Jimmy Carter photo

Address at the Town Hall Forum in Los Angeles, California

August 23, 1976

During the past week, when the attention of the political world was focused on the events in Kansas City, I spent most of my time at my home in Plains, Georgia, reading, studying national issues, talking with friends and advisers, and trying to sort out my thoughts as I lode ahead to the Presidential campaign.

I want to share some of those thoughts with you today, and I want to say at the outset that my mood is one of confidence and optimism. Not simply optimism over my own immediate political prospects, but optimism about the future of this country.

I think, and I believe the American people agree, that this is one of our most important elections, that this is one of those elections, as in 1932 and 1960, when we have a chance to break with die past and make a fresh start in our national affairs.

Every election is unique, of course. In 1932 our nation faced an economic disaster, and our people correctly judged that Franklin Roosevelt was the candidate whose personal character and political courage made him best qualified to lead us through that crisis.

In 1960 we faced not an economic crisis but a state of spiritual malaise, a sense of national drift, and the people correctly judged that John Kennedy, with all his youth and vigor, could keep his promise to get the country moving again, as in fact he did.

Today, as we face the election of 1976, I think there is a feeling in the land, much like those of 1932 and 1960, that we face an economic crisis, and that we are drifting and need to get moving again. But there is something more than that. After all we have been through in recent years, we need to have our faith in our government restored. We want to believe once again that our national leaders are honorable and competent and deserving of our trust. For if we cannot believe that, little else matters.

I have thought for some time that this year's campaign was taking place on two distinct levels. At one level, and quite properly, there is policy, and the economy. In many hundreds of public forums I have discussed all these issues with our people for 20 months, and later this month I will make statements on defense and veterans' affairs, agriculture and economics. But today I would like to discuss with you the other level of this year's campaign, the less tangible issue, which is simply the desire of the American people to have faith again in our own government.

We have been through too much in too short a time. Our national nightmare began with the assassination of John Kennedy; and went on to include the assassination of Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, Jr., and die wounding of George Wallace. We watched the widespread opposition to the war in Vietnam, and the division and bitterness that was caused, and the violence in Chicago in 1968, and the invasion of Cambodia, and the shootings at Kent State, and revelations of official lying and spying and bugging, the resignations in disgrace of both a [President and Vice President, and the] disclosure that our top security and law enforcement agencies were deliberately and routinely violating the law.

No other generation in American history has ever been subjected to such a battering as this. Small wonder, then, that the politics of 1976 have turned out to be significantly different from years past. I doubt that four years ago or eight years ago a former Southern governor with no national reputation and no Washington experience would have been able to win the Democratic nomination for President But this year many voters were looking for new leaders, leaders who were not associated with the mistakes of the past

This is suggested not only by my own campaign, but by the success that Governor Jerry Brown achieved in several of the Democratic primaries. For, however else we may differ, Governors Brown and Reagan and I have in common the fact that we are all outsiders as far as Washington is concerned, and committed to major changes in our nation's government if elected President

To want a change, to want a fresh start, to want government that is honest and competent again, is not a partisan issue. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, all share those fundamental concerns.

In the last analysis, good government is not a matter of being liberal or conservative. Good government is the art of doing what is right, and that is far more difficult. To be liberal or conservative requires only ideology; to do what is right requires sensitivity and wisdom.

I think that most Americans are not very ideological. Most Americans share a deep seated desire for two goals that might, to an ideological person, seem contradictory. We want both progress and preservation.

We want progress because progress is the very essence of our American dream—the belief that each generation, through hard work, can give a better life to its children. And increasingly in this century we have realized that it is a proper function of government to help make that dream come true.

But we do not want reckless change. We want to preserve what is best in our past—our political traditions, our cultural heritage, our physical resources—as guideposts to our future.

To walk the line between progress and preservation, between too much change and too little, is no easy task. It cannot be achieved by the extremists of either side, by those who scorn the past or those, who fear the future. It can only be accomplished by leaders who are independent and imaginative and flexible in their thinking, and are guided not by closed minds but by common sense.

That is the kind of leadership the American people are looking for this year, and that is the kind of leadership that, if elected, I intend to provide.

As I have observed the political world in recent years, it has seemed to me that there is a process at work, in both political parties and probably in all nations, by which over a period of time the political leadership becomes isolated from, and different from, the people they are supposed to serve. '

It seems almost inevitable that if political leaders stay in power too long, and ride in limousines too long, and eat expensive meals in private clubs too long, they are going to become cut off from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans. It is almost like a law of nature—as Lord Acton said, power tends to corrupt.

I think this process reached a peak a few years ago, when we had a President who surrounded himself with people who knew everything in the world about merchandising and manipulation and winning elections, and nothing at all about the hopes and fears and dreams of average people.

