It’s been 20 years, but former President Bill Clinton still remembers the moment he learned that two students killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.
“I had been to that community,” Clinton said last week at his office in midtown Manhattan. “And when I first heard about it, I thought, ‘not again,’ and ‘even there.’ “
It was immediately apparent, Clinton said, that this shooting was different — even though there had been school shootings in the years prior.
“There was something about this Columbine thing that just, you knew that it had now transcended income, class, race, everything,” he said. “That we were spiraling into some sort of a culture of violence.”
For Clinton, the tragedy presented an immediate dilemma. As cable news channels broadcast live from Jefferson County’s Clement Park, near the school, and as hundreds of reporters descended on the scene, he had to decide what to say to the American people.
“There are certain things, if you're president, you need to say,” Clinton said. “There are certain other things you need to not say.”
He didn’t want to say anything that was factually wrong. And he wanted to shape a conversation about policy changes that he wanted to see down the road. But in the moment, he decided to turn to scripture.
In his address from the White House that evening, Clinton quoted from the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The first part of that chapter is recited at many Christian weddings — love is patient, love is kind, etc. But Clinton said it was the later section of the chapter that resonated with him that day:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
“The last two verses are the most important guide for politics and citizenship,” Clinton said, because they compare life on earth to life with God.
“It doesn't mean there's no truth,” he added. “But it means that it's crazy to be a fanatic and jam other people all the time with sanctimony.”
Clinton said he chose the verses because he wanted to caution against a rush to judgment, and to urge an outpouring of love. He closed his speech with a verbal embrace of the Columbine community.
“To the families who have lost their loved ones, to the parents who have lost their beloved children, to the wounded children and their families, to people of the community of Littleton, I can only say tonight that the prayers of the American people are with you.”
Clinton’s concern for Columbine lasted for years.
A month after the shooting, in May 1999, Clinton went to Colorado. He said the nation was still reeling, and he decided he needed to be there in person. So he met families of the victims at Light of the World Catholic Church in Littleton.
“He just consoled with them,” said former Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis. “He shed tears.”
Bruce Beck, stepfather to Lauren Townsend, who was killed at Columbine, said meeting Clinton made him realize how significant the shooting was to the entire country.
“His words were calming and reassuring, but just the fact that he was here made a huge statement to us,” Beck said in March.
“He wasn't just standing in front of a big crowd saying, ‘I'm sorry,’ “ said Dawn Anna, Lauren Townsend’s mother. “He took time to come to each of us individually and talk to us.”
Clinton was late for his speech at the nearby Dakota Ridge High School, where Columbine students finished the school year. But he said he kept stalling at the church because he felt like he was more useful there, with the families.
“I thought that — that for just a moment, if the president is standing there listening to them talk about their children, it gives just a hair of respect that their kids' lives mattered,” he said. “Sometimes just listening is way more important than whatever you have to say.”
DeAngelis said Clinton’s embrace of the Columbine community helped it heal in the months immediately after the shooting. But it was Clinton’s ongoing dedication, from raising funds for the Columbine Memorial to attending its groundbreaking in 2006, that sets him apart as a leader, DeAngelis said.
“He called me the first day back in the fall of '99-2000,” DeAngelis said. “Originally, I thought it was a prank. ... He just said, ‘Frank, I'm thinking about you.’ “
His role of “Consoler In Chief” set the modern standard for presidents.
Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, said daytime talk show hosts in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, like Phil Donahue and Oprah, pushed their audiences, and eventually the larger culture, to be more open with feelings.
“Presidents, I believe, have had to respond to that by becoming both the receivers of that kind of information and then coming back to the people as the therapist who listens to them,” Perry said.
Presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin said making private emotions public was not something past presidents did. But several were able to connect deeply with Americans, to soothe them and help them move on, she said.
