Richard Nixon photo

Remarks on the CBS Radio Network: "The Elderly: For the Enduring Generation"

October 22, 1968

Tonight I want to talk especially to those 20 million Americans who are over 65 years of age — the generation of my parents, my teachers, and others who guided me through the formative years of my life.

The first thing I am going to do is to nail, once and for all, one of those false charges that the political opposition has made in an effort to confuse the older generation. I refer to the charge that I am against the provisions of Social Security and Medicare.

Let me make this very clear: I am not only for the benefits of Social Security and Medicare — I want to improve and extend them so that they will cover more people and be more effective for each person who needs them.

Now, why am I so concerned about communicating my support for these programs so clearly? Obviously, one reason is that I want my record to be clearly and honestly presented and understood in this campaign. But there is another very important reason that reaches well beyond Election Day.

I believe and know that a man cannot be a successful President today unless he has the full support and confidence of older Americans. This country cannot be made whole and healthy again unless we take full advantage of your devotion and your talents.

I say this not only because you are numerically significant — though it is true that a full one-tenth of our population is over 65 years of age. But more important than numbers are the qualities which you, as older citizens, can bring to your country's service.

Think for a moment of what your generation has done! Many of you were born in another century. You have brought yourselves, your families, and your country through the most turbulent and challenging period in the history of man. You have fought two world wars and survived the great depression. You have seen mankind enter the Atomic Age.

You have come through all of this with flags flying. Again and again the familiar ways of life have been uprooted. But you have not been alienated or radicalized. You have not "dropped out." You have endured and adjusted. And you have prevailed.

The qualities which you forged under these pressures and challenges are qualities which America needs more than ever right now: qualities such as perspective and judgment, wisdom and patience, a sense of history and a sense of direction. You can do a great deal to help America renew its faith in the future, for you have seen what this country has accomplished in the past. And you can help restore respect for those enduring values which have brought us through past trials.

For all of these reasons, I say with special emphasis to all older Americans tonight: you must not believe that your service to your country has been completed. For there can never be any retirement from the responsibilities of citizenship.

Now let's look at another side of this matter. We cannot reasonably ask any group of Americans to play a more meaningful role in our national life if we deny them the dignity, the security, and the respect they deserve. For too many older Americans, that too often has been the case. Too many politicians have misled the elderly with lavish promises or patronized them with caretaker attitudes. Too few have addressed themselves to the real problems of the aging.

I want to take up a few of those problems right now. And I want to begin by discussing the rising cost of living — for no group in our society is hurt more by rising costs than those over 65.

For years you have been putting money into savings accounts and pension plans and Social Security. Now that you want to draw it out you find that it is worth only a part of its original value. The rest of its worth has been stolen away — and the thief is rising prices. If you put away $100 25 years ago, for example, today it is worth only $50.

Since President Eisenhower left office, prices have gone up 17 percent; they have gone up 10 percent in just the last three years. And the problem is getting worse instead of better.

No wonder so many older Americans are in a financial pinch.

The only way to stop these rising costs is to end the irresponsible and inflationary spending policies of the present Administration. There is no way to get around that basic point. That is why I am so disturbed by the reckless and rather desperate spending promises of my opponent — particularly his statement that he would increase Social Security across the board by 50 percent. He knows very well that this promise cannot be carried out in the near future. It would cost at least $15 billion a year more than present expenditures and would add significantly to inflationary pressures and soaring prices. Thus it would hurt most those older citizens it is supposed to help.

All of this Mr. Humphrey does not tell us. He dangles what appears to be a generous promise before the aging. But it is a deceptive promise; and that makes it particularly dangerous and cruel.

On the other hand, speaking realistically, how can we deal effectively with the financial problems of older Americans? First, of course, we can bring prices into line by bringing responsible fiscal management to Washington.

In addition I have proposed and I urge an automatic cost of living increase in Social Security and Railroad Retirement benefits; so that when prices go up benefits go up automatically. Some of us have been pushing this for quite a while but the present Administration has actually opposed it and kept it from becoming law.

I have urged other workable improvements in Social Security. For example: an increase in widow's benefits; new permission for those who work past age 65 to build their benefits to higher levels; gradual extension of Social Security to cover all older citizens; and a relaxation of the existing limits on how much Social Security recipients can earn.

In these and other ways we can help to improve the financial picture among older Americans. It is a picture which badly needs improving. It is simply unacceptable in America that a large segment of older Americans have incomes below the poverty line. It is unacceptable that the aged should be the one group in the country where poverty is increasing today.

