Hillary Clinton received the Liberty Award in Philadelphia on Tuesday night at a ceremony on the lawn of the National Constitution Center, attended by hundreds of her fans, and a few foes.
A handful of protesters across Market Street did their best to shout down the public-address system, and Constitution Center board chairman Jeb Bush. The former Florida governor is gearing up for a presidential run in 2016. Clinton is also readying a campaign.
Bush showed his political mettle by turning the potentially awkward onstage meeting into a joke.
“I’m not sure what people thought had to happen tonight,” Bush said at the lectern. “Hillary and I come from different political parties, and disagree on a few things. But we do agree on the wisdom of the American people — especially those in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina.”
The Liberty Award is given by the Constitution Center to people – from any country — who uphold the ideals of democracy. Past winners include Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, and Bush’s father, former President George H. W. Bush.
The evening of speeches and video tributes (Tony Blair called Clinton a “global icon,” the Queen of Jordan Rania Al Abdullah called her “an inspiration”) was marked by a tone of bipartisanship as a means of honoring the American Constitution. Many speakers praised Clinton for her work advocating for women’s rights around the globe, and for children’s health care domestically.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter was the first speaker to directly acknowledge the presence of protestors across the street, “freedom of speech, we get to have that.”
The protesters held up signs referencing Benghazi, where exactly one year ago, the American embassy was attacked. Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed. Clinton has been criticized for how she handled the warnings and aftermath of that attack while she was secretary of state. Protesters also shouted, “Hands off Syria!”
In her speech, Clinton anticipated President Obama’s speech scheduled for later that evening, in which he laid out his argument for intervention in Syria as reaction to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
The arguments to intervene, or not, go to the heart of the American Constitution, Clinton said. “This debate is good for our democracy. As our founders knew, fervent arguments are the lifeblood of self-government.”
She then went on to reference moments in American history when leaders reached across the aisle to secure national unity, including Abraham Lincoln’s bipartisan cabinet going into the Civil War; James Madison’s argument for a standing, federal army; and – in a reference that made some audience members scramble to remember details of American history — Clinton told the story of the post-WWII U.S. Foreign Relations Committee, which successfully sold the Marshall Plan for intervention in war-torn Europe when many Americans were against it.
“When we let partisanship override citizenship, when we fail to make progress on the challenges facing our people here at home, our standing in the world suffers,” Clinton said.
She ended with a quote from George H. W. Bush, which the Republican president said at his inauguration in 1989: “In crucial things, unity. In important things, diversity. In all things, generosity.”