Jimmy Carter photo

New York, New York Remarks at the Allred E. Smith Memorial Dinner.

October 16, 1980

Archbishop Maguire, Mrs. Morrison, Governor and Mrs. Reagan, distinguished leaders in politics and government and public affairs, the At Smith family members, and my good and old friend, Judge Mulligan:

You may not realize where we first met— [laughter] —but I hate to reveal a secret. It was at a Sinn Fein breakfast in Savannah— [laughter] —a few years ago. I'm sure he didn't mention it to you. [Laughter] It was one of those strange and exciting and very exuberant typical mornings, March the 17th in Savannah, Georgia. I was eating green grits, and Judge Mulligan was drinking green-well, I won't tell on you what you were drinking. [Laughter] We became good friends then, and since then I've been wanting to get together with him again.

I had understood when I was first invited and accepted the invitation that this dinner was in his honor. [Laughter] I was quite startled when I saw the program and saw that it was in the honor of Al Smith. I understand that Cardinal Cooke and Mr. Silver also made this same discovery, and that's why they didn't show up tonight. [Laughter]

I'm glad to be back at this distinguished gathering. I was here 4 years ago as a candidate for office of President of the United States of America. And I'm happy to report to you tonight that that campaign was a success. [Laughter] It's my fervent hope that I can stand here 2 or 3 years from now and make for you a similar report on the 1980 campaign. [Laughter]

For the last 3 1/2 years I have faced the awesome pressures known only to those who occupy the Oval Office. This is a confidential assessment for Governor Reagan. Not one minute of a single one of those days, Governor Reagan, has passed without my feeling the full weight and the terrible burden and the crushing responsibility that's ever present as a companion in that office. It's a terrible experience. [Laughter] And for the rest of you, let me say, equally confidentially, how time flies when you're having fun.

I had some good help in 1976. Professor Lawrence Klein of the Wharton Economic School was the chairman of my economic advisory board. I just recently called to congratulate him, because he won the Nobel Prize in economics for his excellent advice to me on how to reduce inflation and interest rates. [Laughter]

And I would also like to congratulate his Eminence on the singular accomplishment this evening, although in absentia, by convincing Governor Reagan to share this platform with me. He's demonstrated a power even greater than that of the League of Women Voters. [Laughter] And I must confess I have listened very closely and I've observed very closely Governor Reagan and his remarks tonight. Frankly, I find him an extremely engaging, charming, and gracious man. It's hard to believe he keeps saying all those mean things about me. [Laughter] The fact is, I'm very proud to know and very happy to know that he is with us this evening, otherwise he might be out campaigning in some close State. [Laughter]

Incidentally, I gave my good friend, Mayor Koch, some advice earlier today. I told him not to get too close to Governor Reagan. It has nothing to do with politics, but on the Governor's "I love New York" button, the paint is still wet. [Laughter]

I would like to take advantage of this moment of good fellowship to put Governor Reagan at ease on one point. I will state publicly and for the record that I am not planning any October surprise. I can predict, however, that one of us is in for a very severe November shock. [Laughter]

As you all know, Governor Al Smith enjoyed the rough and tumble of politics, but he revered the art of governing fairly. His social conscience was awakened on the Lower East Side and sharpened by the unforgiving taskmasters of his alma mater, the Fulton Fish Market. Gathering his natural gifts, he doggedly pursued a career that led to four terms as Governor of the most powerful State of the Union.

In those days the Federal Government was not overly responsive to human suffering. There was no social security. There was no unemployment compensation. There was no minimum wage. There was no Medicare for the elderly. There was no protection against the paralyzing effects of legalized discrimination. As Governor, Al Smith began the hammer blows of social reforms, whose reverberations echo even today.

In 1928 he decided to run for President. When the final count was in, he had not won the election. I'm proud that Georgia was a State that gave him an overwhelming victory. But a shattering heartbreak came with the realization that his own beloved New York and 39 other States had rejected him at the polls. The tide of unreasoned religious intolerance denied this country's highest office to one of the most gifted reformers of the century.

