The Liberty Medal

2016 Liberty Medal Recipient: U.S. Representative and Civil Rights Activist John Lewis

George H.W. Bush and William J. Clinton

In January 2005, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and William J. Clinton joined together in an unprecedented public awareness campaign to encourage Americans to support relief and recovery efforts to aid the victims of the tsunami in Southeast Asia.

Nine months later, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, President George W. Bush called upon the former presidents to repeat their successful partnership and lead the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund. The Fund was set up to provide grants from medium to long-term recovery needs in the areas affected by the hurricane, and its goal is to make a distinct impact on the unmet needs of this region in the areas of financial self-sufficiency, economic opportunity, and quality of life. The Presidents donated the Liberty Medal prize money to these humanitarian efforts.

George H.W. Bush
41st President of the United States 
October 5, 2006
National Constitution Center 
Philadelphia, PA

Thanks for that introduction.  It is a great honor to be here.

I want to salute the elected officers that are here: Senator Santorum, Governor Rendell, Senator Specter, and the Mayor.  It is a pleasure to have them with us.  Joe, we appreciate your leadership in all of this, and all that you have done here for this Center.
And let me start by thanking the National Constitution Center for this high honor—an honor I will always treasure.

Of course I am honored to accept this award with my co-honoree.  A lot of people were surprised, to put it mildly, when President Clinton and I teamed up last year—twice.  First on the tsunami relief as we have seen, and then on hurricane rebuilding along the gulf coast.  I’ve told this story a million times of how Barbara had taken to calling us the political odd couple.  And how the president—the president—joked, that after Bill awoke following his heart surgery, all of his loved ones were there: Hillary, Chelsea, and yours truly.

Suffice it to say, I am grateful to the president for giving me a chance to work with “42” as he is now known in our family.  The experience we have had traveling to Asia last year was something I will never forget.  If you ever have an ego problem, don’t travel with President Clinton to the Maldives Islands.  It was like traveling with a rock star.  “Get out of the way, will ya, Clinton’s coming!”  It was terrible.

It was the same thing when we went to Mississippi and New Orleans and Alabama last fall.   It was more devastation, more heartbreak.  When I was in New Orleans last week—and while the Big Easy still has a hard trip to recovery—I saw hope and resilience and determination in the eyes and voices of the people I visited.

It has been a joy to work with Bill Clinton.  But the truth is that it shouldn’t have surprised people when we teamed up.  After all, when I was president and he was heading the National Governor’s Association, he took a leadership role in a reform movement in American education.

We worked together on that.  I helped him lobby the Congress to pass NAFTA.  And then in

1997, we came together right here in Philadelphia with Presidents Ford and Carter to promote volunteerism.  And true enough, there may have been one or two lapses in etiquette on the 1992 campaign trail.  For example I really did not think that our dog Millie knew more about foreign policy than the governor of Arkansas.  But hey, we were in the heat of the battle—the elbows get sharp, you know!

Which leads me to a key point.  The sharp elbows do come out in national politics.  I have noticed that a lot of people are talking about the poisonous political atmosphere today and no doubt this has been a hard political year.  But you will have a hard time convincing me that politics is tougher and uglier in 2006 than it was during the 1960s and during the 1860s for that matter.  The thing is, every generation thinks that their politics are rougher than at any other time in our history, just as every chief executive feels their media coverage is the most offensive.

After all, President Washington once complained that a newspaper was covering him in terms that could scarcely be applied to a common picket pocket and it was the same thing with Chester Arthur.  Many of you remember old Chester, I am sure.

And in 1861, President-elect Lincoln had to travel incognito to Washington for his first inauguration for fear of his safety, so polarized was our nation at that traumatic time.  What makes these regular assaults on our political sensibilities, the outrages of the press bearable, is the same living, breathing Constitution under whose aegis we would gather here this evening.

So as I accept this wonderful award for my work with my former political adversary, I do so also in defense of the proper role of partisanship in our politics.  The fact that Bill Clinton and I have come together as we have does not mean in any way that we have placed our deeply-held convictions in a blind trust, or even in a lock-box, thank you Al Gore.  And rest assured, I am still every bit the loyal Republican and defender of the president, and nobody needs to ask where his partisan loyalties lie.  That’s as it should be. 

Gathered as we are in the heart of this political season, let’s not forget that our nation, indeed any nation, benefits from a vigorous debate on the issues and the competition of ideas in the political marketplace.  It doesn’t matter if it is Democrat versus Republican, liberal or conservative, or Coke versus Pepsi.  Competition is a good thing—a needed thing—indeed the very thing on which our national progress is built.

