Bill Clinton photo

Remarks to the Family Re-Union V Conference in Nashville, Tennessee

June 24, 1996

Thank you very much. Well, Mr. Vice President, I kind of hate to talk, that panel was so good. I sort of—I think they were the keynote, and I'll just try to finish it with a grace note.

I'd like to begin by thanking the Vice President and Tipper for showing this consistent commitment to the American family. I mean, it's one thing to have one of these conferences, but to have one every year and have each one be better than the last and to be able to demonstrate to the American people that we are building on it and actually doing something with it—I mean, after that conference last year, I left here with a renewed commitment to make sure that when we passed the telecommunications bill it had the V-chip in it. I left here with a renewed sense that because of the media people that were here, that we could work with the leaders of the entertainment industry to develop a television rating system, and we did. And I believe we'll be able to get an agreement to increase the quality and quantity of educational time on television. And I believe a lot of good things will come out of this conference as well. So, for—we're indebted to them for a lot of things, but this will be a lasting legacy.

I also want to thank Dr. Erickson and Representative Purcell, Speaker Naifeh, Governor Wilder, and the other officials that are here, Attorney General Burson, Attorney General Humphrey, and State legislators from across the country. And I thank you for coming.

I'd like to begin by saying you could probably tell that we're all kind of into this, and that's a very important thing for me for you to know. I believe as we move into this new era that the people of this country are going to have more chances to live out their dreams than any generation of Americans before them. But we have to do it in a way that, number one, gives everybody a chance to live out their dreams, not just a few—or not even just many or most— but everybody who is willing to be a responsible citizen should have a chance to live out their dreams. And we have to do it in a way that brings us together, instead of dividing us.

This is an incredibly diverse country. This is an incredibly complex and diverse economy. We are being more and more drawn into a global— not just a global economy but a global society. And it is absolutely imperative that we have a commitment to dealing with these challenges in a way that increases opportunity for all and brings us together.

When Hillary and I and Al and Tipper all sort of moved into the White House, one of the things that I tried to do was to kind of get a fix on the people who were working for us. Now, a lot of people who work for the White House are young people who haven't started their families yet, and that's probably good because they work these crazy hours and they never seem to get tired. I used to be that way myself. [Laughter] And then a lot of people who work for us, all their children are grown, so they can accommodate bizarre schedules and long hours.

But we have a significant number of people in very responsible positions who still have children who are either school age or pre-school age. And one of the things I told them when we started this was that we were on a mission to change America for the better, but it wasn't as important as taking care of their kids, and that if they ever thought that their families were really suffering, they ought to quit, because the most important job any of us have, starting with the President, is to be a good parent. And several of them have taken me up on my admonition—[laughter]—sometimes at great personal loss to me.

One of the most brilliant people who ever worked in the White House, at least in the last several years, Bill Galston—a man who made an enormous contribution to our administration, full of new ideas and ways to move America into the 21st century—came to me one day and he said, "My boy keeps asking where I am. He's 10 years old. You can get somebody else to do this job; no one else can do that job. I have to go home. You said I could, and now I have to." And he did. And I think he'll never regret it.

My Deputy Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles, whose wife went to college with Hillary—his wife is a very prominent executive in the textile industry, and her job got bigger and bigger and she was going to have to travel more. And they just had one child left at home, and he was going into his senior year. And Erskine said, you know, he said, "I just love working here. I love public service, and I don't need the money. But my boy should not be at home in his last year in high school—and I don't want him to ever wonder, not a single time, for the rest of his life, whether he was ever the most important thing in the world to his parents. And I'm going home." And he did. And his son just graduated from high school, and he's going to Princeton next year. He made the right decision.

