Remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Dinner
Thank you very much, Congressman Jefferson, for chairing this dinner and for being my longtime friend. He has such a nice name: William Jefferson. [Laughter] One day we were on a platform together in Louisiana, and we both kind of got to ventilating, and he said after I spoke, "It's a good thing you've got a last name or no one could tell us apart." [Laughter]
Congressman Payne, the CBC chair; Cardiss Collins, the foundation chair; to all the distinguished awardees, General Powell, Congressman Lewis, Muhammad Ali, Congressman Ford, Renee Gaters, all very deserving; Ms. Gaters for your charity and your generosity over so many years; my longtime friend John Lewis for being a living reminder of what it means to live by what you say you believe; my friend Congressman Ford, who was working on welfare reform before the other crowd knew what it was. I thank you, sir.
Of course, one of your recipients has been on the front page of every magazine in this country, deluged with TV and radio requests, written a book, and has a name and face instantly recognized all around the world. I'm honored to share the spotlight tonight with Muhammad Ali and with General Colin Powell. [Applause] Thank you.
There are many things to be said about Colin Powell's lifetime of service to our country and service to three Presidents on matters on national security, but I know he is being honored tonight in large measure because just a year ago this week, he played an important part in our successful effort to end Haiti's long night of terror. Because of America's leadership, backing sanctions and diplomacy with force, because of the courage of President Aristide and the Haitian people and the support they received from so many of you in this room, today Haiti has its best chance in generations to build a strong democracy and to tackle the poverty that has been a scourge to those good people for too long.
In this great drama, General Powell answered my call to service. And along with President Carter and Senator Sam Nunn, he made sure the Haitian dictators understood the message of the United States that they had just one last chance to leave peacefully or suffer the consequences of being removed by military force. In no small measure because Colin Powell delivered that message so graphically, democracy was restored miraculously without the loss of a single American life or a single Haitian life.
Tonight is special for all of us because it's the 25th anniversary of the Congressional Black Caucus, now 40-strong. I think that we should pay special tribute to the founding members here tonight, and especially to the five who are still serving: Louis Stokes, Ron Dellums, Bill Clay, John Conyers, and Charlie Rangel. And let me say that after watching that film and after watching Charlie Rangel stand up for the rights of poor children and elderly Americans just the other day, I feel confident that they've still got a lot of juice, a lot of energy, a lot of good ideas, and a lot to give this country.
I don't know where our country would be today without the Congressional Black Caucus. I want to thank you, all of you, for standing up for the values we all hold dear, for freedom and for responsibility, for work and for family, for the idea that we are, as my friend the Governor of Florida said the other day, a community, not a crowd. A crowd is a collection of people occupying the same space, elbowing one another until the strongest and most powerful win without regard to what happens to the others. A community is a group of people who occupy the same space and believe they're going up or down together and they have responsibilities to one another. A community is a group of people led by people who do what's right for the long run, even if it defies the conventional wisdom and is unpopular in the short run. The Congressional Black Caucus has helped to keep America a community. Thank you, and God bless you all.
I have special reasons to be grateful to the Black Caucus. When I became President, we had a stagnant and suffering economy. The Congressional Black Caucus supported an economic policy that in 2 1/2 years has produced 7 1/2 million new jobs, 2 1/2 million new homeowners, 2 million new small businesses, the largest number of new self-made millionaires in any time period in the history of the country, and an African-American unemployment rate back down in single digits for the first time since the Vietnam war. Thank you for doing that.
Three years ago, most Americans despaired that anything could ever be done about crime. Acting on old values and embracing new ideas, the Congressional Black Caucus played an active role in shaping a crime bill that had people and punishment and prevention. It put more police officers on our streets, punished people who should be, but gave our people something to say yes to, some opportunities to live positive, good, constructive lives, and to know they were important to someone else. And because of that, in every State in this country and in almost every major urban area, the crime rate is down, the murder rate is down, and people believe we can make a difference. And I thank you for that.
Because you supported the policies of this administration to advance peace and freedom and democracy, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland to Russia and the other places of the former Soviet Union, there are no missiles pointed at the people of the United States tonight for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age. Peace is making progress in the Middle East and in Northern Ireland; democracy was restored to Haiti; we have supported South Africa, all because of people like you who made it possible. You have been a steadfast partner in standing up for America's best interests and America's best values.
