Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at a Democratic Business Council Dinner in Chicago, Illinois

April 07, 1998

Thank you very, very much. Let me thank all of you for coming tonight, and especially to Lou and Ruth for opening their home and giving us this wonderful meal, and Ramsey Lewis and the other fine musicians. You get a comedian after me. [Laughter] I used to tell jokes, and I was pretty good at it, and they made me stop. They said it wasn't Presidential, so now I have to have help.

I want to thank Mike and Pat Cherry and Howard and Judy Tullman and anyone else who was responsible for this dinner tonight. On behalf of Steve Grossman and Len Barrack, we're very grateful for the help and support you're giving to our party.

I think I saw Congressman Conyers walk in here a minute ago; there he is. Thank you, John, for being here. I want to thank Gary LaPaille, who is leaving his post after many years as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, for his work in that regard. Thank you, Gary.

I want to say a word—I thought that when Dick Durbin got wound up a while ago we were about 3 days from election day. [Laughter] That speech had the kind of juice you expect when you're coming right down to the wire. I want to thank Senator Durbin for many things. He has been a great friend to me, to our administration, and to this country. I was thrilled when he was elected, and I have been even more pleased by his service. He has exceeded even my high expectations, and you should be very, very proud of him. He has done a great job for you.

I want to say a little more about Carol Moseley-Braun in a moment, but I was very delighted to see not only what Dick Durbin said but the reception that you gave for her. I hope very much that she will be re-elected. I intend to do everything I can to help her get re-elected. And I think that for her advocacy of education reform alone she has earned the right to be re-elected United States Senator from Illinois.

I'd also like to say a word for someone who's not here, our nominee for Governor, Glenn Poshard, who's been a great Congressman from southern Illinois. And I've had a chance to work with him now for over 5 years. I like him very much. He is an extremely able political leader, and he has—when Dick and Carol and I were riding in here together from the airport, we were laughing about Glenn Poshard's fanatic support he got in the Democratic primary. He got 98 percent of the vote in his hometown, and I think that's a pretty good indication of what the people who know him best think. So the way I've got it figured, if the rest of us could help the rest of Illinois know him as well, he'll do quite well in the fall.

I was thinking when all this storm came up, when the tent began to sway, this is the way I live every day in Washington. [Laughter] Believe me, I've found that if you just keep standing up, most of the time the tent won't fall. [Laughter] And if the storm blows over you, you won't melt. Ninety percent of it is just showing up every day. It gratifies your friends and confounds your enemies; it's a good thing to do. [Laughter]

I wanted to say to all of you, I just came back from this incredible trip to Africa, and I won't give you a travelog. If you followed it in the press, you know pretty much what we did. But let me say it was, for me, not only as your President but as a citizen, it was an astonishing experience. Hillary went to Africa with Chelsea about almost exactly a year ago, and they went to many of the same places that I went, although not all. And they had many of the same experiences I did, although not all, but I was sort of prepared for this at one level.

But I was literally overwhelmed by the energy of the place and the refusal of people to be ground down by the most difficult of circumstances. I guess the most emotional moments of the trip were when I flew into Rwanda to meet with six survivors of the genocide, which took somewhere between 700,000 and a million lives in 90 days. And I met a woman there, among other—I met this woman who was calmly telling me—she wore her nicest dress, and she was there with all great dignity, incredible dignity, telling me how the Hutus had come to her village to kill her people and that they had taken her outside with her family and taken a machete to her.

And miraculously, she hadn't died. But when she woke up lying on the ground in her village, she saw that her husband and her six children had been killed. And yet somehow she felt the— she found the inner strength to go on and to devote her life to trying to heal these terrible wounds.

I met a very articulate young woman who lost two of her four siblings and both her parents in the war, and she talked about how her parents were betrayed by their neighbors. These are stories that a lot of Jewish-Americans can identify with. But this woman was telling me— she said, "You know, we lived in this little village." And she said, "My parents—their neighbor came up to them and said, 'These people will take you to safety.' And instead they took them to a stadium where they were killed with other people just like them." And she said, "Now I have to go back to their house, and we have the same neighbor we had before."

And they're trying to come to grips with this and trying to decide whether there is anything they could do like what's been done under President Mandela's leadership in South Africa to try to work through this some way and build some harmony.

I saw a village in Senegal where people were living as they had lived for hundreds of years, and they were living on the edge of a desert, but they had recovered 5 acres of land in beautiful green gardens because an organization in the United States and our aid program had given them enough money to dig a well. All they needed was enough money to dig a well. They've recovered 5 acres against the desert. It's a big problem in Africa and a big international environmental problem, the growth of the desert. And these people were so proud of what they had done, and this village elder was just holding his accounts in his hand. He wanted me to know that they hadn't wasted the money that had been given them and he was keeping count of all their expenses and all their income, and he knew exactly what their return on the investment he'd been given had been in this distant village in Senegal.

