Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at the Democratic Governors Association Jefferson-Jackson Day Luncheon in Indianapolis

May 14, 1994

Thank you for that wonderful, rousing welcome. Thank you for your support of the Democratic Governors. And thank you, you folks here in Indiana, for your support of my good friends Evan and Susan Bayh.

You know, like Evan Bayh, when I was elected Governor of Arkansas, I was the youngest Governor in the country. Indeed, I was the youngest person elected in 40 years. Now 40 years before me, the person who was elected slightly younger than me was Harold Stassen— [laughter]—who later ran for President eight times. Which shows you that there may or may not be significance to being the youngest Governor in the country. [Laughter]

But nonetheless, when I met Evan Bayh, I really resented him. [Laughter] I mean, he was so young and handsome, and I realized I'd never be that young again, I'd never look that good again. Come to think of it, I still sort of resent him for that. [Laughter] When we play golf he hits the ball longer than I do. When we come in, he graciously fabricates the truth and tells people that I won when I didn't. Then he puts the burden on me to try to correct it. Occasionally, I do. [Laughter] I really admire Governor Bayh and his wife and his whole administration and all the people who have done so much to change Indiana.

I'd also like to thank your Members of Congress who came with me today: the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Lee Hamilton; Congressman Phil Sharp, who is retiring against my will, but who is going to be replaced by another good Democrat, Joe Hogsett; Congressman Frank McCloskey; Congressman Tim Roemer. And I want to say a special word of thanks to Congressman Andy Jacobs, who did so much to put over our assault weapons ban last week. I want to acknowledge your former Congressman and your nominee for the Senate, Jim Jontz, wish him well, and say a word of thanks to the other Democratic Governors who are here who have all been recognized but who were colleagues of mine in my former life when I was a Governor or, as my wife says, back when we had a life. [Laughter] Governor Mel Carnahan, Governor Ben Nelson, Governor Bruce Sundlun, and Governor Joan Finney. I thank them for their personal friendship and for their leadership. I want to thank Katie Whelan of the Democratic Governors Association and Ann DeLaney, the chair of the Democratic Party, her husband, Ed, Sally Kirkpatrick, Diane Simon, and all of you who did this today, this wonderful, wonderful lunch, thank you.

I feel almost like I don't have to say anything. I mean, I saw the movie and I heard everybody else's speech. [Laughter] It reminds me of the first time I got up to give a speech. This is a true story. In 1977, the first speech I ever gave as an elected official—I was an attorney general, I was 30 years old, I was sort of scared—I spoke to 500 people at the annual Rotary Club dinner in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It was one of these deals where they installed officers and gave out awards, and all but three people who were there got introduced, and they went home mad. [Laughter]

The dinner started at 6:30 p.m., and I got up to speak at a quarter to 10 p.m. And the guy who introduced me was more nervous than I was—he later became a great friend of mine— but here is how the introduction to my first public address as an elected official started. He said, "You know, we could stop here and have had a very good evening." [Laughter] Now, he didn't mean it the way it came out. But I feel that way today. You could stop here and have had a wonderful meal, a wonderful celebration of our party and our prospects and our future.

I was glad to see the tribute paid to Evan Bayh and his leadership in Indiana. He proved some things about Democrats that the Republicans kept trying to deny in all their rhetoric and with all their media barrages. He proved that Democrats can govern in an austere fiscal climate by cutting spending and without raising taxes. He proved that Democrats understand the importance of jobs in the free enterprise system. And he has worked relentlessly to bring more jobs to this State. He understands the link between economic growth and education. Indiana's Step Ahead program is a real model for this country. The new Gateway Education standards mirror what we're trying to do at the national level.

In 1988, he ended 20 years of Republican governance of the statehouse. The Democrats have come a long way since that election. When he was elected secretary of state, he was the only Democrat in statewide office. Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature, half the seats in Congress. Today, you've got five statewide elected officials, including your distinguished attorney general, the first African-American woman elected to statewide office in the history of this State. You have 7 of the 10 seats in Congress, and I hope after this next election, Mayor Mike Harmless will give us 8 of the 10 seats in Indiana.