I want to say a special word of thanks to you for the crucial role you have played in expanding freedom and opportunity in Africa. Today, two-thirds of the nations of Africa are moving toward democracy and market opportunities, with the help of American leadership and American assistance. Whether we supported historic elections in South Africa and Mozambique, provided dramatic humanitarian relief in Rwanda, assisted in the opening of stock markets in Botswana and Namibia, the United States has been committed to making a difference in Africa. Much remains to be done, fostering peace in Liberia and Angola, standing up for democracy in Nigeria, but with your help, America can remain a force for progress.
And in this debate on the budget, I implore you to remind the other Members of the Congress that we must remain a force for democracy and progress, not only in Africa but throughout the world. We cannot walk away from people who look to us for support and encouragement.
But this is still a difficult and unsettling time. In each area I mentioned, you could have said, "I heard what you said, Mr. President, but— " For example, if I had told you 30 months ago that this country could produce 7 1/2 million jobs, 2 1/2 million homeowners, 2 million entrepreneurs, a 4,700 stock market, the largest number of self-made millionaires in history, but the average wage of the person in the middle would go down, not up, it would have been hard to believe, but it happened.
We can say all we want that the crime rate is down, the murder rate is down, the number of people on welfare and food stamps are down, the teen pregnancy rate is down, the drug use rate among people between 18 and 34 is down. But the rate of violent crime, death, and casual drug use among our teenagers is still going up.
We can say all we want about all the peace and prosperity that is coming to the world and how democracy is sweeping the world, but in every country, forces of extremism have a stronger voice than they have had in years. And organized groups, committed to destruction, based on racial or ethnic or religious or political extremism, have enormous capacity to do that destruction. You see it in a school bus blowing up in the Middle East. You see it when a fanatic breaks open a little vial of sarin gas in a subway in Japan. You see it in a bomb blowing up the Federal building in Oklahoma City. And you see it in more subtle ways, yes, even in America.
Like when five children in an upper class suburb in this country write the hated word "nigger" in code word in their school album.
What is going on here? How do we account for all the good things and all the bad things that are happening at the same time? I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, and since last November, I've had a little more time to think about it. I believe with all my heart when the history of this era is written and people look back on it, they will say that this was the most profound period of change in the way the American people live and work and relate to the rest of the world in a hundred years.
One hundred years ago, most of our forebears lived out in the country or in little towns. Most of us farmed the land or made a living because other people were farming the land. Then we began to move to cities, and we became an industrial country. A hundred years ago, we were keeping to ourselves, but within 20 years we had to get into World War I so that the forces of freedom could win. And we began to assert national leadership.
Now, we're moving away from this industrial age to an age characterized by information and technology, where people will soon be able to do most of the work they do wherever they want to live—in a city or in an isolated place in the mountains somewhere. We are moving from a cold war in which nation-states look at each other across a great divide but still are able to provide most of people's needs, to a global economy where there's a lot of integration economically but a lot of pressures of disintegration on ordinary working people everywhere.
And what we have to do is to try to understand this time in which we live, embrace the new ideas that we need to embrace to preserve our vision of the future, which has to be rooted in the values for which you have always stood.
Don't you want a 21st century in which America is the leading opportunity society: growing entrepreneurs, growing the middle class, shrinking the under class; where everybody has a chance to live up to their God-given ability; where families and communities have a chance to solve their own problems; where the streets are safe and the schools are good and we have a clean environment and a strong health care system; and where we're still a force for peace and freedom in the world? I think that's what most of us want.
To get it, we need new ideas. We need a devotion to our old-fashioned values. We need to stop looking for ways to be divided and instead seeking common ground and higher ground. And we've got to be prepared to stand up for the future, even if it's not popular in the present. That's what this budget debate is all about. It's really not about money and programs; it's about what kind of people we're going to be. What are we going to look like in the 21st century? What are we going to look like? What are our obligations to each other? If we're a community and not a crowd, what kind of obligations do we have to our parents and to our children, to those who aren't as well off as we are, to those who through no fault of their own are not doing so well, to people all around the world who look to us for leadership? What are our obligations?
I agree with the leadership of the Republican majority in Congress that we ought to balance the budget. We never had a permanent structural deficit until about 12 years before I showed up. And to be fair to the caucus—again, this defies conventional wisdom—but the plain truth is that in the previous 12 years, in every year but one, the Congress appropriated less money than the executive branch asked for. But we wound up quadrupling the debt.