When I was in Accra, Ghana—you probably saw the film, which was somewhat misleading— we had something like 400,000 people within this square and a couple hundred thousand beyond the square, and I was upset because two ladies got crushed against the fence as the crowd came forward, and we got them out, and they were fine later. But I guess I want to tell you two things about that. When I came home, besides being more optimistic about Africa than I had ever been before and more optimistic about our options for investment in Africa, we dedicated a commerce center in Johannesburg, dedicated to the late Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. We had a lot of African business people there, a lot of American business people there. And last year American business people earned a 30 percent return on their investment in Africa, highest return of investment on any continent, so I'm quite optimistic about all of that.

But the two points I want to make tonight— I came home thinking, for all of the challenges we have in this country, we are so lucky to live in a country where we have the level of prosperity we enjoy and where we're at least trying to make a conscious effort to live together across all the racial and ethnic and religious lines that divide us. And the second thing that I want to say to you is, I just wish every American could see in the reaction that Hillary and I received in Africa the way people all across the world in distant villages, many of them we've never done anything for, the way they look at the United States, the way they believe in the promise of America.

And what I want to say to you tonight is I spent a lot of time in my first term trying to fix things that weren't working in America, and a lot of it was quite controversial. Dick Durbin told the truth: Carol Moseley-Braun, a first-term Senator from Illinois, with all the Republicans saying that they would destroy anybody that voted for my economic plan in 1993, that it would cause a huge recession and be the end of the world, if she hadn't been willing to walk down the aisle and say "Aye," I wouldn't be here today, because the economic plan we passed was the thing that got the deficit down, which got the interest rates down, which got the investment going, which has put us in the position now for the first time in 30 years of having a balanced budget and projected surpluses of a trillion dollars over the next decade.

The point I want to make is not that we're doing well. The point I want to make is the point I tried to make in the State of the Union Address. This is a golden moment for our country. We have the best economy in a generation. We've got the crime rate going down for 5 years in a row, apparently for the first time since the Eisenhower administration. We've got a record high homeownership. We have the lowest welfare rolls in 27 years.

But this is a time when we should not be complacent, because the world is still changing very rapidly and because there are still a lot of challenges in this country. And when I see how others look at us and I imagine the challenges we have at home and the opportunities and what I see going on in the rest of the world, this is a time when we ought to say, "We have the elbow room now. We have the confidence, and frankly, we have some money, to bear down and meet the challenges this country is going to face, so that we can position America to guarantee that 50 years from now people will still feel the same way about our country that they do today, that I saw in Africa." That is really what we ought to be doing.

I'll just give you a few examples. Today I was in Kansas City with two Republican Members of Congress and two Democratic Members of Congress having a national forum on Social Security. Why? Because when all the baby boomers get in the Social Security system, there will only be two people working for every one person drawing Social Security if we keep the same birth rates, immigration rates, and retirement rates we have today. And that means the system will go broke in 2029; at least, we'll only be covering 75 percent of the cost of the system with the revenues that are coming in.

And I think it's imperative now to do something about that, because we can do something now, 30 years in advance, that will guarantee that those of us in the baby boom generation don't either have to see our poorest members in a destitute old age or see our children overtaxed and impaired in their ability to raise our grandchildren just because we didn't take the time right now to fix Social Security. And we ought to do it, and we ought to do it right now.

So we're going to have all these forums around the country. And then in December I'm going to convene a meeting of the leadership, and in January we're going to try to pass some legislation. Why? Because that's a gift we can give the 21st century. It's a gift. Just think, nobody else will have to worry about that for 30 or 40 years. And it's something we ought to do to just free people of worrying that either we're going to go back to an insecure old age for some of our fellow Americans, or we're going to damage the American economy or burden younger people coming up.

I'll give you another example. We have a historic opportunity this year—I know it's an election year, and it's hard to get stuff done. We've got an historic opportunity to pass comprehensive legislation to protect our children from the dangers of tobacco. Now, 3,000 kids start smoking cigarettes every day; 1,000 of them are going to have their lives shortened by it. It's illegal in every State in the country; yet it's still a terrible problem.

Dick Durbin has done as much as anybody in America to call the attention of the people of this country to this problem. And I thank him for that. But it will be unconscionable if, just because this is an election year and just because this is a complicated issue, we don't deal with it this year. And this is a long-term issue. You think about it. We've got a chance to save 1,000 lives a day in perpetuity, and we ought to do it.

In education, tomorrow morning, Carol Moseley-Braun and I are going to go out and do an event to highlight what she's trying to do to get us, for the first time, to help our schools either construct new buildings or rehabilitate the ones that are there.

