Good morning. My good friend Nelson Cruikshank and I rode over together, and he described to me the history of this remarkable organization. I want to say to Jim Carbray that I'm very grateful to be here to speak to you this morning from the perspective of the President of our great country.
A while back I got a letter from a very young student who said, "Mr. Carter, you have been in office for a few months now. Would you rather be President or a real person?" [Laughter]
As I prepared to come over here this morning, I thought about that, because quite often the same thing could be said about those who have retired. "Would you rather be a retired citizen or a real person?" And the essence of our relationship with one another, as the leader of our country, and as an outstanding member of our society, President on the one hand, you on the other, is that we are real people. We relate to one another as individuals. We are different from one another. And there is no automatic, sharp transition in a person at the time of retirement. You're not one person the day before retirement; you're not a different person the day after.
And what I'd like to say this morning is that our country recognizes the tremendous contribution that all of you collectively have made. We've not always repaid that debt adequately. But at the same time, in the repayment of that debt, in the repair of oversights, we must remember the individuality of human beings, even those who have reached retirement age.
We've made a lot of progress in the last 15 months or so, 17 months. Nelson Cruikshank has been at my right hand every time I've made a major decision about any matter in the Federal Government, constantly reminding me how this decision might affect those who have reached the status of senior citizenship in our country.
We've undertaken and successfully resolved one of the major problems, and that is to make sure that social security is sound, that it does not go bankrupt, and that it will retain that status for the rest of the lives of everyone who's in this room.
Just as a short while ago I was campaigning throughout the country, as some of you remember, for 2 years, and I would make a short 15-minute speech, and I would answer questions. And almost invariably the first question that came from a senior citizen would be, "What is going to happen to the social security system?" And I think it's good for us to look back on what the Congress has done in a very courageous way, because there have been intense pressures put on the Congress not to take action to protect the social security system, but then after the bill was passed, to undo what had been done.
And I would like to ask all of you to take the time in the next week to write your Member of Congress a note and say, "I'm not just demanding that you do something in the future, I want to thank you for what you did last year," because this would help them so much to recognize that their action, courageous as it was, was also needed and is also appreciated by you.
As you well know, we have also taken action within the last year to remove the mandatory retirement age, to let this be a decision made by American citizens themselves and not by an arbitrary imposition of regulations in the Federal Government. And we are moving to remove that restraint in the private sector as well, so that productive Americans will not have to retire until you and they are ready to do so, a major step in the right direction.
I think you know that [Representative] Claude Pepper is here, and he worked on this for years and years very successfully. Thank you, Claude.
I'm not going to outline for you a record of all the action that the Congress has taken in the last year and a half or that I have taken through administrative action or that the different heads of departments have taken. But I want to point not just to the past but to the future.
We have some major challenges ahead of us. We've evolved now a clear description of what a comprehensive urban policy ought to be, how to deal with deteriorating neighborhoods, how to make sure that American people have a chance to live a fruitful and enjoyable and a secure life. Because if there are three characteristics that are mandatory for any of us, no matter how young or how old we might be, first of all, it's to be secure, to recognize that our home, our community, our very lives, our property are protected financially and physically.
The second thing we want is to have a chance to expand our lives, to have a bigger heart to encompass new friends, to have a bigger mind to learn more about the world that God gave us. And the educational process ought not to stop when we graduate from college or even when we start a new career or when we finish a new career, because there are people in their seventies and eighties, as you know, who still have a dynamic approach, not just to today but to tomorrow. And that is an element that needs to be emphasized in our lives.
We have a challenge before us in the financial structure of our country, and you can help play a major role in shaping the policies of our Nation.
The most serious problem that I have, the most serious challenge that faces us, is to control inflation. It's bad; it's getting worse; and it's going to require some sacrifice on the part of American people.
One of the most serious threats is in the rapidly escalating cost of hospital care. The Congress is now facing another very difficult decision. As you know, the profits of privately owned hospitals have been leaping year by year. The costs of hospital care have been going up 17 percent annually, doubling every 5 years, much greater than the costs of the goods and services they have to pay for in providing medical care.
We have a very close vote coming up in the House Commerce Committee soon. It's going to be a difficult vote on the House floor, the same thing in the Senate, because there are tremendous profits involved and tremendously effective lobbying efforts being made not to do anything to interfere with the rapid costs of hospital care. Quite often medical doctors own part of the hospitals themselves. And patients are put in the hospital quite often when they can very well be served with outpatient care or a shorter stay in the hospital.
