Bill Clinton delivered the keynote address at the Southern Governors’ Association this afternoon at the Little Rock Marriott. The theme of this year’s conference is “Accelerating the American South’s R&D Network”, which of course Clinton interpreted as free license to riff on everything from welfare reform to the crisis in Ukraine. A few high points from the former president: 

On the value of public investment in science and R&D: “I spent $3 billion of your money to sequence the human genome for the very first time. It was worth every penny of it. A study last year confirmed that there had been $176 billion in direct investment as a result of the sequencing of the genome.”


On partisanship and immigration. “With welfare reform…I had to work with our pre-Tea Party, Tea Party Congress…It was interesting, because they wanted to take away all federal support for the children of legal immigrants. You think we’ve gotten wacky over this now, just remember — that was 19 years ago…I had two Southern governors who supported me on the proposition that it was wrong to take away supports for the children of legal immigrants — that was Florida governor Lawton Chiles, and George W. Bush.”

On the private option: “I am so proud of the efforts Governor Beebe has made in a bipartisan way…to cut our uninsured population from 22 and half [percent] to 12 and a half — the biggest drop in the country. I think what [Kentucky] Governor [Steve] Beshear has done with the Kynect program is unbelievable…both of these efforts are going to keep our rural hospitals open.” Beshear, who was present today as well, is a Democratic governor in a red-leaning state who’s managed despite long odds to enact the Medicaid expansion — much like Beebe.


On the future: “The next forty years — you mark my words — are going to be dominated by an attempt to define the terms of our interdependence. Nobody in this room has ever been alive at a time more full of possibility than the present moment. Never. We are living at a breathtaking moment of possibility. And if we blow it, shame on us.”

On Beebe, towards the end, and emotionally: “I’m going to miss my governor when he’s gone.”


As usual, Clinton’s speech was literally all over the map. He urged the new Iraqi PM to reach out to Sunni tribal leaders to stand up to the Islamic State. He praised the insurance system in the Netherlands. He recognized civic investment in Orlando, Florida that’s resulted in a thriving tech sector in the field of computer simulation. (“Video games require a lot of very sophisticated simulation to keep you in a constant state of nervous anxiety, which is what it takes to be a video game addict — having on occasion slipped into that unfortunate condition, I know.”) Clinton’s overarching point: working together gets things done, fighting doesn’t. 

Is such feel-good rhetoric too banal to mention? Well, it would be, if Bill’s wife wasn’t the country’s most likely contender to be the next President. It’s hard not to hear some vicarious campaigning behind those passionate exhortations to work together for the common good. Part of Obama’s appeal in the 2008 primary was that Hillary evoked the divisiveness of the ’90s; from the perspective of 2014, though, the Clinton years sound more inclusive than ever before.

Notably absent from the Southern Governors’ Association: most Southern governors. Aside from Beebe and Brashears, the only other governors in attendance were from…Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Martin O’Malley of Maryland will apparently fly in later tonight to attend the rest of the conference (and, somewhat strangely, to campaign for worthy state Senate hopeful Tyler Pearson). No disrespect intended to our good friends in the Caribbean islands, but that’s our cross-section of the South? SGA supposedly encompasses everything from Texas to Florida to Virginia. Where were Rick Perry and Rick Scott and Terry McAuliffe?

Jay Nixon of Missouri, who will take Beebe’s place as SGA chairman at the end of the year, was supposed to be in attendance, but he’s got his hands full at the moment.