Now, why is this a big deal? We've got the largest number of children in school ever now; the first time we've got more kids in school, starting last year, than the baby boom generation had, the first time—the largest number of kids in school. Now, the average age of a school building in the big inner cities of America is 60 years. In Philadelphia the average age of a school building is 65 years of age. You have all these kids coming into bigger and bigger classes, bringing more and more problems from their home. I offered a program that would reduce class size in the early grades to an average of 18 kids a class, hire 100,000 teachers, and modernize schools. She gave me the idea on the schools. And this is a huge thing.

We're having a big fight in Washington because the leaders of the other party and most of the rank and file don't think it's the thing to do. They think it's not their problem; they think it's a local problem. But even though Chicago—I take my hat off to Chicago, and I'm trying to help other school districts do what's been done here to kind of end social promotion and have mandatory summer school, do the things that have been done here, which you should all be very proud of.

It is not true that it's not a national problem. We've got the finest system of higher education in the world. No one questions it. Today I'm down at a community college in Kansas City at this Social Security forum, meeting with a bunch of students from the University of Central Oklahoma who came all the way over to come to the forum, and I meet two kids from Pakistan, two kids from Nigeria, a young man from Darbyshire in England. Why? Because people want to come to America to go to college. We've got the best system of college education in the world.

So what I tried to do after I became President was just to open the doors of college to everybody, with better student loans and more workstudy slots and more scholarships and now a $1,500 tax credit for the first 2 years of college and tax credits for the other years as well.

But no one believes we have the best system of elementary and secondary education in the world. And if you look ahead—right now we have the strongest economy in the world, but more and more and more and more this economy will run on what people know and not only what people know but what they're capable of learning. Therefore, we must do whatever we can to give ourselves the best system of elementary and secondary education in the world.

I tell you, I've been working at this for 20 years. And I would be very surprised if any President has ever spent any more time in schools than I have, because I was a Governor for a dozen years before I took this office. I still read the literature. I still try to learn everything I can. No one has all the answers. But I can promise you this: Every problem in American education has been solved by somebody somewhere. And the biggest problem is we don't have a system where we have to learn from one another to survive.

But I can also tell you that I have been in districts in very poor areas, but I've never been in a successful school that wasn't in decent physical shape. And that's why what Carol Moseley-Braun wants to do is all right. I can also tell you there's no point in us hiring 100,000 teachers if they don't have a classroom. You can't lower the class size unless there is a classroom with a teacher to put the 18 kids in.

So this is a very big deal that we're trying to do. And again I say, in my judgment, while there is no simple answer, having higher standards, having greater accountability, doing more to get the best kind of teachers trained and out in the schools, and having the smaller classes in the early grades, and having the help to districts that don't have a lot of money to have decent physical facilities, these things are important. And her leadership in this agenda alone— never mind the fact that if you're from southern Illinois she's pretty good on the agricultural issues and all that—just on education, our stake in building a world-class system of elementary and secondary education dwarfs most other public issues, and it justifies your effort and support to re-elect Carol Moseley-Braun to the Senate.

Let me just mention a couple of other issues. When I was in Africa, I met—I had an amazing meeting with six environmentalists from countries around the African continent, and it was very interesting. Those of you who are interested in the environment, if you'd been sitting there talking to these people, you would have thought this was a conversation you could have in this community, except you wouldn't be worried about how to preserve the rhinos. I don't think there are any around here.

But except for the—you know, the common interest we have in having clean water and clean air and a sustainable environment is very important. One of the things that I'm hoping we can do in this session of Congress—but I'm not optimistic based on the preliminary soundings—is to pass our clean water initiative and also to pass an initiative for America to do its part in dealing with the problem of global warming.

The overwhelming consensus of scientists is this climate is warming up. And if you see what's happening, you see how much more extreme weather this El Nino has brought us all over America than the last El Nino, and you look at how upsetting it's been, that will become more and more and more regular unless we take steps to reverse the incredible speed at which the Earth is warming up.

Now, our party is four square for the proposition that we can preserve the environment and grow the economy. But right now, we're in a big fight about that in Washington, and right now we're not doing so well.

So again I say to you, if you're thinking about not just how to keep this stock market up until next month but what kind of America our grandchildren are going to live in, whether we have a systematic program to have clean water in America and whether we're prepared to do something about climate change are huge issues. It is our moral responsibility in a good time to take on a long-term issue like this.

Now, I'll just mention two other things very briefly. First, a lot of you know that I've invested a good deal of time and effort in efforts to bring peace to other parts of the world. We're doing much better in Bosnia today than we were a year ago. And I still think we were right in 1985 to go in and stop that war. It was the bloodiest conflict in Europe since the end of World War II, and I think history will record that.

