Remarks at a Reception for Harold E. Ford, Jr., in Memphis
The President. Thank you. First of all, I'd like to—let me say to all of you who are here— Bishop, the pastors, Bill Farris, John, the political leaders who are here—I could sit over there with Hillary all night long and watch this. I mean, I've known Harold Ford a long time, and I saw him get up, and he did his little thing. And then his son got up, and he sort of turned it up a notch. [Laughter] And then Al Gore got up and talked about how dynasties were a good thing in Tennessee. [Laughter] And I sort of felt like I was watching the three greatest ballet dancers of all time do the Tennessee waltz.
The Vice President. Or the macarena.
The President. Or the macarena, he said. If you'd indulge me just one thing, I'd like to introduce one other person. I introduced him at our rally, but my candidate for Congress in the Mississippi Delta of eastern Arkansas is here, my longtime friend and former official at the Department of Agriculture in our administration, Marion Berry, and his wife, Carolyn. Will you please make them welcome here. [Applause] Thank you. And over there next to them is the man I hope will be your next Senator from Tennessee, Houston Gordon. Thank you, Houston.
Now, folks, let me say a special word of thanks, too, as President, to Harold Ford, Sr., who as—he does not look old enough to me to be retiring from Congress. But his son has so much talent, it may just be like baseball, you know, it's just time to go and do something else. [Laughter] But I can tell you that I had a chance to begin working with Harold Ford nearly 10 years ago when I was a Governor, and we were trying to find a humane way to make it possible for more people to move from work to welfare. And I was impressed then by his keen intellect and his enormous energy. I've also learned something in years since about his determination and never-say-die attitude—something that I have had to have a little bit of myself from time to time. [Laughter]
I see the pride in his eyes about his son, and I have been able to observe Harold Ford, Jr., speak and campaign. And I empathize with what Al Gore said about his own career: Our country is better off that both Gores served, and our country will be better off that both Fords served.
And you know, I just turned 50, and Al never lets me forget about it. And I got my AARP card, you know; I'm a certified old guy now. [Laughter] And I was looking at Harold, Jr., up here, thinking I was about his age when I first ran for Congress. I got beat, but I got over it. [Laughter] He's not going to get beat. You're going to send him to Congress.
Let me just make one final, highly personal remark. There is underlying all great elections a big idea. Sometimes it's clear, and sometimes it's not. And in this election we said that the big idea was whether we're going to build a bridge to the future or a bridge to the past. But that may not be quite as explicit as I'd like to be, thinking about this young man starting his career in Congress, listening to the conviction, passion, and eloquence of his words tonight.
When I was a boy growing up in Arkansas, the year I was born our per capita income was 56 percent of the national average. Only Mississippi was poorer; it was like 48 percent of the national average. We spent the first 30 years of my life, most of us in this delta region, just struggling to try to pull ourselves up, so we could all make sure our kids got educated and everybody had a decent job and we could try to join the mainstream of America, and trying to overcome the awful burden of our racist past. But no one ever thought there was a dichotomy between working hard and doing your best to raise your children and build strong families and trying to help your neighbors, trying to help your neighbors directly, and trying to help your neighbors indirectly by having Government not give us anything but to give us the chance to make more of our own lives.
Since the election in 1994, the American people have finally had a chance to see explicitly the debate that's really been going on in our country now for 15 or 20 years, which is: Is Government the enemy, the problem; would we be all better off being on our own out there in this new global economy which is moving fast and is far less bureaucratic? Or is Government just another part of our village—if I could use Hillary's term—is it just another part, a reflection of ourselves, and are there some things that should be done by our Government simply because it's either not convenient, not efficient, or not even possible for us to do those things in any other way?
I have always believed that the role of Government was not to undermine self-reliance but to reinforce it; not to weaken families but to help them grow stronger; not to do what could be done at the grassroots community level or at the State level but to empower States and communities to do what they ought to do. And now the American people have had 4 years of our administration, and they saw about a year and a half of the alternative, and they're in a position to make up their minds.
But when candidate Harold Ford was up there speaking tonight, I said, thank goodness that there's a young person and a young generation who believes that, yes, he got where he did partly because he worked hard, partly because God gave him a good mind, partly because God made him an attractive person, partly because he grew up in a family where he could learn about politics. But he doesn't want this job just to sit and warm the seat or for the privilege of having power. He thinks he's there to help other people live out their dreams, too.
So when I was a little boy living with my granddaddy, I don't believe he ever did work a 5-day week in his life, I think he always worked a 6-day week, full time. I don't believe he ever worked an 8-hour day. I don't believe— but he never thought that that meant he wasn't supposed to be for all of us working together to try to give every child a good education or to try to grow the economy to where it benefited everybody.
And I've been mystified these last several years at this debate. And I think one of the reasons that the other fellows had so much success is they never had a chance to show people what they meant. And then they gave us that budget that did what it did to Medicare and Medicaid and education and the environment. And then we showed you could balance the budget without doing all that, that we could do the responsible, tough, disciplined thing and still go forward and go forward together.
So that's really the great question. That's why I talked about building a bridge to the future, a strong bridge and one that's wide enough for us all to walk across. This is the greatest country in history. This is the greatest country in history. We started out not even living up to the Constitution. We nearly tore the country apart to get rid of slavery. We spent another 100 years trying to get rid of the vestiges of it. We worked hard to give women more opportunities. Now we're dealing with such diversity that your wonderful Olympic Gold Medal winner who is over here was part of an Olympics—I want you all to think about this—was part of an Olympics that had 197 different nations represented. In the biggest county in America, Los Angeles County, there are representatives from 150 of those places—in your country, in one county.
So I say to you, if you believe that we can go forward and that our best days are still ahead, it's really worth investing in the life and career and growth and the spirit of a young man like Harold Ford, Jr., because he is basically carrying out what I think has always been America's best sense of itself. And I think now we understand that Government is neither the problem nor the solution, it's just a reflection of who we are at any given moment in time. And we've got to make it work to do what it can do so that we can make the most of our own lives.
Thank you. God bless you.
NOTE: The President spoke at 9:15 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza. In his remarks, he referred to Bill Farris, Shelby County Democratic Party chair, and his son, John; Harold E. Ford, Jr., candidate for Tennessee's Ninth Congressional District; and Marion Berry, candidate for Arkansas' First Congressional District. A tape was not available for verification of the content of these remarks.
William J. Clinton, Remarks at a Reception for Harold E. Ford, Jr., in Memphis Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/223014