Former President Clinton speaks about political polarization as he accepts Dole prize in Lawrence

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, at the Lied Center of Kansas. Clinton was honored with the 2015 Dole Leadership Prize at the event, which was held by the Dole Institute of Politics.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s decades of interactions with Bob Dole proved a common thread throughout Clinton’s bipartisan-themed address Monday at Kansas University.

“One of the things I always liked about Bob Dole is that he could fight you like there’s no tomorrow, but he never closed the door on something that could help a real person,” Clinton said.

He added that no matter what else the two men were doing, they kept their doors open, “and we found a way to try to do what’s best for the American people.”

Clinton, a Democrat and the 42nd president of the United States, was in Lawrence to accept the 2015 Dole Leadership prize, bestowed annually by KU’s Dole Institute of Politics. Dole, 92, the former Republican U.S. Senator from Kansas for whom the institute and prize are named, did not attend the event.

Clinton called this the most “interdependent” age in human history, one in which forces positive and negative are colliding.

He said bipartisanship is the key to ensure the future is bountiful, urging America and the world to focus on shared goals instead of differences.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, at the Lied Center of Kansas. Clinton was honored with the 2015 Dole Leadership Prize at the event, which was held by the Dole Institute of Politics.

“The polarization of American politics is present not just in Washington but in American life,” Clinton told a capacity crowd at the 2,210-seat Lied Center auditorium on the KU campus.

“Look at how many of our collective bigotries we’ve been able to overcome in America in the last 100 years,” he said. “We are less racist than we used to be. We are less sexist than we used to be. We are less religiously bigoted than we used to be. We are less homophobic than we used to be. We have one remaining bigotry: We don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.”

Clinton said something happened to Dole, lying in the hospital struggling to recover from wounds he sustained in World War II, that made it possible for him to identify with other people.

“That is the essence of the test we all face today,” Clinton said.

Dole ran unsuccessfully for president against Clinton in 1996.

Clinton cited a passage about that campaign from his autobiography, in which he said he was pulling for Dole over other Republican contenders. Clinton said that no election is a sure thing, but he believed if he lost, “the country would be in more solid and moderate hands” with Dole.

Clinton said groups make better decisions if they are diverse and reach across lines.

“In the face of insecurity, the most predictable path … is to stick to your own kind and try to push everybody else away as best as you can,” Clinton said.

Now — in the age of smart phones, the Internet and globalization — “we can’t escape each other,” Clinton said.

Clinton interspersed his address with references to current events, examples of efforts initiated during his term as president, as well as recent efforts by his charitable foundation, the Clinton Foundation. Projects have included teaming up with former Republican Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and of course Dole.

One cause Clinton worked on with Dole was the Families of Freedom Fund, initiated after Clinton left the White House to provide money for education to the survivors of those killed in 9/11, regardless of citizenship.

Clinton said so far the fund has awarded $118 million.

“That is something we did together because we thought is was the right thing to do,” Clinton said. “It’s been really, really rewarding. It’s also been very good for our country.”

One of the missions of the Dole Institute is to foster civil dialogue about political and economic issues in a balanced and bipartisan environment.

The Dole Institute said Clinton was selected for the prize this year “for his work balancing the budget and practicing bipartisanship while in office.”

Other recipients of the prize have included former Sen. George McGovern, former Polish President Lech Walesa, former President George H.W. Bush and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

After leaving office in 2001, Clinton established the Clinton Foundation, which funds health care, human rights and economic development programs both domestically and internationally. Clinton’s wife, Hillary Clinton, is considered the Democratic frontrunner in the 2016 race for president.

The Dole Leadership prize comes with a $25,000 award, which Clinton has chosen to donate back to the Dole Institute. Dole Institute director Bill Lacy said the money will seed the Dole Institute’s new Women and Leadership Lecture Series, expected to launch in the next couple of years.