Clinton: ‘The luck of the Welsh’

Cardiff Central bus station in 1969. Hardly the first location that springs to mind when you consider a pivotal moment in the life of a young student who would go on to become one of the most popular presidents in American history.

But, by the time Bill Clinton pulled into the downtown terminus in the Welsh capital, he was about to forge the philosophy that would guide him through his life.

As he told the BBC Wales World Lecture at the Hay Festival on Saturday: “I had not read poetry before I came to Oxford.

“The only poem I had read was Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gently Into That Dark Night. I liked it a lot because it became the philosophy of my life…

“I had never been to Thomas’ birthplace in west Wales, so I said to a classmate that I’d like to know more about him. We took a bus trip from Oxford to Cardiff.

“I remember it took forever to get there. We got out at the bus station in Cardiff; we stopped at a little pub, there was a Jerry Lewis film on the television – I remember that.

“We drank a lot of beer and read these poems to each other and I thought they were fabulous.

“And today I took a bus down here and I bought a book of Dylan Thomas poems, and we were reading them with all the young people on board. It was a wonderful journey.”

Peace broker

For an hour and a half, the audience at Hay had been captivated by Clinton’s anecdotes from some of the most seminal peace mediations of our time.

He told of the struggle to persuade Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to take off his ubiquitous gun for just a few minutes to sign the historic Middle East peace agreement on the lawn of the White House. Arafat was reluctant, but eventually conceded.

Minutes later, Clinton was again struggling to persuade the late Israeli prime minister Yitzak Rabin to shake his enemy’s hand. Initially, he refused, but, under Clinton’s persuasion, conceded: “Well, you don’t make peace with your friends.”

On countless occasions, the former president referred to his regret at not acting sooner to stop the genocide in Rwanda, in which 750,000 innocent people were macheted to death.

At the very end of the lecture, it was Dylan Thomas who perhaps prompted the biggest insight into the emotional make-up of arguably one of the greatest figures of the 20th century.

He explained that, the day before he arrived in Hay, he had visited Oxford with his daughter Chelsea, who hopes “to go to school there,”and it was while he was watching her, he said, that another of Thomas’ poems came to mind.”

He read from This Side of the Truth: “All your deeds and words, each truth, each lie, die in unjudging love.”

He continued: “As a young man, I never knew what it meant, I never understood it. But it was when I became a father that I knew exactly what it meant.”

Referring to Wales’ great poetic tradition, he smiled at the audience and concluded: “So that’s why I think you are lucky, you Welsh.”