Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at the Renaissance Weekend Dinner in Hilton Head, South Carolina

December 31, 1995

I bring you greetings from Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. (Laughter.) I understand one of the panelists had to explain why she chose to attend Renaissance Weekend rather than the Dark Ages Weekend. I may be the only American who had the privilege of attending both this year. (Laughter and applause.)

I know you want to hear the skinny on the budget negotiations — (laughter) — but you have to go through some preliminaries first. (Laughter.)

I was so happy to be here, and then the singing started. (Laughter and applause.) Like that dork and Diana — (laughter) — just when I was getting in good shape with the British again. (Laughter.) Larry Snyder wrote all those unflattering lyrics about me — after Susan got her appointment. (Laughter and applause.)

No one is happier to be here tonight than I am. (Laughter and applause.) We have had three rather remarkable days. And I told some of the people at our table tonight, I wish that — in some ways I wish the American people had watched the last three days of discussions between the Republican and Democratic congressional leaders and myself and others who were there in the Cabinet Room at the White House over the budget, because it really was sort of a case study in the different world views that are in contention in Washington today and the choices that are before the American people.

I believe, as I have said many times, that we are in a period of change so profound that one like this only occurs once every hundred years or so; that what is" going on in our lives and the way we work and live and relate to each other and the rest of the world is changing as profoundly as it did when we changed from a rural to an urban society, from an agricultural to an industrial society, and when we first began to be involved in world leadership as we went into World War I.

Now, we're moving out of that industrial age into one dominated by technology and information, beyond the Cold War into the global village. And I believe now that the debate which is going on in Washington is an inevitable and potentially a very, very healthy thing for our country. We have to remember that for all of our history, at least in my view, this country has been about three things: love of liberty, belief in progress, and the struggle to find common ground. And that in each successive generation, we have to redefine what those three things mean. And that today as much as ever before, they are interrelated. To love our own liberty, we have to stand for the liberty of others around the world. To preserve progress for ourselves, we have to want it for others who live in this country. In other words, we can't really preserve liberty or advance progress unless we advance the struggle for common ground.

It is against that background that you have to see at least how I view the present situation in Washington and the great debate over the budget. Let me begin by saying that, as all of you who are longtime Renaissance goers know, I'm sort of saying the same thing today I have been for years. And some of you may want to leave on that account. (Laughter.) I can only remind you of a great line I heard from that political philosopher, Tina Turner. (Laughter.) I went to one of her concerts once, and she sang all of her new songs, and at the end she sang Proud Mary, which was her first great hit. And the crowd began to scream before she ever sang a lyric and she walked up to the mike and said, you know, I've been singing this song for 25 years — it gets better every time I sing it. (Laughter.) I don't know if it will get better tonight, but I think it's worth reiterating.

I wanted to become President because I felt that we were going through this period of change and that we had to really work at it to preserve the American Dream for all people, to strengthen the American community instead of becoming more divided, and to preserve the leadership of our country as the world's greatest force for peace and freedom. And for about three years we've been working at it. .

I have a lot to be grateful for this year that has happened to our country. I'm grateful that our economy has now in the last three years produced almost 8 million jobs and, as many of you know, a record stock market; as you may not know, in three years in a row now, in each successive year, the largest number of new businesses starting and self-made millionaires in the history of the Republic. I'm grateful that we have homeownership at a 15-year high. Even more important, I'm grateful that we're reasserting those values we all talk about all the time. The crime rate is down. The welfare rolls are down. The food stamp rolls are down. The poverty rolls are down. The teen pregnancy rate is down now for two years in a row. .

A big headline in The New York Times today, the biggest drop in crime in New York City since 1972, crediting partly the new policing strategies which our crime bill is designed to support all around the country: putting more police on the street and working with friends and neighbors to stop crime as well as to catch criminals.

I'm grateful for the changes that have happened in the federal government. In the last three years, the deficit has been cut in half. You can imagine what kind of fight we'd be having in Washington if half the job weren't already done. And our government, as we speak tonight, has 200,000 fewer people working for it than it did when I spoke here three years ago. (Applause.) I think it's interesting — that's the smallest government we've had in 3 0 years. Next year it will be the smallest since John Kennedy was President. But tonight, as a percentage of the federal work force, the civilian work force, as a percentage of the civilian work force, your government is the smallest it's been since 1933, before the New Deal. (Applause.)