Now would I like to see more bipartisanship in Washington?  Absolutely.  Do I resent the attacks on the president’s character?  You bet.  We need less cynicism and more civility to help us overcome the deficit of decency.  But because of our Constitution, our system is resilient enough to withstand the gusts and gales of even the most insidious political season.

So thank you for this wonderful award which I will always treasure.  But more importantly, thank you for the work you do to continue bringing the message of our Constitution, a timeless document which continues to change and transform our world, to the masses.  The work of our Founders remains as current and timely as ever.  Without your leadership, and selfless efforts, fewer people would be touched by its magic.

Thank you very, very much.

William J. Clinton
42nd President of the United States 
October 5, 2006
National Constitution Center 
Philadelphia, PA

Mr. Torsella, Mr. Mayor, Governor, Senators, I thank you all.  Thank you Charlie Gibson for being here; you too, have a hard job.

No president thinks he gets good enough press, I can tell you that.

I’d like to thank Kariel and Teuku for being here to remind us what our labors were all about.

I thank you very much for this award.

I had the great honor to come here in 1993, to be part of the presentation of this award, to two friends of mine: Nelson Mandela and President de Klerk, two people who reached across a far greater divide than ever separated President Bush and me.  A decade ago you gave it to Shimon Peres and to the late King Hussein, two other friends of mine.  You might have given it to Yitzak Rabin had he not been killed—three men who reached across a far greater divide.

But there was one other tandem who got this award that I want to mention tonight, because of their unique contribution to understanding what President Bush has just said and to the meaning of this film.  Watson and Crick who discovered the double-helix, the structure of the human gene, which led to a decade search to understand the structure of the human being itself through the gene.

I had the great good fortune to be president in 2000 when we reached the combination of the ability to decode the human genome—the very building block of life, something that was a big multi-national effort, one that was strongly supported by my predecessor President Bush.

But they found an astonishing thing.  That human beings, all of us, all across the world, Republicans and Democrats, black and white, Africans, Asians, you name it, we’re all 99.9% the same genetically.  Go figure.

So we all think about how smart the Founding Fathers were.  By reason alone, they came here and said that they pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honors.  To what?  Form a more perfect union.

They knew we weren’t perfect.  They knew we would never be perfect, but they knew we could always be more perfect.  I completely agree with what George said about partisanship.  I want to thank the president for giving us a chance to work together.  I never asked him, he never asked me, to discard our convictions where we honestly disagree.  If you do it in the right way, you’re always yearning and working for that more perfect union.

Why were we able to do this in the aftermath of the tsunami and Katrina?  That’s what I want you to think about.  Because when people are broken and they have lost everything, then all the things we spent most our time and our lives on—our differences—that one tenth of one percent, all of us do—all of a sudden they evaporate.

I was walking through a camp in Indonesia with an elected head of the camp and his wife.  I said to the interpreter, I believe that’s the most beautiful son I ever saw in my life.  And she said, “Yes, before the tsunami hit he had nine brothers and sisters and now they are all gone.”

We could tell you Katrina stories that would break your heart.  The point is: all of our differences just fade away.

I accept this award with gratitude, with a man I have genuinely always liked and always admired.  May all the Democrats forgive me this close the election: I love George Bush.  I do.

And I think that we figured out how we’re supposed to do this.  I developed a good relationship with the current president.  I told him: I will never ask you to change what you believe, you say what you believe.  I’ll say what I believe.  And I’ll say it with respect, whatever you want me to do to help our country in good conscience, I’ll do it.

How can you live with the importance of the 1/10 of 1%, and not forget the 99.9%?

That’s what the Founders knew.  That’s what we all know when there’s a tsunami.  That’s what we all know when there’s a Katrina.  When that young man came up here—all the way from Aceh in Indonesia—and that young woman came up here, from all the things she has been through.  This wonderful poet who suffered, came up here and read the poem—all of you thought about what you have in common with them, didn’t you?

I accept this award with great humility and gratitude that I was given a chance after a long and eventful career to be reminded that the Founders knew that what we have in common is more important than our—than our interesting and significant differences.

We strive for a more perfect union not by obliterating our differences, but just by remembering that we are 99.9% the same.  And if we could remember it every day, we’d make a lot better use of that 1/10 of 1% and the Founders would be proud.

Thank you and God bless you!

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