of my personal friends were murdered in Arkansas. One was a sheriff who had been my county coordinator in a rural county in Northeast Arkansas because he was charged with working with the federal officials to lead the effort to capture a tax protestor named Gordon Kahl who had moved from Idaho, as I remember it, down to Northeast Arkansas and was extremely well-armed. And in the shootout, he killed my friend.

There was a young African-American state trooper who just by accident doing his job stopped a man in a big van who had an entire arsenal in the van and he did not want to be apprehended so he killed this young man, whom I knew.

Then as we moved into a new decade, we had – just not long before I took office, as I remember – the incident at Ruby Ridge. And then we had in ’93 shortly after I took office the first World Trade Center bombing, which involved people from other countries but also some legal immigrants. And it was our first experience of international terror on our soil.

And then we had Waco, where people can argue back and forth about what the right thing to do was. I wrote about this rather extensively in my autobiography but there is no question that David Koresh believed he had the right to create an armed encampment and to use violence against the government and to do things in that encampment particularly with children that were illegal and unconscionable.

But the sense was that Waco and Ruby Ridge were somehow not the fault of those who were advocating violence and armed to the teeth and prepared to exercise it, but the government that was attempting to enforce the law. And so it became symbolic.

So this was all going on – a great uprooting in America; people feeling disoriented. I’ll never forget a young woman who helped me understand this. She was a 17-year-old high school senior in New Hampshire when I ran for president. At that time, New Hampshire was one of the worst economies in the country. And she introduced me to her parents, and her father was telling me, he said, you know, I can’t look into the face of my wife and children at dinner anymore because I feel like a failure.

This sense of loss, of incapacity, of impotence makes people vulnerable to the Siren songs of simple explanations – wanting the world to make sense again. And so there was this rising movement in the early ’90s that was basically not just a carefully orchestrated plot by people of extreme right-wing views but one that fell into fertile soil because there were so many people for whom the world no longer made sense. They wanted a simple, clear explanation of what was an inherently complex mixed picture full of challenges that required not only changes in public policy but personal conduct and imagination about the world we were living in.

So demonizing the government and the people that worked for it sort of fit that. And there were a lot of people who were in the business back then of saying that the biggest threat to our liberty and the cause of our domestic economic problem was the federal government itself. And we have to realize that there were others who fueled this both because they agreed with it and because it was in their advantage to do so.

When I had became president – it’s hard to remember this – there were only 50 sites on the World Wide Web. There’ve been more added than that since I’ve been talking. (Laughter.) But it exploded in my first term and it’s continued to explode ever since. And among those who first saw its potential and made use of it were those who used the Internet to do all kinds of interesting things including share information on how to make bombs.

We didn’t have blog sites back then so the instrument of carrying this forward was basically the right-wing radio talk show hosts and they understand clearly that emotion was more powerful than reason most of the time. And it happened that they got much bigger listenership and more advertisers and more commercial success if they kept people in the white heat. For 99 percent of them, it was just that: turn on the radio, listen to somebody say something you agree with, vent your anger, go on with your life and make the best of it. But it shaped the environment in which we were in.

I think another thing that needs to be reconciled or stated here that was a little different from the current situation is that when I took office, Americans were literally still divided over the issues that divided us in the 1960s and the ’70s. We were still divided over how to view the civil rights revolution. We were still divided over how to view the Vietnam War. We were still divided over what the meaning and implications of the women’s movement was. We were still fighting about abortion and all the other issues that flow out of it. And into that combustible mix came in the late ’80s and the early ’90s a fresh debate over gay rights and what that meant.

But a lot of these battles that played out that I think were symbolized by me and Speaker Gingrich but involved millions of us were basically an attempt finally to reconcile where we were going forward on all these issues.

I got a very moving letter from Robert McNamara right before I was inaugurated. And all of you know, probably even the young people here, he was President Kennedy and President Johnson’s secretary of defense, a big proponent of the Vietnam War, who later changed his mind and spent the rest of his life kind of apologizing for it and trying to figure out where we should go. And he wrote me a letter that said, the Vietnam War ended with my election.

For some people, it did. I have on my wall in Harlem today a big framed case that I had on my wall in the White House of the battle medals of Vietnam veterans who gave them to me at various stops in the 1992 campaign to say that they supported the fact that I had opposed the war and they would support me.

