Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at a Democratic Senatorial and Congressional Campaign Committees Dinner in San Francisco, California

February 25, 1999

Thank you. Well, thank you very much. First of all, let me say to our host and his family and to all the rest of you, I have had a perfectly wonderful time here tonight. And I think that's important. I say that because a lot of you go to a lot of these events, and I don't know that you always have a perfectly wonderful time. [Laughter] But we've had a wonderful time.

I think all of you know you're here to do something of surpassing importance, and I want to say that, as I was looking at the previous speakers and those who were introduced who hold public office, I was sitting here silently thinking to myself, I am very proud to be a member of my political party.

I am the beneficiary, as no one else here is, of all the work that these Members of Congress have done. I know things about them all that we don't have time even to go through. I've had conversations with Senator Baucus about the environment or how we ought to relate to Asia over the long run. I've talked to Senator Torricelli at all hours of the night, usually at my instigation, I might add, about all manner of issues. Senator Boxer and I are members of the same family in more ways than one, and I was profoundly grateful that the people of California reelected her by such a handsome margin. And Hillary and I both felt privileged to be able to come out here last year and to campaign for her, for Gray Davis, for all the Democrats who were elected. Congressman Bonior, Congressman Miller, Congressman Kennedy—you know, I used to be like Congressman Kennedy, too young to hold office, and I looked younger than I was—[laughter]—but he's a marvelous leader for our Democratic House Campaign Committee—Congresswoman Eshoo; Congresswoman Lofgren, who was, I must say to all of you, a lion on the House Judiciary Committee and a great leader there; Congresswoman Woolsey.

I want to say what Bob Torricelli said about Nancy Pelosi is right. I have been on both sides of issues with Nancy Pelosi; there is nothing more humbling than to have her look at you and tell you why you're wrong. [Laughter] You know? You just—she doesn't have to do like those really conservative Republicans who invoke God all the time. She just looks at you, and you know God is on her side. [Laughter] She never has to say it, you know. And if she really disagrees with you and she gets those— her eyes seem to get bigger and bigger and sadder and sadder, and you don't know whether she's going to cry or hit you right between the eyes. [Laughter] There are few people in public life I admire more for marrying their heart with their mind than Nancy Pelosi. You should be very proud of her, and I know you are. But she has really done a great job.

And Dick Gephardt and I, 11 years ago, had a dinner in the kitchen of the Governor's mansion composed of cold McDonald's french fries, not quite as nice as the one we're having tonight. [Laughter] He came to visit me in Arkansas, and Jane was there. Hillary was there. We stayed up half the night talking. It was really the first time I'd ever had a chance to get to know him. And I can honestly say that with every passing week, every passing month, every passing year of working with him, my admiration and affection for him has grown.

And he has done something a lot of people couldn't do. The Democrats were in the majority a long time, and I want to talk about how we came to be in the minority in a moment. But they were in the majority a long time, and psychologically it was very difficult for people who had been in the majority a long time to go into the minority. And a lot of people, frankly, just got—they just quit. I'll say this for the Republicans, they don't quit. Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms don't quit, right? [Laughter] And a lot of our guys, they had a hard time, so they just—they resigned. They left their careers.

And Dick Gephardt realized that because he believed, as did I, as did all those in this room tonight, that we didn't want America to look like what we thought would happen if the "Contract With America" prevailed. And we didn't agree with it. And we thought that in the end, the American people would support the decisions we've made which cost us the Congress in 1994. And so he rose to the occasion in a way that I think was awesome, even to people who had a lot of confidence in him and admired him. And I can tell you that after the next election, when he becomes the Speaker of the House, every person in this room will be very proud that you were here tonight and that you made a contribution to it. And I thank you.

Now, when the mayor came in tonight, I told him I would be for him or against him, whichever would help most in his election. [Laughter] And typically, he asked for one of each. [Laughter] But I want to thank the mayor for always making me feel at home in San Francisco. I thank Art Torres for his leadership of our party. I thank all of you.

