CORAL GABLES, Fla. (February 26, 2014) — She spoke of the importance of everyone playing an active role in bettering society, noting that even the earliest Americans, such as farmers who would travel miles just to help build a barn, understood the concept.
She recalled attending a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago and being inspired by the great civil rights leader’s plea for citizens to “participate in the cause of justice.” She talked about health care, renewable energy, and how she and President Barack Obama had a shared vision of democracy and economic prosperity for Latin America.
But in the end, Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking Wednesday evening to thousands of students, visitors, and VIP guests at the University of Miami’s BankUnited Center, dodged the million-dollar question on everyone’s mind: whether she will make a second run for the White House in 2016.
Clinton’s visit, which included opening remarks followed by a Q&A sit-down with UM President Donna E. Shalala—who, in her introductory comments referred to the former first lady as “a formidable champion of human rights”—took place as the list of potential candidates for the Oval Office continues to grow.
A recent New York Times/CBS News Poll shows most Democrats—8 in 10—want her to make a bid for the presidency. But when Shalala asked Clinton a cleverly couched question submitted by UM law student Howard Brilliant, who asked the former first lady to provide “some insight” into how the TBD in her Twitter bio will play out, Clinton wouldn’t provide any clues.
“Well, I’d really like to, but I have no characters left,” she joked, referring to the 140-character limit on Twitter posts.
The former secretary of state, who was at the forefront of the U.S. response to the Arab Spring, discussed a number of other topics, however. Like the importance of full and equal participation of women in economic, social, and cultural endeavors.
Twenty years after the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing—a summit Clinton attended—more girls are going to school and more women are serving in political and public positions, she pointed out. “But no country has achieved full participation. It is the work of this century to complete unfinished business,” she said.
She then detailed the Clinton Foundation’s No Ceilings project aimed at aggregating information from sources like the World Bank and Google to evaluate the progress women and girls have made in the two decades since the Beijing summit. A collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, No Ceilings will convene the private sector, government, civil society, and individuals to chart a path forward to accelerate full participation for women and girls in the 21st century.
Clinton recalled her work with the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) and how the founder of that American child advocacy and research group, Marian Wright Edelman, motivated her to work on the problems faced by children with disabilities. As a young CDF staff attorney straight out of Yale Law School, Clinton knocked on doors in New Bedford, Maine, inquiring about school-age children in the home who didn’t attend school. What she discovered were mostly disabled kids who stayed at home because schools in the community lacked adequate accommodations for them, and the data she helped collect proved instrumental in the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Passed by Congress in 1975, it required federally funded public schools to provide equal access to education and one free meal a day for children with physical and mental disabilities.
With hundreds of UM students looking on, Clinton urged them not to take for granted the sacrifices made by their parents and grandparents so that they could attend college. She urged them to be a part of the “participation generation” and commended them for efforts such as participating in 200 service-learning courses and traveling to Guatemala on a humanitarian mission that included building a playground for residents of a village.
“The more we can get people to participate, to have a stake in the future, the better off we will be,” Clinton said.
Her Wednesday talk reunited her with Shalala, who served on President Bill Clinton’s cabinet as U.S. secretary of health and human services for eight years. “I have known her for—well, almost forever,” said Shalala. “She is my friend and colleague in too many adventures to count.”
Shalala took the lead in the Q&A portion of Clinton’s visit, posing questions submitted by students. Asked to comment on why it is important that everyone have health insurance, Clinton told students that being covered protects them from the unpredictable costs of health care. The vast majority of young people in their 20s will get through life without hardships such as automobile accidents and serious illness, but a “significant minority” will not, Clinton said. “You don’t know what category you’re in.”
The former New York Senator added, “Ultimately having access to health insurance not connected to employment, subsidized as it is under the Affordable Care Act, liberates you to choose what you want to do in your life. You don’t have to take a job, as so many people did in my generation, just to have health insurance.”
On other topics, Clinton called for the international community to exert pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to honor the chemical weapons agreements reached last year so that the dangerous stockpiles won’t fall into the hands of terrorists. And she called for renewable energy initiatives and a decrease in the country’s dependency on fossil fuels.
The former secretary of state’s visit proved a learning experience for many UM students, who had the best seats in the house for her appearance: several rows of chair-back seats on the floor of the arena only a few feet from the stage, giving them a prime view of Clinton.
As they stood in line to enter the BankUnited Center, Joyce and Jessica Masangu, two sisters from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who are students at UM, recalled Clinton’s 2009 visit to their African nation and how she highlighted the plight of women, meeting with rape victims and hearing their stories. “A great opportunity” is how Joyce described seeing Clinton. “I’m always open to listening and learning from anyone, especially a former first lady who might be president of the United States one day.”
A campaign-like atmosphere enveloped the arena both inside and outside, as students and other attendees donned stickers that read, “I’m Ready for Hillary.”
Seated in the first row of a special needs area, Helen Lennon declared, “It’s time this country elected a woman president. Other countries have them,” said 83-year-old Helen Lennon, seated in a special-needs area inside the arena with seven of her fellow members from UM’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. “A lot of us are into politics, and whether we like Hillary or not, she’s news.”
Reflecting on how different her life would be in her native Saudi Arabia, Najla Aljaber, who is eight months pregnant, certainly hopes Clinton will make a run for the presidency. As she waited for her husband, Faris Hamadi, a doctor studying for his master’s in public health at UM, to join her for the talk, Aljaber whispered a message to their first child, a daughter. “I told her, ‘We are going to see a powerful woman tonight and I want you to grow up to be a powerful woman.”
Maya Bell of UM News contributed to this report. Robert Jones can be reached 305-284-1615.