But the war did not end with my election. It entered a new phase. And so a lot of this current uprooting was overlaid by the unresolved issues of the ’60s and ’70s and aggravated by the new ways people had of communicating both through the radio talk shows and the insipient Internet networks.

So in the two years after the World Trade Center bombing and before Oklahoma City, we had worked hard and largely on a bipartisan basis to begin America’s effort to protect ourselves against terrorism better. And there were a number of things that were done.

And one thing that I thought had been done we learned on 9/11 wasn’t. I issued an executive order requiring the FBI and the CIA to exchange senior executives and to cooperate more closely and to share information. And I didn’t really know since, believe it or not, before 9/11, the president was not supposed to know what was going on in the FBI and was not supposed to talk to anybody and was supposed to stay 90 miles away from it that both agencies had essentially honored that order in the breach. They had nominally transferred people but there wasn’t much cooperation, all of which is reported in the 9/11 Commission.

But a lot of other things had happened. Law enforcement officers had already succeeded in returning several terrorists to the U.S. for trial and prevented attacks at the U.N., the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels in New York and planes flying out of the Philippines to the West Coast.

In an attempt to continue this, I had sent legislation to Congress a couple of months before Oklahoma City to ask them to further strengthen our capacity to prevent and counter terrorist attacks. And it was making its way through.

Meanwhile, a young man none of us knew then named Timothy McVeigh had already made up his mind to take a different course. And on the anniversary of Waco, which has become symbolic to all of the people who see government as the problem, he drove his fertilizer truck which had been turned into a giant chemical weapon up next to the Murrah building, exploded it, and the concussive effect brought a building down.

People had just come to work for the day, and you’ve already heard an account of what happened but it’s worth noting again that 168 innocent people were killed, people who were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, good neighbors, good citizens.

One of them was a Secret Service agent named Al Whicher I still think about all the time. He had been on my presidential security detail. And he wanted to take his family to Oklahoma City because he thought it would be a wonderful place to raise his children out of the hustle and bustle of Washington. A safe haven of almost idyllic upbringing in America.

Three hundred buildings were damaged, 30 children lost both parents, 170 children lost one and 19 children themselves were killed. In the immediate response, there was an amazing set of acts of humanity and heroism.

A man I later recognized at the State of the Union, Richard Dean, was a 49-year-old Vietnam veteran who worked for the Social Security Administration. He was there when the bombing occurred but he got out and then he went back into that building where things were continuously falling. I think you fell three or four floors and it may have saved your life, but it did. Richard Dean went back in three times to save the lives of three women.

First-responders rushed to the scene to try to make sure nobody in the immediate area got hurt. The fire rescuers dug through the rubble to pull out survivors for days. I sent a crisis management team under the FBI and then declared Oklahoma a disaster and sent James Lee Witt of FEMA to assist, and you saw that in the film.

Then, firefighters and other people from all over America just began showing up to help. People came from New York to help. I’ll never forget after 9/11 and we lost some firefighters here. I was at one of the memorial services one day and a guy came up to me from Oklahoma City, saying, I came here because they were there for us.

America stood with the people of Oklahoma City. And maybe the most important letter I got of all of the letters I got was the one that you quoted because the whole issue then was how will the city, how will the state, how will the victims and their families respond? A heartbroken nation was looking at them and pulling for them and wondering what they would do.

And essentially, the Pan Am 103 widow told them it was okay to keep on living, that the only way they could honor their lost loved ones was to reclaim life and do with life what their lost loved ones would have done. It was better than anything I could have said and she had more credibility in saying it. And I think it helped not only the victims and their families, it also helped everybody else.

So after Oklahoma City, what happened? Well, at one level, we did rational things. I went back to Congress and asked them to expedite the legislation I had sent them. Bob Dole was great. We had a real sense of bipartisan mission. We disagreed about whether chemical taggant should be put in fertilizer to chase potential victims, and it turns out that it – as a scientific matter, it’s hard to do anyway. And we didn’t abolish all our disagreements, but basically, there was this sense that, well, this was something we had to do together.