Services are provided quite often that are not needed. There's a much greater incidence of long-term hospital care, surgery, in the Northeast than there is in the South or the West. And we are trying to do everything we can to control these heavy burdens on retired people particularly, who quite often have to pay for a major portion of their health care. And we need your help in this respect.
We want to protect consumers. We want to have a good tax program, and I particularly appreciate your good help in this respect. If our tax reform proposals can go to the Congress—and again, it's a very tough battle—a million present retired taxpayers will have to pay zero income tax. In addition to that, the tax system will be simpler and also much more fair. If we can get hospital cost containment passed through the Congress, it will lay a good groundwork to implement our commitment for a comprehensive national health care system. You can help with this as well.
I would like to make an additional appeal to you. I recognize that in an organization like yours, there are many strong and dedicated voices and that one of your primary responsibilities is to protect the special needs of retired American citizens. But I've been particularly impressed with you in your willingness to broaden your interests and your influence and your contributions to cover the whole scale of issues that are important to American people of all ages.
You have helped me, for instance, with the Panama Canal Treaty vote, a very difficult political undertaking, the most difficult political assignment I have ever had, even including my campaign for the Presidency itself. And when I asked for your help to strengthen the reputation of our own country as the protector of human rights, to make sure that we had an image that was accurate in Latin America and around the world of treating other people as equals, of trying to strengthen our ties with the small, weak, developing nations, to be fair in dealing with the small nation of Panama, you added your strength and your support and your voice to a proposition that doesn't directly help you with your income or with your life, perhaps, as an American citizen. But because you wanted our Nation to be great in all respects, you came forward and gave me your support. And I know that you're doing the same thing to support our efforts to have a SALT agreement, to remove the threat of nuclear war from the world.
You are strengthening our effort here and in other parts of the world for human rights. You're interested in having a comprehensive energy bill passed through the Congress. And there are many other aspects of American life that apply across the board to all our citizens for which you have dedicated your influence, your time, and your very unselfish commitment. This, I believe, in the long run will greatly strengthen the influence of the National Council of Senior Citizens. And this, I believe, will give an image to the rest of the country, an accurate image of how unselfish you really are.
I want to be sure that all of you live not only a secure life, one dedicated to constant education and expansion of your minds and hearts that I've already described, but one that is productive. There is no reason why someone who has finished a business or professional career can't live an even greater, broader, more productive life when the years of retirement arrive. You have much greater flexibility in making your own decisions. You have more free time to broaden your interests and your influence. And this can be the kindling of an expansive life for every one of you.
The fact that you have saved up and earned enough money to come here to this convention is an indication that you already agree with me. But I would like to ask you in the future to continue this great contribution that you are already demonstrating as part of your lives, not on a national basis, not even to come to Washington for an exciting meeting of your own, but where you live. Whether you've retired and gone to California or Florida or Arizona or Georgia, or whether you've decided to stay with your own families and friends, there is an opportunity for greatly expanded service that I know will appeal to each one of you.
There is a chance to serve those who are mentally ill. It doesn't take professional training in medicine to volunteer your services to go into the centers in the community or to work with individuals to make sure that they have a chance to know that their lives are significant, that they're appreciated, that they're understood. This is important to them. It's important to you.
As you look around you in your own community, there are many people, many families much less fortunate than you are. They may not speak English very well. They may not have been in this country very long. All of our ancestors almost were in the same circumstance in years gone by.
There may be a time when they don't feel that they have a single staunch, dependable friend in the community. And it would not be difficult for you through your labor organizations, through your churches, through your civic commitments, to identify a particular family. You may not ever be thanked for it, but you could go and visit that family, get to know the father, the mother—they're retired people perhaps—the children that have problems with the law or in school, and just let them know that you are their friend. And if they do have a problem with the educational system, you could learn what it is, and with your own influence, with your own status in the community, go to the education officials and say, "I know that these poor people who live near me don't have the same opportunity that my children have had or that I had or that most do have." And you could be a voice for a single family; in the process, greatly expand your understanding of people who were deprived and are deprived in our society today.
There is an opportunity through volunteer work for you in effect to adopt as a friend some person who has been in prison, perhaps a young person who's now been paroled or placed on probation. Quite often the reasons for their earlier crime is that they are alienated from society. They don't have an access to the stable part, the productive part, the enlightened part of the American community. And working with qualified officials, you could say, "Let me be responsible as kind of a big brother or a big sister just for one person, and I'll try to understand what I can do for them."
Your community, whether it's a very small town like where I lived or the largest cities in the world, need help on a voluntary basis for repairing some of the deteriorating conditions of it. When you go back home, I would hope that you would look around your community with a quizzical eye, a critical eye, and say, "What could I do to make my community a more pleasant place to live? What can I do to make it more beautiful?" And it wouldn't take but four or five people to make a real impact on an entire community or city.
