Speaking at a book tour event in Philadelphia, former president Bill Clinton said that if it wasn’t for his upbringing, growing up in a home with no TV, things might not have turned out the way they did for him.
While sitting on stage inside Irvine Auditorium on University of Pennsylvania’s campus, Clinton, 71, avoided thorny topics, instead focusing on how growing up around “a bunch of kinfolks who were really smart and had no formal education” helped developed his storytelling ability.
“If I hadn’t been born when I was born where I was born,” he said, “I’m not sure I would’ve ever become president.”
The same skill that helped him get to the White House also helped him co-write The President is Missing, his first novel, with best-selling author James Patterson. It was released June 4. The discussion focused on literacy and policy, steering clear of current politics and the #MeToo movement, even though he addressed those in appearances on the “Today” show and the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
With Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, acting as moderator, Clinton and Patterson talked about the book as part of the Free Library’s Author Events series. During the discussion, they took some time to talk about education and literacy.
Patterson, a strong education advocate and philanthropist, said he is most passionate about at-risk youth. His namesake foundation partnered with the University of Florida Literacy Initiative for the James Patterson Challenge, a program that aims to increase the literacy rates in the state of Florida.
“[If kids] don’t get to the point where they’re competent readers, their chances of getting through life is really, really difficult,” he said. “How are they going to get through high school if they’re not confident readers? It’s just almost impossible.”
When it comes to successful education models, Clinton said one of the problems with education in America is that there aren’t enough schools and programs copying each other.
“There are some fabulous public schools in this country,” said Clinton. ”And there are some fabulous after-school programs in this country. And just about every challenge has been met by somebody somewhere. But a lot of teachers have been beat down and a lot of schools have been demoralized, but also there is not a culture in too many places to copy what works.”
The event ran smoothly until an audience member stood up and heckled the former commander-in-chief about his association with Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy supporter of the Clinton Foundation who was convicted of soliciting sex from a minor, while also being accused by dozens more of committing sex crimes with minors.
The heckler was escorted out of the venue by UPenn staff.
After the event audience members, each with a signed copy of the book, gushed about the experience of seeing the former president.
Chris Johnson, 25, works for KIPP Philadelphia Charter Schools. He said listening to Clinton speak inspired him find ways to provide access to books to children and find ways to improve the literacy rates in Philadelphia and beyond.
“We got to do a better job of giving children access to books and access to libraries,” said Johnson, a North Philadelphia native. “And allowing them to consume knowledge and give them the space to be creative to exercise their creative imagination so they can offer great things for this world as they’re called to do.”
The dialogue was neutral, free of current politics or #MeToo, where some believe Clinton is long overdue for a reckoning.
Sophia Teixido, 20, from Wilmington, Delaware, said she would have liked to see him address the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s historic loss in 2016, though, she said, it would have been a tricky subject that might have made people uncomfortable.
“There are certainly different things in his presidency that he could’ve spoken about,” she said. “I think that definitely Hillary Clinton running and then losing would’ve been a really big thing to talk about. I think that we’re all still reeling that there isn’t a Democratic president or something other than what we have now and I think that would’ve been really good.”