Next year, if we don't do something about it, interest payments on the debt will be bigger than the defense budget. But we have begun, you and I, to do something about it because this year the budget would be in balance but for the interest we're paying on those 12 years. The deficit was $290 billion when we started; it's down to $160 billion now. And that's not bad, a 40 percent cut in 3 years, for the first time since Harry Truman was President.
But why are we going to do this? Why should we balance the budget anyway? Because we believe it will take debt off our kids. Because we believe it will lower interest rates and free up money for the entrepreneurs who are here to borrow more money and put more people to work and make America stronger. Because we think it will fulfill our vision of the future. Therefore, when we do it, we have to do it in a way that supports that vision, otherwise there's no point in doing it in the first place. It is where we want to go that matters.
So I say to you, we ought to do this. But we ought to do it in a way that is consistent with our values, maintaining our investments in the things that make us strong, keeping our commitments as a community. That's what we have to do.
The proposal I put forward balances the budget but increases our investment in education. We will never stop the decline in learning until we give lifetime educational opportunities to every person in this country no matter what their race, no matter what their income, no matter what their background. We will never do it.
We ought to secure the Medicare Trust Fund, but we can do that without breaking our contract with the elderly of this country. Threequarters of them live on less than $24,000 a year. It's pretty hard to charge them several hundred dollars more a year for what they thought was already going to be paid for.
Now, let me just say that a lot of the things that I believed when I showed up here, I thought were matters of bipartisan consensus, are almost nonpartisan. When a country goes through a great period of change, it is important that people try to join hands on those things that are critical to its security and its character. That's what we did in the cold war. I think education is an important part of our security. I think growing the middle class and shrinking the under class is an important part of our security. I think reminding us, ourselves, that in the global economy of the 21st century our racial diversity is our great meal ticket to the future if we can all figure out how to get along and how to lift each other up. That's a part of our security. And we ought to treat it that way.
So I say, balance the budget, but don't deprive hundreds of thousands of young kids of a chance to get off to a good start in school. Don't deprive schools that happen to be poor of the chance to have smaller classes or computers in the classroom or high standards and high expectations or just the chance to be safe and drug-free. Don't raise the cost of going to college at a time when it's more important to go to college than ever before just because the people that used to make a lot of money out of the student loan program aren't making it anymore. Don't do that.
I want to emphasize this: My goal is to see every young person in this country get out of high school and get at least, at least, 2 years of further education. That's my goal. That ought to be your goal. That's what the economy tells us has to be everybody's goal.
And yet today, because of the rising cost of college, enrollment is already dropping for poor people and, therefore, disproportionately for minorities. And if you don't believe it's a problem, just look at California. They've been through such wrenching problems that the cost of education has gone up almost 20 percent and enrollment has dropped 10 percent. And when a State's in trouble, you need more people going, not fewer. This is a big deal, and we don't have to do it to balance the budget.
I believe, as all of you know, in reforming the welfare system but not as a way of dividing the American people but as a way of liberating people who are trapped in the system. Most people in this country work. Most parents work. So it's not unreasonable to say most people who have children who happen to be on welfare should move toward work.
But what we want in America is for every parent to be able to succeed at home and, if they must work, at work as well. We don't need to tear people down; we need to lift people up. Most people who are poor and on welfare would give anything in the world to be somewhere else doing something else. We ought to help them do it. And we ought to help them succeed as parents and workers.
We say—everybody says—if you took a poll in the Congress on Monday morning, "Everybody that does not believe in work, please stand up." Nobody would stand. "Everybody that believes we ought to encourage welfare over work, please stand up." Nobody would stand. But their budget proposal proposes to cut taxes for nearly everybody in America, including upper income people like me that don't ask for it and don't want it and sure don't need it. General Powell is about to move into that category—[laughter]—with his book.
They propose that, but you know what? They want to raise taxes on some Americans. The 14 million working families that we lowered taxes on in 1993, who are working full-time, have children in the homes, barely have enough to get by, the Congressional Black Caucus voted to lower their taxes. Now this congressional proposal is to raise their taxes by $40 billion. This is wrong. Ronald Reagan said that the earnedincome credit for working families was the best antipoverty program in history because it rewarded work. We increased it so dramatically that it was the biggest effort to lift the incomes of low-income working people and to equalize the middle class in America in 20 years. And now, while everybody else's taxes are being cut, those people's taxes are going to be raised by people who say they want to get people off welfare and into work. That is wrong. It violates our values. It's not about money; it's about families and rewarding work and standing up for what's right.
