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Remarks at the Friends of Art and Preservation in Embassies Dinner

April 30, 1999

Well, let me say to all of you, first, welcome. I want to thank Jo Carole Lauder, Robin Chandler Duke, Ann Gund, everyone else who has worked on this program.

You know, I look forward to this every year. This is a night when I can appreciate what is constant about our Embassies, rather than what is changing in our relationships with the countries involved. [Laughter] And I must say that tonight is especially important. I want to welcome the artists, those who have made such generous gifts. Any number of representatives of the governments of other nations are here tonight, and we welcome them, as well. I want to say a special word of thank you to Joel Shapiro for helping to make our new Embassy in Ottawa a showcase of the best in American art.

The Arts in Embassies program is quite a success all around the world. And as you might imagine, Hillary and I, because we have had the opportunity and the responsibility to travel quite a lot, have seen more of the fruits of your labors than almost any other Americans. I can tell you, having spent the night in any number of Embassies, held any number of receptions, one of the things that people always comment on is the art. And many, many people come to see the President when I'm in a given country who don't know anything about our Arts in Embassies program, and so I have become one of your better ambassadors of good will— [laughter]—in explaining how we come to have all this magnificent art in our Embassies throughout the world.

Senator Specter, I have never claimed that Congress spent taxpayers' money on it, but neither have I denied it. [Laughter]

And as all of you know—and Hillary was talking about some of the art we have in the White House—one of the great pleasures of living here is just living around the art that is here. And to all of you who have contributed to the art in the White House, many over several decades, I am profoundly grateful for that, as well.

Robin mentioned that this is not the easiest of moments for our country because of what we are trying to achieve in Kosovo. And she said that it was, therefore, especially appreciated that Hillary and I would have you here tonight. I would argue that it's especially important that you be here tonight. And I'd like to read you something that I hope makes the point.

In the springtime of 1941, as fascism spread across Europe, destroying lives and liberties, President Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of the National Gallery here in Washington. His words seemed to me particularly relevant today, and I'd like to share a few of them with you.

He said, "Art is part of the present life of all the living and creating peoples—all who make and build. These paintings are symbols of the human spirit. To accept this work today is to assert that the freedom of the human spirit shall not be utterly destroyed."

All around the world, our American Embassies are helping people to follow the path of freedom and democracy. Our efforts and those of our NATO Allies are standing for that freedom and against the principle of ethnic cleansing, racial and religious exclusivity as a basis for killing and uprooting people and destroying their cultures.

This is a particularly painful thing for any American with any sense of history, for the Serbs were our grand allies in World War II. They stood against Hitler, and they fought bravely. And they have their legitimate historical grievances, as do most ethnic groups in Europe, Asia, Africa, or any other part of the world. We hope to be reconciled with them.

But one of the things we all have to learn is to affirm our common humanity, even if it means setting aside our legitimate historical grievance. And that is what we are working for. That is what art, the advancement of art, the defense of the freedom of expression and creativity represent—our common humanity, the triumphs over all the differences that, when contained, make life more interesting; when unleashed as a weapon of war, make it unbearable.

So I ask you to stay with this program long after Hillary and I leave the White House, as the best expression not only of artistic creativity but the universal rights of human beings to be free.

Thank you, and God bless you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 7:18 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Jo Carole Lauder, chair, and Ann Gund, president, Friends of Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE); Robin Chandler Duke, cochair, FAPE Millennium Project; and sculptor Joel Shapiro. The transcript released by the Office of the Press Secretary also included the remarks of the First Lady.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Friends of Art and Preservation in Embassies Dinner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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