Remarks at the Michigan State University Commencement Ceremony in East Lansing, Michigan
President McPherson, Governor Engler, Ambassador Blanchard, distinguished Members of Congress and State officials, members of the board of trustees, distinguished faculty, honored guests, family members, and most importantly, members of the class of 1995, I'm honored to be your speaker today and to be back on this wonderful campus, the site of one of the great Presidential debates in 1992.
I have fond memories of Michigan State. And I was sitting there thinking of all the uses to which I might put my honorary degree. Maybe I will get more respect in Washington now. [Laughter] Regardless, now I know who I'm supposed to root for in the Big 10.
Speaking of sports, I want to take a moment of personal privilege to offer my very best wishes on his retirement to your distinguished basketball coach, Judd Heathcote.
And as a person who never, ever, would have had an opportunity to be here today doing what I am doing, I want to thank President McPherson, the present and past Governors of Michigan, and all others who have supported the remarkable set of educational opportunities for young people in Michigan, especially in higher education. The tuition guarantee program to keep tuition increases here to the rate of inflation for 5 years is a standard I wish other universities all across America would follow.
I also hope that other States will follow the example of the Michigan Education Trust and of Michigan State in entering into the direct loan program, which will lower the cost of college loans for young people and improve their repayment options so more people can afford to go to college and stay there until they get their degrees.
I also want to say that I am deeply honored to be joined today by another Michigan State alumnus who spoke from this platform last year, my friend and fellow Arkansan Ernest Green. He was one of the Little Rock Nine, a brave group of Americans who staked their lives for the cause of school integration and equal opportunity in education in my State almost 40 years ago. He made the right choice at the right moment in his life. He is a good model for you, and I hope you will do the same.
As I was reminded by your president and others when we gathered just a few moments ago, the last sitting President to address this assembly was Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. There were fewer than 100 graduates in the senior class then. But it was a time not unlike this time. We are on the edge of a new century; they had just begun a new century. We are on the edge of a new era; they had just begun the dawn of the industrial age. Like us now, they had many, many opportunities but profound problems. And people were full of hope mixed with fear.
But President Roosevelt and his generation of Americans were optimistic, aggressive in facing the challenges of the day, and determined to solve the problems before them. They launched the Progressive Era, using the power of Government to free the market forces of our country from the heavy hand of monopoly, beginning to protect our environment for future generations, to keep our children out of sweatshops, to stand strong for America's role in the world.
Theodore Roosevelt and the Americans of his generation made the right choices at the right moment. They met the challenges of the present, paved the way for a better future, and redeemed the promise of America.
Our journey as a nation has never been an automatic march to freedom and opportunity. In every generation there has come a point of challenge in change when critical decisions are made by our people to go forward or turn back, to reach out or turn inward, to unify or divide, to believe or doubt.
Today, we stand at the end of the cold war and the industrial age, at the onset of the global economy and the information age. Throughout all 219 years of our Republic, times of great change like this have unleashed forces of promise and threat, forces that uplift us and unsettle us.
This time is not different. You are walking into a future of unlimited possibilities. But more than half your fellow citizens are working harder, spending less time with their children, and earning about the same they did 15 years ago. You can look forward to bringing your children into an exciting world, freer of the dangers of war and nuclear annihilation, but the dangers here at home are still profound. Too many of our children are not born into stable families. Our streets are still too violent. And new forces threaten the order and security which free people everywhere cherish.
And so, my fellow Americans, it falls to your generation to make your historic choices for America. This is a very new and different time. But the basic question before us is as old as our country: Will we face up to the problems and seize our opportunities with confidence and courage? It is our responsibility to make that choice again.
Because you have a fine education, with all its power and potential, when you leave this stadium your responsibility to your families, your community, and your country will be greater than ever before. With your lives fully before you, you too must once again redeem the promise of America.
On the homefront, there is reason for optimism. Though income stagnation and economic uncertainty plague too many of our people, unemployment is down, inflation is low, our deficit is declining, trade is up, and most importantly of all, educational opportunities are increasing. Though crime and violence, drug abuse and welfare dependency, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies are still too high and threaten our social fabric, we are making a serious assault on all of them, and we can make progress on all of them. Though Government is still too cumbersome and outdated, it is growing smaller, more flexible, less wasteful, and more effective. In all these endeavors, you must demand higher standards and more personal responsibility. But you must know that progress is possible.
