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Bill Clinton talks about work post-presidency at MSU

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Former President Bill Clinton urged an audience of dignitaries and Michigan State University students to find ways to engage in public service during a Wednesday evening speech that touched on current events such as the terrorist killings in Paris.

Former President Bill Clinton speaks at Michigan State University's Kellogg Center for the first Governor Jim Blanchard Public Service Forum on Wednesday, November 18, 2015.

“We are living in a world bursting with possibilities for both positive and negative,” said the 69-year-old Democrat. Those who sit on the sidelines and do nothing, he said, “contribute to the latter.”

Clinton was in Michigan to receive MSU’s first Spartan Statesmanship Award for Distinguished Public Service and was keynote speaker for a new Governor Jim Blanchard Public Service Forum.

The award and forum, intended to honor public servants and expose students to their work, was created this year by the ex-Michigan governor and his wife, Janet.

In typical fashion, Clinton combined a “lecture” on public service with homespun stories and humor from his long career in politics and involvement in post-presidency causes.

The 42nd U.S. president, Clinton now is splitting his time between foundation work and campaigning to make his wife, ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the 45th president.

He’s been a frequent Michigan visitor, deployed by his party to boost other Democrats seeking state and national office.

Blanchard introduced him as a man “whose public service would fill 10 lifetimes.” And Clinton said when he got the call from Blanchard about Wednesday’s event, “I thought, my God, he’s about to mount another campaign.”

Clinton told stories of his days in politics and his activities post-presidency, including founding the Clinton Global Initiative, part of the Clinton Foundation.

“My god, I’ve become an NGO,” Clinton told the crowd, referring to his non-governmental organization.

“I’ve spent my whole life in politics ... .”

President Bill Clinton reaches for the first Spartan Statesmanship Award for Distinguished Public Service, given to him by Michigan State University.

He touched on current events, such as the Paris terrorist attacks last week.

“The events in Paris remind us so painfully, we live in an interconnected world ... technology is an unbelievable force for good that can also be a force for destruction,” he said.

“We are condemned to share the future with our neighbors around the corner, in the Upper Peninsula, across the country and around the world,” Clinton said.

He urged listeners to “pick one space, no matter how small, and do something good as a private citizen.”

Guests were blocked for a time by students protesting inequality and chanting “White supremacy is no black liberty.”

Clinton’s speech drew a standing ovation from an audience ranging from Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, an MSU alum, to current Spartans basketball team guard Denzel Valentine.

Blanchard, U.S. ambassador to Canada under Clinton, and his wife made a $1 million gift to MSU to set up the forum. In a September announcement, Blanchard said the program honors top leaders in politics, diplomacy, public service and journalism.

“The goal of this lecture series is to provide generations of students, faculty and people in the MSU community with the opportunity to hear and learn from national and international political leaders and others,” he said in a statement released by the school.

MSU also has announced it is joining the Clinton Global Initiative University and will offer a minor in entrepreneurship and innovation.

Clinton was president from 1993 to 2001. Blanchard, an MSU graduate, served in Congress from 1975-83 and two terms as Michigan governor (1983-91).

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Blanchard is credited with helping pass legislation providing federal loan guarantees for Chrysler Corp. when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 1970s.

gheinlein@detroitnews.com