Bill Clinton visits campus during the 20th Annual Casey Shearer ’00 Memorial Lecture

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton addressed the campus community on Tuesday afternoon at the Casey Shearer ’00 2022 Memorial Lecture. The conversation was moderated by Derek Shearer – professor of diplomacy and global affairs at the Occidental College and former US Ambassador to Finland – two years after the event was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event was the biggest on campus in more than three years, according to Ruth Goldway, who helped establish the lecture series 20 years ago in honor of her late son Casey.

The lecture began with a brief introduction from University President Christina Paxson P’19, opening remarks from Goldway, and commemorative remarks from Anthony Yannatta and Julie Yannatta, Shearer’s older siblings. The event then featured a conversation between Clinton and Derek Shearer, Casey Shearer’s father who also helped establish the series. The two spoke about current political issues, Clinton’s personal interests and career advice for future generations.

During the discussion, Clinton touched on the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, saying he’s not sure if the West should have done anything different in the past. He noted that during his presidential tenure he had “spent sleepless nights” weighing the potential benefits of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but had been “criticized”.

“There was a NATO conference in 1997 in Madrid where…we left the door open for other countries to join if they wanted to,” Clinton said. “They had to be a democracy and have some military capability… (for) joint planning and training.”

Clinton noted that he knew the Baltic states — Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia — would not meet those requirements. “They were known as the Captive Nations, and believe me…they were eager to join NATO. They just weren’t ready yet. They hadn’t cleared all the hurdles,” he said.

Clinton added that these countries were accepted into NATO in the following years.

Clinton pointed to meetings he had with Soviet leaders during his presidency in response to critics who said his administration caused the current conflict in Ukraine and “alienated Russians and made them feel small.”

“In the eight years I served, I met Boris Yeltsin 18 times and Vladimir Putin five times,” he said. “The idea that we were trying to embroil Russia or isolate it… just wasn’t true.”

The conversation then moved to Clinton’s views on China’s position in world politics. “My theory has always been (that) we should work for the best and prepare for the worst,” Clinton said. To critics of his tough foreign policy on China, Clinton said he aimed “to keep America from sticking its nose in cooperation and…being unable to do anything to defend itself.”

After discussing world politics, Clinton touched on some of her hobbies, such as her passion for playing the saxophone and solving New York Times puzzles.

Derek Shearer then asked Clinton for advice for students considering a career in politics. While Clinton said he regretted pursuing politics, he noted he would have had regrets in any other career he chose. He noted that to have a successful political career, individuals must have a “very high pain threshold” and be able to take criticism seriously rather than personally.

Clinton added that he would encourage the next generation to take risks. “The unhappiest people in my high school reunion aren’t the ones who went bankrupt, lost elections, got beaten up (or) had terrible things happen,” he said. “The most unhappy people are those who were afraid to try what they wanted to do with their lives.”

The conversation ended with a discussion of climate change, and Clinton called for greater action to address the impending crisis. “Does anyone believe we’re going to do a million years as we go?” He asked.

Students in attendance had mixed reactions to Clinton’s speech.

“I found his reflections on his meetings with Presidents Yeltsin and Putin fascinating,” Francisco Cerda ’24, who attended the conference, wrote in an email to the Herald. “It highlighted how often events can be predictable but simultaneously unstoppable, like the Putin regime in Russia.”

Edan Larkin ’23, chairwoman of Brown’s Democrats, wrote in an email to the Herald that despite her disagreement with Clinton’s policies, she attended the conference because she was “interested in hearing from the elected officials that Brown brings on the campus”. While Larkin appreciated Clinton’s advice for those interested in politics, she noted that she disliked “the way he downplayed his misdeeds.”

The popularity of this year’s event has also posed challenges for event organizers, according to Elizabeth Rush, assistant professor of English practice and organizer of the lecture series.

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“The day we made the announcement we sold out tickets so we decided to move the event to the Pizzitola Sports Center to accommodate more people,” Rush wrote in an email to the Herald. The location change brought logistical challenges and was “no small feat,” Rush wrote. But, according to Rush, the extra work was worth it. During the event, the 2022 Casey Shearer Memorial Awards were handed out to first place Michelle Liu ’22 and second place Henry Block ‘22.5 for their short stories in creative nonfiction.

The talk was part of the Casey Shearer Memorial Lecture Series, created to commemorate Casey Shearer ’00, an economics expert with a passion for sports journalism and creative non-fiction, who died days before graduating. Clinton previously gave a speech on campus in 2000 at the first lecture in the series, created by Shearer’s parents to do “something in his honor”, according to Elizabeth Taylor, Distinguished English Lecturer Emeritus, who was one of Shearer’s instructors.

Angela C. Hale