Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Dinner
Thank you very much. I want to begin by expressing my profound gratitude to Roy Romer and Steve Grossman, to Carol Pensky and Cynthia Friedman, to Alan Solomont and Dan Dutko, and to all the other people who have labored in this past year, sometimes under enormously difficult circumstances, to make sure that our party could celebrate this 150th anniversary year strong, in good shape, poised for the future, and proud of the last 5 years. They have done a terrific job, and I am very grateful to them.
I want to thank Melissa Manchester for being here tonight. I was thinking, when I told her that Hillary and I used to listen to her tapes— over 20 years ago when I became attorney general of my State, I had a little tape deck in my car, and one of the tapes I used to play over and over again was "Melissa Manchester's Greatest Hits," until it actually broke, the tape did, I listened to it so many times. And I looked at her and I listened to her, and I thought, I'm older and grayer, and she looks just like she did 20 years ago. But I thank her for that.
I want to thank all of you for your loyalty, your support, your belief in what we're doing and where we're going. You know, I was very moved by what Steve Grossman said a few moments ago, because to me politics is about more than winning elections. Power has no value in and of itself. What we're here to do is to use what the American people give us momentarily to broaden their horizons and deepen their possibilities and bring us together.
Yesterday, on Martin Luther King Day, I had the privilege of going to Cardozo High School here in the District of Columbia to be part of what was called this year a day on, not a day off, a day of service. And there were all these young people there, students at the high school, teachers, and AmeriCorps volunteers. I met a young woman from Pennsylvania who came right out of high school and joined AmeriCorps because she wanted to do community service before going to Colgate next year. I met two other young volunteers who just finished college. I met two of the students at this high school—picture of America—one born in Panama, the other came here 3 years ago from Ethiopia. I met the teacher in the classroom I was helping to paint, who had been a dedicated schoolteacher in the District of Columbia since 1968, and a young man who was her student who now teaches chemistry at his old high school.
It's so easy to forget in Washington, when you read the papers and you listen to all the political back and forth, that out there in this country there are all these people out there who get up every day and try to do something to be worthy of the citizenship that they have been given, to work hard to take care of their families, to serve their communities, to educate our children. And when I left there, I just felt so good about America and about the prospects for our future.
I can't believe I've been here 5 years. It seems like yesterday when we flew out of Arkansas, Hillary and Chelsea and I, and then we went down to Monticello, to Thomas Jefferson's home, and took the bus up here. We walked across the bridge and rang the bells at my first Inauguration. And now about 60 percent of it is over, but 40 percent of it isn't. [Laughter] And what I'd like to do tonight is just—you can read in the little brochure all the details. I want to talk a little about the big picture.
This country, in my opinion, has been the greatest democracy and now the longest lasting large democracy in human history because we found a way to merge our incredible practical sense with our principles in a Government that has permitted us to meet each new challenge and rise above it by growing more strong together and by widening the circle of freedom.
That's what happened when George Washington and the rest of them decided we'd be one country instead of 13 States. That's what happened when Abraham Lincoln gave his life to keep us from splitting apart and to get over slavery. That's what happened when Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson helped us to reap the benefits of the Industrial Revolution when people came to the cities from off the farms but also stood against its excesses, exploiting people, and exploiting our natural resources. It's what happened when Franklin Roosevelt reminded us that all we have to fear is fear and helped us to preserve freedom and come out of a Great Depression. For 50 years it has happened as we have built in our efforts to lift up this country in freedom, to fight racism, to fight the despoliation of our environment, to make our workplace safer, to do all the things that have happened.
The reason I ran for President is that I felt that we were losing our way back in 1991 and 1992, not just because unemployment was high and social problems were worsening and we seemed to be kind of uncertain in a lot of the things we were doing around the world, but because I had a sense of drift and division in this country and a sense that we weren't being animated by a unifying vision that would take us into this new century, which I believe will be the best time in humanity's existence.
Just think about it. We've had this explosion in science and technology and information, and it's changing everything—the way we work, the way we live, the way we relate to each other. Everybody E-mails now. The Internet is the fastest growing means of communication in human history. I forget—somebody told me the other day how many homepages were added to the Internet every week; it took my breath away. And I can't remember—there were a bunch of zeros after the one; I can't remember how many.