And that’s exactly what happened. I proposed measures to increase law enforcement officials dedicated solely to fighting terror, a domesticated terrorism center to coordinate efforts. I asked for the approval of military experts, who, under the posse Comitatus law, were prohibited from involvement in domestic law enforcement, to go out and help with threats and incidents if they involved chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

We wanted law enforcement to have greater access to financial records to track money trails, and to have the same rules that applied to organized crime figures for electronic surveillance apply to terrorists and those selling explosives for use in a terrorist incident, and for attacking members of the uniformed services or federal workers. The Congress passed this bill in seven weeks with strong bipartisan support.

And I can tell you that, while we had 9/11 and we’ve had a lot of problems since, and we continue to work on this, that legislation helped, in my administration and in President Bush’s administration, to thwart several serious terrorist attacks. And to this day, the most important defense we have against terrorist attacks at home is the defense provided every day, ironically after Oklahoma City, by ordinary federal employees who are not known to anybody, who chase the money and chase the suspects, and try to scope out the facts.

I think it’s also important to note that Oklahoma City changed the country in other ways. We didn’t stop our political fights. You remember, I kept fighting when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans shut the government down twice at the end of 1995. You know, everything didn’t turn into sweetness and light. But as tough as it was, it was different.

I’ll tell you an interesting, entirely personal story. You saw Gov. Keating and his wife talking there. Frank Keating is a very conservative Republican who, by coincidence of history, was the president of the College of Arts and Sciences student body at Georgetown when I was a student there, in student government. And believe it or not, we had the School of Foreign Service and the language school and the business school had an entirely separate student government.

We had been fighting for 30 years – (laughter) – over issues when that Oklahoma bombing happened. I know Mayor Norrick and had a great relationship with him. But I always liked Frank Keating because I always knew that he was honest, straightforward and believed in his positions just as strongly as I did in mine. But I thought it was – it’s just something you should know. We had been involved in political conflict literally since the early 1960s – when Oklahoma City happened – since we were college students.

And I cannot say enough about the way he and his wife handled themselves, the way the mayor of Oklahoma City did, the way the people in the community and the state did. They were great. It changed something in us. We sort of got over the idea that our differences justified our demonization of one another. And I think that’s really important. A couple of weeks after the legislation passed, I went to give a commencement speech at Michigan State.

And I thought it was very important, because Michigan had been the site of the rise of a lot of the militia groups – people who were drilling with weapons and who had various strategies about what it is they were supposed to do. Some of them, plainly, were sanctioning terror with their words – or violence, illegal violence – but to be fair, a lot of the militia group leaders also condemned what was done at Oklahoma City and said they wanted no part of that; it was wrong; it was illegal; the perpetrators should be punished.

So I went to Michigan State and spoke to both the students and the militia members. I thanked those who had opposed the bombing. And then I took on those who hadn’t, and explained that their actions and their words had consequences for people like Timothy McVeigh. By then, it had come out that he’d had a very troubled life, that he was a profoundly alienated person, and that he was highly vulnerable to the suggestions and implications of the most militant rhetoric at the time.

Lots of other things happened after Oklahoma City. We had to put more barriers around federal buildings. Against my strong desires, I gave in to the unassailable logic that we had to close Pennsylvania Avenue, because the White House is a very old building and I saw the schematics of what would happen if Timothy McVeigh’s fertilizer bomb in a pickup truck were just parked in front of the White House, which is much – you know, and that street, Pennsylvania

And still, because of the construction, they said it would blast out the windows in the old building and collapse the West Wing, with potentially calamitous consequences for the government. And so we restricted access to Pennsylvania Avenue. But most of the consequences of this, I think we cannot fully appreciate. I think, first of all, Oklahoma City impacted young people profoundly. Hillary and I actually did our weekly radio address together one day, and we had young people who were profoundly troubled because they’d never seen kids killed before.

And there was an enormous effort by parents, by school leaders, by religious leaders, by others to help them come to grips with this, and asked what they should do with it, and questioned what their responsibilities to one another were. These young people are now young adults. And it’s very interesting how they’ve turned out – this generation. First of all, they’re remarkable for their commitment across all party and philosophical lines to community service – to non-governmental service. They also vote in higher percentages than people just a little older than them did at their age.