I owe a lot to the years I spent as a Governor. Basically, I ran for President because I was tired of what I thought was the stale rhetoric in Washington, the incredible partisan gridlock, and the politics of division and diversion and often personal destruction, everybody arguing over left and right and liberal and conservative and how this process was and who was up and down and who was in and out. And people in this country were being lost in the whole process, and we were at risk of losing the American dream as we moved toward the 21st century.

I saw hard-working people, business people and laboring people, work hard in the 1980's to improve their productivity and to try to come to grips with the realities of the eighties and the economic competition of the world. I saw all these wonderful teachers and other people trying to revitalize education. I saw community leaders standing against the tide of rising violence and declining family structure to make good things happen.

I knew a lot of Members of Congress who were honest, good, honorable people who wanted to make a difference. And yet always, always, always, what we seemed to be getting out of our National Government was more politics and less performance.

I ran for a very simple reason: because I wanted to get this country moving again and I wanted to see the American people pull together again. I wanted us to go into the 21st century a strong, united, wonderful place, living up to our promise, our potential, our past, and our own ideals. And I was tired of reading all these prognostications that my daughter was going to grow up to be part of the first generation of Americans to do worse than their parents. And I believed we could do better.

I thought we could do it by organizing ourselves around three little words: opportunity for all Americans, responsibility from all Americans, and a belief that we are one community, that we really believe in our national motto, E Pluribus Unum, that we are one from many and that we are all in this together and that ultimately we will go up or down together.

I believed that if we followed those three little words in all of our policies and we looked at the real world, that we could find new ways to rebuild our families and our communities, to honor the American people who elect us all. I believed we could go beyond partisan gridlock. It's been, frankly, a little tougher than I thought it would be. And it's been even tougher to get the message to the American people that we are doing what we said we would do.

Last year, the Congress had the courage to pass an economic program which went beyond rhetoric to reality. It drove down the deficits; it drove down interest rates; it increased investment in critical areas. The Congress had the courage to take on a lot of tough trade issues. We did more to foster the expansion of global trade last year than in any single year in a generation. The Congress was willing to work with me to invest in new technologies and take the controls off exporting many of them in the aftermath of the cold war. And what has happened: 3 million jobs in the first 15 months of this administration, a million in the first 4 months of this year. I'll tell you, my fellow Americans, the other party talked a lot in Washington about delivering for the free enterprise system. They talked, but we delivered.

This week the Congress passed our budget for this year. A budget that, without new taxes, will increase funding for education, for training, for new technologies, for medical research, and still, for the first time since 1969, reduce overall domestic discretionary spending, along with defense reductions—for the first time since '69— by eliminating 100 Government programs and reducing 200 others. This will give us, for the first time since Harry Truman was President— and with all respect, when it had to happen at the end of World War II—3 years of declining deficits in a row, for the first time since the Truman Presidency. They talked about it; we delivered it.

The Vice President has led a path-breaking effort that we call reinventing Government to try to examine how we do things and how we can serve you better, how we can make Government less bureaucratic and act more quickly and push decisions down to the grassroots level. I'll just give you one example that you can find now if you need to apply for an SBA loan. We've got it down to a one-sheet form, and it takes 2 days to process. And I could give you 50 other examples like that if time permitted. Perhaps the most graphic example is this: Under our budget, we will reduce the size of the Federal Government not by firing people but by attrition, by 252,000 over a 5-year period, so that at the end of the period, the National Government will be below 2 million employees for the first time since 1960. And all of the savings will be put into a trust fund to pay for the crime bill—100,000 more police officers on the street. The other party always talked about reducing the size of Government and empowering people at the local level, but we have delivered. That is our job.

We are breaking new ground in education, developing a system of lifetime learning, helping the young people who don't go on to college but do need further training, lowering the cost of college loans and stringing out the repayments but toughening the collection procedures, so that we can open the doors of college education to everyone. You heard a little talk the other day—a few moments ago about our national service program. I think in so many ways that embodies what this administration is about: opportunity, responsibility, and community. Twenty thousand young people this year will be working in their communities in national service to revolutionize places where they live, to solve problems, and earning money for their education. And year after next we will have 100,000 young Americans doing that.

I'm proud of the work we have done to stand up for the American family. You heard on the film that wonderful woman talking in the Rose Garden about the problems they had been through because that family that you saw, speaking at the signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act, had been wrenched by a childhood illness and being forced to deal with the question of whether the parents would be with the children and lose their jobs or keep their jobs and not be with the children.

