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Presidential Scholars Remarks to High School Students Selected as Presidential Scholars of 1977.

June 09, 1977

THE PRESIDENT. I need to get you to help me with a lot of things. I think I will just substitute you for the Congress. [Laughter]

I spent this morning meeting with 50 Members of Congress, mostly from the Southwest, from Illinois all the way down through Texas. And this morning for breakfast, with the leadership of the Congress, I feel like my life now is one massive multiple choice examination where things are put in front of me and I have to make the difficult decisions.

I'm very grateful to have a chance to come over here for a few minutes to first of all congratulate you, and secondly to call on you for continued help. You've been chosen in an intensely competitive way, based on merit alone. But, of course, with an opportunity that you've had comes commensurate responsibility. The avenue you've enjoyed coming into Government, looking at it from a fresh perspective, is one that's very valuable to me and to our country. And I hope that when you do go back home that you'll be both incisive, questioning, critical, and, at the same time, constructive.

I believe that our Government is the best on Earth. I believe that our country exemplifies the finest human commitments, ideals, and aspirations. And I think in domestic and foreign matters, we are reestablishing ourselves in the view of the world commensurate with what I've just said.

The ideals that existed 200 years ago are still alive. And whether or not we are dealing with world hunger or basic human rights or freedom or disarmament or peace or an end of nuclear proliferation, these questions are a combination of morality and political practicality. It's very hard to tie these things together, but I think it's crucial for our own Nation's good.

I'm determined that not only should the world think well of us but that our people should think well of our own Government. We've had some serious mistakes in the past, and the mistakes have alienated our people, in some instances legitimately so.

In the Vietnam war, the attacks on Cambodia, the Watergate revelations, the CIA revelations, our country, our Government, our leaders have been embarrassed. You've lived through a time when these crises have afflicted our country, its reputation, and its own consciousness.

Most of you were born perhaps about the time that John Kennedy was killed, and it's hard to remember back in those days when we were filled with idealism and hope and high aspirations and self-confidence that our country did accurately represent what our people are in the finest sense.

But I think together our people can restore those legitimate feelings of quiet pride and confidence, not in an autocratic or abusive way but in a humble way, seeking constantly to reaffirm what our country ought to be.

I hope that the openness that we try to institute in Government will be constructive. We don't want to conceal any mistakes. We don't want to cover up any improprieties or illegalities. We're eager to root them out. I think this is something with which you can be of great help.

We only have a couple of minutes, but I thought instead of making a further speech, you might have a question or two that I could answer for you.

I'm very proud of you. In the past when I was Governor, I've been very interested in seeing the finest young people of our country come into the government, both in Washington and in our own State, to learn about it and to be intensely critical.

You have an advantage over adults in many ways. You have an idealism that's not been assuaged or tempered, which is good. And you have a fresh approach to questions that causes you to be, perhaps, sometimes even excessively inquisitive and critical. And you also have a freedom that won't last very much longer, to act in an unrestrained way against the status


As you progress a few more years and get a family and get a job and get obligations that cause you to cherish security more than anything else, you lose the unconstrained ability to let your own hearts and your own souls be devoted to necessary change, and particularly young people like you who will inevitably almost enjoy a privileged status in our society. With a higher degree of privilege comes a greater commitment not to change anything. Because with change, your degree of privilege might be diminished.

But I hope that you'll see through government a sense of study and understanding of those who are less fortunate than you and I.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of young people in our country who might be intellectually superior to you and whose aspirations might be higher than your own. But because their parents might be ignorant or because they've grown up in poverty, they haven't had a chance to nourish and to develop those innate talents that they possess. And a feeling of superiority on your part because you have been honored would be a very serious mistake.

Your sense ought to be to delve deeply into the consciousness of our country and to detect those unrealized potentials that exist in those who are not as fortunate as you.

So, I don't think you are better than anybody else. I think you are perhaps luckier because your innate abilities have been recognized and nourished, because of government, because of society, because of your social position, or because of the character and good fortune of your parents.