They work in elections in higher percentages than people just a little older than them did at their age. They’re more likely to volunteer for AmeriCorps, Teach for America, their local religious institution, the United Way or for some other purpose. It’s just part of their DNA. And I think that is also extremely, extremely interesting. I know that what happened at Oklahoma City and how it affected them when they were young in their conversations with their mentors and parents, is part of the reason why. Most of them are probably not at all conscious of it. But it changed their psychology, their orientation to the rest of the world.

So what are we supposed to make of this? What are the lessons of this for today? First, we know that living with confidence in a time of change and adversity is difficult. And we are living in a time of change and adversity. So we have to be more sensitive. Before the economic crisis, which began on September the 15th, 2008, with the failure of Lehman Brothers, after inflation, median income in America was – for families – was $2,000 a year lower than it was when I left office.

Ninety percent of the gains of the last decade went to only 10 percent of us, 43 percent to 1 percent of us. That’s profoundly disorienting. Once again, where more people were working harder for less. And now, we have the highest percentage of Americans who’ve been out of work for six months or more we’ve had in decades. This is disorienting. And people are looking for anchors to make life simple and understandable, and adjustable again, and sometimes with the idea that they need to go back to an idyllic time that never existed.

That’s a big part of the explanation for this anti-immigration law that Arizona just passed; or the idea that we ought to bring back Confederate month in Virginia without talking anything about slavery; or the idea that you ought to be able to pack a loaded six-gun into a Starbucks and order a cowboy latte. (Laughter.) All of this is really about, where do you feel oriented walking through the day – how to feel secure in the face of insecurity; how to feel ordered in the face of chaos.

I’m not defending the specifics of any of these; I’m just telling you that’s what’s going on. There is an enormous psychological disorientation today. And that is also the way it was in the early ’90s. And we must not forget that when that happens, we have to pay special care both to have a raging debate, because we need to figure out what to do about this, and to do it in a way that nurtures the best in us, not the worst.

The second lesson we have to learn is that we can’t let the debate veer so far into hatred that we lose focus of our common humanity. It’s really important. We can’t ever fudge the fact that there is a basic line dividing criticism from violence or its advocacy. And the closer you get to the line, and the more responsibility you have, the more you have to think about the echo chamber in which your words resonate.

Look, criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy. Nobody’s right all the time. But Oklahoma City proved once again that, beyond the law, there is no freedom. And there is a difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedom and the public servants who implement them. And the more prominence you have in politics or media or some other pillar of life, the more you have to keep that in mind.

I acknowledged that in my political career, I had, on more than one occasion, in the face of a government policy I disagreed with or a practice I thought was insensitive, referred in a disparaging way generally to federal bureaucrats, as if all of them were arrogant or insensitive or unresponsive. And I have never done it again. You could not read the stories of the lives of the people who perished at Oklahoma City and not respond in that way.

Do some people still abuse their power? Yes. Do some of them treat their customers and the people that pay their way in an inappropriate way? Yes. Does Congress sometimes do things that don’t work and don’t make sense, or the president? Absolutely. But our criticism should be aimed with a rifle, or preferably, with a B.B. gun, in a way designed not to demonize the institution of the government or the people who work for it. And I, too, learned that from Oklahoma City.

And I think it’s worth repeating again today. As we live in another highly contentious, partisan and uncertain time. Now, I have to tell you that I had a great time fighting with Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay and Dick Armey. I loved seeing that picture of him in the Post today – the outline – Armey with his cowboy hat on. I remember when he called Hillary a socialist. (Laughter.) I remember when Newt Gingrich, shortly after becoming speaker-elect, said that Hillary and I were the enemies of normal Americans. It didn’t bother me a bit. I was glad to get in and mix it up.

But what we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold, but that the words we use really do matter because there are – there’s this vast echo chamber. And they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious, alike; they fall on the connected and the unhinged, alike. And I am not trying to muzzle anybody.

But one of the things that the conservatives have always brought to the table in America is a reminder that no law can replace personal responsibility. And the more power you have, and the more influence you have, the more responsibility you have. Look, I’m glad they’re fighting over health care and everything else; let them have at it.

But I think that all you have to do is read the paper every day to see how many people there are who are deeply, deeply troubled. We know, now, that there are people involved in groups – these “hatriot” groups, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the others – 99 percent of them will never do anything they shouldn’t do. But there are people who advocate violence and anticipate violence.