I think the most moving personal encounter I've had actually in the White House since I have been President occurred on an early Sunday morning when I came in from my run, and I noticed a family taking a tour, which is very rare on a Sunday morning at about 9 a.m. And I went over and shook hands with them. There was a father, a mother, three children, all girls. And it turned out that the child that was in a wheelchair was one of these Make-A-Wish children, a child with a very serious illness. And I asked them to excuse me, and I went up and changed clothes, came down with my uniform on so we could take a picture. And I was walking away, and all of a sudden this father grabbed me by the arm. And I turned around, and he said, "Let me tell you something, Mr. President," he said, "I imagine that a lot of days you think that the work you do up here really doesn't matter and doesn't affect people's lives. But," he said, "my little girl is desperately ill, and she's probably not going to make it. Because of the family leave law, I have been able to take some time off from my job to be with my child, without thinking that I am disadvantaging my wife and other two children by losing my job." And he said to me, "It's the most important experience of my life. And it would not have happened if it hadn't been for the family leave law. Don't ever think what you do here doesn't make a difference."

Folks, the family leave law was tied up in gridlock for 7 years. The Brady bill was tied up in gridlock for 7 years. The GATT treaty took 7 years to pass. The crime bill that the Congress is now in conference on has been tied up for 5 years. It is too long for Americans to wait while partisan differences get resolved and people's lives hang in the balance. We are trying to deliver for you up there.

Let me say we have had some support from the other party on some important initiatives, on national service, and I'm grateful for it; on the education bills, and I am grateful for it; on the crime bill, and I am grateful for it. Thirty-eight brave Republicans stood up with the Democrats the other day and voted on the assault weapons ban, and I am grateful for it. But the point I want to make to you is this: A lot of you probably didn't even know some of the things I have said because our national debate is so shrouded in this shrill, uncivil, diversionary rhetoric.

We are moving to break gridlock. But we also have to break the gridlock that is in people's minds. Because no matter what we do in the Government, very few of our specific actions will affect a majority of the American people. If you just take the welfare reform issue, for example, something I care deeply about, we're going to propose a remarkable welfare reform bill which will go with the other things we're doing to try to help people move from dependence to independence, lowering taxes for working people with modest incomes. This year, one in six working families will be eligible for a tax break so they can be successful workers and successful parents, and there will be no incentive to leave work and go to welfare.

Providing for health care for all Americans will mean that no one will want to stay on welfare just to get health coverage for their kids. One of the reasons that people don't leave welfare has nothing to do with the welfare check, it's because if you stay on welfare the Government will pay for your children's health care. If you get off welfare and you take a low-wage job with an employer that in today's market can't afford health insurance, you then pay taxes to pay for health care for people who didn't make the decision you did. That is not profamily; it is not pro-work; it is not good policy.

We need a tax structure, a health care structure, a tough child support enforcement system, and an education and training system and ultimately a requirement that people work so that we can change this system as we know it. But to do it we have to know that we share values and we're trying to get this done because it's the right thing for our country, not because it will affect most of us, because most of us aren't on welfare.

That is the problem I face all the time, how rhetoric sometimes gets in the way of reality when we're up there trying to do things that I know embody the values of the people of this country and I know will give us a chance to move ahead. But I know ultimately we cannot prevail unless there is a new spirit among the American people, a new determination to change the way we evaluate politics and politicians and to change the way we live at the grassroots level. And let me just mention two issues.

The first is health care. My fellow Americans, we cannot ever—and you can book this—we cannot ever get control of the Federal deficit as long as the Government's health care programs, Medicare and Medicaid, are going up at 2 and 3 times the rate of inflation. We cannot hope to be fully competitive in a global economy as long as we spend 45 percent more of our national income on health care than any other country does.

Some of it is money well spent on medical research and new technologies and new drugs and the things that make us special. Some of it is money we have to spend because we're more violent than other countries. But a lot of it is money we spend because we are the only country that employs hundreds of thousands of people, literally, in doctors' offices, hospitals, insurance offices all across America to see who and what is not covered on the insurance policy. No one else does that. That adds tens of billions of dollars to our system.