All of this is evidence that a new and appalling kind of "generation gap" may be growing in America, a gap which separates the affluent young from the dependent old.

This is a danger we simply cannot abide — yet little has been done to turn back that threat during the tenure of the present Administration. I can promise you that the Nixon Administration will change this picture, that we will give priority attention to the problems of poverty among the aging, and that we will do everything we can to generate solutions which are thoughtful, workable, and effective.

Another critical aspect of this whole question is medical care. It is an unhappy fact that Americans over 65 get less adequate medical care than younger Americans, even though they are sick more often. And illness is still a major economic burden for older people, as many of you know only too well. "Wasn't Medicare supposed to take care of all this?" many are asking. "What's gone wrong?" they inquire.

The answer is that Medicare simply has not worked as effectively as it ought to be working. Often it does not get to the people who need it most; delays in payment often seem endless; the program is badly tangled in red tape. That is why I propose to make Medicare work better by simplifying the program and by improving its efficiency. In addition I have proposed a 100 per cent income tax deduction for drug and medical expenses which older people still have to pay for out of their own pockets.

It is not enough simply to help older Americans pay for medical care if they can't get adequate treatment.

Did you know that there were ten times as many hospital visits in the United States last year as there were just ten years ago? Needless to say, the supply of doctors and nurses and orderlies, rooms and buildings and equipment just hasn't kept up with that soaring demand. And the sad result too often is a decline in the quality of medical care.

Today we are short some 50,000 doctors, 85,000 nurses, and 200,000 other hospital and nursing home technical employees. The number of hospitals and nursing homes is sadly inadequate, and so is the way many of them are equipped.

As President, I would take immediate steps to meet these shortages, to improve the quality and quantity of medical education, to encourage the development and application of new medical and paramedical techniques. When the health of our people is in question, second best isn't good enough.

Financial and medical problems are not the only difficulties which older people face. I believe that we have paid too little attention to other non-material problems of the elderly — problems such as loneliness, idleness, and a feeling of estrangement.

When leisure time becomes a curse for the aging instead of a blessing, and when the phrase "retirement will kill him" is heard every day, then I say it is time for a basic change in attitude and in approach.

I believe that a special White House Conference on the Problems of Older Americans can help us develop the specifics of such an approach. I support such a conference as a way of bringing together the most creative new thinking from specialists in gerontology, geriatrics, and all the related fields of study. It can be a tremendously informative and useful experience — as was the last such conference held under the leadership of President Eisenhower. In addition I will appoint a special White House assistant on the aging to keep me informed of new ideas and in touch with the many councils and organizations devoted to the cause of the elderly.

This approach will help find new ways of encouraging older citizens to remain active in income-producing occupations or in the voluntary activities of your communities. I believe that job placement services, education and training programs, and various government service corps can do a much better job than they have been doing of involving older people. And those are just a few of the possibilities.

An increased sense of utility and participation can make a vital difference in the lives of older Americans. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said at the age of 90: "The work is never done while the power to work remains. For to live is to function — that is all there is to living."

And the activity of older Americans can be of utmost importance to the country. President Eisenhower put it this way: "Our nation must learn to take advantage of the full potential of our older citizens, their skills, their wisdom, and their experience. We need these traits fully as much as we need the energy and boldness of youth."

Perhaps it is because I have looked up to the older generation for so long that I simply cannot accept the idea that the government must now become a custodian or a caretaker for them — or that older citizens should be treated as mere wards of the state. I prefer to see the government — through strengthened Social Security and strengthened Medicare and through other strong programs — entering into a creative partnership with the aging, helping and encouraging them so that they can make the maximum social contribution of which they are capable.

If you, as older Americans, will do that, then all of your countrymen will be the beneficiaries. And you, in turn, will retain the independence, the dignity, and the sense of usefulness that your generation deserves.

For my part I will make this pledge. I will never promise what I cannot deliver. I will level with you, and I will be direct with you. And I will do everything in my power to achieve the goals we have discussed.

Our nation faces many troubles today. But we have known troubles Before, and we have survived them all. Often we have emerged stronger for having fought the battle. As I speak to you tonight, I am confident that with your participation and your hard work — in the party of your choice, in the problems of your community, in the programs of your church — the America of which you are so proud will find her way again.

I know that is your prayer. I hope you know that it is mine.

APP NOTE: From section five of the volume "Nixon Speaks Out" titled, "Unmet Needs and America's Opportunities".

Richard Nixon, Remarks on the CBS Radio Network: "The Elderly: For the Enduring Generation" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project