Jimmy Carter photo

National Italian-American Foundation Remarks at the Foundation's Third Biennial Tribute Dinner.

September 13, 1980

Vice President Mondale, whose parents came here from Italy, stopping temporarily in Norway— [laughter] —mine stopped for a few years in England and Ireland on the way from Italy to this country- [laughter] —Archbishop Hickey; Chairman Jeno Paulucci, who's done such a tremendous job in organizing and promoting this historic event; Mayor Joe Alioto; my good friend whom I admire from the bottom of my heart, Peter Rodino; Frank Annunzio and the other 30 members of the Italian-American congressional delegation, which is rapidly growing and I hope will grow in the future for the wellbeing of our own Nation; other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I first of all want to thank Peter Rodino for that nice introduction. He treated me very gently; as a matter of fact, I noticed he did not say that I was an Italian. I'm glad he overlooked that serious flaw in my recent background.

I am delighted to be here. I had a memorable evening with you 4 years ago. Two years ago, I had been scheduled to come, but I was at Camp David with President Sadat and with Prime Minister Begin. But if you will help me arrange it, I want to be with you for the next 4 years at your other banquets.

Tonight I come to you as President, representing 240 million Americans who share my deep feelings that I will try to express very briefly. I want to congratulate my friend Jeno Paulucci again—the moving force behind the National Italian-American Foundation—for the great success he's made with this effort and especially this second annual international conference and the third biennial tribute dinner.

The first Italian came to this land a long time ago, so it's no wonder that you have such an outstanding foundation, having had almost 500 years to organize it—since 1492, Jeno. [Laughter]

And the honorees this year, the quality of them, are a tribute to what has been accomplished by you, by others who are being participants in this distinguished gathering, and by those who have been specially singled out this evening—Henry Fonda, Robert Georgine, Alexander Giacco, Bob Giaimo, Dr. Margaret Giannini, Vincent Marotta, Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, John Volpe. What a wonderful demonstration of the extraordinary breadth and depth of the Italian-American influence on our Nation. As President, I thank you all for this great contribution.

This conference is a model of how ethnicity works best in America. You have brought together some of our Nation's best minds to consider questions and problems that affect everyone in this country. A long list of brilliant and experienced Americans of Italian ancestry have discussed, in the last few days, government, the economy, education, the family, social justice, and international relations. The messages were delivered by Italian Americans. But the messages themselves were of national and, indeed, universal significance.

This is American pluralism in action. While maintaining the integrity of your own cultural group—as Jeno pointed out, the largest cultural group in this country—with all its historical and modern strengths, you use that strength and that beauty to enhance our whole society. Our Nation at its best—and I'm sure you'll agree with this statement—is in this room.

What gives the United States its essential character, its unique character, is the diversity of our people, joined together in their various separate identities to form a united whole—stronger and more beautiful than any one of us or any of its parts separately. E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One.

Instead of asking people to abandon their cultures that produced them, in this country we've encouraged them to bring to the American reality all the best of a hundred different traditions.

In spite of imperfections, no nation is perfect. In spite of occasional strife and tension, there has never been anywhere, or at any time, a greater miracle of government than this magnificent amalgam of different people which we call America. And of all the people from all over the world who have created this beautiful mosaic, no one's contribution shines with greater lustre than does yours. So much of what we are as a nation began by being Italian, and we are a greater nation because of it.

The land of your ancestors is the product and the source of one of the most important cultures in human history. I saw that vividly when I visited Italy, Rome and Venice, just 3 months ago, when Italy played host to the seven leaders of the democratic industrial nations.

All of us were thrilled. Just try to imagine our own cities without the influence of Roman architecture, or our music without Italian opera. Try to imagine how we would have been diminished if our American experience had been denied Dante and Cicero, Michelangelo and Verdi, Cellini and Leonardo da Vinci. And just think where we politicians would be without Machiavelli. [Laughter]

There's another aspect, as you well know, to the heritage of Italian Americans that's just as important. And I'm talking about the contribution that has been made by recent immigrant generations of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries; often they are forgotten. Millions of Italians came here during that period. A few came already financially secure and seeking to expand their opportunities, but most came because they had no opportunities to compare with those in this country.

I'm sure that everyone in this room tonight knows that there are hundreds of stories that you could tell about these recent generations—in your own families-generations memorialized so beautifully by Pietro di Donato in the classic, "Christ in Concrete."

Many came without money or property and often without friends. They were powerless, but they were proud and ambitious. Perhaps they were frightened by a society they did not know, but they were forceful in making their way in. And the families that received them added to their strength and derived strength from those new immigrants. And always they were driven by unrelenting Italian commitments and beliefs and Italian passion, the passion for the family, a willingness to sacrifice to make something better for one's own children. Their commitment to the future was very personal and very concrete.

They came and they left their mark, a mark that said: These are the strong and the brave; the builders, the growers, the makers of families and of cities. These are the new Americans that came from Italy.