In the scientific revolution, we confront all these incredible prospects that we may be able, for example, to heal people with spinal cord injuries. We may be able to uncover the secret of what causes Alzheimer's and reverse it. We've detected the gene that causes or at least makes women strongly predisposed to breast cancer. We may be able not only to cure it but prevent it. When the human genome project is finished, we'll be able to send babies home with a genetic code. It may be troubling in a few odd cases when the children are overwhelmingly likely to have something tragic happen to them, but for most people it will enable them to raise their children in ways that will lengthen their lives and increase the quality of it.
We're exploring the heavens in partnership with other countries. We're working increasingly in partnership with other countries in a globalized world that goes far beyond commerce. It's a very exciting time. But it's like every other new time; you can't just sort of wade into it and expect to have it come out all right. And if we're going to widen the circle of freedom and success in America and strengthen the bonds between us, we have to recognize that there is also an explosion of diversity in the world that can be positive but can lead to conflict.
We have to recognize that just like when we changed from an agricultural to an industrial society, now that we're going to an information age, we're going to have to work real hard to see that everybody has a chance to win, because people, for example, without a good education are having a very tough time in this economy ever getting a raise, if they can get a job.
We have to recognize that there are new common strains on the environment of this old Earth that we must meet together, chief of which is climate change. We have to recognize that the most important job in every society is not getting rich, or even working hard to make somebody else rich, but raising children. And now that we have the highest percentage of Americans ever in the work force, the number one family problem many families face is how to balance their responsibilities as parents and as workers—not confined, I might add, to people who can't afford child care. Nearly every parent I've ever talked to, even people with quite comfortable incomes, has felt instances of genuine gnawing conflict.
We look at a world in which we hope to build a great community of peace, in specific places like Bosnia and Ireland and the Middle East, and generally through efforts like the Chemical Weapons Convention and strengthening our efforts against biological warfare and continuing to reduce the nuclear threat and expanding NATO and unifying Europe and working out new partnerships with China and Russia—all these things. But we also see an almost primitive resurgence of racial and ethnic hatreds and religious hatreds around the world, which, interestingly enough, the very technologies that should be bringing us together can also facilitate.
So what I tried to do was to say, "Let's back up, and let's see if we can't make some sense of what's going on and figure out how to do what Americans always do when everything changes. How can we get the benefits of change and deal with its challenges in a way that strengthens our unity and broadens the circle of freedom and opportunity?" And that's what we've been trying to do.
So the words that I have used so many times, they may seem trite to the people who cover my speeches or those of you who have to listen to them all the time: opportunity for all, responsibility from all, a community of all Americans. That means something to me. I think about it every single day. And every day I say, "Have we expanded opportunity? Have we reinforced responsibility? Have we done something to strengthen our American community and our community of partnership with like-minded people throughout the world?"
All of the specific things we've done have been things that flowed out of that. And there were two specific changes that I sought to make, which the future will have to judge better than the rest of us here. One is, it seemed to me that the argument that was going on between the Republicans and the Democrats in Washington over the role of Government was pointless and ultimately destructive. I mean, since 1981, we've been—the Republicans essentially had argued that the American people should distrust and dislike their Government; that Government was the problem, holding Americans back, and if we just didn't have any of it, everything would be hunky-dory. Well, for us Democrats, that was an easy target, but it was too easy a target because we spent too much time arguing that they were wrong, and we could just do more of the same. But when things change, you can't do more of the same. And what we tried to say is, okay, we need a new Government. It ought to be smaller; it ought to be less bureaucratic; it ought to work in partnership with the private sector more. But it has certain essential functions.
First, it has to create the conditions and give people the tools to make the most of their own lives, in a world where, increasingly, people have independent access to information and have to make their own decisions about are they going to get an education, for example. That is why I predict to you 30 years from now when they look back on this time and see that we finally opened the doors of college to every American who would work for it and say, this may well be the most profound thing that happened in terms of giving all Americans the opportunity they need to succeed.
Next, we have to be a catalyst for new ideas and experiment, because at a time of change nobody has all the answers. But if you work at it, even things that look little may have a big impact. There was an unbelievable article in a newspaper someone sent me the other day about how hardly any schools had school uniform policies until I went to Long Beach, California. And now 20 percent of the school districts with over 30 percent of the students in all of our public schools in America have schools with school uniform policies, and attendance is up, achievement is up, dropouts down, violence is down, disruptions down. It's moving the country forward. That's a little example.