I wish I could think of something to say that you can say to somebody else that would spread the word beyond the circle of friends we all have. But as I was going through this magnificent home tonight, and Bob Torricelli said something that I wish I could have said, because he said, "All of you are here because you believe that your country will be better off if you help other people who have things that you already have—to acquire things that you already have."

I believe that the things, in this time at least, that distinguish our party are things for which this home, this city, and this State are metaphors. We don't know who laid this stone in the floor. We don't know who did the marbling work on these beautiful columns or who painted the walls or put the glass in the ceiling. I don't know who painted that wonderful painting of Nijinsky in the other room. But I know one thing: Every one of them—we don't know any of them—they had different gifts, but they were very special. And we're all better off and enriched tonight because they had a chance to manifest their gifts. But we're also better off because they had the chance to manifest their gifts together. The house was built by the gifts of many people, some of whom are completely anonymous. The magnificent furniture, the inlaid work on the desk, the things I saw—I don't have any idea, some of those people have been dead more than 100 years. But every one of them had a gift, and when you put them all together, you have quite a home.

San Francisco and California, they're places where everybody can feel at home, where the diversity, the richness, the texture of what will be 21st century America is already evident, and where ideas are prized, no matter what their source, and where people don't fear change as long as the change occurs in an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation. That's basically what we think America ought to be like, all day, every day.

When Nancy quoted the prayer of Saint Francis and talked about all the places I brought peace to, I thought, there are three places that I have made no progress. I've made no progress, although I've tried, in trying to get Greece and Turkey to get along. I've made no progress in trying to resolve the tensions between India and Pakistan. And I'm not sure I've made any progress at all in bringing peace to Washington, DC. [Laughter]

But I will say this: This country knows one thing after 6 years, that all the things that used to be said by the other party about the Democrats turned out to be wrong. They said we couldn't be trusted to govern; we couldn't manage the economy; we couldn't deal with crime or welfare or foreign policy or defense. And the country is in a lot better shape.

The interesting thing is that it turns out that if you believe everybody has got a gift to give, that the gifts will only manifest themselves to the maximum degree if we give them together, and that Government ought to be about bringing out the best in people and trying new ideas and moving forward, it turns out it works. It works.

But it wasn't always evident. The reason these Democrats are in the minority tonight is because in 1994 it was not evident to the American people that the tough votes they cast for the budget bill in '93 and the crime bill in '94, the Brady bill, the assault weapons ban, and bringing the deficit down and, at the same time, saying we had to increase our investment in education—it wasn't apparent in 1994 that the results would be what they turned out to be.

But the American people, if you give them enough time, nearly always get it right. That's why we're still around here after more than 200 years. And in 1998, for the first time since 1822, the party of the President in the sixth year of a Presidency won seats in the House of Representatives, while being out-spent by $100 million, because of what they stood for and because of the record that together we had made and the progress the American people have made.

And I'm not running for anything anymore. I might run for the school board some day. [Laughter] I'm here because I believe that what we stand for has not only helped America to come to where we are now as compared to where the United States and California were in 1991 and 1992 but because I believe that now the real question is, what will we do with this moment of prosperity and confidence? And I'd like to be pretty candid with you tonight and tell you what I have absolute confidence we should do and what challenges are out there that I haven't quite figured out exactly how to solve yet. But I am sure that having people in the majority who believe everyone has a gift, we have to give them together, and we ought to be bringing out the best in people in public life, are the people that ought to be mapping the path of the 21st century.

We have to deal now with a surplus. If somebody had told you in 1992, "If you vote for Bill Clinton, 6 years later he'll be coming back, and they'll have this big fundraiser, and he'll be saying, the biggest challenge we've got now is how to deal with the surplus," you would have said, "I will not vote for that man. He's nuts." [Laughter] "He's kidding." But let me just ask you to think—yes, America is doing well; yes, California is doing well. But we have some big challenges. And if we expect to win in 2000, we have to show, number one, that in the next 2 years we're doing everything we can to fulfill the mandate the voters gave us in the '98 election and, secondly, that we are still looking to the future.

