Tom Eblen: Henry Clay Center wants to expand its reach

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

The tone of American political discourse has been a little less nasty since a federal judge and five other people were shot and killed earlier this month during an assassination attempt on an Arizona congresswoman.

In a symbolic gesture of bipartisanship, some Democrats and Republicans in Congress planned to sit together during President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday, rather than scowl and hiss across the aisle.

This new civility might not last long. Still, the people behind the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship think it is an opportune time to promote the ideals Clay modeled nearly two centuries ago: diplomacy, civil debate and beneficial compromise.

"The time is right — long overdue, really — to have a more conciliatory dialogue," said Robert Clay, the center's co-chairman and owner of Three Chimneys Farm.

Clay also is a distant relative of the U.S. senator, House speaker and four-time presidential candidate from Lexington who was one of America's most influential leaders in the first half of the 19th century. Henry Clay was known as "the great compromiser," and his diplomacy helped to delay the Civil War for four decades.

The non-partisan Henry Clay Center was founded four years ago with a big-name board and an advisory committee that includes retired U.S. Supreme Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

The center's main accomplishment has been sponsoring three sessions of the Henry Clay Center Student Congress, a weeklong seminar in Lexington each June for 51 rising college seniors chosen from each state and the District of Columbia.

Bigger initiatives are planned, and the center's board has hired a new executive director: Shaye Rabold, who spent four years as former Mayor Jim Newberry's chief of staff after managing his campaign. Rabold, a Democrat, succeeds Carol Barr, whose husband, Andy, was U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler's Republican challenger last November. The Barrs are expecting their first child.

"This mission is something I strongly believe in," said Rabold, 32, a Bowling Green native with degrees in political science from Birmingham Southern and public administration from the University of Kentucky.

"I think there is an opportunity for the Henry Clay Center to grow and expand its impact because these ideals can and should be translated into many aspects of life," Rabold said. "People can look to Henry Clay as a model for leadership in politics, business and communities."

Rabold's first few months on the job will focus on organizing the annual Student Congress. The seminar is taught by nationally known speakers and professors at UK and Transylvania University under the direction of Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador who now heads UK's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

Clay and Rabold said the center hopes to expand its reach beyond the Student Congress by developing a high school curriculum and by partnering with like-minded foundations around the country. Long-range possibilities include hosting conferences in Lexington that bring together national leaders to constructively debate controversial public-policy issues.

Those ambitions will require a lot of work — and money. Fund-raising will be an important part of Rabold's job, but she thinks people are ready to buy into the center's mission.

"It's about getting people to realize that we're all more or less trying to get to the same place, even though we often disagree about how to get there," she said. "A lot of people are in public service for the right reasons. It's not just about 'gotcha' politics."

Rabold said she still is recovering from a bruising re-election campaign, which saw Newberry turned out of office by the former vice mayor, Jim Gray. But she said she remains committed to public service and "making a difference, as cliché as that sounds."

Rabold now works from the tiny brick cottage on North Mill Street that was Henry Clay's law office from 1803 to 1810. The more she studies Clay, she said, the more she realizes how much people can learn from his career and his ideals.

She is reading David and Jeanne Heidler's excellent new biography, Henry Clay: The Essential American. She said Gray gave it to her when they met recently to talk over coffee. "It was almost in the spirit of Henry Clay," she said of the gift.