So I say that to all of you to try to put this into some sort of context and also to try to emphasize what I was saying earlier. One of you said—one of the panelists said, "You know, we don't live to work, we work so we can live. And we hope that we find fulfillment in our work and we do good things." Politics, if you will, is one step removed from that. What is the purpose of the national enterprise? Well, the first thing we're supposed to do is to give you a safe world to live in—no cold war but new threats, terrorism and things like that. The second thing we're supposed to do is try to help give you a safe country within which to live, safe streets and a clean environment and healthy food. The third thing we're supposed to do is to kind of create a structure of opportunity and a structure of fairness, so that everybody has a chance and we all have a chance to grow together. And if you think about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the whole history of our Nation, it's been one long struggle to make this country a country with more opportunity, more fairness, more unity, living up to the ideals that the founders enshrined, so that people can then make all their own decisions— and most of the decisions made have nothing to do with Government—about how they're going to organize work, and hopefully the work will permit them to live good personal lives and build strong families. And that's the way I look at my job.

Now, what we have been talking about today are the worries of parenthood. It seems to me there are at least three big challenges that parents face today. Parents are worried about— to go back to what Mrs. Jordan said, even if I teach my kids good values, will something in the society and the culture change my child's life or destroy it? Will my child be subject to violence, to gangs, to drugs, to teen pregnancy? Will my child be subject, even long before that, to cultural influences or other dangers over which I basically have no control, especially if I have to work and my kid is home watching television 4 or 5 hours a day?

Dad says, "Cigarettes are bad for you, and besides that, it's illegal." Right before you get out of the car to go to school or get out of the school bus, you see this great Joe Camel ad on the billboard. You know, Joe Camel is more well-known to 6-year-olds than Bill Clinton. [Laughter] And more interesting looking. I mean, you know, let's face the facts. I mean, it's an interesting, brilliant strategy.

Mother says, "Son, you can't be violent. Sticks and stones can break your bones; words won't hurt you. Don't get mad; walk away." And then Mom goes to work. The kid flips on the television and watches 4 hours of people killing each other with assault weapons. So it's a challenging thing. That's what last year's conference was all about. And again, I want to take my hat off to the people in the entertainment industry who are coming to grips with this really tough problem of rating television programs.

You know, it's pretty easy to rate movies. There is a certain fixed number of them that come out every year. You just think about how many channels you have at home and how many hours a day those channels are on and how many different programs are on them, and you get an idea of the staggering task that the entertainment industry has voluntarily taken on itself so that parents, by the time we get V-chips in all these new television sets, so that parents will actually have a guide so they'll know what they're doing to program the V-chip and use it.

But it's a move in the right direction. It's what we were trying to do when our administration became the first one in history to take on the whole issue of the access of young people to exposure to tobacco advertising and sales. Now, it's illegal in every State in the country for kids to buy cigarettes. But 3,000 kids a day start smoking, and 1,000 of them are going to die sooner because of it. There is no other public health problem in America with those kinds of numbers. So we have to try to do something about it.

I want to say a special word of thanks again to Al Gore, who lost his only and beloved sister to lung cancer, for being a constant voice of conscience in our administration, for getting us to come to grips with this. This is what they call in Washington politics a character builder. It's no accident that no one else had ever done this before. And it's not a free decision. But it was the right thing to do, and we're trying to do it, to try to create a framework within which other people can build their lives.

Even the crime bill itself was designed to create a framework: the safe and drug-free schools initiative or putting 100,000 police on the streets in community policing or taking the assault weapons off the street or passing the Brady bill, which has kept 60,000 felons, fugitives, and stalkers from buying handguns in just 3 years. That's an important thing. All I can do is to create a framework within which others are going to be given the opportunity to change the culture of this country community by community.

But let me tell you, lest you grow fainthearted, we're about to enter the 4th year in a row of violent crime dropping in America. So don't let anybody tell you it can't be done. It can be done; we can change this. But we are a long way from home, and we still have breathtaking rates of violence among juveniles. You go back to what Robert said about young people needing to be taught to be parents and to be responsible. So I thank you for that.

When we set up this national service program, AmeriCorps, what we were trying to do was not have a Government program but to try to give people a chance, to set up a structure within which people could go out in their communities and solve their own problems. So I wanted to deal with that.