We've got to deal with the aging of America, the retirement of the baby boomers, the fact that we're all living longer. Our life expectancy up over 76 years now. If you live to be 65 in America, your life expectancy is over 80 years now, soon to be over 85. In the year 2030 we'll have twice as many people over 65 as we do today. We'll have only two people working for every one person on Social Security.

The Democratic Party, out of its compassion and its sense of obligation across the generations, created Social Security and Medicare, and they will both be stressed mightily by the rising cost of health care, the fact that we're living longer and using more health resources, and the fact that the demographics of the baby boom retirement will put great stresses on us. We now project a surplus for the next 25 years. There is a way to deal with the aging of America that will use most of the surplus to save Social Security and Medicare and pay down the debt.

We will also have to make reforms in Social Security and Medicare, some of which may be somewhat controversial. But if you believe that we have to be together, then that's what we've got to do. I was in Tucson today, speaking to a big community group, and person after person after person came up and told me that they were literally alive because of these programs.

I was introduced by an 82-year-old Chinese-American woman who is, near as I could tell, about 4′8′′. She made Barbara Boxer look like a basketball player. [Laughter] And she was magnificent. She was a community leader in Tucson and was born in Tucson—a native of Tucson, Arizona—who talked about being a breast cancer survivor and the mammography she got because of Medicare and because we had pushed that and changed the system.

So who do you trust to change this program, and are we going to do it, and how are we going to do it and be faithful? We have to do it. And we do it not for the people on these programs now—they're going to be fine—but so that the baby boomers, like me—and I'm the oldest of the baby boomers—do not have to go to bed every night worried that we are bankrupting our children and undermining their ability to raise our grandchildren.

And now is the time to think about it—now, years ahead of time, when we have the resources, when we have the ability, before the crisis arises, before it threatens to weaken the American economy just to find some sort of solution. That's the first thing we have to do.

The second thing we have to do, as others have said, is to recognize, frankly, as so many of you have done in many ways, that we will never be the country we ought to be in the 21st century until every child gets a world-class education. We will never be. And I think that means, among other things, continuing our work for better prepared teachers, smaller classes, hooking up all the classrooms to the Internet. We're up to 50 percent, by the way.

When the Vice President and I came here for our first NetDay a couple of years ago, only about 8 percent of the classrooms in America were connected to the Internet. We're up to 50 percent now, and we will make our 100 percent goal shortly after the turn of the century. And that's a good thing. But we need to build or modernize a lot of schools. We've got all these schools where the kids are going to schools in housetrailers, or they're going to schools in buildings so old they can't even be wired for the Internet. Many of our cities, the average age of the school building is 65 years or more. And a lot of those buildings are magnificent, but they take some money to modernize and to prepare.

I want to end social promotion, but I don't want to declare the children a failure when the system is failing them. Senator Boxer's great passion has been getting us more after-school programs. We now have in this budget enough money for a million children to be in afterschool programs in the United States if it passes. This is an important thing.

We have to recognize that there is much more we have to do to balance work and family. Today in Arizona, three different people came up to me and thanked me for the family and medical leave law, the first bill I signed as President. But millions of workers are not covered. They ought to be covered.

We ought to pass the child care initiative Senator Torricelli talked about. You'd be amazed how many people are out there struggling to work and having so much of their wages eaten up because they cannot afford quality child care.

We've seen the welfare rolls drop in half, but the truth is that there are some people who are off the rolls who aren't working, and others who would leave the rolls gladly if they could only afford the child care. And we have a child care initiative that we ought to pass.