When government becomes cut off from its people, when its leaders are talking only to themselves instead of addressing reality, then it is time for a process of national self-renewal, time to look outside the existing governing class for new leaders with new ideas. I think that is what happened in the Democratic Party this year. I think our party was ready for renewal, for new faces, for a changing of the guard. If the candidate had not been myself, I think we would have chosen someone else who was not part of the old order of things.

My sense is that millions of Americans feel that this is the year in which they will give the system one last chance. They do not want to be disillusioned again. They are going to study the candidates, examine our political records and our personal ability and character, and make a judgment as to which candidate can best restore competence and vision and honesty to our government.

I welcome their scrutiny, and have confidence in their judgment.

Obviously there are some outstanding political leaders in Washington— one of the most outstanding, Senator Mondale, is my running mate—and yet I think our people are correct in seeking leadership from outside Washington, new leadership which can approach the Executive Branch of government with fresh eyes and an open mind.

As a governor, I have been on the receiving end of our federal programs. Members of Congress may see the new programs on the drawing board, or hear about their theories, but governors and local and state officials deal with the realities. I have wrestled with the necessary regulations, and the paperwork and red tape and the overlapping jurisdictions. I know what it is to try to start a state drug-treatment program and have to negotiate with almost a dozen different federal agencies that have separate legal responsibility for the drug problem.

Let me say that, on the basis of my experience, I have never been more serious or more determined in my life than when I promise to carry out a complete reorganization of the Executive Branch of government.

Let me say also, in case there is any question in anyone's mind, that I am not anti-government. I am anti-waste in government. I don't believe in giveaway programs. I don't believe in wasting money. I do believe in tough, competent management, and I have tried to practice it as a naval officer, as a farmer, as a businessmen, and as a governor. I also believe in delivering services to those people who need those services in an efficient, economical, and sensitive way. That is not liberal or conservative. It's just good government, and that's what the American people want, and what I intend to provide.

I think the basic issue in this campaign is going to be whether we want government that looks confidently to the future, or government that clings fearfully to the past.

There's a song in the musical "Oklahoma" called "Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City". But I didn't think everything was up to date in Kansas City last week. We kept hearing the same old tired rhetoric about socialism and reckless spending that we've been hearing every four years since the Roosevelt years. I don't think the American people are much impressed by that kind of rhetoric. The American people don't believe that Social Security and Medicare were reckless spending, or that TV A and the minimum wage were socialism. The American people consider the source of those charges, and look at the record, and aren't deceived by the nay-sayers.

One of the real issues in this campaign is going to be President Ford's record of vetoes. It is a record that I cite more in sorrow than in anger, for it is a record of political insensitivity, of missed opportunities, of constant conflict with the Congress, and of national neglect.

In six years as President, Mr. Ford's predecessor vetoed 41 bills that had been passed by Congress. In only two years, Ford has already vetoed 53 bills, about four times as many bills per year as his predecessor—and to be four times as negative as Mr. Ford's predecessor is a remarkable achievement.

What did these vetoes accomplish? Did they save us from wasteful, reckless spending, as the administration would like us to believe. I think not.

One of the bills President Ford vetoed was the Emergency Employment Act, which would have created nearly two million full and part-time jobs, to help those millions of Americans who have been rendered jobless by Republican economic policies. I think our government has a responsibility to help those people get back to work. When people can't find jobs, we pay the price over and over in increased costs of welfare and unemployment compensation and lost tax revenues.

Congress also passed a bill that would have granted those unemployed homeowners temporary help in meeting their mortgage payments. I think that was a responsible action for Congress to take. But Mr. Ford vetoed the bill.

When people are out of work, they and their children still have to eat, and Congress passed the School Lunch Act, to increase the number of families whose children were eligible for school lunch subsidies. But Mr. Ford vetoed that bill.

I had occasion, very close to home, to see what that kind of veto could mean to the real people who were on the receiving end of it. I know a young teacher who taught a remedial class for first-graders in the Plains Elementary School. Most of the students in this special class happened to be black, and were having a hard time getting started in school because of the devastating poverty in which they had been raised.

Free milk was provided twice a day, in the morning and at lunch, for needy students, but then there was a cutback and the morning milk was eliminated. So the young teacher began using her own money to see that all her students had milk. And when she ran out of money she went to her father, and he saw to it that her students had milk every morning.

That is the sort of thing that happens when our leaders ignore the human factor in government, when they think in terms of statistics and economic theories instead of in terms of real human needs.

These leaders are so short-sighted. Doesn't it make more sense to spend money on milk and education today, to help children get a fair start in life, than to spend money on police and courts and jails ten years from now, when those children have grown up untrained for a productive life and turned against a society that treated their needs with indifference?