A prime example is President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, given in the final days of the Civil War:
“He talks about the fact that both sides share the sin of slavery, both prayed to the same God, neither's prayers were fully answered,” Kearns Goodwin said. “And then the words we all remember: ‘With malice towards none and charity for all, let us bind up the nation's wounds.’ "
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his first inaugural address to console millions of out-of-work Americans. He acknowledged the depth of the catastrophe the nation was facing, but also made his famous declaration that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
“You've got that feeling of, ‘How do I strike an understanding that this was so difficult for people to experience, and yet give the uplift at the same time,’ “ Perry said.
What set Clinton apart from his predecessors, she said, were two things: the proliferation of mass media by the late 1990s, and how effectively he exuded empathy.
“There are very few presidents as skilled as he in both being able to not only make people think he cares, but genuinely, I think, to care and to show people that he cares,” she said.
President George W. Bush was similarly effective, Kearns Goodwin said, after 9/11 — though he used a tone of defiance. President Barack Obama more closely emulated Clinton, Perry said, after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, where 20 students and six teachers were killed. He paused at the podium, and wiped away a tear in the middle of his speech.
“We typically don't want our presidents breaking down into sobs,” Perry said. “But if a president genuinely is tearful and has to wipe away a tear ... it's a way to connect to the people.”
Headline-grabbing tragedies have continued into President Donald Trump’s administration. Perry gives Trump low marks as comforter in chief, pointing to his reaction to deadly wildfires in California as an example. There, he blamed forest management and threatened to withhold federal payments to the state.
“I don't think he will be considered, by virtue of his persona, an empathetic person or a person who naturally feels other people's pain,” Perry said. “He is not a gifted orator in this space.”
Political dynamics can complicate a consoler-in-chief’s job.
Clinton tried to thread the political needle after Columbine. In his visit to Colorado in May 1999, he told the crowd they had “a chance to be heard in a way no one else can be heard.”
“You can help us to build a better future for all our children,” he said then.
Twenty years on, Clinton said he was trying to set the stage for action. He wanted tighter controls on guns — an effort that he acknowledged failed on the federal level. That desire for political change complicated his mission to console, Kearns Goodwin said.
But conversely, she said, there’s been a shift in recent years — there’s a much greater public outcry for policy changes after tragedies like the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and a synagogue in Pittsburgh last year.
“And the fact that it wasn't exercised, I think, was felt by many people even though it would have been a politically difficult thing,” she said.
It’s precisely that shift that gives Clinton hope, especially in the student activists from Parkland, Florida who organized the March for Our Lives last spring.
“There are very few permanent victories and permanent defeats in politics,” he said. “The ebb and flow of opinion and opportunity and chance, it changes. But there are some things that are worth fighting for, for a very long time.”
Twenty years on, Clinton wants to make sure Columbine isn’t forgotten.
The country should honor the families of the deceased and the more than 1,700 students and staff who survived the Columbine shooting, Clinton said. Many have set a template for dealing with the aftermath of a mass shooting, which he said can present a great dilemma:
“ ‘How do you go on without letting it go? If you don't let it go, can you go on? If you go on, do you let it go and forget something really important?’ I think they did a good job of both and we should be grateful to them,” Clinton said.
Clinton said he keeps in touch with Columbine’s former principal Frank DeAngelis, and that he still thinks about the families he met 20 years ago. It’s the job he signed up for, he said, and he intends to do it as long as he needs to.
“I like DeAngelis, and all those people that just wouldn't give up,” he said. “I like the fact that they still care. You know, real life returned to them. The ones that had kids, the kids grew up, other things happened, misfortunes occurred in their lives, they got sick, they got well, whatever, but they still care. And if they still care somebody needs to be willing there to walk with them.”
Andrea Dukakis: Mr. President, thanks for talking to us.
President Bill Clinton: Thank you.
Dukakis: Can you describe the moment when you first heard about the shooting at Columbine High School?
Clinton: I can. I, first, I had been to that community and I knew about it and when I first heard about it, I thought, "not again," and "even there." You know, keep in mind at the time, we didn't know how many people for sure had died and we knew nothing about the two young men and how they came to do what they did. As the facts unfolded and I realized they had all those bombs that didn't explode, I thanked God that, you know, there weren't more people killed but it was awful. We had just had one not very long ago in my native state, in Arkansas, at Jonesboro. We had a shooting at Springfield, Oregon. We had a couple of bad shootings in 1993, including one in Kentucky but there was something about this Columbine thing that just, you knew that it had now transcended income, class, race, everything that we were spiraling into some sort of a culture of violence-gun violence-in schools that really bothered me.
Dukakis: You said something about the shooting having pierced the soul of the nation.
Clinton: I think it did. You know, if you remember the actual-we got some of this at Stoneman Douglas when that happened, that there were, you know, the brave teacher trying to save the lives of students. There were all these people running around trying to keep it from being worse. They were, it was-and they were-it seemed like such a-it seemed like an advertisement for a normal place. And it's something that dark and twisted happened there. I think somehow it registered just like, I thought President Obama did a great job of calling attention to the murder of all those grade school kids in ...
Clinton: Connecticut and I thought he was great at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. But somehow-maybe it was the diversity, maybe it was they were a little older, but somehow those kids at Stoneman Douglas captured the imagination of America and they turned it into a voting issue for the first time.
But that's what happened within Colorado with Columbine. The people of Colorado woke up to that and. But you know, all those things are terrible because the number one thing is that young people die before their time and they never get a chance to have the life that you and I have had to do the things we probably take for granted.
Nathaniel Minor: When you first heard the news, what was your initial reaction and how did you decide what to do next?
Clinton: My initial reaction is this is really serious and I need to go and say something now while being careful not to say something that's factually wrong. I need first for people to listen to what happened and to be with those people in spirit before wading into what I thought ought to be done. And I think there's something really important there. I felt it at Oklahoma City, too. You know, there are certain things if you're president you need to say. And it needs-and some of them need to be said in a hurry. There are certain other things you need to not say and other people don't either.
And so, I think one of the jobs that a president has when something like this happens is to try to set the stage when we're clearer headed and when our grieving stops to think about what happened, what we should do, what we owe the future. But I think it's important right after it happens first to acknowledge these people were our fellow human beings who had no business dying.
Dukakis: As a president, what do you see your role as in the wake of a tragedy like Columbine?
Clinton: First, to say on behalf of the country to the people who are there in the community and who are directly affected that we're with you. Our prayers are with you, our thoughts are with you, our hearts are with you. We know that we can't know exactly how you're feeling but we're with you. Second, to tell the country that we should all support them and we owe it to ourselves to honor the lives they had and to do our best to redeem them by doing whatever is appropriate in the aftermath of it.
Minor: That afternoon, you quoted First Corinthians, something about looking through glass darkly. How did you choose that or did you?
Clinton: I spent a lot of time-well because at the time-this has nothing to do with Columbine.
Clinton: I think for people who consider themselves devoted Christians and who believe that the Bible should guide their lives, I think the last two chapters of First Corinthians, 13, the last two verses, are the most important guide for politics and citizenship. Remember, that's a chapter about love and it is normally read at Christian weddings-love is not boastful, it is kind, not jealous-all that stuff. But if you get to the end, in the King James version, it says-there's a section at the end of the conversation about love comparing life on earth with life with God. That's really what it's all about. And it says "for now we see through a glass darkly but then face to face. Now we know in part but then we shall know even as we are known. And now abideth faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love."
Now it sounds nice at a wedding. The Greek word is agape. It means love of your fellow human beings. It has nothing to do with romantic love. It is a sense of shared humanity and how could it possibly be better than faith because we see through a glass darkly. We know in part nobody ever has the whole truth. It doesn't mean there's no truth but it means that it's crazy to be a fanatic and jam other people all the time with sanctimony when we as human beings, part of the human condition, is humility and love of your fellow human beings-communal love.
So, when I-I was reading it one day and I thought it sounds nice at weddings, but it belongs in the way we think about society. And it guides us away from too much sanctimony. So I started trying to explain that to people and I thought it belonged at that moment.
Minor: Why do you think the families in the country needed to hear it then?
Clinton: Well they didn't need to hear it. What I was saying is to everybody else, don't rush to judgment here. We do not-we know about the-we think we know what happened but we don't know everything. I remember Oklahoma City, I cautioned everybody-there was a brief impulse to say oh, this must be an act of Islamic terrorism. And I remember standing in the Rose Garden that day cautioning people that we didn't know what had happened. And it turned out to be part of this government-hating thing that was so rampant in the '90s. You know, the Michigan Militia and there was a lot of all that. McVeigh wasn't-it was by far the worse thing but it was not the only thing that reflected this blind hatred. There was some in the '80s, too. So, anyway, I just-that's why I said it.
Dukakis: A month later, you decided to travel to Littleton to meet with the families. What made you decide that you wanted to go to the community and talk with folks and commiserate with them?
Clinton: First, I went as a parent. I mean I can't-you know, there is nothing worse in life than having a child die before you. And I thought the country was, really was not only absorbed in, by what happened to them. I thought the whole country was heartbroken by it and I thought it was a moment when we should show that. And I don't think you can do everything long distance. I think I needed to be there in person. That was the first thing.
Secondly, I wanted to help them begin again because whatever we did or didn't do on the issues which remained after the killings, all those kids had to begin again. All those teachers had to begin again. All those school administrators and the community-they had to begin again. And I thought that maybe it would help. And the third thing I wanted to do is listen to them to see if I could learn how better to talk about this so that I could be more likely to get something done in the Congress. Because I, you know, I just-I thought it was-I thought then and I think now-after all these years we still don't have a comprehensive background check law is unbelievable. That we have, you know, more than twice as many guns per hundred people as country on Earth and Yemen is in second place.
Dukakis: I mean Jacinda Ardern just had to deal with a mass shooting in her country and she reached out and consoled the public but she also was able to push through very strict gun laws there.
Clinton: It's a parliamentary system. She can, by definition, pass laws. If you're the Prime Minister it means you have a majority in Parliament.
Dukakis: So you think that's the difference?
Clinton: Absolutely. One hundred percent of the difference. I mean Australia has had a lot of conservative governments. The current government of Australia is sympathetic with the Trump Administration on immigration issues but they have not suggested repealing their gun laws. This is an American deal. We own this. And the-a minority of the American people can keep the majority-a big majority-who favor comprehensive background checks at greater peril because the country still has a Senate and a significant number of the House that does what the NRA and the gun owners of America and those other people want, and because it's a voting issue for them.
Before these Stoneman Douglas kids came along with all the other blood that had been shed, there were too many Americans who agreed that we needed responsible gun registration laws-I mean gun license-not registration-background check laws-and would support restrictions on the size of magazines-ammunition magazines-and assault weapons. But there's no way they could pass it because they would lose. Because it was a big issue for the people who were against them and not a big issue for the ones that were for them.
And if you look at Columbine led to the voters of Colorado voting 70 to 30 to close the gun shell loophole and have adequate background checks. But they still voted for the Republican nominee in the next election who was against it all.
In other words-there's another thing-voters who live in a rural-I grew up in this culture. I know. I had a .22 when I was 10. A .410 shotgun when I was 14. I know about this. Voters also do not trust politicians with this issue if they live in rural areas where they feel they need it for their safety and they've got a right to go hunting and sport shooting wherever they wanted. So putting it on the ballot was really important and the Republican governor of Colorado did that and supported it. He supported it.
So, anyway, but that's-now I think because of what happened at the-the galvanization that happened after Stoneman Douglas means we do have an operational majority again for doing something simple. And somehow, we need somebody to talk to people and say we have no intention of depriving you of the right to hunt, sport shoot or defend yourself. The Supreme Court has now institutionalized that. Therefore you should help us save more lives. We need your help. Let's help save these kids' lives and let's talk about what's necessary to do.
I kept hoping that the combination of the Supreme Court decision, which I think was wrong saying that the framers intended to enshroud an individual's right to keep and bear arms, but it's the law of the land now. And the breathtaking effectiveness of these Stoneman Douglas kids and the parents of Sandy Hook. All of them. I was hoping it would make a difference now.
Minor: You know in talking with people like Frank DeAngelis, the principal, families of the deceased, they kept saying to us you know, we couldn't believe that the president was coming out here and it wasn't just once. I think you came multiple times that first year and then again for the memorial five or six years later.
Clinton: Yeah, I helped them finish the memorial.
Minor: Yeah. Why-did you feel some sort of special connection to the area? Why did you feel a need to do that?
Clinton: Yes, I did. I was-the parents who survived, the teachers, the other students that I came in contact with-I thought they were extraordinary and I felt-and if they were willing to keep it alive, I thought the least I could do was help. I also go back to Oklahoma City on every commemoration too. I think that, you know, there are very few permanent victories and permanent defeats in politics. The ebb and flow of opinion and opportunity and chance, it changes. But there are some things that are worth fighting for for a very long time. And those children who didn't get to live their lives, the least I can do is show up and honor them.
That's the way I look-and I like them, I like them. I like DeAngelis and all those people that just wouldn't give up, you know. I like the fact that they still care. You know, real life returned to them. The ones that had kids, the kids grew up, other things happened, misfortunes occurred in their lives, they got sick, they got well, whatever, but they still care. And if they still care somebody needs to be willing there to walk with them.
Dukakis: When you look at leadership and being President of the United States, how important is that role of consoling and comforting?
Clinton: Well for me, it is very important. I think it is important for the country. I think it can be important for the world. You know, I had to do a lot of that. I mean we lost-people were murdered by terrorists at Khobar Towers and the embassies at Kenya and Tanzania. Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995 and I believe if he had lived, we would have had a comprehensive peace by 1998 in the Middle East. I think you have to honor those people when-the circumstances are all different. The Rabin thing was easy and self-evident. He basically spent his life defending Israel and then was murdered by a young guy who thought he wasn't a good Israeli or a good Jew and he gave his life to give peace a chance.
And, you know, I think those things you have to honor but when young people's lives are truncated in schools which are supposed to be a place of refuge and learning and security. How many kids are there today who went to school, who come from low-income neighborhoods where people are poor, where there's violence on the streets or opioids in the home or you name it. The school ought to be a place of refuge. So when those places are invaded, particularly by other young people who are twisted into believing their resentment's legitimized, destroying people, they deserve not to be forgotten and their lives deserve to be redeemed insofar as possible by the ones who survived, continuing to make something good happen.
Minor: The - some of the families said - I don't remember if you remember the Catholic church where you spoke.
Clinton: Very well.
Minor: Yeah. They were saying they had to - you were talking to so many families and hugging and hearing stories that they had to pull you to the podium because you didn't want to leave the families. Like what - talk me through that whole event.
Clinton: Well, I was overcome and I thought those families were a lot more important than whatever I had to say. I thought that - that for just a moment, if the president is standing there listening to them talk about their children, it gives just a hair of respect that their kids' lives mattered. And sometimes just listening is way more important than whatever you have to say. This whole thing was about the stories of their children, their families, their future, that's what matters. I mean I - I'd already said to the country, more or less, all I had to say, but I needed to say it again to them, but I - and they did. They did pull me away and I was embarrassed, but I would've stayed there until they all talked and said all that that had to say.
Minor: Do you still think about those families now?
Clinton: Oh, all the time. Yeah, I think about that. Keep in mind, my father was killed in a car wreck three months before I was born. So more than most little children, I was always aware I was not about to live forever. And I've always thought I was the luckiest person in the world. I've now lived longer than any man or woman in my family, until you go back to my maternal great-grandparents. So every day's a gift to me. And I think when people die before their time, you - they - you have to think about them.
I just went back and looked - this - you'll think this sounds morbid, but I was writing this book about my life after I left the White House, and I went back and looked at the list of everybody whose funeral I had spoken at just since I left office, including the ones that were much younger than me. And I think that's a good thing to do. It keeps you whole, it keeps you humble; you just think about other people's lives and when you're president, when you're actually in the office, you ought to be there for other people. It's the least you can do. It doesn't take much of your time in life, it makes you a better person, it makes you think about other things, it gives you a little perspective on whatever the heck you're dealing with today and it's a gift. And it's a gift that, in a free society, people who are grieving should be given.
Dukakis: We interviewed Doris Kearns Goodwin for this story that we're working on. And she says that empathy is one of the most important qualities in a leader, and I wonder, if you look back over history, how you see that? Has that been able to soothe the nation after a big tragedy like Columbine, like a war?
Clinton: Well, I think - yes. I always was interested in, particularly wartime presidents and they had to be brutal and empathetic. Like George Washington, for example, there was a plot against his life and against the Revolutionary Army, a new book's just been out about it. And he had a bunch of people axed. But he was the first president ever to reach out to the Jewish community. He sent a reconciling letter to a synagogue. He freed his slaves, unlike Jefferson.
Lincoln both endorsed and ratified a fair amount of really brutal punishment to soldiers who were leaving their duty, but also spared a lot of lives. And the letter he wrote to Mrs. Bixby, a woman from Massachusetts who lost five of her sons fighting for the Union, is, many people believe, the most beautiful letter ever written in the English language. And I, if I could, I would make Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby required reading. I think it is mentioned, actually, in the Spielberg/Hanks movie about D-Day - what's it called? The - Saving Private Ryan.
Because there was a family that lost four members in World War II and then the rules were changed so that you could - you all didn't have to fight. The - one life was enough. But Lincoln captured in that letter that - the job, I think, of every president when something truly horrible happens. It's a breathtaking thing. Shakespeare never wrote anything more beautiful than that letter to Mrs. Bixby.
Minor: How do you think we as a nation should be thinking about Columbine, 20 years later?
Clinton: Well first of all, we should be grateful that we have people who are resilient, who overcame, who refused to let it permanently scar their lives and who - all those young people who went back to school and made productive lives, and to the people like Frank DeAngelis and all the people who didn't want to let it go, didn't want people to forget but knew that they had to go on. There's - that's a great dilemma in life, "How do you go on without letting it go? If you don't let it go, can you go on? If you go on, do you let it go and forget something really important?" I think they did a good job of both and we should be grateful to them.
Secondly, I think we should be dumbfounded that we still can't seem to help ourselves. We are willing to put up with more mass shootings and more deaths than any country on Earth on a per capita basis, even though the overall crime rate in America is not anywhere - not above the national average in many other wealthy countries. It's only gun shooting deaths and it seems to be OK with us, and - or at least with people who can stop anything from happening. And the last time the federal government really did something was when I passed the Assault Weapons Ban with the ammunition limit and the Brady law, and we lost probably 15, 16 members of Congress on it because even though it had overwhelmingly public support, it was not a voting issue for people who wanted to do the right thing so much as it was for the people who spread paranoia and fear. We see that today in other contexts.
But in 2018, the combination of the last three years and the incredible determination of those kids from Stoneman Douglas made it a voting issue for our side, which is why we have - we can pass a good bill in the House. We can't pass it in the Senate or get it signed, but we have to keep trying. Because it's not OK for people to die who don't have to die. We have more mass shootings - that is four or more people shot in one incident - by light years than anybody else. What is the matter with us?
The matter with us is there are a lot of good people who believe in hunting, sports shooting and self-protection, who don't believe - who will believe anything paranoid that's said about it. And then a lot of people have been convinced that it wouldn't make any difference, which is blatantly false. All you got to do is look at the numbers compared to other countries and I - but we - we are where we are.
We just got to keep working, but I - I hope we can make it a voting issue and keep it there. If we can, we can get some changes. Short of that, we should look at what they did at Columbine. They were the last state, as far as I know - Colorado - to say, "OK, if we can't get through to Congress and we can't - we're going to get cut off at the knees by the NRA and the other guys that do this stuff, let's just put it on the ballot." Because voters do trust their own judgment. Then when you put it on a ballot, if you got an issue that 70 percent of the people agree with you on, you don't have to worry, like a member of Congress does, about whether it's only going to be a voting issue for the people that disagree with you. Those are the only two options we have.
Minor: Is that time?
(Off-mic): Yeah, just about.
Dukakis: OK. Anything else that we're forgetting? Probably.
Dukakis: Let's see.
Minor: Do you have -
Clinton: And those people were - I'll tell you what. I wish you could've been there at the fundraisers and the dedication of the memorial. You know all that time had passed and a lot of people were calmer about this sort of grim - "grim" is the wrong word. Determined dignity about not forgetting those kids and the other people who were killed, the teachers and everything that happened. It was breathtaking in its own way. All those years later, when the thing was - when the memorial was dedicated, it was - is - I felt the same way I did when I was there the first time.
Dukakis: How do you view it as part of your presidency? You look back 20 years later. How does it stand out to you?
Clinton: That it was an important part of my job and I hope I did a good job of it. Because I thought it was a chance, a rare chance in a world growing increasingly polarized, for us to look at each other and feel a sense of common humanity, to be alive to each other, to be aware that - to see somebody who's a fellow human being, who's got a story so big, so powerful and so painful that they deserve our respect and our compassion. And that we see them as people, whether we agree with them politically or not.
It's very interesting. A lot of - in spite of all the other identity conflicts we have in America, as a country, we seem to be more open to, we're less racist, homophobic, sexist than we used to be and we're even better on all these sexual identity issues, but we just don't want to be around anybody that disagrees with us anymore. Which makes us a sucker for people feeding us messages to trigger paranoia. And what Columbine means to me always is that they - those people created a space within which they had to be seen as human beings, the agony of their loss, the dignity of - the worth of the kids that were killed and the adults, and then everybody. It was just a - it was a moment that every time you retrieve it, you remember, "If we would just quit being so bullheaded in listening to each other's stories, we might be able to do a lot more."
Dukakis: Are you disappointed that more didn't happen and -
Clinton: Sure, but I'm really impressed that it happened in Colorado. They got something done. In other words, a lot of people try to pass a law. Then they get upset and they say, "Oh, they didn't pass the law." Well they didn't. "OK, they didn't pass the law; we'll go do all the work. We'll put it on the ballot." They got a Republican governor to lend - support it. But almost every state has the provisions for putting things on the ballot that - and easy access to the ballot is sometimes a mixed blessing because like in some states, they keep voting for things they can't pay for. But this is a case where - if the gears of democracy are stuck because of fear, money, power, you name it, I think -
I believe that what the kids at Columbine want would pass, if on the ballot, in the vast majority of American states and so I was sad when Sara Brady got sick, and the Brady bill - the Brady organization is still alive and well, but they never have had the money to organize referenda all over the country. But if they did that, I think it would loosen the political environment some and we could get more done.
This is a country that loves its guns. This is a country with a lot of people living in very remote areas that are an hour away from law enforcement where it's perfectly understandable and a country that loves hunting and sports shooting. But those kids at Columbine, they didn't deserve that. None of those kids who died in any of these school shootings deserved it. None of those people in Las Vegas just standing outside on the street deserved what happened to them. And if we can do something to save more of those lives without interfering with the legitimate interest of other Americans, shame on us for not doing it. It's all politics, money, power and fear, distrust of each other.
We don't know each other's stories anymore. We're used to treating each other like two-dimensional cartoons, not three-dimensional people. So Columbine became real to me and a lot - and millions of other Americans, and that's one of the things a president's supposed to do in a crisis is make sure that it doesn't become a fleeting thing on the news. But people say, "Now we can stop - these are human beings. What have we lost here? What have their parents lost, their communities, but what have we all lost?" Make - somehow, more than anything else, America's got to recover the ability to spend a little time every day feeling like they do when there's a horrible crisis like that.
Dukakis: Thank you.
Minor: Thanks so much.