Balancing work and family will be one of the signal issues of the 21st century. More and more, two-parent families will be working. More and more, single parents will have to work. We owe it to America, those of us in positions of responsibility, to lead a country where every person who wants to work or has to work and who has children can succeed as a parent and a worker. If we ever get in a position where we accept the proposition that anybody in this country ought to have to choose, then we have lost, because we are diminished by either choice. And yet, every day, people do choose. And every day, people who are working who have children are making choices sometimes they're not even aware of. And it erodes the fabric of our common society, and we have to do a better job.

We have to have a commitment in the 21st century that we manifest now to bring this economic recovery to people in places that haven't seen it. There are cities in this country now that still have huge census tracts with doubledigit unemployment, rural areas with doubledigit unemployment, Native American reservations where, even though we now have the lowest unemployment rate in the entire industrial world, there has been no new investment, and there have been no new jobs.

I have given the Congress an economic package which will provide incentives to create new investments and new markets here at home. We ought to do that. Every one of you ought to want every American at least to have a chance to participate in this recovery. Now, when our economy is the strongest in at least a generation, if we can't bring economic opportunity to people who haven't had it now, we will never get around to it. If we can't prove that free enterprise can work in places it hasn't reached now, we will never be able to prove it. And I hope you will support that.

We talked a little about the remarkable sense of community you have here. One of the things that I want to do—and I was met by someone from the chamber of commerce at the airport who is an architect, who had a copy of a publication the Vice President put out on our new livability initiative—$1 billion to help communities deal with traffic problems, the need for green space, the need for managed development, $1 billion to set aside lands in perpetuity.

We have gotten ourselves tied in knots too often in our country trying to make the choice between our economic growth and the preservation of our environment and the quality of life. We have decided to try something different— to put some money out there to acquire some land that's available on the market and to help communities figure out how to grow and preserve green space, how to grow and deal with traffic congestion, how to deal with these things. I think this is very important.

So, these are some of the things that are on the agenda for us in this year, along with the very important peacemaking work I hope we will be continuing to do in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland, in Kosovo, and in the places I mentioned where we've had no progress, including Washington, DC. [Laughter] There are two challenges I want to ask you to think about, because there are people in California that I think are uniquely qualified to do it.

In order to keep the American economy growing over the long run, we have got to restore growth to the global economy. For the 6 years I've been President, in the first 5 years, 30 percent of our growth came from sales of American products overseas. Now, last year, we had very good growth, but it didn't come from overseas. We were able to generate enough activity within our borders and basically hold our own in our sales. But because of the economic downturn in Asia, the terrible financial crisis there, and the impact it had in Latin America and the slowdown there, we had some real difficulties. Our farmers, our steel industry, our aircraft people had some real problems.

I believe that it is imperative that the United States take the lead—and we have been working hard on this for a year—in trying to figure out how to create a financial and trade architecture for the 21st century that will benefit ordinary people everywhere, that will put a human face on the global economy, that will enable people who follow responsible policies and honest and open investment practices to actually participate, and that will avoid the kind of horrible, wild swings we've seen in the last 2 years that turned people who worked for a generation to make themselves middle-class people in Asia into abject poverty. There were Asian cities where doctors and nurses had to start sleeping in the hospitals because they lost their homes when this collapse occurred.

Now, I can't run all their policies. No President could. And some of their problems were of their own making. But I want you to know that I have gotten in touch with the people that I believe are the best minds in the world on this subject. We are working very hard. I am going to work very hard for the next year to try to get the countries of the world to agree on a framework within which steady, solid growth can occur in a way that will benefit Americans but also fulfill our responsibility to help others lift themselves out of difficulties. And if you have any ideas on that, don't be ashamed to present them to me, because I don't think there is a person in the world that has got the answer to this issue today.

