Remarks at the Faces of Hope Reunion Luncheon
Thank you very much. Congratulations, Leslie, that's a—[laughter]—Mr. Vice President, that may be your most memorable example of reinventing Government there. [Laughter] I promised you a personal service administration, and there's a living example of it.
Let me say, it is wonderful to be here with all of you today. I want to thank the people who have worked so hard to keep this group together and in contact with us. I appreciate Sue Hazzard and Ann Walker and all the rest of you who worked on this. Let me thank you, because these are really very disparate people, living very different lives all over the country and getting even further and further apart. One of you has since moved to Alaska since we've started—came back. I thank you for being here.
Before we start, I'd like to just say that four of the people who were our Faces of Hope in 1992 have since passed away. Josh Cox, who was mentioned earlier; Sheri Kohlenberg, who came to see me with her husband and her son, Sammy—they're here. And Sammy left me something I thought was a dinosaur. He said it just looks like one, but anyway it's still in the White House over there. Sarah Weber, whose mother and sister are here; and Michael Quercio, whose partner is here. And Michael and I jogged together right before I became President, and I got to see him when I dedicated the new Kennedy Library. I miss them all very much; I know all of you do. And I'd like to ask if we could just have a moment of silence for them.
[At this point, a moment of silence was observed.]
You know, all of you, in various ways, inspired us in this—when we ran for President, but you have very different stories: Some of you struggled to overcome great personal adversity; some of you still struggle with it; some of you struggle with your children; some of you were people who led what looked on the outside to be ordinary lives, but performed extraordinary service for others; some of you achieved very great things in your own lives, but took time to do things for others. There are a lot of different kinds of stories here. But the one thing that struck me about all of you was that you fundamentally decided that you would take an affirmative view of your life and life in general, that you decided that you would try to look for what could be done tomorrow to make it better, instead of just wallowing in what didn't happen yesterday or things that were beyond your control. You decided that you would make a constructive contribution to your own life and to the lives of others. You lived with hope. And that is a very important thing. You had a lot of influence on this administration, as the Vice President said. I think of all of you every time when I go someplace out in the country and our national service AmeriCorps people are there, because that's what they do.
I was in Texas the other day with people who are in the AmeriCorps program, all doing national service, earning money to go to college. One of them was a woman who retired from the military, said she never had a chance to go to college—she had the GI bill, but she wanted to do this service in her community before she went back to college; with two young people who had babies out of wedlock, as teenagers were on welfare, got themselves off welfare, got high school diplomas, and were then contributing to AmeriCorps before going to college so they could help other people avoid the kind of problems they've had; and with one young girl who was a college graduate, who was raised the child of a mother on welfare, who decided after getting out of college she still ought to do the national service program because she ought to help other people.
Now, everything—and I kept asking myself today, you know, what has all this got—how does it tie together? And I think, for me, all of you represent people who try to make something good happen. You didn't just talk; you acted. You tried to get on the solution side of—what I call being on the solution side of whatever your problems or challenges were, whether it was in your own family or in your community.
And one of the biggest problems we have in Washington and one of the reasons politics is such a turn-off to people today is that it comes across to the American people over the air waves as being nothing but rhetoric and conflict and not being on the solution side. No one would run a family, a business, a charitable enterprise the way it appears that things here are run often. It would just run right off the tracks. You know that. You remind me here every day of what we should be doing.
And you had another influence that hasn't been mentioned yet that you ought to know. When I became President, I put a lot of time and effort into making sure we had good people who were well organized in our casework division, where we get letters from people just like you all over America just asking for help with a problem or advice. About once a week, I get letters that I personally sign from ordinary American citizens who wrote the White House and asked for some problem—everything is— you know, they have a sick child, they don't qualify for Government help, to "My father was supposed to get a medal in World War II, and he never got it," and all kinds of things in between. And I organized this because I made up my mind that I did not want to forget about people like you and the work that we do here.
Because of a lot of folks like you, we have managed so far—even in these difficult budgetary times when we have reduced the size of the Government by 100,000 and we have shrunk the deficit and we're going to have more cuts, we have increased our investment in education, medical research, and particularly, we have emphasized research and treatment for AIDS. And I'm not sure we would have been able to fight off all of those budget cuts if I hadn't actually met a lot of you and gotten to know you. Because of some of you here, when we passed the crime bill we were able to say, "Okay, you put more police on the street and have more punishment, but put some money into giving these kids something to say yes to." There were two former gang members here from L.A. who spend their lives trying to keep peace on the streets of Los Angeles; better we should support them, also cheaper for you.
These are the kinds of things that we have tried to do. Because of you, we fought for the family leave law, and we've tried to fight for programs that would not only protect the environment but would also help to provide for economic transition where people are dislocated. When we had to cut back on defense, we provided for economic transition so we wouldn't forget about the people who lost their jobs because we won the cold war and we had to cut back on defense—because of you and people like you. And that's very, very important.
We're having two big debates here in Washington today, and you put the lie to both of them. And so I want to talk about it. You'll hear it when we talk about what we're going to do to the budget. Debate number one is whether all of our problems are primarily personal and cultural, that is, if we'd all just behave and do the right thing there wouldn't be any problems—which is, at one level, plainly true, right—or whether our problems are political and economic, that is, we have an obligation to help each other make the most of our own lives and overcome our problems.
You put the lie to that debate. That is a bogus debate. Nothing I can do here in Washington will really solve your problems if you're not doing your part. On the other hand, if we don't do our part here, a lot of you still won't be able to do what you can do to make the most of your lives and the people you're trying to help. So I hope that when people look at you and think about people like you, they will say, the answer to that is both. I'll do my part, but you guys do yours.