But don't look on your recognition as superior achievers to be a sense of superiority of yourselves over others. And don't look on your present and future achievement as a means to constrain yourself in seeking beneficial change. Be eager to see our country progress, even though sometimes it might mean that progress gives others equality with you. That's what government ought to impress on every public servant.

And since you are at least a temporary public servant as you have come to government, I hope that you will take home those commitments.

Maybe one or two questions. Yes?

Q. I've noticed that in the early history of the Nation, the Government was a rather small elite with minds of extremely high quality. Since then, I think the Government has become much more egalitarian. But do you think that because of this egalitarianism, the best minds are unwilling to drag themselves through the mud of an election? No offense to anyone. [Laughter]

THE PRESIDENT. I think perhaps with the exception of 1976 and the Presidential elections[laughter]---

That's an excellent question. I don't know that we could equate the present level of achievement and idealism and intellect now with 200 years ago. Obviously, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and others are revered by us, and legitimately so. But at the same time, you have to realize that later persons who were not considered to be intellectual giants have also been legitimately revered .both in and out of government.

I won't go down the list but, obviously, Harry Truman was one of those who was sometimes even despised while he was President. His public approval rating in the national polls was lower than Nixon's was at any time, even including now. Only 23 percent of the people in our country thought Truman did a good job while he was actually in office, after he fired MacArthur and after 'he initiated aid to Turkey and Greece, and the Marshall Plan, and so forth. Those are controversial things.

So, the measurement of effectiveness of a public servant is not necessarily attributable to an IQ test result. I think the measure is in different ways. But I think to the extent that we can repair the damage that's been done in recent years between people and government, to that extent we can encourage those who are worthy to seek public office.

I'm sure that many of the 15 or 20 other candidates who ran against me for President are as well qualified or better. I don't deny that at all. My own election result was attributable to good fortune. I had 11 members of my family who worked full time who magnified my presence, and we had literally hundreds of Georgians who left their own home State, working people, who took their vacation time and spent their savings to go to New Hampshire, to go to Wisconsin, to go to Ohio, to go to Florida, to go to North Carolina and work for me. Had I not had this advantage, I would not have won.

But it was an advantage that no other candidate had. And I think careful preparation, deep unswerving determination, and a realization that politics is not dirty, but that it can be clean and a decent profession is one way to remove the obstacle that concerns you.

And I think that in many ways even someone as revered as Thomas Jefferson lacked as much confidence in the average American to make good judgments compared to present public servants.

You have to go back through history and see the remarkable progress that we've made. When the Declaration of Independence was written, when our Constitution was written, one of the firm bases on which it was predicated was slavery. And those people that we admire so much said it's all right to have slaves as long as they are black.

And those early revered leaders said it's all right for men to vote, but women ought not to have a chance to vote. And those early leaders said that Senators ought not to be chosen by common people because their judgment is not good--let's let the members of the State legislature choose United States Senators. And those early leaders said that the young person who was 18 or 19 years old who was able to fight and give his life or her life for our country ought not to have a chance to vote. So, we have made progress in years since our country's founding, of which I'm very proud.

And I think that there's a growing realization that you can have equality of opportunity and freedom at the same time. Quite often this has been in conflict, as I pointed out many times in the campaign. You can have complete freedom, which means that the powerful become more powerful, the weak become weaker, or you can have a completely egalitarian state where everybody is treated the same and nobody can be sure that their competence or commitment will be rewarded. Our country has struggled to have both at the same time. We haven't always succeeded, but we've moved in that direction.

And I think that some of the points that I've made to you, all of them in our Constitution--I'm not even talking about the civil rights laws and so forth--have been steps in the right direction. So, I think that modern day political figures quite often are just as enlightened, just as intelligent, just as competent, probably have more confidence in the American people than even our early founders of this country.

Maybe one more question. Yes?

Q. Mr. President, many people seem to feel that the development of technology since the industrial revolution has gone sort of hand in hand with the declined concern for human values; sort of that the development of the assembly line, the development of bureaucracy has made people feel more alienated from their Government, from their work, and from each other. How do you feel about that, and how do you think it could be corrected?

