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Remarks at the Tribute to Senator J. William Fulbright

May 05, 1993

Thank you very much. It's good to know that I did get a vote out of the press. [Laughter] Roger, I'm delighted to be here, and I'm so glad that you're here. I'm glad to be here with Senator and Mrs. Gore. Senator Gore, after you spoke and you said you resented the fact that Senator Fulbright was 88 and you were a mere 85 1/2 when you went over to him, I heard him say what the crowd did not. Senator Fulbright looked at him and said, "Albert, if you behave yourself, you'll make it, too." [Laughter]

I want to say that it is a deeply humbling experience for me as an American to be here with all these wonderful people. Many people in this audience have made remarkable contributions to our Nation and to the world over the last half century or so. And I thank you all, as part of the contingent of Arkansans who are here who feel very protective of Senator Fulbright and feel that in some ways he is still our own. It's a great pleasure and sense of pride for me to look out and see all of you here.

I also want to say a special word of appreciation to Harriet. You know, when Senator Fulbright announced that he and Harriet were going to be married, all the people from Arkansas started telling cradle robbing jokes. [Laughter] And I've got an 88-year-old uncle, and for kicks, he goes out once a week and drives two ladies around. One of them is 91, and one of them is 92. And I asked my uncle, I said, "You like these older ladies?" And he said, "Yes, it seems to me like they're a little more settled." [Laughter] I'm glad Bill didn't give into the temptation for being settled and instead found Harriet.

You know, somebody ought to put a little levity into this evening. Senator Pryor and Congressman Thornton are out there, and Jim Blair, who once ran one of Senator Fulbright's campaigns. Those of us who grew up in Arkansas, I have to say, had this incredible image of Senator Fulbright. First of all, if you grew up in our State and you knew anything about politics, it was immensely gratifying after it, to see the way people sort of dumped on our State back in the forties and fifties and said we were all a bunch of back-country hayseeds, and we had a guy in the Senate who doubled the IQ of any room he entered. [Laughter] It was pretty encouraging. You know, it made us feel pretty good, like we might amount to something.

When Hillary first came to Arkansas she said, "You know, you all beat better people down here than most States elect." Unfortunately, there were two occasions when that might have applied to me. [Laughter] But anyway, Hillary finally developed this theory that the reason all of our good people went into politics is that we couldn't make an honest living in the depressed economy. And it increased the quality of political life.

I say this to try to give you some texture. You know, a lot of people are out here in this audience tonight who worked for Senator Fulbright in his campaigns, worked for Senator Pryor, Congressman Thornton, and worked for me. And some of us have been so controversial that we are, to use the Arkansas colloquialism, we are quite a load to carry. [Laughter] And I wish I could take every one of you back tonight to Senator Fulbright's 1968 reelection campaign. I mean, I wish you could have been there. Now remember, here we are, '68: The country is embroiled in the Vietnam war, split right down the middle, except in the South where it wasn't down the middle—more people were still for it than "agin" it. The country was torn up. There had been riots in the streets. There was great division over poverty and race. Everybody was wound tight as a drum. George Wallace was moving through the South faster than Sherman did and carried Arkansas that year. And here we are, all of us kids, trying to reelect Fulbright in this environment, right?

Now, let me give you a flavor. Senator Fulbright had an opponent in 1968 who decided to make trade an issue. Now, the distinguished Japanese Ambassador is here. You know, people write as if we're having bloody fights when we have arguments over trade policy. We didn't have arguments in '68. This guy got up at a platform and held up a shoe to his opponent, and he said, "This shoe was made in Communist Romania." This is a verbatim account, right? "Communist Romania," he said. "And Bill Fulbright is letting these shoes into your country, throwing our good, God-fearing people out of work to let the Communists from Romania have the job." That's a sample of what we had to deal with. [Laughter]

