Remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Dinner
Thank you very much. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, I'll never forget the first time I saw you campaigning in Chicago in the spring of 1992. I told Hillary that night when I called her on the phone that I didn't know if you could be elected to the Senate, but whatever it is you have to have in politics to make it, you've got it. I saw it that night. I knew it then. And now, Jesse Helms knows it, too.
I have had a wonderful time tonight seeing friends from all over America, all kinds of people, people in politics, people in private life. It's been a great joy to see so many of you here. I also had a wonderful time tonight listening to the music. I just want to say again, as a child of the sixties, I love listening to Shanice and Crystal and Penny Wilson. I love seeing the Boyz 2 Men, knowing they could sing some songs that were alive in my childhood and before they were born. And I love hearing Martha Reeves and the Vandellas again. I did play with them 6 years ago, just as she said, up in Michigan, and I'm sorry I was disabled from playing with them tonight, but maybe I can have a raincheck.
I want to thank the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressman Mfume; the Caucus Foundation chairman, Alan Wheat, and my neighbor, the honorary chairman of this weekend, Harold Ford. I also want to acknowledge the presence of two people I understand are here, but I have not seen them tonight, the chairman of the Southern Governors' Conference, Governor Doug Wilder of Virginia, and the next Mayor of New York City, David Dinkins.
I have many friends in the Congressional Black Caucus: Some I never met before I was elected President; some I have known for years and years; some I've just had the opportunity to work with; some who walked the long and hard road with me from the beginning of my long and sometimes lonely quest to win the Presidency. But I can tell you this: As a group, they are a group of truly outstanding and committed leaders who do their best to think independently but to act together when it's in the interest of their people.
Tonight, from the bottom of my heart, more than anything else I just wanted to come here and say to them, thank you. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your constructive criticism. Thank you for your vigor and your caring. Thank you for the consistency with which you approach your work. I wish every one of you could see them working, working every day up here on these problems, problems that are as profound as have confronted our country in a very long time. I hope you will be patient with them and maybe a little with your President when we can't work miracles. We don't always have an operating majority, but they are a ferocious crowd, and they get things done, and they have made a difference.
I also would like to thank Senator Moseley-Braun for acknowledging the members of my Cabinet: the Secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown; the Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy; the Secretary of Energy, Hazel O'Leary; the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Jesse Brown; and our Drug Policy Coordinator, for the first time in history a member of the President's Cabinet, Lee Brown, formerly the police chief of New York and Houston and Atlanta.
There are many other African-Americans in this administration at the sub-Cabinet level. I hesitate to begin to mention them for fear I will hurt some others; I saw a lot of them are here in the crowd tonight. But I do want to say a word about a couple of people who are in somewhat nontraditional positions: the person who argues America's case before the Supreme Court, our Solicitor General, Drew Days; the person who is in charge of protecting the President, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement, Ron Noble, over at the Secret Service, the Customs Department, and the Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco; and one of my most recently confirmed administration officials, someone I believe will be recognized by all Americans as a great national treasure, and my dinner partner tonight, the new Surgeon General, Dr. Joycelyn Elders from Arkansas. Please stand up. Stand up, Joycelyn.
When I asked Joycelyn Elders to become the director of the department of health in Arkansas, she said, "Well, what do you want me to do?" And I said, "Not much. I want you to cut the rate of teen pregnancy, get the infant mortality rate below the national average, put our State ahead of the curve in dealing with the curse of AIDS, do something about environmental health, and bring health services into the schools where poor children can get them." And she said, "What else? I'll do that." And when her nomination generated a little controversy, as I hoped it would—[laughter]—I called our senior Senator, Dale Bumpers, who's got a great reputation as a humorist. And he said, "Well, you know, every now and then Joycelyn may be a little too outspoken, but you've got to say one thing for her: She plants the corn where the hogs can get at it." [Laughter]
I was glad, too, to see this slide show tonight acknowledge the contributions of the new United States Ambassador-designate to Jamaica, Shirley Chisholm. And I want to acknowledge the two people whom I believe to be the two highest-ranking African Americans ever to serve in the Office of the White House: the Assistants to the President for Public Liaison and the Chief of Staff to the First Lady, Alexis Herman and Maggie Williams. I thank them for what they do. And yesterday, I appointed to be the Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights an old friend of many of yours, Mary Frances Berry.