The second pressure I think parents face is increasingly financial. You heard Ms. Allen talk about that. It's no accident that, on average, families today are spending more hours at work and less hours at home than they were 25 years ago. Don't let anybody tell you that Americans aren't hard-working. We are working fools— [laughter]—some of us because we like it, others because we have to. But we do it; we show up. We show up. All the surveys show most people on welfare are dying to go to work. We have 1.3 million fewer people on welfare today than we did 3 1/2 years ago, partly because we're giving the States the ability to create opportunities and then move people to work. This is a working country. But you have to be able to create a strong and secure family. Otherwise, the harder you work, the more you fall behind and the more frustrated people get.

Now, what can the Government do about that? Well, we can create a framework. We've cut the deficit in half and got interest rates down and expanded trade and invested in technology and infrastructure and education, and the American people produced almost 10 million new jobs. That's a good thing. It's a good thing. The interest rates brought mortgage rates down; we've got almost 4 million new homeowners in the last 3 1/2 years.

But that doesn't resolve all the problems. There's still—this economy churns so much, and so many of our jobs are now being created in smaller companies where people normally are used to having less security, that we have to find ways, I believe, to reward work by giving people lifetime access to education, training, health care, and retirement.

That's what this debate in Washington is about over the Kassebaum-Kennedy bill. It would give 25 million people access to health insurance by simply saying, you don't lose your health insurance if you have to change jobs or if someone in your family has been sick. That's what insurance is for.

That's what the small-business package of pension reforms that we sent to Congress is all about. It basically says if you're a self-employed person or you work in a little business and you work for a whole series of small businesses and you're always changing jobs or you're out of work for a while, you ought to be able to take out a pension and keep it even through the bad times, and you ought not to have to wait a long time when you move from one job to the other to know that that pension is secure and seamless and continuous. As far as I know, there is no opposition in the Congress to this package in either party, and I'm hoping we can get that out.

The Secretary of Education and the Secretary of Labor worked very hard on a proposal to collapse all the job training programs in the country. Somebody loses their job; they just get a voucher worth $2,600 a year to go to the local community college or do whatever is necessary to get job training. And these are the kinds of things that we think are very important.

And the last thing I would say is that we know that the fastest growing essential in every family's budget in the last 12 years, believe it or not, was not health care, it was the cost of college—was the only thing that went up more rapidly than health care costs. So we proposed to give families a tax deduction of up to $10,000 a year for the cost of college tuition and to make the 13th and 14th years of college universally available in America by giving families a tax credit for the cost of going to a community college. So we could say to people, look, it's just not enough to have a high school diploma anymore, and if you're just coming out of high school or if you've been in the work force for years and you want to go back, everybody, 100 percent of the people ought to have guaranteed access to at least 2 years of education.

Now, these things I think will change the framework within which families have to live and work and will give them more income security and more stability. It doesn't guarantee any results, but at least it sets up a framework within which families can succeed.

The third thing, though, that we have heard a lot about today is time. A lot of people say, "I can make money, but if I do I have to give up all my time." And this is a very important thing. There are so many families, two-parent families that are working two full-time jobs and a part-time job or two. There are so many single parents who are working two jobs or working so much overtime they're worried about whether they will ever see their kids. And I think about this a lot.

You know, when Hillary and I were young parents and she had already spent many years studying all this—she took an extra year in law school to work at the Child Study Center where we were in law school so that she would know a lot about the impact of the law on children and their interests. And I'll never forget, one day I was working on something, working like crazy, and Chelsea was about a year old, and she said, "You know all that stuff they tell you about quality time," she said, "It's about half not true." She said, "Time counts; show up." [Laughter] You know, time counts.

And I can remember a lot of nights when I would read my daughter to sleep, and I would fall asleep before she would. And she would elbow me and say, "Dad, finish the book. Finish the book." [Laughter] But it meant something. Even the nights when I wasn't very good, you know, it meant something. And I'm proud to say that my daughter is about to be a senior in high school, and she can still count on one hand the number of things that I have missed over her whole life. But I'll tell you something, she hasn't forgotten a single one of them. [Laughter] And sometimes I hear, "You remember when I was in the second grade; we had such, and you were—" but I like that. I like that. I'm glad she felt entitled to complain.