Beyond our borders there is also reason for hope. Since the end of the cold war, the bonds among nations and the forces of commerce have grown stronger. There is now a greater understanding of our world's environmental challenges and a willingness to do something about them. Freedom, democracy, and free enterprise are on the march. Large countries are much less likely to go to war with one another. I am very proud to say that for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, no Russian missiles are pointed at the people of the United States. And I am equally proud to say that next week I will become the first American President in nearly 40 years to visit Russia when no American missiles are pointed at the people of Russia.
Therefore, you who graduate today will have the chance to live in the most exciting, the most prosperous, the most diverse and interesting world in the entire history of humanity. Still, you must face the fact that no time is free of problems, and we have new and grave security challenges.
In this, the 20th century, millions of lives were lost in wars between nations and in efforts by totalitarian dictatorships to stamp out the light of liberty among their subjects. In the 21st century, bloody wars of ethnic and tribal hatred will be fought still in some parts of the world. But with freedom and democracy advancing, the real threat to our security will be rooted in the fact that all the forces that are lifting us up and opening unparalleled opportunity for us contain a dark underside. For open societies are characterized by free and rapid movements of people and technology and information, and that very wonder makes them very, very vulnerable to the forces of organized destruction and evil. So the great security challenge for your future in the 21st century will be to determine how to beat back the dangers while keeping the benefits of this new time.
The dark possibilities of our age are visible now in the smoke, the horror, and the heartbreak of Oklahoma City. As the long and painful search and rescue effort comes to an end with 165 dead, 467 injured, and 2 still unaccounted for, our prayers are with those who lost their loved ones and with the brave and good people of Oklahoma City, who have moved with such strength and character to deal with this tragedy.
But that threat is not isolated. And you must not believe it is. We see that threat again in the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, in the nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway, in the terrorist assault on innocent civilians in the Middle East, in the organized crime plaguing the former Soviet Union now that the heavy hand of communism has been lifted. We see it even on the Internet, where people exchange information about bombs and terrorism, even as children learn from sources all around the world.
My fellow Americans, we must respond to this threat in ways that preserve both our security and our freedoms. Appeasement of organized evil is not an option for the next century any more than it was in this century. Like the vigilant generations that brought us victory in World War II and the cold war, we must stand our ground. In this high-tech world, we must make sure that we have the high-tech tools to confront the high-tech forces of destruction and evil.
That is why I have insisted that Congress pass strong antiterrorism legislation immediately, to provide for more than 1,000 new law enforcement personnel solely to fight terrorism, to create a domestic antiterrorism center, to make available the most up-to-date technology to trace the source of any bomb that goes off, and to provide tough new punishment for carrying stolen explosives, selling those explosives for use in a violent crime, and for attacking members of the Uniformed Services or Federal workers.
To their credit, the leaders of Congress have promised to put a bill on my desk by Memorial Day. I applaud them for that. This is not and must never be a partisan issue. This is about America's future. It is about your future.
We can do this without undermining our constitutional rights. In fact, the failure to act will undermine those rights. For no one is free in America where parents have to worry when they drop off their children for day care or when you are the target of assassination simply because you work for our Government. No one is free in America when large numbers of our fellow citizens must always be looking over their shoulders.
It is with this in mind that I would like to say something to the paramilitary groups and to others who believe the greatest threat to America comes not from terrorists from within our country or beyond our borders but from our own Government.
I want to say this to the militias and to others who believe this, to those nearby and those far away: I am well aware that most of you have never violated the law of the land. I welcome the comments that some of you have made recently condemning the bombing in Oklahoma City. I believe you have every right, indeed you have the responsibility, to question our Government when you disagree with its policies. And I will do everything in my power to protect your right to do so.
But I also know there have been lawbreakers among those who espouse your philosophy. I know from painful personal experience as a Governor of a State who lived through the coldblooded killing of a young sheriff and a young African-American State trooper who were friends of mine by people who espoused the view that the Government was the biggest problem in America and that people had a right to take violence into their own hands.
So I ask you to hear me now. It is one thing to believe that the Federal Government has too much power and to work within the law to reduce it. It is quite another to break the law of the land and threaten to shoot officers of the law if all they do is their duty to uphold it. It is one thing to believe we are taxed too much and work to reduce the tax burden. It is quite another to refuse to pay your taxes, though your neighbor pays his. It is one thing to believe we are over-regulated and to work to lessen the burden of regulation. It is quite another to slander our dedicated public servants, our brave police officers, even our rescue workers, who have been called a hostile army of occupation.
This is a very free country. Those of you in the militia movements have broader rights here than you would in any other country in the entire world.
