Former President Bill Clinton urged political civility, environmental sustainability and economic equality in a speech to a near-full house at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday night.
"We are living in the most interdependent age in human history," he said, but one that is afflicted with "a staggering number of poor people," environmental degradation and unstable political and financial systems.
Much of the answer, he said, will come from "NGOs" — nongovernmental organizations — like the one he founded after leaving office, the William J. Clinton Foundation, which includes his Clinton Global Initiative.
He described some parts of its work in alleviating economic distress after the earthquake in Haiti, making AIDS medication more widely available worldwide and limiting the consumption of sugary soft drinks in U.S. schools, which he said is contributing to an epidemic of diabetes.
Clinton, who has been active on the speakers circuit since leaving the Oval Office, said solving problems with nongovernmental, cooperative citizens efforts is an American tradition as old as the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia in the 18th century.
"It's a great world. A lot of good things are happening," but "it's too unequal, unstable and unsustainable. We have to do something," he said.
Earlier Wednesday, he visited a magnet school in Tampa with Susan King, the Hillsborough County school district's director of magnet programs, with whom Clinton said he had been friends since the fourth grade.
For some in the crowd who came to see Clinton at the Straz Center, his appearance in Tampa recalled halcyon days for Democrats in Tampa when Clinton came close to winning Florida in his 1992 election, then won the state in 1996.
"Bill Clinton is one of the foremost statesmen of our time," said former Mayor Sandy Freedman, one of Clinton's strongest and earliest Tampa backers. "In my memory, I don't think we've had a politician who's been able to connect with people the way he has, combined with the intellectual capacity to deal with issues."
During his speech, Clinton recalled riding through Tampa with Freedman and current Mayor Bob Buckhorn, then her assistant.
Another prominent Clinton supporter, lawyer Richard Salem, said the ex-president could teach today's political figures a lot about "how to keep a positive and productive perspective while being pummeled by partisan politics and personal problems. … Most of us would be down for the count after the political turmoil and personal problems he experienced."
Construction contractor George Solar of Tampa, said, "I enjoyed eight years of prosperity in the Clinton years. … He provided us with prosperity, a safe environment and peace."
"We're hoping Hillary runs," said Becky Ellison of Lakeland, attending with her husband, Mike.
Clinton largely stayed away from politics.
In his few political comments, he talked with pride about some of the economic accomplishments of his administration and criticized the Republican Party for what he said was its unrealistic rejection of the scientific evidence of climate change and its human causes. He also praised President Barack Obama's health care reform effort as the beginning of a solution to a problem governments long have tried to solve.
During his presidency, he said, "we moved 100 times more people from poverty into the middle class" than in the Reagan-Bush presidencies, and oversaw "the only time in the last 40 years in America when the bottom 20 percent of Americans' incomes increased percentagewise as much as the top 20 percent."
On the environment, he said the nation's growth model cannot be sustained "because of the way we produce and consume energy and other natural resources."
"One party made the price of admission your advance denial of climate change," he said. "It's like a theological question, right after, 'Do you believe in God.' "
But to solve the nation's problems, he said, "we can't afford a political situation where the only thing that works is division, demonization and fighting all the time." America, he said, is increasingly polarized because people refuse to associate with those with whom they disagree.
Citing an author who wrote about the separation of neighborhoods into Democratic and Republican bastions in Texas, he said, "We're not as racist as we used to be, we're not as sexist as we used to be, we're not as homophobic as we used to be. Our only remaining prejudice is we just don't want to be around anybody who disagrees with us.
"We need to be around people who disagree with us. Nobody's right all the time."