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JONESBORO -- Former President Bill Clinton says storytelling can help heal the deep divisions found in contemporary politics.

In a discursive speech at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro on Monday, the former Arkansas governor who went on to become the 42nd president urged an audience of a few hundred people to listen to stories about other people's lives, especially people they disagree with.

Those stories can help Americans see "people first," rather than political leanings or demographic characteristics, he said, and will help Americans come to grips with a time of "stunning opportunities" and "deeply troubling challenges."

"We have to decide when we're going to confront these big challenges and take on all these opportunities that America has, in a way that preserves our democracy. And the only way we can do it is to believe that people with whom you disagree are people ... [and that] you're going to play by certain rules," he said.

In remarks lasting more than 50 minutes, Clinton told his own stories, touching on his early childhood in Hope, his first speech at ASU as Arkansas' attorney general, his grandfather's grocery store, the life of poet and activist Maya Angelou and more. He wove each anecdote into a broader assessment of the social and political landscape, in which he said partisanship, technology and other features of modern life have fed "one really deep remaining bigotry."

"We do not want to be around anyone who disagrees with us, and it is paralyzing," he said.

But overcoming this tendency is critical, Clinton said, using an example of a talk he'd had with George W. Bush early in the 43rd president's first term. In that conversation, he explained that he understood some of the reasons why Bush might not like him, including the fact that Clinton had beaten his father -- President George H.W. Bush -- in the 1992 election.

Bush laughed, Clinton said, and they began speaking frequently.

"Once he became a person to me, and I became a person to him ... we began to be able to do things that helped other people," he said.

Wearing a navy tie that almost perfectly matched his suit, Clinton took the stage inside ASU's Fowler Center to a standing ovation from a crowded room. Tickets to the event were offered at no charge as part of the Riceland Distinguished Presentation Series and were snapped up in less than a minute, ASU Chancellor Kelly Damphousse said.

"Events like this are an opportunity for our students to touch history," he said.

Before the lecture, many in attendance said they had seen Clinton before, but were looking forward to seeing him again. They included Rosemary Freer, 63, who said she had campaigned for Clinton in Batesville during his first presidential run, and Rejoice Addae, an ASU social work professor who first saw Clinton during an appearance at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff with the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1980s.

"I don't remember exactly what he said back then, but it was amazing," she said.

Rodney Hannah and Barry Clayton, both of Jonesboro, waited for Clinton holding a baseball and a hardback copy of Clinton's recent novel with James Patterson, The President Is Missing, which they hoped to have signed. (Clayton did not offer a review of the book, for he had not yet had a chance to read it, he said.)

In his speech, Clinton -- a Democrat -- did not make any explicitly partisan comments, refer to the 2016 election or President Donald Trump, other than to relate a few incidents from his work on the campaign trail during wife Hillary Clinton's presidential bid.

He acknowledged that he'd observed something changing in U.S. discourse around the time of the 2014 election cycle, when he began seeing people "seething with resentment," he said, often because they felt "stuck."

"What are we going to do about all this economic and other inequality?" he said, adding that new tools such as robotics might make young people part of the first technological shift that kills more jobs than it creates. "We have to think about empowering and unsticking people, not putting them down, making them feel bad, or pointing a finger at them."

Resentment is one challenge among many Americans face as they try to answer the "detailed granular questions" of the 21st century, he said. But he felt that groups working together, especially groups comprising people from diverse backgrounds, could solve these problems.

He said there was a "bright path that lies before us, if only we can walk it together."

"Just remember this: addition works better than subtraction, multiplication works better than division. Creative cooperation is better than homogenous groups and lone geniuses," he said. "All the rest is background noise."

Metro on 02/12/2019

Print Headline: See people, not politics, Bill Clinton urges Jonesboro audience

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