Now, if this were easy to fix, somebody would have done it long ago. For 60 years Presidents have tried. Our system is based on—I mean, my plan is based on some simple ideas. And I don't ask everybody to agree with every detail, but it's based on some simple ideas. If 9 out of 10 people with insurance get it in the workplace and 8 out of 10 people without health insurance have somebody in their family that works and you want the system to be as private as possible, wouldn't the best thing be to say that people who haven't assumed any responsibility for themselves and their workers should assume some responsibility and should do their part as well? Because any student of the health care system will tell you, until you cover everybody, you're going to have massive cost-shiftings, you're going to have uncontrollable elements and costs in the system, and you're going to have abject unfairness. That's why I propose to extend the requirement of covering health care for everybody through employers and employees, not a Government mandate. It's a private system.

The second thing—what has been the objection to the health care thing? This is what I want to get at, what's happening to our national debate, because I want to talk about your responsibilities as citizens, one, in the national debate and, second, in action in the grassroots level. What's happened to the national debate? They say support for my plan has gone down. It has, under the weight of tens of millions of dollars of adverse efforts to try to convince you that it is a Government-run system, that it is horrible for small business, that it is a mindless bureaucracy where crazy people will be making decisions for you. I've seen all these ads. [Laughter]

Now the truth is—and I've read some of the letters that have gone out—the truth is quite different. The truth is, it's private insurance, private providers. The Government does the following things: The Government says everybody has to be covered. The Government establishes a pool to give discounts to small business people who would be otherwise in real trouble if they had to pay the full value of a health care policy to try to protect the small business economy. And the Government organizes buying groups so that small businesses and self-employed people can buy insurance on the same terms as Government employees and big business people. Now, that's what we do.

With all respect, the other—last Sunday, I saw on television a man I very much admire and like, President Ford, giving a speech attacking our health care program that was doubtless prepared for him by the other party. And one of the lines in this speech—it was devastating, I mean, it was a humdinger—it said, "They want to set up a national health care board where there are seven people in Washington to decide what is necessary and appropriate for your health care. I don't think we ought to let seven bureaucrats in Washington make decisions that you and your doctors ought to make, do you?" And I said, "Goodness, no. Shoot the guy that put that plan out there." [Laughter] Right? So I go to the office the next day, and I said, "You know, that was not a fair characterization of our plan. But he wouldn't knowingly misstate that. Let's do a little research," because I remembered something. I remembered that President Ford and President Carter, in a nonpolitical atmosphere, were the honorary cochairs of a bipartisan effort to reform the health care system. They had a detailed health care plan very much like ours in which they—and they wrote an op-ed piece about it, signed by President Ford, proposing two national boards not— to be fair to them—not to regulate the health system or make decisions for your doctors but to do exactly what our little board was going to do, which was to evaluate claims by people that there ought to be new benefits added to health care packages and funded. And somebody needed to evaluate it in a nonpolitical, professional atmosphere to see how much these things were costing.

Now, how are you supposed to be active citizens if that's the way the debate's going? So I'm going to write a funny little letter to President Ford and send a copy of his article and underline the board deal, you know. But the point is, he didn't know that, I mean, he just was given a speech. And he is a good man. But don't you see how this kind of debate obscures what really matters?

What matters? What matters is 39 million Americans don't have any health insurance. At any given time during the year, 58 million Americans don't have any health insurance. Now, keep in mind, there's 255 million people in this country. So you add up the statistics. Eighty-one million of us live in families with preexisting conditions: a child with diabetes, a fine mother who has had premature cancer, a father who had a heart attack at an early age, people who, under the present system can't ever change jobs because they can't get insurance or they'd have to pay more than they could ever afford. Three-quarters of us who have insurance in the workplace have lifetime limits, which means if we should happen to have a baby with a terrible health problem that doesn't take the child's life away, we could run out of insurance before the child is old enough to get out of the house, at the very time we need it.

Now, those are the real problems. And I say to you, you should demand, not as Democrats but as Americans, that we face this problem this year, not with smoke and hot air and rhetoric but sitting down across the table as compassionate Americans and resolving it this year, not later.

Let me mention one last issue. Before I came here today, I was honored to go with Mrs. Ethel Kennedy, who is here with us, out to that wonderful site where Robert Kennedy spoke here in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King was killed, to break ground for a memorial which will be made to both those men and what they have meant to our country and to the lives of so many of us. And we know that at least some of what will be used in the sculpture will be metal that comes from weapons which were turned in in the weapons buy-back program here and melted down.