If one block in a deteriorated neighborhood, or sometimes even one house in a block, was beautified by your effort or perhaps your organization, it could set an example that would make the neighbors kind of ashamed and sweep an entire area with a recommitment to be proud of where one lives.
Teachers aides are needed, and I think one of the particular things that you can do as natural leaders, demonstrated by your presence here, is to look among your own peer group, other retired citizens who might be more timid, not well educated, not in good mental or physical health, not quite so affluent as perhaps some of you, and say, "What can I do to expand my own beneficial influence among those like myself who have reached the age of retirement and don't have as vigorous a life and as productive a life as I've carved out for myself?"
I'd like to add one other point that I think is important, and that is that many of you are fully qualified to have an extensive, continuing career. On the way over here in the car, I thought about a few people that have been very impressive to me and very helpful to me. I've already mentioned Nelson Cruikshank, who is working full time, putting in as many hours and is as productive as anyone in the Federal Government.
Esther Peterson, on my staff, far beyond the so-called retirement age, has certainly not retired. And she has shaped the consciousness of a President, and she's shaping the consciousness of a Congress. And four or five times a week, she leaves Washington to go to a major convention or major urban center to spell out the need to protect consumers against being cheated or robbed in the American free enterprise system. She works closely with the heads of major businesses. And this has given a new life and a new stimulus to the entire consumer movement.
I talked about the Panama Canal Treaty earlier. Ellsworth Bunker, a man, I believe, in his eighties, for the last 13 or 14 years, calling upon his superb mind, his sound judgment, his clear ability to analyze a complicated issue, and his good negotiating capabilities, has hammered out an agreement mutually beneficial to Panama and to the United States.
Averell Harriman is a man who's still a senior counselor for me, who understands the special character and consciousness and attitudes and beliefs of the Soviet Union, who knows their leaders, who knows the leaders in Great Britain, in Yugoslavia, and China. And when I have a very difficult decision to make in foreign affairs, I turn to him and say, "Governor Harriman, what do you think we ought to do in this situation?" These are the kind of people who mean a lot to me.
And I can't go down the list without commenting on two people that, perhaps among all those who presently live, have had the most impact on my life. One of them is Admiral Hyman Rickover. This year he's 77 years old, still dynamic, vigorous, aggressive. He is the man among all those who live on Earth who had the clearest picture of what peaceful use of atomic power could do for the world. And as a young naval officer, I worked under him, and he helped to shape my life. He still feels accurately that what he's doing as a full-time professional naval officer is helpful to our country.
Two days ago, I made a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy. Admiral Rickover is a graduate of there, as am I. And I, as a matter of courtesy, called up Admiral Rickover and asked him to ride over with me on the helicopter to sit there with me while I made my speech. He said, "Mr. President, I'll do anything that you order me to do, but," he said, "I believe that my work for the U.S. Government and the Navy is much more important than going over to listen to you speak." And this is typical of his attitude and his commitment and his competence.
And the last person I would like to mention is a former Peace Corps volunteer whom I know quite well, my mother, Lillian Carter.
Mother was born in 1898. And my father died when mother was almost 60. She had been a registered nurse. And it was a very good opportunity for her to retire. She would have had a pleasant life in a small town, but after 2 or 3 months, my mother began to see opportunities for involvement in local and statewide and regional and then national and international affairs that stretched her mind and stretched her heart.
At this time, she's a younger person than I am. And never does a day go by that mother doesn't get up in the morning, as do many of you, and say "What can I do this day to make my life more meaningful, to show other people that I care for them, and to learn more about the world in which I live?"
She's a very aggressive person. She speaks her own mind, and I might say that not only the President but other people listen. And she will soon be going over to Italy to receive an award for the person who's done the most, in their opinion, for alleviating world hunger and for demonstrating to people in the more wealthy nations that there are deprived people on Earth who need a helping hand and an open heart.
She'll be coming back through the Sahara region of Africa, if her present plans go well, visiting perhaps several countries there, a part of the world that at the present time, because of drought, is perhaps the most poverty stricken and hungry in all the Earth.
Well, I could go on and on, naming many of you assembled in this audience. But the point I want to make is that your ability and your talents and your sound experience and your judgment and your political influence are a resource in this country that we cannot afford to waste.
I need you, the Nation needs you, and I would like to ask all of you, in closing, not to dwell upon the past, but to look to the future with a bright and open heart, not just thinking about ourselves but thinking about and supporting the principles and the greatness of America, the country that we all love.
Thank you very much.