The second big debate is whether, even though we have to do things together, the Government is so clumsy, inefficient, and inept, we ought to throw it away and just tell everybody to behave right in their private charities: "Do good. Go forth and do good."
My answer to that is, that is also a bogus debate. It's interesting to me that all of the people who work in charitable work say they'd like the Government to be a partner, that we need more charitable contributions, we want people to give more, but we need to have a partnership.
We have other debates like that. Is it more important to balance the budget or to invest money in the education of our people so they raise their incomes and generate more tax revenues because we've got more people in higher efforts? My answer is, we have to find a way to do both. And what you do in your private lives is you balance—a lot of you balance all these conflicts all the time, these kinds of conflicts, and you go on and live your life. That's what we have to do here. And that's what you inspire me to do.
You know, I was so moved, for example, after the horrible tragedy in Oklahoma City, by how much work the private charities were also doing there and how they did things that we could not have done, but we did things that they needed us to do.
A lot of you, I have seen you in your literacy centers or your work to help kids, older kids. And you get funds from the private sector, but you also need us to do our part.
And you know, when we showed up here, we really tried to shrink the size of Government, to reduce bureaucracy, to bring the deficit down, and we've done that. But we also tried to invest more in helping people make the most of their own lives. And it seems to me, that is the fundamental responsibility we have, and that is what we're trying to do here.
There are 90 million Americans who volunteer. And some of you are some of them, and God bless them. We need more of it. But the main thing we need to do is to make practical decisions here that work right, not have a lot of theoretical debates that drive a stake through the heart of America's citizenry.
And you know, a lot of things are going on here I don't really understand. But I'm doing my best to remember you and every time I come up to one of these decisions to say, what is best for the American people? What is best for the American people?
And it's sometimes very hard and very frustrating, because we just came from an event where the Vice President had a John Deere dealer from West Texas talking about what we were going to do to reduce reporting requirements on the income tax system and how we'd reinvented Government. And the John Deere dealer whispered to me, he said, "You know, Mr. President, this all sounds real good, but you need to reinvent what you're saying to the people because it ain't getting out out there." It was funny.
The reason is, the way we talk up here doesn't really often square with the way you live out there. But let me just give you an example of what's going on. We have people here in Washington in important positions who say that we should drastically cut the amount of money we're investing in poor folks because we're just corrupting them and making them dependent. I haven't noticed anybody who really likes poverty very much, but that's what they're saying.
My belief is we have had some programs that made people dependent, and I want to change them. I want to change the welfare system and support people who are putting people to work. I don't think anybody wants to be on welfare, and if they do, they shouldn't. So I have no problem with tough requirements to get people into training programs, require them to work. I think that's good. But to say you can do it for free, I think, is wrong.
Then we have people, some of the same people who say we should cut back on the Government's investment in these kind of public endeavor, they say, "Well, the charities should do more. We should just give more money to charitable contributions." But now I wonder whether they really mean that.
I just want you to understand the difference between where you live and what's going on here. For example, last week I heard about this letter—listen to this—a letter that was sent to the chief executive officers of 82 of the biggest companies in this country. And it warned these chief executive officers that they were in serious danger of giving money—the letter implied that they were sure these poor men were ignorant, maybe there were some women on the list, I haven't seen the whole list—maybe they were ignorant, but they were in serious danger of giving money to private organizations that were promoting the welfare state, undermining the free enterprise system, eroding the fabric of our country. I quote—the letter said, you are giving charitable contributions which, quote, "support the expansion of the welfare state."
Now, these are people that want the Government to give less, right? So I was surprised to find out this letter was not for some fringe group. Now, this was a letter signed by the majority leader of the House of Representatives on very official-looking stationery. So I couldn't wait to get my hands on a list of these subversive groups that were getting money from big American companies. Here are some of the groups that were on the list: The American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association—what do they have in common—the League of Women Voters, a dangerous outfit—[laughter]—the B'nai B'rith, the NAACP, the Nature Conservancy—they help States buy lands so people will be able to enjoy it forever, with enormous business support.
Now, I asked myself when I read about this, and I saw this letter, how can we have the Government give less money and then have a major leader of the Congress tell people that they ought to give less—big corporations ought to give less to groups dedicated to reducing disease, fighting racism, protecting the environment, and promoting jobs and encouraging Americans to vote? Why? Because there's probably some segment of the political base there that really likes that stuff and pumps a bunch of money into it, and because maybe these people are advocating things that some of the big organized power groups here don't like.
But don't you see, what I'm trying to say is, this doesn't have anything to do with the way you live. And we have got to get Washington, DC, back on the solution side of America's challenges to help people make the most of their own lives, to help people who through no fault of their own cannot care for themselves, to really support work and family and community instead of talking about it and then just keep trying to drive stake after stake after stake through the American people to divide us and disillusion us and convince each other that we're enemies.
At the end of the Civil War, just shortly before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in which he said—and we had had a pretty good fight then; we really were divided—he said, "We cannot be enemies. We must be friends." Now, that's the way you live, and you are entitled to a political system that reflects the hope that you gave to the four of us. That's what we're trying to give you.
Thank you, and God bless you all.
NOTE: The President spoke at 2:15 p.m. on the State Floor at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to the upcoming wedding of Faces of Hope participant Leslie Williams.
William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Faces of Hope Reunion Luncheon Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/221011