Remarks at the Grand Opening of the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln
Thank you; please sit down. Well, we've been here a long time in this beautiful setting, and if Thoreau were here, he would say we need more silence and less talk. But I have immensely enjoyed what has been said.
Senator Kerry has been a consistent, devoted supporter of the environment, and he was profoundly eloquent about it today. Senator Kennedy has worked so hard for projects like this one for so long now, but he has a way of telling a personal story that brings home to people, who might not otherwise be engaged, the importance of the moment.
You know, I thought I'd get a few brownie points for coming here and saying, because of his work here, I gave Don Henley the National Humanities Medal last year. But that's nothing compared to Ted Kennedy coming here and calling him the "big fish" and the "distant drummer" at the same time. [Laughter]
I would very much like to thank all the people who Don mentioned. I know Ed Begley, Jr., and Tony Bennett were on before; they've been good friends of ours. I thank Jimmy Buffett and Joe Walsh and all the musicians and other friends of Don who have helped. I thank you, Kathi, for your magnificent work. And I'm grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for supporting this project. And I thank you all for clapping when we said we weren't going to let it be done away with, along with the NEA.
I'd like to recognize two people who aren't here today, but who played an important role in getting this endeavor off the ground with Don: the late Paul Tsongas and the late Michael Kennedy. Thank you, to them.
Hillary and I got to walk a little along the path coming down here today. It's very frustrating being where we are now because back when we had real lives, we used to walk in the woods a lot. [Laughter] And so to be able to come here and only be able to walk 200 yards so that our friends with the cameras could at least get a good picture, so the American people could get a real feel for the magnificent work that's been done here—it winds up almost being more real to them than it is to us sometimes. [Laughter] But it was enough just to see what moved Thoreau to move here on July 4, 1845, so that he could live deeply and deliberately.
In a way, he was engaging in his own experiment in independence, in the finest tradition of American citizenship. A lot of you know that Thoreau was a friend of Emerson, who talked about our Revolution as "the shot heard 'round the world." In many ways, Thoreau's sojourn here at Walden was also a shot heard 'round the world. And it continues to echo today. That's why, as Hillary said, we have to, all of us, support saving it, along with our other national treasures.
I want to reiterate something Don said in a rather delicate, soft, Southern fashion: They need more money here. [Laughter] And since we'll probably be on television, if anyone within the sound of my voice—[laughter]—who ever read Thoreau, who was ever inspired by his writings and what he stood for, we have to raise a $12 million endowment and pay off a construction loan. Send a check. [Laughter] You'll be proud you did. [Applause] Thank you.
Well, let me get back to the point I mentioned. Thoreau has echoed over the decades and now more than a century. And what do we have to learn from him, and what does it mean in 21st century terms? First, we have to live in harmony with nature. What does that mean? That's one thing for one guy living on a pond. You've got 260 million people in this country; they can't do that. What does it mean?
For us, it means that we have to completely give up the notion that we can only grow our economy if we destroy the environment, and we'll just do it little by little. We have to learn a whole new way of thinking so that we grow our economy by improving the environment and living in greater harmony with ourselves here in this country and around the world. It is a fundamental insight that Americans of all political factions, all backgrounds, all walks of life must embrace.
Second, in an era where for the first time in history more people on the globe live under governments of their own choosing than do not, the first time ever a majority of people live under governments of their own choosing, it is well to remember that oppression still lives in the world and that there is a great deal of tension and, as the Good Book says, wars and rumors of war. We must not forget both the power and moral superiority of civil disobedience over violence in the face of injustice.
As Hillary said, Dr. King, Gandhi, Mandela, all were moved by the insights of Thoreau. We must not forget that today. We must not forget for a moment the value of self-reliance; nor must we forget the fact that Thoreau came here and wrote about solitude, that he learned more about his fellow human beings and the proper relations among people from his solitude, because if he had too much contact with other people, he thought you came to take too much for granted and frittered too much away. We must be both self-reliant and interdependent, and that is a lesson that Thoreau learned that we can learn from him today. And in a world that is getting smaller and smaller and smaller, it is a very important lesson, indeed.
Finally—I love this quote, so I want to close with it. We have to understand that in a fundamental, moral way we are interconnected not only with nature but with all other people, and that any attempt to define ourselves in a way that elevates us at someone else's expense, any effort anywhere in the world by people to put themselves in a group that can only succeed if they're putting someone else down, is wrong and, in this world, unaffordable. Listen to what Thoreau said: "Let us settle ourselves and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of prejudice and delusion till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place which we can call reality."
It is a great mistake to think this man was just a dreamer. Like all truly wise people, he understood that altruism was the ultimate form of enlightened self-interest, that no one can pursue self-interest and material things devoid of a heart or a spirit.
Today we still have a whole lot of "mud and slush of prejudice and delusion" in this and every other society. With all our prosperity, we still can't afford it; there is too much to be done.
So let us hope and pray that Walden Pond will flourish. Let us hope and pray that people will come to these woods forever from now on, to learn not only more about themselves and their relationship with nature but the proper order of human society and the responsibility of every citizen to preserve it. If that happens, Don Henley and all of his cohorts will have given an astounding gift to America's future.
Thank you, and God bless you.
NOTE: The President spoke at 5:30 p.m. on the lawn of the Institute. In his remarks, he referred to musician Don Henley, founder, and Kathi Anderson, executive director, Thoreau Institute; actor Ed Begley, Jr.; singer Tony Bennett; musicians Jimmy Buffett and Joe Walsh; and President Nelson Mandela of South Africa.
William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Grand Opening of the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/226109