(Editor’s note: Former president Bill Clinton was one of several dignitaries and notable figures to honor Muhammad Ali at Ali’s public memorial service in Louisville on June 10. The full text of President Clinton’s eulogy is presented below.)
Thank you. I can just hear Muhammad say now, “Well, I thought I should be eulogized by at least one president, and by making you last of a long, long, long, long line, I guaranteed you a standing ovation.”
I am trying to think of what has been left unsaid. First, Lonnie, I thank you and the members of the family for telling me that he actually, as Brian said, picked us all to speak, and for giving me a chance to come here. I thank you for what you did to make the second half of his life greater than the first. Thank you for the Muhammad Ali Center and what it has come to represent to so many people.
Here is what I would like to say: I have spent a lot of time now, as I get older and older, trying to figure out what makes people tick. How do they turn out the way they are? How do some people refuse to become victims and rise from every defeat?
We have all seen the beautiful pictures of the home Muhammad Ali lived in as a boy and people visiting and driving by. I think he decided something then I hope every young person here will decide. I think he decided very young to write his own life story. I think he decided, before he could possibly have worked it all out, and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided he would not be ever be disempowered. He decided that not his race nor his place, nor the expectations of others, positive, negative or otherwise, would strip from him the power to write his own story. He decided first to use his stunning gifts: his strength and speed in the ring, his wit and way with words in managing the public, and his mind and heart, to figure out at a fairly young age, who he was, what he believed, and how to live with the consequences of acting on what he believed. A lot of people make it to steps one and two, and still just can’t quite manage living with the consequences of what they believe.
I remember thinking when I was a kid, This guy is so smart. For the longest time, in spite of all the wonderful things that have been said here, he never got credit for being as smart as he was. I don’t think he ever got the credit for being, until later, as wise as he was. In the end, besides being a lot of fun to be around and basically a universal soldier for our common humanity, I will always think of Muhammad as a truly free man of faith. Being a man of faith, he realized he would never be in full control of his life. Something like Parkinson’s could come along. But being free, he realized that life still was open to choices. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made that have brought us all here today in honor and love.
The only other thing I would like to say that I think we all need to really think about, is that the first part of his life was dominated by the triumphs of his truly unique gifts. We should never forget them—we should never stop looking at the movies, we should thank Will Smith for making his movie, we should all be thrilled: It was a thing of beauty. But the second part of his life was more important, because he refused to be imprisoned by a disease that kept him hamstrung longer than Nelson Mandela was kept in prison in South Africa. That is, in the second half of his life, he perfected gifts that we all have: Every single solitary one of us has gifts of mind and heart. It’s just that he found a way to release them in ways large and small.
I will never forget—I asked Lonnie if she remembered—the time when they were still living in Michigan, and I gave a speech in southwest Michigan at an economic club there. It’s sort of a ritual when a president leaves office to go there. You have to get re-acclimated. Nobody plays a song when you walk in a room anymore; you don’t really know what you’re supposed to do. At this club they’re used to acting like you still deserve to be listened to. So they came to dinner and sat with me, and somehow he knew that I was a little “off my feed” that night. I was still trying to imagine how to make this new life. So he told me a really bad joke. And he told it so well and he laughed so hard that I totally got over it and had a great time. He had that feel. You know there’s no textbook for that, knowing where somebody else is in their head, picking up the body language. Then, Lonnie and Muhammad got me to come here when we had the dedication of the Muhammad Ali Center, and I was trying to be incredibly old, gray-haired, elderly statesman, dignified. I had to elevate this guy, so I’m saying all this stuff in very high-toned language, and Muhammad comes up behind me and puts his fingers up like this.
Finally, after all the years that we have been friends, my enduring image of him is like a little reel in three shots: the boxer I thrilled to as a boy; the man I watched take the last steps to light the Olympic Flame when I was president, and I’ll never forget it, I was sitting there in Atlanta—by then we knew each other, by then I felt that I had some sense of what he was living with—and I was still weeping like a baby, seeing his hands shake and his legs shake and knowing by God he was going to make those last few steps, no matter what it took, the flame would be lit, the fight would be won, the spirit would be affirmed. I knew it would happen. And then this: the children whose lives he touched. The young people he inspired. It’s the most important thing of all.
So I ask you to remember that. We all have an Ali story. It’s the gifts we all have that should be most honored today, because he released them to the world, never wasting a day (that the rest of us could see anyway) feeling sorry for himself because he had Parkinson’s. Knowing that more than three decades of his life would be circumscribed in ways that would be chilling to the naked eye, but, with a free spirit, it made his life bigger, not smaller, because other people, all of us unlettered, unschooled in the unleashing, said, “Well, would you look at that.” May not be able to run across the ring anymore, may not be able to dodge everybody and exhaust everybody anymore, but he’s bigger than ever, because he is a free man of faith sharing the gifts we all have. We should honor him by letting our gifts go among the world as he did. God bless you my friend. Go in peace.