And when Captain Bryant was talking about the videotapes—one of the great highlights of my recent life is that we did that in reverse, Captain. I was in Russia meeting with President Yeltsin when Chelsea had her junior prom, and she did a videotape so she could send a message to her dad that she was sorry that I couldn't send her off. And I thought to myself, well, that's one she didn't hold against me. And that kind of bothers me. She has reached the age when I'm not around, she doesn't hold it against me as much. But at least—[laughter]—at least I have a film of it.

Every person is entitled to build that memory bank. Somebody who is out there working for 6 bucks an hour in a factory, they are just as entitled to build that kind of a memory bank as the President of the United States. They're just as entitled to it.

And let me ask you also to look at this from the children's point of view. We did a great job here. All of these companies and the public employees that are here, and the people in the Federal Government who do a good job of this, we talk about how it makes for happier workers, and happier parents make more productive workers, and you make more money. And you see that immediately. But let me ask you to think about this over the long haul.

Think about the cumulative impact of all those extra stories at bedtime. Fifteen years later, you have a more literate citizenry. Think about the cumulative impact of the extra hour or two helping your child with homework. Fifteen years down the road, you have a more productive citizenry. Think about what it means to sit at your sick child's beside. By the way, sometimes they don't make it. Fifteen years from now, you have people who are freed from the bitterness of thinking that they were deprived of the right to share what life they had with their children. It may seem small, but it may mean the difference in whether you raise a whole bunch of productive citizens or selfabsorbed and completely alienated people. It may make the difference in whether people, when they grow up, live lives of responsibility or lives of rage that they still—they never quite understand.

So we talked a lot of about how this can be done and you can make money today about it because people would be happy and more productive, and that's terrible important. But if you think about it in generational terms, which is how we ought to be thinking about it, it can also shape what this country looks like way into the 21st century. That's why in some ways the first bill I signed as President, the family and medical leave law, may be the most important, because of the framework it established for other people to do things.

I can tell you this, that I still talk to people all the time—about 10 days ago or so we had the Children's Miracle Network and all the children's hospitals telethon people in the White House. And I was upstairs, and they said, "Mr. President, these people are downstairs, and would you like to go down and say hello to them?" So I did. And they had all these children who had been desperately sick—some of them were well now; some of them were still sick— and their parents, one from each State. And these kids were—they had been through a lot, and their parents had been through a lot. And most of their parents were just working people. And two of them on the way out, separately, said to me, "I do not know what I would have done without the family and medical leave law. It enabled me to take care of my child without hurting my family, without losing my job."

Twelve million people have now taken advantage of that law. And a recent study by a bipartisan commission on leave said that 9 out of 10 companies involved said the act had not cost them any money or done anything to their profits. And obviously, since—and let me put it in some larger context. I'm about to go to Europe in a couple of days to the annual meeting of the G-7 countries, the big seven economies. In the last 3 1/2 years, those economies have created a total of 10 million jobs, 9.7 million in the United States and 300,000 in the other 6. So the family leave law did not hurt the American economy, it helped the American economy.

Now, again I say the most important thing is for us to have a framework. Then, by far, more significant would be changing the culture of America—have, as Vance Opperman said, having more companies follow the leads of the companies that are here. But I do believe that we've had a lot of time now to think about this and work on this in the last 3 years. I've listened to people talk about it. I believe there are two more changes we can make that would help the American economy, not hurt business, and strengthen families. And I want to propose them here today in the hope that you will bring us the same good fortune that you did last year with the V-chip and the telecommunications bill.

First of all, the family and medical leave law has done a lot of good, but it is extremely narrow in its purpose. In other words, you're entitled to time off without losing your job in a workplace of 50 employees or more if there's a medical crisis involving a parent or a child, an immediate family member, or the birth of a child. That's better than it used to be. But I believe, just based on—and you heard some of this today—I believe we should expand the family leave law.

I would propose that we pass a family leave II that would allow employees to take up to 24 hours a year—that's not a lot of time—for parent-teacher conferences or for routine medical care for a child, a spouse, or a parent, because there are a lot of parents who cannot go to school to see the child's teacher because the work schedule and the schedule of the school don't work. And there are a lot of times when there is a routine, what at least starts out to be a routine medical problem, where it really makes a difference if the parent can go, especially with a young child, or where there's nobody else to take the parent.

