Eighty-three years old and looking remarkably hale -- a lifetime of golf, tennis, and fishing in Kennebunkport will do that for you, I guess -- George H.W. Bush wowed the crowd at CTIA Wireless 2007 with a combination of jokes about his unlikely partnership with former president Bill Clinton, anecdotes about his time in office, and stories of how wireless communications technology played roles in the momentous events that occurred during his time in office, including the aftermath of the end of the Cold War and Gulf War I.He talked about Feb. 27, 1991, the day he suspended military operations against Iraq after driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.
"I was in the Oval Office with Colin Powell, John Sununu, Dan Quayle, Brent Scowcroft [and my other advisers]," Bush recounted, "and I didn't want to make this decision without conferring with my commanders in the field. I wanted to speak with General Schwarzkopf. Colin Powell walked around to the front of my desk, and 30 seconds later I was on the phone with Stormin' Norman in the desert thousands of miles away, thanks to wireless communications."
Bush's talk was witty, humane, and gracious, befitting a man who spent half a century at the highest levels of government. And then Bill Clinton got up and demonstrated once again why in 1992 he trounced the patrician Republican.
George Bush had gotten a warm, standing ovation when he appeared. The crowd greeted Clinton by jumping to their feet and whooping and cheering.
Clinton's genius has always been his ability to make individuals feel that they are part of a larger, grander story than their own small lives, whether he's talking to a small gathering of corporate executives, a crowd of out-of-work steelworkers, or a hall full of wireless executives. The theme of his speech this morning was "identity," and after a few jokes about his current role ("My punishment from God for defeating President Bush is to spend the rest of my life as George's straight man"), he launched into a peroration on how wireless technology can break down the barriers -- political, socioeconomic, and religious -- that threaten to tear apart the society of the 21st century.
As always, Clinton's facility with facts and statistics was remarkable, as he rattled off a series of numbers about the economic boom unleashed by IT in the second half of the 1990s. Then he spoke passionately about how technology can help people rise above "the destructive identities that are made to be more important than any other identity we have in common with someone else."
Clinton was referring not only to partisan politics, where "our identities as Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals, has become more important than our identities as Americans," but to the religious identities that have caused Muslims in Third World countries to become terrorists. And he persuasively argued that wireless technology has an important role to play in bringing opportunity and a sense of common humanity to the breeding grounds of al Qaeda and Hezbollah.
"What you do will have a lot to do with whether the world follows that path, of bitter divisions and poisonous identities that set us against one another -- or the path of shared opportunity and a widening circle of humanity," Clinton said, stabbing the air with his index finger. "We've gotta make a world with more partners and fewer terrorists, because we can't kill or jail or occupy everybody that we think is our enemy. We've gotta start converting people, so we have more partners and fewer enemies."
Convincing a bunch of wireless industry folks at the end of a grueling three-day trade show that selling base stations, or creating "in-building solutions," or allocating spectrum is a part of the war on terror and the struggle for economic justice is no easy task. Only Bill Clinton could accomplish that.