Hallways emptied and classes were forgotten as swarms of UB students waited in line from the Commons to Alumni Arena Wednesday afternoon to hear what was a "Student Choice Speaker" in every sense of the word.
With UB's signature gold buffalo behind him and the university's logo emblazoning the podium, former President William J. Clinton addressed a crowd numbering over 7,000, the majority of whom were UB students.
"Each and every one of you, no matter what you do, will have some role in what kind of community, what kind of nation, and what kind of world we live in," Clinton told the eager crowd.
Globalization and America's role in the increasingly interdependent "world without walls" formed the crux of Clinton's hour-long speech, at times punctuated by erupting applause from the packed bleachers.
Despite later mentions of his book in progress about the "reasonably interesting life I was privileged to live," Clinton's speech favored the political over the autobiographical.
The talk was directed primarily at the young audience members, mentioning the viability of Social Security and Medicare with the graying of the baby boomers, prospects for peace and conflict in the post-Sept. 11 world, and the increasing importance of up-to-date information technology.
"On the day I was inaugurated president in 1993," he said, "there were only 50 sites on the World Wide Web. . On the day I left office, there were 350 million and rising."
While the spread of information technology has erased the barriers of distance, making the world increasingly interdependent, said Clinton, it is not yet an integrated international system.
"A lot of the pieces don't seem to fit, and there are a slew of paradoxes," he said.
Paradoxes, Clinton said, such as the fact that while the world's wealth has grown tremendously, half of the world's population still lives on $2 a day, and one billion people go to bed hungry every night.
The former president juxtaposed the world's relative prosperity with environmental degradation, the shortage of clean water, the deaths of millions of children from preventable infectious diseases and the rising rate of HIV infection.
While the spread of democracy has made the international system a more stable one, Clinton said the most significant threat to peace is "the marriage of ancient hatred rooted in religious, racial, tribal and ethnic differences, married to modern weapons of destruction."
The 42nd president's remarks inevitably shifted to Sept. 11, which he called the "dark side of global interdependence."
Clinton said on the morning of the terrorist attacks, he was on the phone from Australia with two former White House staffers who were in Lower Manhattan, relating the events as they happened.
"The minute the second plane hit the World Trade Center, I said to them, bin Laden did this, only bin Laden could have done this," Clinton said.
Calling the Taliban the "most repressive government in the world," Clinton registered his approval for the Bush administration's actions in Afghanistan.
"But [the Taliban] did not kill the 3,100 people in New York on Sept. 11; Mr. Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network did, so I support what our forces are doing there to finish the job," Clinton said, to thunderous applause.
In terms of homeland security, the ex-president stressed the importance of modernizing the information capabilities of law enforcement agencies and integrating them with each other and U.S. allies around the world.
"The CIA identified two of these prospective terrorists, but they were lost once they came to America for the simple reason that we did not have the elemental capacity that every company in America that does mass mailings and sells mass addresses have," said Clinton.
A significant portion of his speech and the question-and-answer period was devoted to the latest violence in the Middle East.
Clinton believes brokering a viable peace in the region would "do more good in less time to protect us and people around the world from terrorism and reconcile the different cultures and faiths in the world."
The former president, who spent much of his second term attempting to achieve a resolution in the tumultuous region, carefully balanced his approach to the conflict, saying there was "more than enough fault to go around."
The current round of violence, Clinton said, was ignited in August 2000 when now-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went up on the Temple Mount, a holy site for Muslims - something no Israeli politician had done in 30 years and a move Clinton counseled against.
Clinton also cited Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's rejection of the peace agreement negotiated at the end of Clinton's term as perpetuating the current troubles, a move he called a "terrible mistake."
Clinton pointed out that despite high-profile civilian bombings by the Palestinian Liberalization Organization, casualties are skewed toward the Palestinian side, although those numbers are converging.
"It is a supreme irony testifying to the sinfulness of human beings," said Clinton, "that the most hallowed ground in the world to us is so sullied with the blood of children."
