Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Dinner

February 18, 1998

Thank you very much. First of all, thank you, Ron and Beth, for having us here, and thank you for being such wonderful friends to me and to Hillary and to our administration and our party. Thank you for the wonderful words. A couple of days ago I actually got a picture of one of those billboards in Israel—not a particularly great picture of me—and that wonderful, wonderful message.

Let me thank all of you for being here. Most of you I have now known a long time, and you've heard me give a lot of speeches, so I won't really give much of one tonight. But I would like to make just two or three very brief points.

When I came here in 1993, I did not come to the White House in probably the normal way, and in many ways I was not the normal person who came to the White House. I had never sought to live my whole life in Washington or, indeed, to be in the circle of Washington influence for my whole life. I came here with a determination to change the country, to change the direction of the country, to try to change the way we were living and working, and to try to make America work again. And I think the record is pretty clear that the approach we have taken has worked. And for all of you who played a part in that, I am grateful. I am grateful to Governor Romer and Steve Grossman and Carol and Cynthia and all the officers of the Democratic Party and the staff and all of you who have helped all along the way, those of you who helped me and Al Gore.

The State of the Union Address got an unusual response, even for the State of the Union Address, partly because more people watched it than normal, maybe. [Laughter] There are blessings everywhere you don't expect. [Laughter] But I think the thing I would like to say about that is that I really feel that I spent 5 years working very hard to try to fix things that weren't functioning very well. And we got the deficit down over 90 percent. And I presented a balanced budget. I think the budget will be balanced this year if the economy isn't slowed by the difficulties in Asia. And we're working hard on those to try to help our friends and, in the process, help ourselves.

And the crime rate has come down for 5 years and we now have a strategy that works, born of what people were doing in community after community—all we're doing is supporting that. We have the lowest welfare rolls in almost 30 years. And we have—now finally, last year, the lower 20 percent of our working people had their income increased by a higher percentage than American income went overall. So we're coming back together again after 20 years of drifting apart. So there's a lot to be grateful for.

And what I tried to do in the State of the Union was to say, "Okay, now if we have things going right and the country is essentially working, we should"—to use Hillary's phrase—"we should be imagining the future. We should be asking ourselves, what do we have to do to strengthen this country for the 21st century, so that when we get there, we really will have the kind of country we want?" And that's what the agenda I outlined was about.

And the thing that all of you can do that would be most helpful is to demonstrate to the American people every day in every way that the Democrats are committed to a public agenda that changes their lives for the better, that we do not believe that politics is about power, nor do we believe politics is about personal advantage, nor do we believe politics is about all the things that some people seem to think it's about. We think it's about bringing them a better future.

And that's what the—that's why I don't want to spend any of the surplus until we save Social Security for the next generation. Easy thing to do is—it's election year; give people a tax cut; spend a little more money. It would be a mistake. That's why I'm determined to reorder, do whatever we have to do to preserve the Medicare program in a way that works for the 21st century and honors our, sort of, intergenerational compact, why I think we have to keep working until we have not only—now we've basically opened the doors of college to anybody who will work for it. But we can't say— and everybody takes it for granted that we have the best system of higher education in the world. No one believes we have the best system of elementary and secondary education in the world, and until we do, we can't rest.

It's why I think we have to keep working until we have closed the remaining holes in our health care system. It's why I believe we have to prove one more time that we can deal with any environmental challenge and still grow the economy. We have within our grasp the technological means to reduce global warming, or at least do our share of it, and still continue to grow the economy. We have to prove we can do that. It's why I am committed to proving that the increasing diversity of America will be a blessing, not a curse, amidst all the troubles of the world based on ethnic and religious differences.

So I want you to keep going out there and talking to people about America in the 21st century. If you think about the present difficulty we're having with Iraq—I don't want to talk about it in any great detail tonight, but I want to say it has—it is not a replay of what happened in 1991. It is a forerunner of what could or could not happen in 2010, in 2020, in 2030.

The very things we love about the world we're moving into—all this interconnection—we had 400,000 hits on our website after the State of the Union. We had a 650 percent increase in hits on the millennium website when we had our first lecture, when Bernard Bailyn talked the other night about how our country got started, and shut the thing down briefly. We can all get on a plane tonight and fly anywhere; we can do anything. The more open the world is, the more interconnected it is, the more vulnerable we will be to the organized forces of destruction, whether they come from drugrunners or crime syndicates or terrorists. And it is very important that we do everything we can to make the risk that those kinds of people can bring chemical and biological warfare into the lives of ordinary people anywhere in the world, including this country—we need to reduce those chances as low as we possibly can, whenever we can, however we can, as soon as we can.

And there are very often no easy answers because of the way the world is working now. But I want you to know that's what's driving me. I want tomorrow to be good for America. And to do it, you not only have to seize the opportunities, you have to try to create a structure that will minimize the challenges and the threats as well.

The last thing I'd like to say is this. I had a wonderful day 2 days ago. The Vice President and I went up and spoke to the Democratic caucuses, the Senators and House Members, and it was a great thing. We talked about our agenda for '98 and how excited we all were. And the Vice President was in overdrive that day; I said I was going to find out what he ate for breakfast and give it to everybody— [laughter]—for free, give it to everybody. [Laughter] But I was thinking, trying to explain to people, you know, we've talked a lot about finding a third way between believing Government was the solution and Government was the problem, using Government as a catalyst, Government as a tool to give people—a means to get people the tools to make the most of their own lives. We've talked a lot about the new Democratic Party. But I said something to them I'd like to close with you. I believe at every profound moment of challenge in the history of this country, the party that was doing the most for America has always stood unfailingly for three things: for widening the circle of opportunity, for deepening the meaning of freedom, and for strengthening the Union.

If you go back to the beginning of America, when people fled other countries to come here—why were they coming here? Because they despised absolute, arbitrary, abusive power. And they wanted to live in a country where there was a rule of law that restrained people and where no one was unaccountable. And they had to decide, can we do this with a collection of little States, or do we have to be a nation? And they decided that we had to be a nation. And then George Washington and all of his allies, and especially Chief Justice John Marshall, created a nation for us. They said it will take one nation to protect freedom and to provide opportunity or to allow, in Thomas Jefferson's words, the pursuit of happiness. Abraham Lincoln, that's what he did; he died to preserve the Nation and to deepen the meaning of freedom, stop making a mockery of the Constitution. The industrial revolution comes along, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson basically applied those central values to the changes that were going on then.

Now, from the beginning of our party, we always said we believed in those things. But frankly, as a party, we didn't perform all that well from the end of Andrew Jackson's Presidency until Woodrow Wilson got elected, with minor interludes. As a result of that, we didn't have the Presidency very often either. [Laughter] But I think it is fair to say, even though I have tried to modernize the party and point us towards the future, from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Harry Truman to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter and our administration, we have not always been right; we have not always been moderate; but in the 20th century, we have been the party that pursued not power for its own sake but was always dedicated to widening the circle of opportunity, deepening the reach of freedom, and strengthening our National Union.

And now that we are doing the right things in the right way, those old-fashioned, eternal elements of America's mission are more important today than ever before. You should be proud to be here, and I hope you can find a way to share that with as many of our country men and women as possible.

Thank you. God bless you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 8:43 p.m. at a private residence. In his remarks, he referred to dinner hosts Ronald I. and Beth Dozoretz; Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, general chair, Steve Grossman, national chair, and Carol Pensky, treasurer, Democratic National Committee; Cynthia Friedman, national cochair, Women's Leadership Forum; and Bernard Bailyn, professor emeritus, Harvard University.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Dinner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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