Medicare, Medicaid—for 3 years we said that health care costs were growing too fast, they had to be slowed down. The Congressional Black Caucus, with no help from members of the other party, added 3 years to the life of the Medicare Trust Fund when nobody was looking and some were denying it was there. Now, the Medicare trustees say we need to add more life to it, and it costs $90 billion to $100 billion to do it. I offered a balanced budget plan to do it, to save the Trust Fund, and add a decade of life.
Under the guise of saving the trust fund and balancing the budget, they propose to take 3 times that much out of Medicare and so much out of Medicaid that it will endanger the life of urban hospitals and rural hospitals, elderly people in nursing homes and getting care in their home, and the health care of all the poor children in the country who through no fault of their own are poor.
And so I say to you, let's save the Medicare Trust Fund. Let's slow the rate of growth in inflation in Medicare and Medicaid. But let's don't pretend that we can just jerk $450 billion out of health care system of America without hurting anybody and that we can do it without absolutely ignoring our obligations to our parents and our grandparents and to the children of this country. It is wrong. We should not do it. We can balance the budget without doing it. And we should listen to those who tell us that.
Let me just say one last thing about crime. Earlier this week I had the privilege of going to Jacksonville, Florida. Jacksonville, as a united city and county government—got some people clapping back there. It's a county that normally votes Republican and increasingly so. But they elected an African-American Democrat sheriff. Why? Because he promised to make his office the streets. Because he promised to put law enforcement officers on the streets in the neighborhood. Because he promised to make the safety of all the people in the county his first priority. And within 6 months the crime rate had gone down 9 percent, in only 6 months. And he was there with me expressing his thanks to you through me for the crime bill and the 100,000 police officers it put on the street.
The Attorney General was there with me. We had all the children from the community there. We were in a poor neighborhood. We walked the streets talking to these people who said nobody ever paid any attention to their safety before, and they were so glad to see that they could have law enforcement officers on the street.
So this sheriff stood up and said, "This is working. The crime rate's going down." The Congress should not abolish the national commitment to 100,000 police and say that they're going to meet it in some other way by cutting the money they're giving and writing a blank check to local governments or to the State. It'll never happen.
Now, out there in the country, fighting crime is a bipartisan issue. There is no constituency anywhere in America for raising the crime rate with the possible exception of Washington, DC, and this debate that's going on over the crime bill here. That also is not necessary to balance the budget, and it is wrong.
Let me just say one last thing to you about all this. Nobody knows how this is going to come out, so I've got a suggestion. We're in a 100-year period of change. You and I can no more calculate what will be popular next week or next month than a man in the Moon. In 1992, I wasn't smart enough to figure this out back then; I thought it had something to do with my ability. But in 1992, when I was nominated, on June 2, I was in third place in the polls. Six weeks later, I was in first place in the polls. Who could have predicted that? Nobody.
It is idle speculation. We have to now go back in these next 2 months and tell people with whom we disagree, Look, we want to find common ground. But we have to balance the budget in a way that is consistent with our vision. And we may have to do some things that are unpopular just because you think they're going to be right over the long run.
You know, two-thirds of the American people thought I was wrong in Haiti, but I'm glad I did it. And I think history will prove us right.
And a lot of you caucus members will have to say you lost some good colleagues out of the Congress because we voted for the Brady bill and we voted for the assault weapons ban. But you know, last year alone over 40,000 people with criminal records were unable to get handguns. And if we just take a few Uzis off the streets and out of the schools and we have a few fewer kids being shot dead standing by bus stops, having their lives robbed from them, it is worth the political price. They said, "Don't you do it," but it was worth it. We did the right thing. We did the right thing.
A few weeks ago we were trying to decide how to handle the studies of the FDA on teenage smoking. And every political adviser I had in and out of the White House said, "You can do this if you want to, but it's terrible politics, because the tobacco companies will get you. And they'll terrify all those good country tobacco farmers that are good, decent people. They work hard, but they can be scared to death. And then they'll wipe out—they'll vote against anybody in your party. And all the Americans that agree with you will find some other reason to vote against you, but they will stay against you. So don't you be the first person in office to take them on. You were already the first person in office to take the NRA on; don't do that."
But the research showed that for 30 years some of those folks were aware of the danger of tobacco. And the evidence showed that there is still targeted efforts to advertise to teenagers, even though it's illegal for children to smoke in every State in the country. And most important of all, the evidence showed that 3,000 young people a day start to smoke, and 1,000 of them will end their lives early. And if it saves a thousand lives a day for longer, fuller, better lives, then who cares what the consequences are? Twenty years from now in the 21st century, people will say they did what was right. And that is exactly what we ought to do on every single issue.