How great a mark that has been. These valiant immigrant generations of recent times and their progeny represented in this room gave us Enrico Caruso and Mother Cabrini, Fermi and La Guardia, and the hundreds of distinguished Americans in this room who cannot be recognized by name this evening. They gave us even more than that. They gave us a precious set of values which you have not permitted to change. They taught us a selfless, unshakeable respect for family—a deeper sense of the obligation of children to parents and of parents to children. They taught us a proud, bold patriotism as they offered even their lives for their new country.

We are honored tonight by the presence of a man who personifies that patriotic spirit. Yesterday I had the privilege, an emotional privilege, of presenting him with the highest honor that our Nation can bestow for valor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. His name is Anthony Casamento.

Mr. Casamento, please stand. [Applause]

In the Rose Garden yesterday there was not a dry eye, including mine, when the "Star-Spangled Banner" was sung so beautifully, and Tony Casamento, who had sat there with full control over his emotions, broke down and wept to hear our national anthem. And I thank him from the bottom of my heart again for what he means to me and to our Nation and the traditions of Italian Americans. The immigrants also taught us a reverence for the dignity of work, a recognition of the overriding importance of education, a deep religious conviction which is unshakeable, humble in the face of the Almighty. Most of all, they taught us love.

Our society still needs, more than ever, a commitment to the values that these generations of giants gave us out of the sweat and the prayers and the smiles and the tears that comprised their lives.

You should be very proud, as all Americans are grateful. Our Nation has benefited from your success. You've helped to create the growth and success of America.

You've come a long way, but there's still a long way to go. There are still too many of you who are punished unfairly by cruel stereotypes.

I recall that when I was with you 4 years ago, I pointed out that as a southerner, as a Georgian, I had been stigmatized because of the region of my birth. And I pointed out to you that if I should be elected in that year, that I would be the first President from my region of the country in 140 years to serve this Nation. Italians, Georgians, are good people. And I think we've made a fair, an excellent partnership this last 4 years.

We've had good success, but there's an even brighter future for Italian Americans, just as there's a brighter future for all those who live in our country.

We've made great strides over the last 4 years, but surely there's more to be accomplished.

We've created 8 million new jobs, but we are still working to reduce the ranks of the unemployed.

We've reduced our dependence upon foreign oil, and in so doing we've won a beachhead in our battle for energy security and against the main cause of inflation that was forced on us by the OPEC nations. We will drill more oil and gas wells this year than any other year in the history of the United States, and we'll produce more United States coal this year than any other year in history.

After a long, tough fight, we've passed a windfall profits tax to pay for our quest for energy security. Now we must build on our new energy base to revitalize the tremendous productive machine that is the American economy.

We've adopted the first urban policy in history, and now we've begun to rebuild our cities and our communities so precious to you.

We've made the greatest strides in education in history, and now we're improving, even further, the preparation of our young people for a productive life.

We've fought to provide for the elderly and the impaired and the infirm and give them the care they require, but now we need a national program to prevent disease and to ensure good medical care for all Americans.

And we've put the land of the free back on the side of freedom. The oppressed of the world are not longer alone; they know that America is with them. And as long as I'm President, our Nation will hold high the banner of human rights all around the world.

And the last point I want to make is this: We're grateful that despite instability and turmoil in many parts of the world, we've kept our Nation strong and, therefore, we have had 4 years of peace. But we must reduce further the threat to peace, especially the ultimate threat of a nuclear holocaust.

With every achievement, we strive even .harder—typical of the character of Italian Americans and typical of our Nation's commitment, not just to the past and present but to the future.

Part of my job as President is to respond to the clamoring and often conflicting demands of the moment. But my most important duty is to serve the future, because the President of the United States must be the steward and the guardian of the future of the United States. I've described the election of 1980 as a choice between two futures. It's a clear and a crucial choice. And in closing, I want to leave you tonight with my brief summary of the vision of what I see as the kind of future I'm fighting for.

When I look forward I see a nation at peace; a nation strong enough to be secure in its pursuit of progress for all people; a nation in which everyone can be afforded the dignity of decent employment; a nation whose children are educated to their maximum potential, whose elderly are treated with the respect which they've earned, whose families are intact and secure.

I have a vision of a nation free enough to attract and strong enough to welcome those who seek freedom. That's what America has done for the rural people of the mezzogiorno [southern part of Italy], for the potato farmers of Ireland, for the Jews of Eastern Europe, for the oppressed who came here seeking the opportunities denied them in their homelands.

I want to pursue that vision with you and with all the others like you who have ensured this Nation's success. I'm honored to be with you tonight. I hope you'll invite me to be with you again—hopefully as President—as we work together for 4 more years to make this Nation greater still for all those who will follow us to a better life and to freedom.

Sempre avanti.

Note: The President spoke at 7:48 p.m. in the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

Jimmy Carter, National Italian-American Foundation Remarks at the Foundation's Third Biennial Tribute Dinner. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/251018

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