TAMPA — Talking about everything from world poverty to the dangers of getting mad, former President Bill Clinton gave a folksy seminar on the 21st century at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday night.
His key point: Our interconnected world is driving up the forces of inequality, instability and unsustainability. Citizens taking action together can foster positive dynamism and reduce negative consequences. He held up his own nongovernmental organization, the Clinton Global Initiative, as an example.
Reeling off facts and figures, Clinton discussed the initiative's work, such as weening school kids off sugary soft drinks, replanting forests in Rwanda and rebuilding post-earthquake Haiti.
Clinton spoke for about 50 minutes, followed by a brief question-and-answer session with former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.
Clinton shared a few thoughts on politics, including frustration with some Republicans' denial of man-made climate change:
"It's like a theological question upon entry. … Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, they've tied themselves in knots trying to say they didn't really say what they said when they were looking at the evidence, instead of listening to the price of admission," he said.
On health care reform, Clinton recalled speaking at a 1993 town hall meeting in Tampa that was broadcast on the news show Nightline.
"It's amazing that 19 years ago I was here in Tampa talking about health care, and we're still debating it. In the most bizarre twist of all, the Democrats adopted what was the Republican solution for health care — the individual mandate. And the Republicans sued us in the Supreme Court because they now say we're a dangerous left-wing organization for embracing the idea that they gave us in the first place."
Still, Clinton urged people of different political stripes to talk to each other. A book, The Big Sort by Bill Bishop, details the dangers of a country in which people with different beliefs no longer work or play together, Clinton said.
"This deal that somehow we've got to be mad and puffed up, it's interfering with our ability to think," Clinton said. "We need to be around people who disagree with us; nobody is right all the time."
Iorio asked Clinton who were the most interesting people he met during his presidency. Clinton said Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin was "an unbelievable human being" and that the day Rabin was murdered in 1995 "might have been the worst day of my presidency."
On a happier note, Clinton recalled South African leader Nelson Mandela telephoning the White House and talking with Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, about whether she had done her homework.
Clinton's appearance, first announced in October, did not appear to be part of an organized tour, but he does regularly give paid speeches. Neither the venue nor Clinton's foundation would provide additional details about the event. No press access was granted; the Times purchased a ticket in order to attend.
The last time Clinton visited the area was in 2010, when he campaigned in St. Petersburg with Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek.