A gentle evening at the Bushnell with Bill Clinton

Hartford — Bill Clinton returned Friday night to the Bushnell stage, where he debated Bob Dole in 1996 on the way to an easy victory for a second term in the White House.

“We were civil, and we committed what I think would be mass heresy today,” said Clinton, a guest of the 20-year-old public-speaking series, the Connecticut Forum. “We actually talked about how much we liked each other. And we still do.”

Clinton, 65, still has the raspy voice of man who likes to talk. It is a gift that allowed him to twice be elected president. Today, it is how he makes his living, and a good living it is. His speeches brought him $75.6 million in the decade after leaving office. His fee Friday was at least $100,000.


Bill Clinton, bigger than life.

During 90 minutes, Clinton gently bemoaned the bitter state of modern politics, though he avoided commentary on President Obama and the four candidates still jousting for the Republican nomination. It was a talk calculated to make no news.

His presidency was a polarizing time, culminating in his impeachment by the House and his acquittal by the Senate, the results of lying under oath about an infidelity — a topic off-limits Friday during a Q&A period with host Richard Sugarman.

But Clinton talked about the worsening political segregation of America, a staple of his speeches.

He quoted the writer, Bill Bishop, and his 2008 book, “The Big Sort,” a chronicle of how Americans seek out the like-minded, not just on cable television, but by neighborhood and street.

“We’re not as racist as we used to be. We’re not as sexist as we used to be. We’re not as homophobic as we used to be,” Clinton said. “The only bigotry we have left is we just don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us.”

The evening opened with a short video on his foundation and his philanthropy around the globe, then Clinton made his entrance to a sustained ovation by residents of a state he twice carried in presidential elections. He now lives in Chappaqua, N.Y.

His audience included Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who talked education reform with Clinton at a pre-speech reception, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Yale law classmate of Clinton’s.

His lecture was a bit of a ramble. The opening riff on political segregation was less about domestic politics than a sermon on the interdependence and connectedness of a shrinking world.

Clinton touched on the class divisions in China and India, on the competing interests of environment and economy in Brazil. But, in a time when Washington is politically dysfunctional, he eventually circled back to the politics of pragmatism, an aspect of his presidency that drew praise and scorn.

This was a Democratic president who compromised with Republicans on welfare reform.

He described competing interests in Brazil coming together to negotiate over a chain of common and conflicting interests. Biofuels produced from sugar cane produce clean energy. But growing sugar cane displaces cattle ranchers, who encroach onto the rainforests for grazing land.

Instead of an all-or-nothing political fight, he said, the groups are negotiating, “sitting there in a room talking to each other like they have good sense.” Their assumption was that their dilemma needn’t be settled in a zero-sum game, where someone wins and someone loses.

“We hate it when there is no loser. Put it another way, we hate it when there is no winner,” he said. “But in an interdependent world, you have to look for non-zero sum solutions. That’s my central message to you.”

Correction: Based on Clinton’s remarks, this story originally reported the speech was Clinton’s first at the Bushnell since his debate with Dole. Clinton actually spoke there Dec. 2, 2001 at a benefit for the Hebrew Home and Hospital.