But it was a remarkable indication of this Nation's progress when, in 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Catholic, became the 35th President of the United States. Again, my State gave him a large margin of victory, greater even than his own State of Massachusetts. There were dire predictions made then that should John Kennedy become President, the Pope soon would be standing on the White House steps. And in fact, that prediction came true. The Pope did stand on the White House steps, but the year was 1979. [Laughter] And the President who greeted him was a Southern Baptist.

John Kennedy, a Catholic, became President with the votes of millions of Southern Baptists. And I, a Southern Baptist, became President with the votes of millions of Catholics and Jews. There is no question that we have come far in dulling the sharp pain of religious and racial intolerance.

It was on this note that I had intended to end my speech tonight, to leave you basking in the warmth of the progress exemplified in the stories of one man who did not become President and two men who did. But there have been times in my life when I, like most of you, witnessed prejudice and intolerance and should have acted or spoken out against it and did not. Something happened to me just yesterday that made me to speak a few words further to this issue.

A 12-year-old boy stood up in a public town meeting in Pittston, Pennsylvania, and asked me a question that cuts to the heart of the matter of intolerance and cut my heart as well. His name is Avi Leiter, and here is what he asked, and I quote: "In view of the fact that you, Mr. President, are Baptist, do you agree with the head of the churches who said that God should not listen to Jewish prayers? I'm a religious boy, and I pray three times a day for the welfare of the Americans and the Jewish people. Do you think that God does not listen to my prayers?"

I struggled for a moment, an awkward moment, difficult for a President or a human being, not because I was searching for the answer, but to know that such a question needs to be asked by a small boy in the United States in 1980. I told Avi that I believe God listens to his prayers just as attentively as God listens to mine. I told him about going to Camp David with Prime Minister Begin and President Sadat. On the first day we all agreed to pray to God—a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian—and we asked the world, through a public announcement, to join us in our prayers. I told Avi that I was sure that God heard all those prayers. Thirteen days later we surprised the world when President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin came down from Camp David with a peace agreement.

I say again, the answer I gave Avi Leiter yesterday is not nearly as important as his question. It's a question no American child should ever have to ask his President.

In our zeal to strengthen the moral character of this Nation, we must not set ourselves up as judges of whom God might hear or whom He would turn away. I understand the longing that many people have, very deeply religious, fervent people, for a sense of strong values. That longing is not exclusive to any one group, but it's shared by every person—Protestant, Catholic, or Jew—who cares deeply about the ethical standards of this Nation.

Those who originally created the promise of America were firm in their convictions. They believed. in religious tolerance. They believed in tolerance for the views of others. They believed in separation of church and state. They believed that government should not decree or interfere with any person's worship or freedom of conscience. That was not because they considered religion unimportant, but because they considered it too important for government to try to influence or control.

Contrary to the pattern in all other nations, our Constitution stated in unmistakable terms that "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust under the United States." President Kennedy understood this principle clearly when he said in 1960, and I quote him: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate could tell the President, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote."

My religion is an important part of my life. I've studied the Bible all my life. But nowhere in the Bible, Old or New Testament, are there instructions on how to balance the budget or how to choose between the B-1 bomber and the airlaunched cruise missile. What I do find is, "Judge not that ye be not judged," and the commandment to love my neighbor.

Al Smith, a long time ago, followed those principles. It inspired the work for which we honor his memory tonight. Little Avi Leiter follows that principle. It guides him in his prayers three times every day.

We've come through difficult and bitter times in this country. We've done well. But we cannot pause on a plateau of self-congratulation while Avi Leiter and other potential future. Al Smith's of America struggle against the sheer walls of intolerance that are still all too evident.

I believe we are ready to move on. I believe that with patience and understanding and renewed effort all Americans will come to realize this: that the soul of freedom is freedom of the soul.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 9:54 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. He was introduced by Archbishop John J. Maguire.

In his opening remarks, the President referred to Lydia Morrison, hostess, Judge William Hughes Mulligan of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, guest speaker, and Charles H. Silver, chairman, Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, and Terence Cardinal Cooke.

Following the dinner, the President returned to Washington, D.C.

Jimmy Carter, New York, New York Remarks at the Allred E. Smith Memorial Dinner. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/251250

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