So I am very hopeful that we can get some support for this. I also think it would create a more honest workplace. I mean, I bet every one of us knows somebody who's called in sick or said they had car trouble so they could go meet with their child's teacher or take a child or a parent to the doctor. So I think that we ought to pass family leave II, and I believe it will make a difference.

Secondly, I think we need to make the workplace more family-friendly, especially where a lot of overtime is concerned, and give people more flextime in taking overtime either in income or in time with their families.

Now, traditionally, overtime has been a very important way for a lot of American workers to realize their dreams. Overtime is really the difference between a good middle class existence and being in real trouble for a lot of workers. And I don't believe we should change that. But with more Americans working more hours, simply spending time with your family can be a dream in itself: a vacation, a maternity leave that goes beyond what's mandated by law, or if the child's in trouble and you just need some time to spend time with your child.

So today what I'm proposing is that we redefine compensation in a way that reflects the value of family and community. I'm going to send to Congress a flextime initiative that will give employees this choice: If you work overtime you can be paid time and a half, just as you are now and just as the law requires. But if you want, you can take that payment in time; and for every hour you work overtime, you can take off an hour and a half. In this sense, the proposal is fundamental to redefining work time. Workers can put in time and get money, or they can put in time and get time. You can choose money in the bank or time on the clock.

It's important that this be a choice for employees. I should say that most employers in America would like this option. And there's a lot of support among employers for giving this kind of option. But it's also important how it's designed, because it will only work as a familyfriendly decision if there's a genuine partnership, which means, to go back to what our friend from Saturn says, this is a case where the employee has to make the decision. And that's very important. There must be complete freedom to choose. If you're required to work overtime in your job or you're given the chance to work overtime, then you, the employee, must get the choice of whether to take the overtime in money or time. Otherwise it could simply open the door wide for abuse of the overtime laws, so that families that need the overtime income could fall behind. But if it is honestly administered and fairly given to the employee, think what a difference it could make in critical family situations.

Now, this is a case where more than anything else I think we have to change the culture. But we have to write strong protections into the law. And if you have any doubt, just look at the front page of the Wall Street Journal today, which talks about, in contrast to these companies, the widespread abuse of the overtime laws and how a lot of people are entitled to it and can't get it. So we'll have to write this law in a way that protects the employees. Otherwise, we'll have even more of what is already a problem that is bigger than the Labor Department can manage with its present resources.

But I believe it's important. We have got to develop flextime proposals that recognize that Americans have priorities at home as well as at work. But if we do this, if we give people the opportunity to earn overtime and then take it in cash or time at their discretion and if we pass family leave II so that people can do some ordinary work that is profoundly important over the life of their children or their families as well as deal with the emergencies, I believe this will be a stronger country. I believe we will have a stronger economy. I know we will have stronger children in stronger families. And that is the most important thing of all.

So let me say again, I'm very grateful to Al and Tipper Gore for doing this. It means a lot to Hillary and me just to know that they're our friends and our partners and that they share our values about this. There is nothing more important, I will say again, than doing a good job of raising our kids. I still think I did the right thing, even though I have lost some valued employees, in telling every one of them to leave if they ever thought their responsibilities at home were threatened.

The Talmud says: Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, "grow, grow." Our children are those blades of grass, and we must be their better angels.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11:30 a.m. in Polk Theater at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center to participants in Family Re-Union V: Family and Work. In his remarks, he referred to conference cosponsors Martha Farrell Erickson, director, University of Minnesota Children, Youth, and Family Consortium, and Tennessee House Majority Leader Bill Purcell; Tennessee House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh; Lt. Gov. John Wilder and Attorney General Charles Burson of Tennessee; Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III of Minnesota; and the following conference speakers: Deloris Jordan, president and cofounder, Michael Jordan Foundation; Robert Pollard, mentor in a teen father program; Deborah Allen, single working mother; Capt. Gregory Bryant, USMC; Vance Opperman, president, West Publishing Co.; and Bob Boruff, vice president-manufacturing, Saturn Corp.

William J. Clinton, Remarks to the Family Re-Union V Conference in Nashville, Tennessee Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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