It has been my experience in government that the most profitable investment is in people, and that is the rule I will follow if I become your President.

There were many other vetoes. Mr. Ford vetoed a bill to provide loans and grants to train nurses. He vetoed a bill to send more doctors to rural areas and inner-city slums where there are far too few doctors. He vetoed a bill to provide job training and coPege educations for Vietnam veterans, the most unappreciated heroes in our nation's history.

These vetoes haven't helped our economy. They haven't balanced the budget—far from it. They have only contributed to needless human suffering.

An occasional veto may be justified, if legislation is poorly drafted or ill-considered, but 53 vetoes in two years demonstrates a negativism, a dormancy, and a fear of action that can only be harmful to this country. There is something seriously wrong when the Members of Congress, all of whom were elected by the people, repeatedly pass legislation the country needs, only to have it vetoed by an appointed President. I believe those men and women, in Congress are a great deal closer to the national mood than Mr. Ford has shown himself to be.

We have had enough of government by veto. It is time we had a President who will lead our nation, and who will work in harmony with Congress for a change, with mutual respect for a change, out in the open for a change, so the working families of this country can be represented as well as the rich and the powerful and the special interest groups.

Another major issue this fall is going to be the state of our nation's economy. Republicans have a long tradition of mishandling the economy, one that goes back to Herbert Hoover. Except in election years, when they sometimes manage to make the economy pick up by temporarily adopting Democratic economic programs.

During the Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford Administrations, we had five recessions. Under Kennedy and Johnson we had none. And we all know that recessions are hardest on those people who are weakest, who are poor and uneducated and isolated, who are confused and inarticulate, who are often unemployed and chronically dependent—in short, those members of society whom a good government would be trying hardest to help.

Do you know what the basic Republican anti-inflation policy has been? To put people out of work. Cooling down the economy, they call it, because that sounds nicer. I say to you that any economic policy that sees virtue in unemployment is morally and politically and intellectually bankrupt.

What's more, those policies have been dismal failures. In 1968, the last year of a Democratic Administration, the unemployment rate was 3.6 percent. Today it's more than twice that—about 7.8 percent and rising. Under Kennedy and Johnson, the average annual rate of inflation was 2 percent. During the Nixon and Ford Administrations, it has been almost 7 percent.

With all this human suffering, has the Republican Administration balanced the budget? In the last three years, the accumulated deficits are about $160 billion, more than the previous 30 years combined. Under Kennedy and Johnson, the average deficit was less than $4 billion. Under Nixon and Ford, the average deficit has been more than $24 billion a year.

In short, the Republican economic policies have not worked, and I believe they have failed to work because they were the creations of people who put economic theories and special interests ahead of the realities of human need in this country.

There are many other problems and many other issues in this campaign. I have been speaking about the breakdown of the American family, and I mentioned that among young people the second most prevalent cause of death is suicide and that in the past ten yean the gonorrhea rate has tripled among children 14 yean of age or younger.

I sensed that some people thought I shouldn't use those words, suicide and gonorrhea, because they are ugly words describing unpleasant facts. But there are many unpleasant problems in our society—children who need food, overcrowded jails and mental institutions, inadequate treatment for the young men who were maimed in Vietnam, the heartbreak and family disintegration that unemployment can bring.

All these are ugly problems and it is a natural human instinct for us to want to tune them out But we cannot tune them out. We can only succeed in tuning out our own humanity, including those qualities of compassion and concern without which no society, however rich or powerful, can be truly great.

"No man is an island," John Donne wrote many years ago; we are all part of the mainland of humanity. That is still true today, and as American citizens, most of us blessed with a good education and influence in society, we cannot ignore the needs and suffering of our less fortunate fellow citizens—not if we want this nation to remain great.

"Ask not for whom the bell tolls," Donne went on to say, "It tolls for thee."

I think there is a bell tolling for all of us this year.

It is asking us what kind of America we want.

It is asking whether once again an American President can inspire patriotism and pride in all of our people.

It is asking if we can tear down the walls that have divided different races and different religions and different regions in America, and once more be a united nation.

It is asking if we are indeed a tired, worn out, cynical nation, or if we can once more be moved by optimism and hope and love for our fellow human beings.

It is asking if through our democratic system we can once again give this nation a government as competent and as good as our people.

I believe we can. We have lived through a time of torment, and now we are ready for a time of healing. I believe we are ready for new leadership, leaders who come from the people and who speak to the people and who care about the people, I believe we have reached a turning point in our national history, a time of cleansing and rededication, and I promise you I will do all in my power to bring this nation back to the greatness we deserve and that the world expects of us.

Jimmy Carter, Address at the Town Hall Forum in Los Angeles, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347643

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