So you know, we worked hard on him, and we got him to wear a checkered shirt. That picture you saw up there in a checkered shirt, that's the only time he ever came home without a necktie. [Laughter] So he's wearing this checkered shirt, you know, and we think we finally got him where he can sort of at least tolerate all this insanity that was going on there. All he had to do was kind of halfway be nice to people, and we thought he could get reelected. So, I was driving him around one day, and at the middle of all this tension we come to this little country town in southwest Arkansas, one road in, same road out. And we go into a feed store. And you remember what Lyndon Johnson used to say? If you can't look at a person in the eye and tell whether they're for you or against you, you've got no business in politics. No one could have mistaken the atmosphere in the feed store this day. [Laughter] This guy in overalls looked at Senator Fulbright and said, "I wouldn't vote for you if you were the last person on Earth." And Senator Fulbright sat down on this bale of hay or this—it was a big sack of seed, and he said, "Well, why?" And I thought, be nice. The television cameras were on, you know. He said, "Because you're letting the Communists in. They're everywhere. Today it's Vietnam; tomorrow it will be—they're everywhere." And he looked around, and he said, "I didn't see any when I came into town." He said, "Where are they, and what do they look like? I wouldn't recognize one." [Laughter]

Well, anyway, he got reelected anyway. I say that because, you know, in all this highfalutin talk, it's important not to forget that the American political system produced this remarkable man. And my State did, and I'm real proud of it.

Senator Fulbright always believed there were some things that he should defer to the judgment of his constituents on, and others that he was charged with knowing more than they were and that he should do what he thought was right. And it did get him into a lot of trouble, but it helped our country get through a lot of rough times.

In addition to those things which have been mentioned and written about, I can't help noting one of the things that drew me to him as a young man, and that is that he stood up to Joe McCarthy, something that meant a lot to a lot of us. The other thing he always tried to do was to get all of us who were around him to look at the other side of an argument. I remember when I was a young man working for him in that campaign, I was driving him around, and sometimes I'd get so exasperated arguing with him because I could never win. We just argued all the time. And one day we were in a town, and I drove back out the same way I drove in. I was going to take us 100 miles in the wrong direction until he corrected me, which meant that the professor was not as absent-minded as the student. [Laughter]

But all during this time, it is impossible for me to fully capture for you the impact that he had on young generation after young generation in my State, how he made us believe that education could lift us up and lift this country up, how he made us believe that our obligation was to develop our minds to the maximum of our ability and then to use it, wherever it took us. He believed in reason and argument, and he believed in the end democracy could only prevail if we knew enough and were thoughtful enough to face the truth and try to search it out. It's still a pretty good prescription for what we ought to do. He also deeply believed that the racial, religious, and ethnic differences and the political differences that divided the world so deeply during almost all of his public career were vastly less important than the common bonds of humanity which could unite us if only we could take our blinders off. He was among the first Americans to try to get us to think about the people in Russia as people; he was among the first Americans to try to get us to see people in the Islamic world as people; among the first Americans to try to get us to understand the different and various and rich cultures of Asia, which have now produced some of the most amazing achievements in all of human history. And that is one of the reasons, I think, Mr. Ambassador, that Japan, thankfully, has become the most outstanding supporter of the Fulbright scholarship program, something for which we are all very grateful.

I close with this thought. About 4 years ago, Senator Fulbright's hometown of Fayetteville, which is the seat of the University of Arkansas where Hillary and I used to teach and where we were married, threw a big party for him and invited me as the Governor to come up and speak. And so I went up there. It was a wonderful day on the square. It was a Saturday. And afterwards the farmers market was there, and I walked around the square and talked to all the farmers. We shot the bull about Bill Fulbright and talked about his career. And then I went up to the hotel room where Senator Fulbright, believe it or not, was watching a football game. And when I walked in and sat down with him—we watched this ball game, and this young man kicked a field goal about 2 minutes after we sat down. He looked at me, and he said, "You know something, I can't believe it's been 64 years since I did that." I say that to make my final point: It doesn't take long to live a life. He made the most of his. And I think his enduring legacy to us is trying to help us all to have a better chance to make the most of ours. Thank you very much.

Sit down; we're going to do one more thing. The job I now have, in the eyes of my mentor, is probably not quite as good a job as being a United States Senator, mostly because I have to take all that criticism. But it does give me some prerogatives. In spite of what you may have seen or heard in the last several days, there are some things I can do without anybody agreeing to it. And tonight, for the first time as President of the United States, I intend to do one of them. And I'd like to enlist the aid of my distinguished military aide. Major Schorsch, would you please read the proclamation.

NOTE: The President spoke at 9:49 p.m. at the ANA Hotel. Following the President's remarks, Senator Fulbright was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Tribute to Senator J. William Fulbright Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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