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August 29, 2014

Elie Wiesel’s Scolding of Clinton Was Weather-Related

One of the most famous public scoldings of a U.S. president was weather-related.

At Monday’s 20-year anniversary of the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the museum’s founding chairman, Elie Wiesel, recounted that, like 20 years before, it was raining and he was sharing the stage with President Bill Clinton.

“Our shoes were in water,” Wiesel said, a scenario Monday’s planners avoided by having the event in a multipurpose tent that housed thousands of people in between the museum and the Tidal Basin. He also recounted that his dedication speech, which he said he had spent the entire night before refining, was illegible, because it was waterlogged from the rain. “If ever I was close to a heart attack, it was then,” Wiesel said.

Elie Wiesels Scolding of Clinton Was Weather Related

President Bill Clinton, left, and Elie Wiesel at Monday’s 20-year anniversary tribute at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

So he improvised, and toward the end of the speech on April 22, 1993, the Holocaust survivor said these words:

“And, Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done.”

It was a direct challenge to a sitting U.S. president in public, but it was also in character with Wiesel and many other involved with the museum, who have gone to great lengths not to gloss over things when they see governments or individuals not doing their best to avert genocide and injustice.

Clinton, who was criticized widely for not acting quickly to prevent the ethic cleansing going on in Yugoslavia, did come around eventually to supporting peacekeeping and intervention efforts there, and he took it in stride at Monday’s event, “And he said in his polite way, I needed to get off my rear end and do something about Bosnia,” Clinton said, adding that it was people like Wiesel, “Jews of conscience, [who were] the catalyst to save Muslims” in Europe.

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