THE PRESIDENT. I'm not sure that I agree with your premise. That is always a threat. But I think the early derogation of, say, workers' rights as a result of the industrial revolution brought about by shifting from wood to coal and then later on to oil, has been reversed.

There was a time, as you know, when workers had no fights, when children 8 years old were spending 14 to 16 hours in sweat shops and when individuality in a working person was not encouraged or permitted. Even when I grew up on a farm there was a common commitment to a 16- or 18-hour working day. And this left no time for the growth and the spirit or the study or the encounter with the arts or sciences or literature on the part of a working class family.

We woke up at 4 o'clock in the morning with the ringing of a farm bell. And we caught the mules and hooked up the plows in the dark. And when the sunlight came enough to see the rows of corn or cotton or peanuts, we started plowing. And this was a common, accepted thing for the family of the landowner or for the tenants or others, and we didn't quit until the sun went down, and it took us that long to get home. So, there was no way for a person to stretch his heart and stretch his mind and learn new things if he or she belonged to a working class family.

So, I think the industrial revolution as it is presently evolving does give the working family now much more recognition with the organization of labor unions, with the cutting down of the workweek to an average now of about 36 hours a week. There's more time to stretch one's mind.

And I think that one of the other great breakthroughs, which I don't use myself, is the observation of television. I don't watch television much myself, but I think that for many people just to see what the outside world is has not only been an educational process but has raised expectations and the concepts of what one could do.

And I know that quite often this creates a disruptive effect when somebody sees families eating rich foods and living in a beautiful house and driving in a fancy automobile. Their expectations are raised above their possibilities of achievement. It creates disharmonies.

But I think the industrial revolution, in general, has been of benefit to the liberation of human beings. And I think some of those things that I described to you about changes in our Constitution are a result of greater awareness and greater demands on the part of people who have previously never spoken out.

To close my answer, I might say that when I went home in 1953 in the winter, I very quickly went on the local school board. And we had separate but so-called equal educational opportunities in the South. They were separate, but they certainly were not equal. The white kids rode to school on buses; the black kids walked. And the white kids had fairly modern buildings; the black kids went to school in basements of homes, on the back porch of private homes, and in dilapidated churches.

But we maintained, even believing it sometimes, a separate-but-equal school system. And the black people in the South didn't feel that they could demand equal rights with impunity. It was only because of the open and heroic expression of demand from people like Martin Luther King, Jr., that the white leaders slowly began to realize how culpable they were, or we were.

So, I think that the nationwide use of the communications media, particularly television, gave, as a result of the industrial revolution, a chance to reach the consciousness of people who otherwise could not have been reached over a period of decades or generations or perhaps even centuries.

One of the things that we hope to do in the developing nations of the world is to provide them access to our communications satellites where they can reach impenetrable areas and bind together people in a common spirit, sometimes a nationalistic spirit, but receive better education and better knowledge. So, in general, I think the trend has been for the benefit of working families, even as a result of the industrial revolution. And I have good hopes about the future.

There have been some leaders in our own country who have maintained the posture either secretly or openly that the democratic processes were doomed and in a showdown, 15, 20, 25 years in the future that the Socialist or Communist nations were inevitably going to prevail. I don't agree with that at all. I see a strong resurgence of influence and strength in the democratic societies. I think that one significant result was that when I went to the NATO Conference last month, for the first time in the history of NATO, all its participating members are democracies. And the fact that Spain has now shifted to a democratic society, and Portugal the same, I think is a good move in the right direction.

And so, I think that the trends are in the direction of enhanced freedom, of enhanced opportunity for achievement, and also in the direction of enhanced equality of a quality of life.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 10:20 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.

For a list of the 121 students selected as Presidential Scholars of 1977, see page 725 of this volume.

Jimmy Carter, Presidential Scholars Remarks to High School Students Selected as Presidential Scholars of 1977. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/243560

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