Do people who work for the Government sometimes make mistakes? Of course they do. They are human. Almost every American has some experience with this, a rude tax collector, an arbitrary regulator, an insensitive social worker, an abusive law officer. As long as human beings make up our Government, there will be mistakes. But our Constitution was established by Americans determined to limit those abuses. And think of the limits: the Bill of Rights, the separation of powers, access to the courts, the right to take your case to the country through the media, and the right to vote people in or out of office on a regular basis.
But there is no right to resort to violence when you don't get your way. There is no right to kill people. There is no right to kill people who are doing their duty or minding their own business or children who are innocent in every way. Those are the people who perished in Oklahoma City. And those who claim such rights are wrong and un-American.
Whenever in our history people have believed that violence is a legitimate extension of politics, they have been wrong. In the 1960's, as your distinguished alumni said, many good things happened, and there was much turmoil. But the Weathermen of the radical left who resorted to violence in the 1960's were wrong. Today, the gang members who use life on the mean streets of America, as terrible as it is, to justify taking the law into their own hands and taking innocent life are wrong. The people who came to the United States to bomb the World Trade Center were wrong.
Freedom of political speech will never justify violence—never. Our Founding Fathers created a system of laws in which reason could prevail over fear. Without respect for this law, there is no freedom.
So I say this to the militias and all others who believe that the greatest threat to freedom comes from the Government instead of from those who would take away our freedom: If you say violence is an acceptable way to make change, you are wrong. If you say that Government is in a conspiracy to take your freedom away, you are just plain wrong. If you treat law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line for your safety every day like some kind of enemy army to be suspected, derided, and if they should enforce the law against you, to be shot, you are wrong. If you appropriate our sacred symbols for paranoid purposes and compare yourselves to colonial militias who fought for the democracy you now rail against, you are wrong. How dare you suggest that we in the freest nation on Earth live in tyranny! How dare you call yourselves patriots and heroes!
I say to you, all of you, the members of the Class of 1995, there is nothing patriotic about hating your country or pretending that you can love your country but despise your Government. There is nothing heroic about turning your back on America or ignoring your own responsibilities. If you want to preserve your own freedom, you must stand up for the freedom of others with whom you disagree. But you also must stand up for the rule of law. You cannot have one without the other.
The real American heroes today are the citizens who get up every morning and have the courage to work hard and play by the rules: the mother who stays up the extra half hour after a long day's work to read her child a story; the rescue worker who digs with his hands in the rubble as the building crumbles about him; the neighbor who lives side-by-side with people different from himself; the Government worker who quietly and efficiently labors to see to it that the programs we depend on are honestly and properly carried out; most of all, the parent who works long years for modest pay and sacrifices so that his or her children can have the education that you have had and the chances you are going to have. I ask you never to forget that.
And I would like to say one word to the people of the United States. I know you have heard a lot of publicity in recent days about Michigan and militias. But what you have seen and heard is not the real Michigan. This is the real Michigan. This is the real Michigan in this stadium today. The real Michigan is Michigan State. It's the astonishing revival of the automobile industry, with the remarkable partnership between the autoworkers and the management. Real Michigan is Kellogg's Corn Flakes and the best cherries in the world. The real Michigan is the Great Lakes and the UP. And most of all, the real Michigan was presented to me when I got off the plane and one of your local officials told me that here in mid-Michigan in only 5 days, the people of this area raised $70,000 to pay for the help that people need in Oklahoma City. And that money is now on its way to Oklahoma City in a 27-car caravan, led by members of 27 different law enforcement agencies from this part of your wonderful State. That is what I want America to know about the real Michigan.
So, my fellow Americans and members of the class of 1995, let me close by reminding you once again that you live in a very great country. When we are united by our humanity and our civic virtue, nothing can stop us. Let me remind you once again that our best days as a nation still lie before us. But we must not give in to fear or use the frustrations of the moment as an excuse to walk away from the obligations of citizenship.
Remember what our Founding Fathers built. Remember the victories won for us in the cold war and in World War II, 50 years ago next week. Remember the blood and sweat and triumph that enabled us to come to this, the greatest moment of possibility in our history.
Go out and make the most of the potential God has given you. Make the most of the opportunities and freedoms America has given to you. Be optimistic; be strong. Make the choices that Theodore Roosevelt made, that Ernest Green made. Seize your moment. Build a better future. And redeem once again the promise of America.
Thank you, and God bless you all.
NOTE: The President spoke at 1:30 p.m. in Spartan Stadium. In his remarks, he referred to Peter McPherson, president, Michigan State University; Gov. John Engler of Michigan; and James J. Blanchard, U.S. Ambassador to Canada.
William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Michigan State University Commencement Ceremony in East Lansing, Michigan Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/221134