My friends, these and hundreds of other Americans are part of our partnership to fighting battles on old and new fronts. As President, that's my job. As an American, I think it is my moral obligation. As your partner, it is my privilege.
A few days ago, we fought a battle in Vidor, Texas. Henry Cisneros, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, went there to deliver our message loud and clear: No more discrimination and segregation in public housing. That message has also been delivered by the Attorney General, Janet Reno, in the areas of employment, education, hate crimes, and voting rights. And we believe that districts drawn to increase the empowerment of minorities are good for America, not bad for America.
If I might say tonight, the end of the cold war imposes on us new responsibilities to fight for democracy and freedom and peace for peoples around the world where we can, consistent with our resources, our reach, and our interests. I am disturbed from time to time to read articles as I did last week, someone who said that President Clinton's problem is he thinks that foreign policy is about helping the weak, when foreign policy is really about dealing with the strong. Well, I thought it was about both. And I remember a time when this country was weak in its beginning, and weak became strong. The United States can never stop worrying about the weak and dealing only with the strong. That's not what we're about, not at home and not abroad.
I would also say, my fellow Americans, there is more than one way to define strength. Tonight I would like to introduce someone I consider to be quite strong; the duly elected President and soon to be returned President of Haiti, President Aristide. Please stand up, sir.
I also want to thank Congressman Mfume, Congressman Rangel, and others who are going to lead a delegation to Haiti in the next few days to make it clear that we deplore the violence of the last few days and we are still intent on working with our allies in the United Nations to restore real democracy, freedom, and peace to the people of that troubled land.
You know, when I look out at all of you tonight and I see so many people here of different racial and ethnic backgrounds supporting this caucus, I am reminded that in 1992, one of the hot political books that was written and widely read by everyone involved in that campaign argued that the Democratic Party had been reduced to permanent minority status because we believe in the empowerment of minorities, and especially African-Americans; that unless we could somehow rid ourselves of our affection for, our allegiance to, and our deep and profound ties to racial minorities, the wide majority would never give us any support again and we could never elect a President again.
Well, I hope that one of the things the 1992 election proved was that most Americans want this country to pull together, not be pulled apart. Most Americans believe that we really are all in this together. Most Americans believe and want the same things: greater opportunity for people who work hard and play by the rules and for their children, a renewed sense of responsibility for ourselves and for our fellow brothers and sisters, a deepened sense of the American community.
Most people really do think we're going up or down together. I remember the first time I went to Detroit, and then I went to Macomb County, which was supposed to be the symbol of the Reagan white flight of the 1980's and seventies, and intentionally gave the same speech to both crowds. Some people thought I had slipped a gasket. But I kind of liked the way it felt, and so before the campaign was over, I went back and did it again. And I found out that most people thought it was kind of nice to have someone who tried to preach to white folks that they couldn't run from black folks, and to black folks that they ought to embrace their allies in every community they could find them.
I confess when I got here tonight, I was sort of tired. I was up for about 22 hours on that magnificent Monday of this week, when the history of the world was changed with a magic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. When I saw that happen, so close at hand, with a little nudge from their friends, I felt a surge of emotion that I have felt in the last few years only one other time, and that was when my daughter and I, on a Sunday morning, watched from a very long distance as Nelson Mandela walked out of his jail cell for the first time in 27 years.
I thought to myself: If those two old warriors, after decades of fighting against each other, decided it was better for them to put aside their hatred and just call them problems, to no longer allow their enemies to dictate their own energies but instead to think about the long-term interests of their people, then surely we can do what we have to do here at home. Surely those of us who have taken too many years avoiding one another can sit down and work out the plain and present and pressing problems which threaten to rob our children of the American dream.
Oh, I know in the last few months we have made a lot of progress. And I appreciate the things that have been said. But make no mistake about it, my fellow Americans, we still stand at the crossroads in a time of swirling change, generational change, engulfing not just the United States but the entire world. We cannot simply blame on the last 12 years economic difficulties that are more than two decades in building, every wealthy country in the world having difficulty creating jobs, wages stagnant in this country, for more than two decades most families working harder for less and paying more for the basic things in life. Then for the last 12 years, trying trickle-down economics and finding not much trickled down, but the deficit exploded upward. So that now when we need most to invest more in jobs and education and in our future, we are mired in a debt and frozen in a pattern of practice that will never take us where we need to go. We now have to break out of our patterns, just as Israel and the PLO did this week.