The thing I liked about that more than anything else was that this was something that I could go and celebrate as President but that I didn't have a thing in the world to do with. The citizens of this community, your basketball team, your prosecutor, your local officials, church leaders, they're going to make this work, and in the process, they will change the attitudes and the behavior of people all across this community, without regard to race or income or political party. They are going to give, around this project, thousands of people around here the chance to be Americans in the best sense again.

Now, we're going to pass this crime bill. There will be 100,000 police in it. And if they're deployed properly, they'll make a real difference on your streets. They can drive the crime rate down. And we are going to have some tougher punishment in the bill. And we're going to have a lot of prevention money to give these kids something to say yes to before they get in trouble, as well as just telling them to say no. And we're going to have this ban on the 19 assault weapons.

But let me ask you, what is it you wish to discuss about this, and what are your responsibilities? Yesterday in Greenbelt, Maryland, right outside of Washington, there was a 13year-old boy from a poor family, standing, minding his own business—just won a scholarship to one of the most distinguished private schools in Washington—standing there on the street minding his own business. These nine kids got in a fight, started shooting, and that boy's dead today.

There's a poor neighborhood in your Nation's Capital that got sick and tired of this kind of stuff, so they just built a fence around their neighborhood and hired guards just like they were rich people in private developments. And they had the same results. Now, old folks are sitting on park benches talking, and the kids are playing, because they've constructed a wall between themselves and the rest of America.

When this assault weapons ban was voted on, it should not have been as difficult as it was. It shouldn't have been as painful as it was. But a lot of good, honest people in Indiana and in other places were told that it was a threat to their right to keep and bear arms. And I understand that. I grew up in a State where more than half the folks have a hunting or a fishing license or both. And most of us grew up shooting 22's and 410's long before we were old enough to drive a car. I understand that.

But very few of those Americans were told that that bill contained explicit, I mean written protection for more than 650 sporting weapons even as we were trying to make our streets safe for the police and the people in the face of the awful, bloody assaults we see on our children every day. Why? Because of the rhetoric.

And I say to you, I will do my best as your President to fight these things. I will do my best to work with the Congress. I'll do my best to stick up for the Democrats when we're leading the way but to also give the Republicans credit when they help, just like I have today. But you have got to change the dimensions of the debate in every community in this country. And you have got to take some personal responsibility for how this happens.

The President and the Congress cannot save all those 13-year-old kids that are standing in front of bus stops today. But you can and your police officers can and your churches can. And maybe the best we can do in the short run is to put those walls up. I say hallelujah to those poor folks. Why should you have to be rich to have a wall behind which your children and your grandparents are safe? That's fine. But consider the irony of that.

In a few months, I will go to Europe to celebrate D-Day, the victory of freedom. I will go to Germany to celebrate our victory in the cold war. Do you remember what President Kennedy said when he gave that wonderful Ich bin ein Berliner speech? At the Berlin Wall he said this, he said, "Freedom has many difficulties, and our democracy is far from perfect, but we never had to put up a wall to keep our people in." No, we never did. But now millions of us have to put up walls to keep our people out. Is that what Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy gave their lives for? I don't think so.

And I tell you, it doesn't matter who the President is; it doesn't matter how hard the Congress labors. Unless we can change the dimensions of our conversation away from all this division, destruction, the shouting, this uncivil, this often outright dishonest talk, to a calm and more hospitable and more open and more respectful tone and unless people at the grassroots level take personal responsibility for all these kids whose lives are at risk, then the political system cannot produce the results you want.

Of those little words opportunity, responsibility, and community, I believe with all my heart, by far the most important is community. We're still around after two centuries, folks, yes, because we had good leaders, but most of all because we had good people with good hearts and good values and good minds. And more than half the time they did what was right. It is now required of all of us that we do what is right.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

NOTE: The President spoke at 12:35 p.m. in the Sagamore Ballroom at the Indianapolis Convention Center. In his remarks, he referred to fundraiser Sally Kirkpatrick; Pamela Carter, Indiana attorney general; and Mayor Michael M. Harmless of Greencastle, IN.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Democratic Governors Association Jefferson-Jackson Day Luncheon in Indianapolis Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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