While many Americans have debated the merits of U.S. interference in Middle East affairs, Clinton solidly expressed his belief that a peaceful resolution "cannot happen without American leadership."
"The Israelis don't believe that any country in the world with any power besides America would die for them," said Clinton.
Similarly, Clinton said the United States is in the greatest position to "stand up for the legitimate rights and aspirations of the Palestinians. To talk about the wrongs that have been done to them and the lives that they deserve to have as well."
Bolstering foreign aid was another component of Clinton's security agenda. He argued that anti-American sentiment was an outgrowth not of resentment of U.S. power or success, but rather a perception that the United States does not care about other nations.
"We need to take some money to build a world with more friends and fewer adversaries," Clinton said.
Though the bulk of Clinton's speech centered on foreign policy, he stressed that American needs cannot be neglected.
"We can't do anyone else any good unless it's as a strong, prosperous, healthy country. We need to make sure we've got a good economic policy here at home."
Clinton trumpeted the hallmarks of his presidency including the Family Medical Leave Act, environmental preservation, increased college aid, the creation of 22 million jobs, the proliferation of trade agreements and the formation of the World Trade Organization, welfare reform, economic growth and the AmeriCorps program.
"We established AmeriCorps - in some ways my proudest achievement - a community service program for young people to earn college credit and give something back to their community," he said. "So now over a quarter of a million people have served since 1994, more than in the entire 42-year history of the Peace Corps."
In response to a question about how he is spending his time outside the White House, Clinton said "I'm a citizen now and I have a senator and a student to support, so I have to make a living."
Collection envelopes were distributed to the audience for the Families of Freedom scholarship fund, a collaborative effort between Clinton and his 1996 Republican challenger Bob Dole to provide college scholarships to the spouses and children of those killed in the September terrorist attacks.
In the Q and A section, Clinton also commented on possible Democratic challengers in 2004, including a certain junior senator from New York and former first lady.
"She says it's not going to happen and she likes the job she's got," he said, naming Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as possible contenders.
Clinton also addressed his remarks to young people in the audience with aspirations for public office.
"The presidential election is the world's greatest job interview," said Clinton. "You're asking the American people to hire you."
"I don't mind you being ambitious . you wouldn't be there if you weren't. But you have to have a reason for wanting it that's bigger than you, maybe even bigger than them."
Student Association President Christian Oliver, whose administration is credited with bringing the former president to UB despite a rocky beginning, called the event "yet another great example of how SA and the UB administration work together to provide big events for students."
"It couldn't have gone any better," said Oliver, although he said he wished the venue had been large enough to accommodate the demand.
The speech also garnered rave reviews from many students in attendance.
"I thought he was really good. He spoke about a lot of issues that I was confused about," said Shavonne Wyche, a senior English major. "He just clarified them and spoke in layman's terms for people that are not political buffs."
Kate Caccavaio, a senior English major and staunch Democrat, said the president's future vision "sounded perfect to me."
Plus, she noted, comparing Clinton to President George W. Bush, "He speaks a lot better than that other guy."
Others would have preferred a more personal speech. "I wish he'd spoke more about his future plans, on what he plans to do, stuff like that, instead of just the world," said Andrew Fiess, a senior marketing major, "but I thought it was good overall."
Buffalo resident Jody Starr gave the Clinton speech an "A" grade. "It's very difficult to criticize someone who is as fair and objective as he is," he said.
Starr was impressed with Clinton's knowledge and discussion of the topical issues of today including ignorance of Islam and education, as well as with Clinton's ascendancy from lower middle-class roots. He acknowledged that Clinton was not perfect, but justifiably so.
"I don't want Mother Theresa running for presidency," said Starr.
As for the fate of his legacy, currently debated by politicos and presidential historians alike, Clinton shed some light on how he views his eight years in office.
"In public life, like private life, the work of perfection is never achieved," Clinton said. "You will find that your life will always be a work in progress. And as long as America is around, it will always be a work in progress."