For 20 years we've had something called the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to invest money in communities that are traditionally overlooked—for 20 years. Eightysix percent of the total investment made in our inner-city communities under that act has been made in the last 5 years. It works. It works. The unemployment rate in our cities—our 50 biggest cities—it's higher than the national average, but not as much as you would think. It's 6 percent now. It was about 12 percent when I took office. So we're moving forward.
And the last thing that we believe is that Government has a responsibility to help the helpless and to empower the disadvantaged. Now, we've been able to do that and cut 90some percent of the deficit, give you the smallest Federal Government since President Kennedy, and in 1998, 3 years ahead of schedule, I'm going to give the Congress the balanced budget, and I believe they'll pass it. And it will be a big thing.
The second thing I tried to change people's minds about, I must say with a mixed record of success, is to make us understand how interdependent we are with the rest of the world and how it just really doesn't make sense anymore almost to talk about foreign and domestic policy. Take the crisis in the Asian financial market. Some people say, "Why is the President messing with that?" Well, an enormous amount of our exports in the last 5 years have gone to Asia—enormous amount. A third of our economic growth in the last 5 years has come from exports. If their currencies collapse, what does that mean? It means they don't have as much money to buy our exports because everything we sell over there all of a sudden becomes more expensive. Parenthetically, everything they compete with us in other markets for gives them an advantage because all their exports to other markets become cheaper. So it's not just something there, it's something here.
Well, you say, what about Bosnia? Well, what if it spread beyond the borders of Bosnia and ethnic hatreds engulfed a lot of the Balkans and other places, compelling us to send huge numbers of American soldiers later to die. That's a big problem for America. And if we don't stand up against ethnic hatred around the world, can we preserve harmony at home when we have our Christians and Jews and Orthodox Christians and Muslims here, just like they do there? That, to me, is the essence at the heart of the trade argument.
Interestingly enough, the differences we have there have, in my view, rarely been accurately interpreted. I believe the Democratic Party— all of our members—believe that economics cannot, in effect, take precedence over everything else in life and that we should try to lift the labor standards of the countries with which we trade, because if other folks get richer and they get their fair share of a nation's wealth, then they will buy more American products and they'll have more stable societies, they'll be better democracies. And besides that, it's just the right thing to do.
I believe that we should seek to have common efforts in the environment, because we know that an environmental problem in another part of the world can now affect us. And if we are irresponsible, we can adversely affect others.
I believe when we expand trade, most people are big winners, but there are some losers, and we have to do a better job of getting those people back on the winning track. We should give them more and better training more quickly. We should give them more support. We should do a better job. But the answer is not to try to pretend that the world is not integrating economically and to run away from the opportunities that Americans manifestly have to trade and, in trading, to build support for democracy and build partnerships and build people who will want to work with us in other ways. And I hope you will help me continue to do that over the next 3 years. The United States must continue to lead, but lead in partnership with other countries. And the Democrats ought to be on the forefront of that.
Now, all this has worked pretty well, I'd say, for the last 5 years. We've got the lowest unemployment rate in 24 years, the lowest inflation rate in 30 years, the lowest crime rate in 25 years, the highest rate of homeownership in history, the highest percentage of people in the work force in history, declining rates of teen pregnancy and divorce, declining rates of drug use. Finally, even juvenile crime is coming down. But this is not a time to sort of sit back and say, "Gee, that's great." I didn't come here tonight for a pat on the back. I came here to ask you to renew your dedication to keep this country moving forward. If this direction is working now, you know as well as I do we still have unmet challenges before we really can say we have built our children a bridge to the 21st century they can all walk across. And until we can say that, we have no business giving ourselves a pat on the back. We've got lots of time left, lots of work to do, and I want you to leave here with your energy renewed for the fights, the struggles, and the issues of 1998 and beyond.
The evidence of the last 5 years is all the evidence you need to know that we need to keep on going. The first thing we need to do is balance the budget. Everybody is talking about what to do with the surplus. You know, nobody else would talk like this; only Government people could talk about what to do with a surplus when we've had a deficit every year since 1969, we quadrupled the debt since 1980, and we don't have a balanced budget yet. So it may be sort of old-fashioned, but if I might modestly suggest, let us balance the budget first, and then we can talk about the rest.
The second thing I'd like to say is, we have some new proposals that we think will help people deal with the challenges of the next generation. One is, since we've got more people than ever before in the workplace, but since raising a child is the most important thing, we need to do more to make quality child care, safe child care, affordable for more Americans. That's what is at the heart of our child care initiative. It's so people can know their kids are okay when they're at work. And it is very important.