One of these guys the other day said that all politics is just a prelude to the ultimate and inevitable civil war. You know, I’m a southerner. I know what happened. We were still paying for that 100 years later when I was a kid growing up, in ways large and small. It doesn’t take many people to take something like that seriously. So I don’t want the whole story of this retrospective just to be about this, and trying to turn everything into politics.

And I guess that’s naïve, me being in Washington and all. I still have some memory of it. (Laughter.) But I think that the point I’m trying to make is, I like the debate. This “tea party” movement can be a healthy thing if they’re making us justify every penny of taxes we raised and every dollar of public money we spend. And they say they’re for limited government and a balanced budget; when I left office, we had the smallest workforce since Eisenhower and we had four surpluses for the first time in 70 years.

And if the people they say should be elected had not gotten elected, we would be out of debt in just a couple of years for the first time since the 1830s. But when you get mad, sometimes you wind up producing exactly the reverse result of what you say you are for. Think about your own life; forget about politics. Every time you’ve made an important decision in some non-political – totally personal – way, when you were angry or frustrated or afraid, there’s about a 75 percent chance you made a mistake. Isn’t that right?

You know – and the older you get, the more you’ll see that. It’s about a – you know, doing things when you are mad is, by and large, a prescription for error. So the only thing I’m saying is, have at it, go fight, go do whatever you want. And you don’t have to be nice, and you can be harsh. But you’ve got to be very careful not to advocate violence or cross the line.

Yes, the Boston Tea Party involved the seizure of tea in a ship because it was taxation without representation, because even the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had been largely self-governing, had it stripped from them. This is about – this fight is about taxation by duly, honestly elected representatives that you don’t happen to agree with, that you can vote out at the next election, and two years after that, and two years after that, and two years after that. That’s very different. This whole thing goes right back to our country’s beginnings.

When George Washington served his two terms and went home to Mount Vernon to retire and John Adams became president, he was called out of retirement one time. You know what it was? He was called out of retirement to command the Armed Forces sent to Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, because good Americans who had fought for this country crossed the line from advocating a different policy and opposing the current one to taking the law into their own hands in a violent manner.

Once in a while, over the last 200 years, we’ve crossed the line again. But by and large, that bright line has held, and that’s why this is the longest-lasting democracy in human history. That’s why there is so much free speech. That’s why people can organize their groups. It may seem like fringe groups that advocate whatever the livin’ Sam Hill they want to advocate. That’s why. But we have to keep the bright line alive. So that’s the second lesson.

The third lesson is, it’s always a mistake to bet against America. What happened at Oklahoma City – something that horrible, which could have just made all those people so full of anger and hatred. And you saw that monument on that gentle slope and that beautiful pool, with those 168 empty chairs, and how they responded and how we did. And you heard the former governor, George Nigh, saying nobody remembered who was a Republican, who was a Democrat. It’s always a mistake to bet against America. We tend to figure this stuff out.

And we zig and we zag, and we go up and we go down, but look, we still have a growing population with a very healthy fertility rate, which is a good thing in the 21st century. We can accommodate more. Immigrants still want to come here, notwithstanding the legislation in Arizona. It’s more true today than it was when President Kennedy said at the Berlin Wall, “Freedom has many difficulties and our democracy is far from perfect, but we never had to put up a wall to keep our people in.” And we can put up all the walls we want to try to keep them out, but as long as we are free and open and full of promise, people will want to come.

So by all means, keep fighting; by all means, keep arguing. But remember, words have consequences as much as actions do, and what we advocate, commensurate with our position and responsibility, we have to take responsibility for. We owe that to Oklahoma City. We owe it to keep on fighting, keep on arguing. They didn’t vote for me in Oklahoma in 1996. It was still a Republican state.

But I loved them anyway, and I will till the day I die, because when this country was flat on its back mourning their loss, they rallied around the employees of the national government and they rallied around the human beings who had lost everything, and they rallied around the elemental principle that what we have in common is more important than our differences. And that’s why our Constitution makes our freedoms last – because of that bright line. Thank you very much.

Download President Clinton’s remarks (pdf)

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.