I say that to give you some leavening when you hear all this railing about big government still choking the life out of America. No one knows that, and I'm proud of that. Why does no one know that 200,000 people fewer are working for the federal government? For two reasons. One is, they were let go in a very humane way — with generous early retirement packages or severance packages; it was a planned, disciplined and human reduction.

Second, the people who are left are doing a better job for you. And no one ever brags on them and it's not fashionable to do it, but the federal government is 200,000 people smaller; next year, it will be about 2 50,000 smaller, and no one has noticed because the people who are left are doing more with less and doing a good job.

And I have to say, I read today when I have arrived, an article in the paper, complaining about all of these federal workers who aren't working and how they're going to get paid, and how outrageous that is.

Well, I think it's more outrageous that three quarters of a million of them are working and aren't getting paid. So you need to know that the federal workers are in no way, shape or form responsible for the fact that for the first time in American history, the government has been shut down for more than a day and a half over a political dispute between the President and Congress.

Disputes between the President and Congress are as old as the republic, they're healthy for the system. Never before have the people with the purse said, "if we don't get our way, we're going to close it down and send the people home." It is not their fault, and they deserve no criticism for the fact that we will allow them to make their mortgage payments when they get to come back to work, because they never wanted to go home in the first place. (Applause.)

But, anyway, I'm grateful for all of that. I'm grateful for the fact that we're getting rid of 16,000 of the 86,000 pages of federal regulations. I'm grateful for the fact that — (applause) — the rest of you are waiting to see whether it's one of your pages; I can see that. (Laughter.)

I'm grateful for the work that Secretary Riley has done in setting national standards of excellence for our schools, but giving schools more freedom from federal rules and regulations to find ways to seek that excellence, setting up charter schools and doing other interesting reform things. I'm grateful for the work that we've been able to do with governors, like Governor Bayh, who is here. We've now given 50 different — 50 different experiments from freedom from federal rules and regulations to 35 states to reform the welfare system and move people from welfare to work; while people have been talking about it in Washington, they've actually been doing it out in the States, and I'm grateful for that.

I'm grateful for the chance I had this year to give what, to me, was a very important speech with — Dick Riley and I went to James Madison High School in Virginia, and I gave a speech about religious liberty in America and the right of people in our public schools to express their religious convictions without violating the Constitution. And we sent out a set of guidelines all across the country to all of the schools in the country about that; I thought that was important.

I saw that you had a panel here on the affirmative action issue, and the title of the panel was a phrase I used in my speech on affirmative action. Most of my public life, and long before I ever became a public official, I have been, literally, obsessed by the question of race and the struggle for racial equality. I would like to do away with affirmative action, and I will, as soon as I'm convinced it's no longer needed. We are changing it dramatically, but I don't think we should do away with it until it is no longer needed, and it is still needed. (Applause.)

I am profoundly grateful that I have the chance to be President of the United States at a unique moment in history when we could contribute to the cause of peace and freedom. In Haiti, where they just had an election which .will ensure for the first time in 200 years the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in the history of the nation. In the Middle East, in Northern Ireland and, of course, in Bosnia, where our troops are on what is for them a very, very cold New Year's Eve; and I hope you'll all remember them tonight in your prayers and with your New Year's wishes. (Applause.)

I have a lot of things I'm very personally grateful for; Hillary talked about some of them. We celebrated our 20th anniversary this year. (Applause.) I'm proud of that. I'm proud of the life our daughter is making for herself, including the right to chide her father for being a stick in the mud about a lot of things. I'm proud of the speech she gave in Beijing and about the book you will soon read.

I'm proud that I was able to represent you at the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in Hawaii and Russia and the Ukraine, where I got to stand over and look at the little valley of Babi Yar where so many were slaughtered so innocently not all that long ago, and to remember what it means to be the world's strongest force for freedom and peace.

