GALESBURG - Former President Bill Clinton told graduating seniors Saturday at Knox College that the world's divisions can be bridged if people embrace their similarities rather than their differences.
Sounding a call for unity, Clinton pointed to human genome research aimed at unlocking cures for diseases that he said shows all human beings share 99.9 percent of the same genetic makeup.
But people still spend their time dwelling on political, religious and cultural differences that spawn terrorism, wars and other divides, Clinton said during a commencement address.
"The only way you can give up your malice, your anger, your division is if you believe that our common humanity is more important than our interesting differences,'' Clinton said.
The two-term president delivered his commencement address in the shadows of Knox's Old Main, a national historic landmark where Abraham Lincoln spoke out against slavery during a Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858.
"I think I'd remember my college graduation regardless, but this definitely makes it more memorable,'' said Ann Margolis, one of Knox's 240 graduates.
Clinton said the world's political, religious and even psychological differences boil down to a divide between "those who need an enemy and those who are trying to make a friend.''
He challenged the graduates to begin the healing once they leave campus, saying their first decision "must be into which camp you will plant your banner.''
Clinton cited his close friendship with former President George Bush, forged as they led tsunami and hurricane relief efforts. He said they have differences of opinion, but Clinton believes Bush "is a good human being … and I do not need to look down on him to feel better about my party, my politics or my life.''
He joked that he nearly tested his theory about mankind's similarities when he met conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh for the first time recently, while both were eating at a New York restaurant.
"I was so tempted, after all the terrible things that he said about me, to tell him that he and I were exactly 99.9 percent the same,'' Clinton said. "I thought if I had, the poor man would run weeping from the room and not even get his dessert, so I let it go.''
About 5,000 people attended the ceremony on the 150-year-old campus, including Tim Murphy, who left his home in Tinley Park at 4 a.m. Saturday just to catch Clinton's speech.
Wearing an "I Miss Bill'' T-shirt, the 18-year-old had his picture snapped with Clinton, who also autographed a copy of his autobiography that Murphy says he has read three times.
"It's a dream come true. … I'd die a happy man if I die on the way home,'' Murphy said.
Clinton was the third straight big-name graduation speaker at the 1,350-student liberal arts college. He followed Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, now making his own bid for the White House in a crowded field of Democrats that includes Clinton's wife, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Knox does not pay fees to its commencement speakers but has at least one well-placed alum. John Podesta, a 1971 Knox graduate who served as Clinton's chief of staff, had a hand in lining up all three speakers.
The school awarded Clinton an honorary doctorate of humane letters for his achievements in public service. The only other U.S. president to receive an honorary degree from Knox was Lincoln, who was honored in 1860 before taking office.
Clinton said Knox handed Lincoln an honorary degree to boost his bid for the presidency.
"One-hundred forty-six years later, you gave Stephen Colbert a degree to give his ratings a boost; … 2007, you're giving me an honorary degree so I can be attacked by Stephen Colbert,'' Clinton joked.