The second thing we're going to do, and this is completely paid for in the budget, and I hope Congress will adopt it, is to say to the people who are in their later work years but not yet eligible for Medicare, they ought to be able to buy into Medicare if they're 55 or over and they get laid off and they can't get another job; or if they take early retirement from a company that promised them health insurance and then won't give it to them; or if they're married to an older spouse who quits work, goes on Medicare, and they're not eligible for it and they can't get health insurance anywhere. Now, a lot of these people will get help from their children in buying these policies, but they can't get policies now. I say do that.
What is the moral argument behind denying people access to a policy that is paid for that will not increase the deficit or wreck the Medicare Trust Fund? It is the right thing to do. It's a Democratic program within the constraints of fiscal discipline. And I hope you will support that. [Applause] Thank you.
There are a lot of other great things that are going to happen. And I ask for your support. But the main thing I want you to—if you leave here tonight and you think, "I'm proud to be a Democrat; these past 5 years were right; we've got the right philosophy for America; we're pulling America together," then I want you to leave committed to keep on doing it, because we need you badly.
Let me just leave you with this story. Today I had one of those wonderful experiences that comes to you when you're President. I bestowed the Congressional Medal of Honor on someone. And you say, well, we're not in a war now. Well, let me tell you this story. I bestowed the Congressional Medal of Honor on a retired marine major general who was 54 years ago a corporal on the island of Okinawa in the bloodiest battle of the war in the Pacific. And his job was to take a mountain called Sugar Loaf. And they got into a crater—a big kind of shell crater—he and his squad. His whole squad was wiped out. For 3 days—2 nights and 3 full days—he stayed awake, often alone. He lost all his men; they were either all killed or wounded. He left two or three times to take other wounded people to safety, always returning when he could have just stayed away, always going back to his post. He repelled assault after assault after assault after assault after assault. In the end, only one wounded marine was there helping him. For 3 solid days he stayed awake, and when finally they rescued him, there were 100— 100—enemy casualties all around him.
The paperwork for his Medal of Honor was lost. Somehow, you know, a lot of records got lost at the end of World War II. Later, he went to Korea, where he won two Silver Stars for valor in combat. Later, he went to Vietnam, where he won another Silver Star for valor in combat. After three wars, he had six Purple Hearts. And so everybody in the Marine Corps wanted to put him up for the Medal of Honor because they had misplaced his records, and he ordered them not do it. He said it was not the right thing for a man who is a general in the Marine Corps to permit his name to be elevated in that way. So it took him until he had spent nearly 40 years in the Marine Corps and retired as a major general and moved to California, until this could be done. It was an awesome event.
Why am I telling you this? Because every one of you must be just as moved as I was by the story. Not everyone could have been on Okinawa; not everyone could have done that. But everyone can be what he was: a loyal, goodserving citizen. Everyone could be in a school like the school I was in yesterday. My staff did some research and concluded that if everybody in the American phone books with the last name of Clinton or Gore would volunteer 2 hours a week, we could paint every classroom in every high school in America by Martin Luther King's next birthday. Now, that's a funny thing to say, but you think about it. You think about it.
This is a great country, and we have met every challenge. I am so grateful for these last 5 years. I am so pleased that America is doing so well. But remember, no one—no one—could have anticipated the scope or the pace of the changes through which we are going. And believe me, no one can see the end of it. There is no visionary that has imagined the future completely. We are not finished. We have a lot of work to do.
We have work to do to reform the entitlements so they'll be there for our children without bankrupting our grandchildren. We have work to do to preserve the environment. We have work to do to spread economic opportunity to all of our people. We have work to do to lift the academic standards and the educational opportunities of all of our children. We have work to do in this world to make it a safe world, not a dangerous world, for our kids in the 21st century. We have work to do. So celebrate the last 5 years by making the next 3 even better.
Thank you, and God bless you.
NOTE: The President spoke at 9:02 p.m. in the Main Atrium at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In his remarks, he referred to Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, general chair, Steve Grossman, national chair, Carol Pensky, treasurer, and Alan D. Solomont, national finance chair, Democratic National Committee; Cynthia Friedman, national cochair, Women's Leadership Forum; Dan Dutko, chair, DNC Victory Fund; and entertainer Melissa Manchester.
William J. Clinton, Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Dinner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/225917