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Clintons avoid Trump and stress optimism, civic participation at Chicago talk

Helene Gayle, CEO & President of The Chicago Community Trust moderates a discussion with Chelsea Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton at the closing plenary session during the 11th annual Clinton Global Initiative University at the University of Chicago on Oct. 20, 2018. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Donald Trump’s name was not mentioned during remarks by Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea Clinton when they spoke at the University of Chicago on Saturday.

Instead, the Clintons encouraged Americans’ optimism and civic participation  — and exactly who was promoting an “assault on democratic norms,” “predatory capitalism” and “alternative facts” went unsaid.

But Bill Clinton’s exhortation to vote came as Trump’s administration nears its most important test at the ballot box since his victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

“If you live in a democracy, the most important thing you can do is fully participate,” Bill Clinton said. “If you don’t vote because think it doesn’t make any difference, you help ensure it doesn’t make any difference. Except it does. It makes it more likely that everything you don’t like about today will happen tomorrow.”

Their talk closed the second day of this year’s meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative University, a facet of the Clinton Foundation aimed at engaging college students. This is the first time the 11-year-old event has been held in Chicago. On Sunday, attendees will participate in a day of action, volunteering at local organizations.

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The Clintons were joined on stage by discussion moderator Helene D. Gayle, the president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, a long-established and well-endowed supporter of philanthropy in the region.

The panel discussed the theme of optimism.

Prompted by Gayle, Hillary Clinton reflected on her own experience. When she was born, Clinton pointed out, there were many schools and jobs she was barred from as a woman. The work of the women’s rights movement and, for other Americans, the Civil Rights Movement, opened many of those doors over the course of her life.

“I’ve seen change. Now, I think we’re living in a time when unfortunately there are forces at work that would like to reverse a lot of that progress,” Hillary Clinton said. “Yet I don’t think you can undermine the yearning for human freedom and dignity, and therefore, I’m optimistic.

“If you’re breathing, you can change tomorrow,” Bill Clinton said. “As long as you believe that the interdependence of the world requires us to choose diverse group cooperation instead of homogeneous tribal separatism.”

Asked to name issues particularly ill-served by the distortions of modern politics, Hillary Clinton pointed to the recent report by UN climate scientists that found an imminent and and catastrophic threat from global warming.

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Her other concern: the anti-vaccination movement, driven by the claim that vaccination leads to autism and other diseases.

Chelsea Clinton picked up on the issue, saying that the reluctance of parents in wealthy countries was especially frustrating given the measures taken in other parts of the world to secure life-saving medicine.
“Think about parents who stand in line for hours, waiting to be vaccinated around the world. Ignorance shouldn’t be a privilege, but, too often, it is,” Chelsea Clinton said.

Though the tone of Saturday’s event was forward-looking, the Clintons’s recent political history still managed to peek through.

After an alarm interrupted his introduction of a panel earlier Saturday afternoon, Bill Clinton quipped, “Surely the Russians aren’t hacking us.” And as Hillary Clinton walked onstage for their closing panel, a spectator yelled, “I’m with her,” to applause from the audience and laughs from the stage.