We are working very, very hard to find a formula which will permit the Middle East peace process to be resumed. And the less I say about it the better, but we're working hard on it.

And Senator Mitchell, my former Senate majority leader, was named to be the principal broker for peace in Ireland, and he's tabled a peace proposal, and there is some chance that sometime within the next few days the land of my ancestors will actually have an agreement to resolve some issues that are hundreds of years old.

So there's a lot of hope there, but the United States should continue to be involved in this. And I hope all of you will support that. Believe it or not, it's more controversial than you think in Washington. There are lots of people that think we ought to just be tending to our knitting more and be less involved around the world. I personally believe we should be more involved around the world because there is no easy division between our domestic interest and our foreign interest. And about a third of our economic growth in the last 5 years has come because of our expansion of trade and our reaching out to other countries and our willingness to be good partners with other people.

The last point I would make is this: If you think about what the roots of the problems in the Middle East and Bosnia and Northern Ireland are; if you think about the fact that in Rwanda, where I told you somewhere between 700,000 and a million people were killed in 90 days because of the conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis, tribal differences—let me tell you that they lived together in that country for hundreds of years, not hundreds of days—hundreds of years. Even though they are very distinct looking, the differences—you could see after you were in a room, you'd know who the Hutus were and who the Tutsis were. They spoke the same language. They had the same native religion. They shared the same land. They worked out accommodations for tribal differences. And yet still, the wheel ran off the track, and there they were, killing each other with breathtaking abandon.

What's the point of all of this? One of the reasons that America is attractive to others in the rest of the world is because we are trying every day to bridge the gaps that are still tearing people apart. What good does it do you to work a computer, to solve all the problems of science, if all you do is put all that knowledge and all that power to work in a primitive way dividing people instead of uniting them?

So I would say that I still believe we have no more important work than trying to bring the American people together and trying to continue to be a beacon of hope. I was so moved when I was in Senegal, a country that is 85 percent Muslim. I went to the biggest mosque in the country and visited. Why? Because they publicly rebuke the notion that they should hold down people who are of a different faith. The President is a Muslim with a Christian wife and now a Jewish daughter-in-law. [Laughter]

And so, here's this man, every day, in much more difficult circumstances than America, trying to embody the idea that it is crazy for us to punish one another because of our religious or our racial or our tribal differences. But these are deep feelings, man. It is deep in the psychology of all human history that people, when threatened especially, look for others to look down on and try to define themselves up by pushing others down. And you have to teach people to escape that, and you have to practice that.

And every time people see America uniting all different kinds of people, it sends a loud message to the rest of the world and gives a greater chance that your children and your children's children will never have to leave our shores to fight in a foreign war because people hate each other for reasons that are fundamentally not as important as what they have in common.

So these are the things I think we ought to be thinking about. Now, if you think about what elections used to be about—what did they used to talk about, the Democrats? You didn't hear this; this is not the subject of elections. How did the Republicans win the Congress? How did they win the White House? They always said, "Oh, you can't vote for those guys. They're weak on the deficit. You know, they're weak on crime; they're weak on welfare; they're weak on all that." You remember all those speeches, sort of driving wedges in the election.

Well, I'm sorry, but there's no deficit anymore. We've got the lowest welfare rolls in 27 years. We've got the best economy in a generation. The crime rate has been going down. We, just last week, said we were going to stop importing another 55 assault weapons, keep another million and a half weapons out of this country that are designed for nothing other than killing people. So now we don't have to worry about that anymore.

Elections do not need to be, and indeed should not be, dominated by negative issues anymore or fear. There's no fear. You can go out in 1998 and talk to your friends and neighbors and try to put a little juice in the idea that we can actually have a referendum in America about the future direction of this country and about whether we're going to look at the longterm problems.

And I think if we do that, Carol Moseley-Braun will win handily. I think if we do that, our party will pick up seats in Congress, although it never happens in the second term of an incumbent President that his party picks up seats in Congress. It never happens. It's going to happen this time if we make the election about the future of the American people.

And your investment in our party has made the chance of that happening much, much more likely. That's why you're here, and that's why I'm grateful.

Thank you, and God bless you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 9:17 p.m. at a private residence. In his remarks, he referred to dinner hosts Lou and Ruth Weisbach; Mike and Pat Cherry and Howard and Judy Tullman, event cochairs; Steve Grossman, national chair, and Leonard Barrack, national finance chair, Democratic National Committee; President Nelson Mandela of South Africa; former Senator George J. Mitchell, independent chairman of the multiparty talks in Northern Ireland; and President Abdou Diouf of Senegal and his wife, Elizabeth.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at a Democratic Business Council Dinner in Chicago, Illinois Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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