WASHINGTON — Former President Bill Clinton said Wednesday much of his economic agenda and efforts to reform welfare were often misunderstood by the public, media and critics during his presidency. The details of the specific policies and the results, he said, mattered most.
Clinton offered a detailed account of his White House years during a lecture at Georgetown University, his alma mater. Speaking to an audience that included his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former president said policy-making is often “dimly understood, often distrusted and disconnected from the consequences of the policies being implemented,” pointing to President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul as an example.
“If the policymaker is a political leader and is covered primarily by the political press, there is a craving that borders on addictive to have a story line,” Clinton said. “And then once people settle on the story line, there is a craving that borders on blindness to shoehorn every fact, every development, everything that happens into the story line – even if that’s not the story.”
Clinton’s recounting of his White House years coincided with the recent release of thousands of pages of documents from his administration and came as the former first lady considers another presidential campaign in 2016.
Mrs. Clinton, a surprise guest, received a standing ovation when she arrived at the lecture hall. Her husband joked that “she hasn’t had to sit through one of these in ages.”
Much of Clinton’s nearly 2-hour lecture and question-and-answer session served as an accounting of his efforts to revive the economy and promote policies that benefited Americans on a broad scale, along with his critique of the so-called “supply-side” economics under President Ronald Reagan.
Pointing to a series of charts and graphs, Clinton noted that nearly 23 million jobs were created during his two terms and nearly 8 million people emerged from poverty.
But he said the benefits were not apparent at first and attributed Republicans winning control of Congress in 1994 in part because of unhappiness with his economic plan.
Clinton said he was criticized by liberals as a “slug” for agreeing to lower taxes on capital gains in exchange for bolstering children’s health care insurance and boosting education spending. But he said both policies helped millions of people.
Discussing his work to reform welfare, Clinton recalled that he vetoed two bills because he disagreed with some of the provisions, such as creating block grants to administer Medicaid for the poor and cuts to school lunch programs.
He said a story line emerged that he “caved” when he agreed to sign a third bill, but Clinton said the final bill included more than a dozen changes that improved the overall plan.
Delving into Middle East politics, Clinton discussed efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Peace agreements between the two sides during Clinton’s first term failed to end conflicts in the region and a final agreement eluded Clinton in the last weeks of his presidency.
Clinton said the process brought both sides together and fewer people were killed in the conflict. “Did we fail? You tell me? In the four years after I left office, three times as many Palestinians and Israelis were killed in violent acts than in the eight years I was there. We always need to get caught trying – fewer people will die,” he said.
The speech, which was attended by several former White House aides, included a bit of nostalgia for Clinton, who arrived at the university’s campus nearly 50 years ago. He aknowledged the Rev. Otto Hentz, a Jesuit priest who once asked the future president if he might consider becoming a Jesuit, unaware that Clinton was not a Catholic.
The ex-president reminded students that Pope Francis is a member of the Jesuit order of priests who teach at the university.
“I was America’s happiest Protestant when the new pope took his holy office,” Clinton said. “I’ve been thrilled by that. I think all of the Jesuits of the world should be very proud of that.”
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