Finally, I thank Bill Jefferson for what he said about affirmative action. We reviewed every one of those programs. We looked at them all. I argued it nine ways from Sunday. It was obvious that the politics was one place and the merits were somewhere else. It's obvious that a lot of people in our country feel anxiety-ridden about the economy. And the easy answer is, "There's nothing wrong with you; you don't have to change in this time of change; we just need to get rid of the Government; and they're spending all their money on affirmative action, welfare," you know, whatever that list is.
That was the easy answer, but it's the wrong answer, not because all those programs are perfect, not because they don't need to be changed but because in the heart of America we still, we still, are not able to make all of our decisions without regard to race or gender. We ought to be able to. I pray to God someday we will. But you know it, and I know it; we still need to make a conscious effort to make sure that we get the most of every American's ability and we give every American a fair shot. That's what this is all about.
And I will say again, if it were not for our racial diversity, we wouldn't be as well positioned as we are for the 21st century. I know that it makes a difference in the administration that we have people like Ron Brown and Lee Brown and Jesse Brown and Hazel O'Leary. And I'll tell you something else, Mike Espy was the best Agriculture Secretary in 25 years. It makes a difference that we have people like Deval Patrick and Rodney Slater and Jim Joseph, who's going to be the Ambassador to South Africa. That makes a difference to how America works. Alexis Herman and Bob Nash and Maggie Williams and others make a difference in the White House. It makes a difference.
I was so attacked by the conventional wisdom for being committed to diversity. But after nearly 3 years, we're appointing Federal judges at a more rapid rate than the previous administration. We have appointed more African-Americans than the last three administrations combined. And according to the American Bar Association, they have the highest qualified ratings in the last 20 years. So I don't want to hear that you can't have excellence and equal opportunity at the same time. You can, we must, and we will.
Let me say that there is a lot of talk about personal responsibility. What we have to do is practice it. There's a lot of talk about valuing family and work and community. What we have to do is value them.
Let me close by talking about one particular American citizen that I think would be a pretty good role model for the President, the Speaker, the Senate majority leader, the Congressional Black Caucus, and everybody else that's going to be making decisions about America's future in the next 60 days. I got permission from my wonderful wife tonight to have a date with another woman to the Congressional Black Caucus. Her name is Oseola McCarty.
At the young age of 87, she is a stellar example of what it means to live a life of dignity, service, values, and personal responsibility. Before today she had never been to Washington. She had never flown on an airplane, and when I invited her to do it, she said she'd like to come see me, but not if she had to get on an airplane. [Laughter] So Oseola has come all the way from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, by train.
You may have read about her in the last few weeks. A lot of people talk about the dignity of work, but from the time before she was a teenager, she worked all her life washing clothes for people. She started out charging $1.50 to $2 a bundle. She lived modestly and was able to accumulate savings over the years. In fact, while she earned what by any stretch of the imagination was a very meager income, she saved such an enormous percentage of what she earned, and she and her local banker invested it so well that she amassed a sizable sum. Last month, after a lifetime of work, this woman, who did that job for decades and decades and decades quietly and with dignity and with excellence, donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi for scholarships for African-American students.
When people ask her why in the world she did this, she said, "I just want the scholarship to go to some child who needs it, to whoever's not able to help their children. I'm too old to get an education, but they can." Well, the University has already given $1,000 scholarship in her name to an 18-year-old graduate of Hattiesburg High School named Stephanie Bullock. Someday Stephanie Bullock may be a lawyer, a doctor, perhaps a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, because of Oseola McCarty.
Our country needs more people like her, people who don't just talk about responsibility and community but who live those values. I'm proud that she's my guest tonight. Before we came over, I brought her into the Oval Office and awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal for her extraordinary act of generosity. I'd like to ask her to come up here so you can all get a good look at her. [Applause]
I want to make you a promise, and I want to issue a challenge. My promise to you is that in the next few weeks when we make decisions that will shape the future of our great country into the 21st century, I'll try to keep her example in mind. And my challenge is that everyone else do the same. If we do, this great country is going to do just fine.
Thank you, and God bless you all.
NOTE: The President spoke at 9:24 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom at the Washington Convention Center. In his remarks, he referred to former boxing champion Muhammad Ali and civil rights attorney Renee Gaters.
William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Dinner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/222089