The United States has gotten off track in recent years by making decisions without the kind of respect for reason that Bill Clinton LAW ’73 learned at Yale Law School, the former president said in a speech in Woolsey Hall Saturday.

At his 35th reunion, the former president — speaking to 2,000 Law School alumni, faculty and students and a few other University dignitaries who greeted him with three standing ovations — said he was “profoundly grateful to Yale Law School” because of the friends he made there, the wife he met there and the political career he launched there.

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Clinton, who said he “fell in love with the place,” said the most important thing he learned at Yale Law School was to know all the facts before forming an opinion. Studying law, he said, taught him an appreciation for fairness, facts and argument.

“We have been making a lot of mistakes as a country over the last three decades because we have thought that the facts don’t matter,” he said.

Clinton cut his teeth in New Haven’s “cauldron of ethnic politics,” Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh said in his introduction. And while in law school, Koh said, Clinton’s attendance was famously dismal, as he spent most of his time in campaigns.

Koh, who served as an assistant secretary of state in Clinton’s administration, praised Clinton for presiding over “an era of peace and prosperity for which we all feel nostalgic today.”

Turning, inevitably, to the current financial crisis, Clinton said the stark inequalities in the current economic model are not sustainable, and the next president should reduce inequality, repair the financial sector and restore America’s standing in the world.

In a brief interview after his speech, when asked how the economy can return to the prosperity of his presidency, Clinton told the News, “Well, you can start by electing Barack Obama, and we can go from there.”

During his speech, Clinton praised Sen. Obama’s instincts as well as the diplomatic experience of his running mate, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden. But Clinton resisted demonizing their opponents.

“It’s crazy that we feel we have to hate people we don’t want to vote for,” he said to applause. “It’s a poisonous thing and it stops you from thinking.”

Clinton’s wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, was not with him Saturday because she was campaigning for Obama in Los Angeles, which she thought was more important, Clinton said to applause.

The couple last came to Yale together for their 20th reunion in 1993, just after taking the White House. At that time, Bill Clinton received the Yale Law School alumni association’s Award of Merit.

Bill Clinton also spoke at Yale’s tercentennial in 2001 and attended his 30th reunion five years ago.