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President Clinton Reviews His Years in Office
University hosts Presidential Conference to dissect Clinton's eight years in office.
By Sean Coffey
Scholastic Kids Press Corps

Kid Reporter Sean Coffey's view of former President Bill Clinton as he worked the crowd at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, on November 10, 2005. (Photo: Suzanne Freeman)

Shaking Hands With the 42nd President

A tingle of excitement rushes through me as I get ready to hear a speech by former President Bill Clinton. He is the guest of honor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, speaking at the school's 11th Presidential Conference. I have my notepad ready and my ears open.

Clinton is introduced by his former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. He gets a huge ovation from the more than 4,000 people who are packed into the university arena on a blustery and cold fall day. Clinton starts off telling about the ups and downs of his first year as President. He talks about the things that America accomplished, and the way that the U.S. improved the way that other countries lived.

Once he starts talking about his second term, the speech really speeds up. He discusses such accomplishments as getting China into the trade business, encouraging more kids to join after-school programs, and how he made a big mistake in lying to Congress. When the one-hour speech is over, he gets a standing ovation. Then he gives the crowd another thrill, stepping off the stage to shake hands with the audience. I am about 30 feet away from him. I walk down three steps and join the mob of people who are rushing to greet him, trying not to get crushed completely.

I keep pushing forward. Now I am about five feet from the former President of the United States. I barely even have room to stick out my hand. It may sound funny, but I am hoping that my perfectly gelled hair doesn't get messed up by all the pushing and shoving. As I nudge within an arm's length of Clinton, I extend my left hand and he grabs it and looks at me. It is an amazing feeling to shake the hand of the 42nd President.

After the quick shake, I back away from the crush of people. I see a girl being carried to the front of the throng. At first I am puzzled and then I realize that the girl is disabled. I think Clinton senses this, because he reaches right over to her and gives her a big bear hug. A few minutes later, I get to interview this young woman. Her name is Sara Hammeo. She is 20 years old. Her sister is a student at Hofstra. Sara is accompanied by an incredibly well-trained golden retriever named Toulane, who helps with her daily chores. I ask Sara a few questions and then take a photo with her and the dog.

At the refreshment table in a nearby room, I interview several high-school students. I want to find out what they think about Clinton's talk. It's almost 7 p.m. now and we are in a bit of a rush to get home. I risk freezing myself to death by going outside in my bright red Scholastic Kids Press Corps shirt and no jacket.

Looking back at the speech, it really changed my opinion of Clinton. It showed me that he had the guts to go out in front of a massive crowd and admit he made a major mistake. If you can do that, I think that you are a true American leader.

—Sean Coffey

Thursday, November 10, 2005—Thousands of people, including hundreds of high-school students, packed into the Hofstra University Cultural Center to hear former President Bill Clinton speak honestly and from the heart about the ups and downs of his eight years in office.

"President Clinton is just so intelligent that it's hard not to respect him,'' said 17-year-old Jill Marcellus, after hearing the speech with fellow students from Schreiber High School in Port Washington, New York. "He's so charismatic. I think he was a really good President."

Clinton spoke at the 11th annual Presidential Conference at Hofstra in Hempstead, New York, on November 10. The conference—titled "William Jefferson Clinton: The New Democrat from Hope"—lasted three days and provided students the opportunity to learn about modern history from many of the political people who made it happen. Hofstra has hosted conferences about every President from Franklin Delano Roosevelt forward.

"The office of the President is the centerpiece of our democracy," one Hofstra administrator explained. "In times of peril and in times of peace, the office of the President holds the country together. Studying how our leaders have functioned in this office is of vital importance to all of us."

After welcoming speeches from Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State, and University President Stuart Rabinowitz, Clinton was introduced to a great ovation.

Clinton spoke about both his triumphs and setbacks from 1992 to 2000, the years he held office as America's 42nd President. He said that the main reason he ran for President was that he wanted to help reduce the country's debt, help poor families break out of poverty, and create more after-school programs. He said he was able to help in many of these areas, but also admitted that he broke some promises and made some mistakes. He said he regrets not going into the African nation of Rwanda to try to save lives during a bitter civil war there. He also said he could not keep his pledge to cut taxes for the middle class because he wanted to reduce the deficit and expand programs that would help reduce poverty. Clinton added that all Presidents break promises because sometimes things change when they're in office.

"Abraham Lincoln, while running for office, said that he would not abolish slavery," Clinton said, "but was it bad that he broke that promise?"

Clinton said that 2000 was his most successful year in office. His administration helped China enter the World Trade Organization, got more children into child care and after-school programs, and started a program where young people received college credit for working in their communities.

The rousing speech concluded with Clinton telling the audience how he feels a President should be judged. He said he asked himself, "Were people better off when you quit than when you started?" As people form their opinion of a President, Clinton said he hoped they would look at the facts and not just go by what they read in newspapers or see on television.

Following his one-hour presentation, Clinton received another huge ovation, along with a plaque from Rabinowitz. Clinton then stepped down into the audience as a crush of people rushed forward to shake his hand.

One lucky Hofstra student, Lisa Guido, 21, was picked to be Clinton's guide and watched as he greeted visitors and people he worked with in the White House. "It was very exciting to be standing next to someone I think is by far the greatest President in my lifetime," she said. "He has a true sense of trust in the people of our nation and in the ability of the government to do good for the people," she said.

High-school students who attended the speech met at a reception afterward to talk about the experience.

"The speech really opened up my eyes," said Patrick Bard, 14, of Uniondale High School in Long Island. "It taught me that there's more to being a President than most people think. It's a really tough job."