The room was big and hot and many in the crowd were eager for an election-year lambaste of George W. Bush.
But former President Bill Clinton's speech Friday at Kansas University's Allen Fieldhouse was professorial instead of partisan, conciliatory instead of critical.
Clinton, addressing a crowd of about 12,000 as the inaugural speaker in the Dole Institute of Politics' Dole Lecture series, said Americans haven't fully decided their role in the world in the aftermath of the Cold War.
"As long as we don't have that consensus, extremists will have more influence than they ought to, and politics will be more bitter than it should be," Clinton said.
He was repeatedly cheered and applauded by an enthusiastic audience that was a mix of Kansas University students, die-hard Democrats, dignitaries and others keen on seeing the two-term Democratic president who left office in 2001 with a 65 percent public approval rating.
No partisan finger-pointing
Among the Dole Institute's aims is to promote civility in public service and discourse. And Clinton sidestepped any partisan finger-pointing.
Dressed in a dark gray suit, white shirt and pink tie, he shared the podium with former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan.
Once fierce rivals, Dole and Clinton became good friends after the 1996 election in which Dole lost to Clinton. The two have worked together on several humanitarian projects in recent years. After the lecture, Dole led the former president on a private tour of the west campus institute that bears Dole's name and tells his story.
Not one to pass up a wisecrack, Dole, while introducing Clinton at the fieldhouse, attributed his loss to Clinton's scheduling debates "past my bedtime." Dole, 80, is 23 years older than Clinton.
Would you be interested in seeing President Clinton speak when he comes to Lawrence? "No, I think he's a very low form of life. I have no respect for him in any shape or form. My only concern is that he will be around college students and may end up influencing them."-- Dave Staab, self-employed, Lawrence
Poking fun at KU's reputation for being the state's hotbed of liberalism and his own conservatism, Dole said KU was "where I get more compliments and fewer votes than anywhere in Kansas."
Politics vs. friendship
Knowing he was in a Republican state that overwhelmingly supported Dole in 1996, Clinton jokingly said he appreciated the chance to appear before 90 percent of the Kansans who had voted for him. Later, after a particularly enthusiastic ovation, he said it could have been closer to 95 percent.
A Democratic presidential candidate hasn't carried Kansas since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Both Clinton and Dole mourned the bitterness that defines much of today's political discourse.
"There really was a time when political differences did not get in the way of friendship," Dole said, citing the deal-making abilities of former presidents John Kennedy and Johnson.
But Clinton said Americans and their leaders were largely unified in their view of the nation's role in the world during the Cold War -- until that consensus fell with the Berlin Wall.
He urged Americans to "get about the business" of reaching a new consensus on the nation's role during a period of rapid globalization.
"America is in one of those periods where we're trying to come to grips with fundamental questions," Clinton said.
Until that happens, he said, the nation's quest for "the more perfect union" envisioned by the Founding Fathers will be stalled in political bickering.
"When the Cold War was over and we saw the Industrial Age replaced by the Information Age, we changed the way we live and relate to each other and the rest of the world in ways that are both marvelous and frightening," Clinton said.
He compared the current partisanship with the partisanship in the late 18th century, just after the nation's founding.
"Go back and read what Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and their supporters said about each other," Clinton said. "After George Washington left the scene, who knew what America meant?"
The United States should join as many international groups and participate in as many international treaties as possible because the United States' status as the world's lone superpower, he said, will not last forever.
No Bush attack
He acknowledged that compromise with other nations often sacrificed Americans' freedom of action but said that at some point, America needed to realize, "You cannot kill, occupy or imprison all of your potential adversaries. You have to make a deal; that's what politics is. That's why compromise is honorable, not dishonorable."
During his 44-minute lecture, Clinton did not mention President Bush's name or criticize his handling of the war in Iraq.
Instead, he criticized those who attack Bush's motives, noting that despite Clinton's own opposition to the Vietnam War, he was "very uncomfortable" with those who accused Johnson of war mongering.
"I don't think President Johnson ever wanted one person to die (in Vietnam)," Clinton said. "I don't think he ever wanted anything but what he thought was right and best for America."
Clinton said nothing undercut civil debate more than questioning a person's motives.
When Clinton noted that questions had been raised about the Unites States' role in Iraq and whether more attention should be focused on Afghanistan, many in the audience, sensing a jab at Bush, applauded.
Fearing his message wasn't getting through, Clinton raised his hand, cutting off the crowd.
"This is thinking time, not cheering time," he said.
"You should have disagreements with your leaders and with your colleagues," he said. "But when it becomes repeatedly a question of questioning people's motives -- seeing the person you disagree with as a bad person -- we are not going to get very far in forming a more perfect union."