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Meeting With Leaders of Ethnic and Fraternal Organizations Remarks During a White House Briefing.

April 11, 1980

I just got an invitation to go back to Polish Hill, and I'm looking forward to it. [Laughter]

One of the most exciting aspects of being President is to see from the vantage point of the White House and the Oval Office how different our Nation is from one community to another and how different it is from one family to another and one State to another, and at the same time, how, over a period of five or six or eight generations or just a period of a few years, that difference, that diversity among American people can be welded into a nation of constantly increasing strength.

I have a problem and an opportunity to deal with both domestic and foreign affairs on a daily or an even hourly basis. Obviously this strength, based on family, helps me with every single domestic issue that I face. And the diversity of our country, above all other nations on Earth, is of tremendous help to us in establishing and carrying out foreign policy, because people of different ethnic groups in our country have close ties of friendship and love and blood kinship to every nation on Earth.

Your coming here, representing fraternal organizations, is extremely helpful to me, because it's a reminder of what our Nation has gone through in the past. Either you personally or your families, including my family, when they came here, felt a sense of alienation or loneliness, of doubt about the future, close ties to the home country—mostly in Europe, many in Asia and other places in our world—but with a sense of adventure, confidence in the future, and a need for help.

No matter how powerful or rich or influential a family may have been in a mother country, a new arrival in our Nation needed to understand the new home, how to live, how to vote, how to speak the language, how to get along with different kinds of neighbors, when quite often in the country from which they came there had been a homogenous group, people almost all alike. And that transition from a new immigrant to a strong, confident, productive, cooperative American citizen was quite often made with the help of the fraternal organizations, because they were comprised of people who had been through the same experience.

Neighborhoods in our country are so dear and so valuable in accommodating rapidly changing circumstances in our modern America. Even among groups from Poland or Czechoslovakia or Italy or Great Britain or China or Japan, who have now become very stable, and where there is very little in-migration now, have to deal with changing circumstances. We live in a dynamic world. What happened yesterday, what happens today, is very unlikely to happen tomorrow in exactly the same fashion.

Our country is faced with tests of strength and tests of courage and tests of our national will and national unity on a daily basis. We've been tested lately by the capture and the holding of American hostages in Iran, by the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet troops. We are being tested by the first realization that our Nation does have limits on energy supplies, and we face an unprecedented level of inflation which has swept the world.

Those tests would cause us much more fear about the future had we not been through much more severe tests in the past successfully. We've been through a Great Depression, two World Wars, the Korean war, social changes that have transformed the attitude of one person toward another, a very divisive Vietnam war, when many people didn't support what our Government was doing. And we survived all of that, because there is an innate strength and an innate resiliency in our country and an ability, therefore, to accommodate challenges and to deal with rapid change.

Obviously the first responsibility is in the individual human being. An important part of our country's philosophy is that each individual is important, and that individual's right to be different is important—to speak, to learn, to work, to travel, to worship as one chooses, not as someone else tells him or her, not as the government demands. So, that pride in individuality and human freedom is an important and integral role that Americans can enjoy.

And of course, the next step is within the family. I would say that within our ethnic communities, which have been pretty coherent and kept as they have been for a long time, there's a special characteristic of the love and appreciation of the value of families. That's important. It brings about cooperation. It brings about a willingness to sacrifice. It brings about unselfishness. It brings about a respect for authority. It brings about a sense of discipline, even within the bounds of personal freedom. It brings about the love of a grandmother or grandfather, that doesn't exist even in some Americans in these changing times.

One of the things that I mention quite often is a statement made by a very wise philosopher who said he never could understand how a father could take care of 12 sons and 12 sons couldn't take care of one father. [Laughter] And this kind of obligation, that's mutual, between grandparents and parents on the one hand and children on the other, is a kind of cement that binds us together.

And when you go from a person to a family to a neighborhood, then you reach a kind of a governmental level; maybe not an organized government, with a mayor or a councilman or a commissioner or a judge, but where people have to get together, maybe in a schoolhouse on Friday night or maybe in a church on Sunday morning. And you kind of say, "What's wrong with our community, and what can we do to make it a better place to live, and how can we take care of a problem; how can we realize an opportunity?" And that's where the foundations of our government are.

The Federal Government can do a lot of things. We can protect those aspects of America that I've just described, but also we can offer help to a neighborhood to act on its own—very important. My wife spends a major part of her time dealing with neighborhoods.

How do you make the schools better? How do you care for mentally retarded or mentally afflicted Americans? How do you make the life of senior citizens more secure and pleasant and productive? How do you assure that homes are built where they're needed? How do you assure that crime is controlled? How can you assure that a working person can get to and from the job with a minimum of delay and most efficiently? How can you make sure that we don't waste energy now that it's become so important? How can you make sure that a community can keep jobs available with new investments and be dynamic and aggressive and not shrivel up and die? How can you make sure that change strengthens us, instead of making us weak? How can you keep confidence in the future when we face problems that we all recognize?

Those are aspects of a neighborhood that can be strengthened by a wise government. And the important part in a democracy is that there must be a two-way street. It's not the government giving a handout or giving directives or writing regulations or even delivering services, and let that be the end of it; it's the feedback that's important. When a wise person says this program is not working, it could do better that way, or there's a waste here, or there are some people whose needs are not being met, and then when that comes back to Washington, through a Congressman, through a Senator, through a Governor, through a mayor, directly to a President, then our whole country is strengthened.

So, I'm deeply grateful to you for what you have represented in the past, what you represent now, and I think even more for what you will represent in the future. And the same uncertainty and the same shock or rapid change that took place when those immigrants, including some of you, first came to our country still take place on a daily basis in a strong, dynamic, changing, unified, free nation. And that's why I'm not afraid of the future for our country, because when America has been unified, when our people are bound together in a common purpose, we have never faced a question that we could not answer, and we have never faced a problem that we could not solve, and we have never faced an obstacle that we could not overcome.

I look upon you with a great deal of admiration and a great deal of personal appreciation, as the 39th man who's lived in this house—the 38th because Washington didn't live here; 39th President—seeing the strength of our country and, in a democracy, the value of the individual human being, who is proud, confident, free, filled with love for his family, his neighborhood, and for the greatest nation on Earth.

I would like to say one other thing. I know you are having a busy afternoon. But I would like to ask you, as a favor to me, to let me stand just outside the door, and I would like to shake hands with everybody here and get a photograph with you, if you don't mind.

Note: The President spoke at 3:03 p.m. in the East Room at the White House during a portion of a briefing given by administration officials on domestic and foreign issues.

Jimmy Carter, Meeting With Leaders of Ethnic and Fraternal Organizations Remarks During a White House Briefing. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/250621

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