The second thing I'd like to ask you to think about is an environmental issue, and that's the issue of climate change. There's no question in my mind that the world is changing and that the climate is warming. I was out on the Monterey Peninsula not very long ago, with Sam Farr, and I think George Miller was there. We had this oceans conference. And Anna was probably there. We went out on the—and Barbara was there, I think. We went out on Monterey Peninsula, and these graduate students took me out into the bay. And we were walking out into the clear water, and this graduate student said, "Mr. President, reach down there and pick up a handful of the stones and the marine life." And I did. And the graduate student pointed to this little elemental form of marine life and said, "You see this? Twenty years ago, you could not find this any further north than 50 miles south of here. That is how much the water has warmed up in 20 years"—this small species, moving 50 miles north.

I've been working real hard—you probably don't know much about this—but to avoid an outright salmon war between Washington, Oregon, Canada, and Alaska, because all the fish keep moving further north. So now, Canada, Washington, Oregon don't have enough, and Alaska's got more than they know what to do with, because of the changing nature of the climate.

Yet, oil prices are very low, and it looks like they're going to stay low for 2 or 3 years, which makes things like electric cars and substitute technologies relatively less economically attractive. And we have a majority in the House of Representatives—and Dick Gephardt will tell you—that caused this administration to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars last year appearing before subcommittees to explain why our efforts on climate change, which include no regulation and no taxes but tax incentives and research and development for new technologies—were not some great conspiracy to bankrupt the American economy.

Now, California is a place that thinks about the future and lives with the future and has to live with the constant tension of dealing with these things. And you've adopted all of these tough clean air standards. So I say to you: I am determined before I leave office to build a national consensus to tackle this problem in a consistent, disciplined way for the next 10 years, and I believe the technology is there to actually promote more economic growth while doing the right thing with greenhouse gas emissions and turning this situation around.

But if you can give me some ideas about that, as well as contribute your money to the Democratic majority, I would be grateful. These are two great challenges that will shape the way our children will live for the next 50 years, and I want your help.

Now, the last thing I'd like to say is, I thank you for your citizenship and your concern, especially now. I think that it's fair to say in light of the events of the last 6 years and the election of '94 and the success that has come to our country that we're all grateful for and none of us, including me, can take full responsibility for, the American people have the achievement. But I think we really know now that it matters if we give everyone a chance to develop his or her gift. It matters if we believe we're stronger if we become one community and one America.

It matters if we believe the purpose of politics is to bring out the best in people. It matters. That's what this next election is about. That's what your contribution is about. Even if we fix Social Security and Medicare and do all I want to do in education and bring this economic initiative to distressed areas of the country and make peace everywhere I'd like to make it, problems will never go away. And the world is changing very fast, and no one can foresee all the developments.

So the best thing to do is pick the right people with the right values, the right philosophy, and the right approach. The last 6 years entitled the Democratic Party to the benefit of the doubt. And I believe that the last 6 years and the debates of the last 6 years put us in a position to make a very compelling case that we are now not only the party of Jefferson and Jackson, Roosevelt and Kennedy, but the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt as well. And we need you. We need your support.

So I want you to think about this. This is a long way from November of 2000. But it will pass in the flash of an eye. Hillary said the other day—we were talking, fixing up a room at the White House—it's part of her project to try to leave the house in a lot better shape than we found it—and she said—no, it was in good shape when we found it. Don't laugh like that. I didn't mean it like that. [Laughter]

But we wanted to do some things for the house, and we were up putzing around, putting stuff around, you know, and she said, "Can you believe we've been here 6 years?" It doesn't take long to serve a term or live a life. And ultimately, we will be judged by what we leave for our successors. I think we want to be judged well. I know you can trust the people who are here with me tonight to carry on the legacy you believe in and to build the kind of America our children deserve. You have helped them to do it, and I am very grateful.

Thank you, and God bless you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 9:25 p.m. at a private residence. In his remarks, he referred to Gov. Gray Davis of California; Jane Gephardt, wife of Representative Richard A. Gephardt; Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr., of San Francisco; Art Torres, chair, California State Democratic Party; senior citizen Esther Don Tang of Tucson, AZ; and Sylvia P. Kwan, member, board of directors, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at a Democratic Senatorial and Congressional Campaign Committees Dinner in San Francisco, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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