I thank the Black Caucus for making the beginning, for helping us finally to get the motor voter law, a genuine expanse of civil rights, for helping working families to be able to take a little time off when there's a baby born or a parent sick without losing a job. I thank them for enacting empowerment zones to see if we can get the private sector to invest in our most distressed areas again. I thank them for reversing the tide and helping to expand women's rights and helping to expand the protection of our environment and helping to pass the national service bill and a dramatic reformation of student loans which will open the doors of college education to all. I thank them for that. And I thank the Congressional Black Caucus for voting for a budget that, for the first time in the history of our country, will use the tax system to lift the people who work for a living and to have children in the home and have modest wages out of poverty, so that we will tax them out of poverty, not into poverty, using the income tax credit. That is the most significant piece of income reform in 20 years, and every member of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for it.
But it is just the beginning. We must find a way to create more jobs in this economy. I believe we can't do it unless as President, I have the freedom to work with other nations to expand world growth. I believe we can't do it unless we can expand global trade. But I know we can't do it unless we invest more in putting our people to work here, in converting from a defense economy, in training people who lose their jobs, in changing this unemployment system to a reemployment system and revolutionizing the whole notion that when people lose their jobs, we should just wait around and hope something good happens to them. From now on, since most people don't get back the same job they lose, from the minute they're unemployed they should be in a new training program, and people should open up the vistas of the future to them.
I believe that African-Americans want to do something about crime. But it's important that we don't just think of crime as punishment. You can't go around telling people they should say no to things unless they have something to say yes to. People should have something to say yes to. And the best police force is the community police force that prevents crime, not just catches criminals.
And while we're at it, folks, why in the world don't all politicians stop making speeches about crime until they at least pass the Brady bill and take assault weapons out of the hands of teenagers in this country? You can't drink legally until you're 21. And there are cities in this country when the average age of people who commit killing is under 16. And we are giving aid and comfort to the continued disintegration of this society because the grown-ups won't take the guns out of the hands of the kids, because they are afraid to stand up to the gun lobby. It's time to change that, and we ought to do it this year.
And finally, let me say, with all my heart I believe we will never restore health to our budget, we will never restore health to our economy until we provide health to all of our people, comprehensive, affordable health care to all the American people.
This week, we kicked off the administration's efforts to work with Congress, without regard to party or region, to overhaul this country's health care system. We are spending 40 percent more of our income than any country in the world. We have 35 million Americans uninsured. We have an atrocious infant mortality rate. Only two nations in this hemisphere have a worse immunization rate of children. There are millions of people who never get primary and preventive care. There are millions who can never leave the job they're in because someone in their family has been sick.
And I went to the Children's Hospital in this city this week and heard a nurse say that she had to turn away from a child with cancer who wanted her to play with him because she had to go to a school to learn how to fill out yet another new form in the most insane bureaucratic maze of financing that any country on the face of the Earth has. I heard a doctor plead with me—you may have seen her on television—a pediatrician, a native of this city, plead with me to do something to lift the burden of the present health care financing and regulatory system off her back. The Washington Children's Hospital said that the 200 doctors that have privileges at that hospital could see another 500 children a year each, 10,000 more children, if we just had the courage to make the simple changes in our health care system that other nations have already made. I tell you, we can do better, and we must. And we must do it together.
My fellow Americans, and especially the members of the Congressional Black Caucus whom I honor tonight: I ask you to think about how in 5, 10, or 20 years you want to look back on this period. One of your colleagues complained to me the other night that the Congress has already met 40 percent more this year than they did last year. I said, "That's good. That's what we were hired to do." We need to look back on this time and say: In this time of change, when so much was threatened and so much was promised, we beat back the threats and we seized the promise. We revived the American dream. We did right by the people who sent us here. We honored the deepest traditions of America, and we gave our children and the children of the world a better future.
Thank you all, and God bless you.
NOTE: The President spoke at 9:40 p.m. at the Washington Convention Center.
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/217734