And I, too — I heard one of you say it — I, too, enjoyed having the chance to be in the ball park when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record. You can clap for that, kids. (Applause.) And I liked it because it was an old-fashioned thing he did, showing up for work every day. (Laughter.) We don't have to worry about what team he was on yesterday and what team he'll be on tomorrow. He has resisted the way the consumer culture has consumed professional athletics, and I like that. So I've got a lot to be grateful for.

I'm concerned about some of the challenges that are still before America, and I would just mention, if I might, two to you. First, Hillary already spoke about, but you must keep it in mind as we deal with this budgetary issue — there is a lot of income inequality in the United States; it has gotten more severe in the last 15 years. No other rich nation has as much disparity between the 20 percent on the bottom and the 20 percent on the top as the United States.

Now, we also have a lower unemployment rate than any other wealthy nation and we can be proud of that. And this is an age of great, great possibility. It's an astonishing thing that, for three years in a row, we've had more new businesses incorporated than ever before. It's a truly astonishing thing that for three years in a row we've had more new self-made millionaires; not people inheriting money, but making it on their own in an American economy. That's something to be profoundly proud of.

And whenever there are periods of great change when all the balls get thrown up in the air and the established order is disrupted, there will be people who don't do so well. It happened to us in the industrial revolution when we had people streaming into New York City and living in tenement slums who were not doing well in the beginning. So some of this is inevitable, and it's happening in every advanced country.

What we have to decide is, what is the appropriate response. Because we know that, in the end, we will all be hurt if this inequality persists and if more and more and more of our people work harder and never get a raise. So it's something that needs to be addressed and thought through, and you must see the budget decisions we're being asked to make in the context of the fact of inequality, not among people who are idle, among people who are working.

The second thing that really bothers me — it's hard to believe, looking out at these kids, is what is happening to young people in our country. Let me tell you two things that are stunning. The crime rate is down in America, but the violent crime rate among young people between the ages of 12 and 17 is up. Now, you could probably ask them and get a lot better answers than you can from me about why. But one reason is there are too many kids out there raising themselves. And, yes, their families ought to do it. But if they're not doing it, somebody else ought to step up and be seen and heard from as well. (Applause.)

And I worry about that because of what it means for America 10 years from now, because if their habits don't change, then the crime rate will explode again and the drug problem will explode again. It started turning around in 1991. And no one knows exactly why. But it is fueled by juveniles. I have to believe part of it is there are too many young people who don' t_. believe they are the most important person in the world to somebody and who aren't getting both the kind of love and direction and discipline they need — and opportunity and sense of responsibility and a sense of the future. So those are the challenges, the worries I have.

Nineteen ninety-five was a year of loss for me as your President, as well as a person. Like all of you, my heart was broken by what happened in Oklahoma City. But what happened in Oklahoma City brought home to us in a painful and immensely personal way the national problem of America and an international problem of terrorism, both homegrown and exported terrorism, that will be at the forefront of our security concerns for a very long time.

And, as also often happens in a tragedy, the way the country came together afterward, not only in the immediate aftermath that healed the wounds of the people that were there to lift them up, but even in the longer term, I sensed a lessening of the anger and the harshness with which Americans were dealing with people who had different views as we were all sobered, as well as saddened, by that. So maybe something good will come out of it over the long run.

The other big loss that I had this year was when my friend the Prime Minister of Israel was assassinated — at the happiest moment of his public life, being cheered by 100,000 of his fellow countrymen and women, most of them young people who believe in the risks that he had taken for peace. But even as we speak, for the first time, representatives of the governments of Israel and Syria are talking in the United States in a way and with a sense of trust that I do not believe would have been possible had Yitzhak Rabin not laid his life down for the cause of peace in the Middle East. So maybe something good will come from that loss.

Of all the things Linda Lader said tonight, the thing that made the most impression on me was the story she told of two of our Renaissance folks who were talking about losing a loved one, losing a child, why some people are broken and their lives come apart and why others don't. And the answer is, I don't know why. I don't either. Ernest Hemingway once said the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. We have to be strong in the face of these losses. But when we are, it enables us to go forward. '

When you think about what we have to celebrate as a country, the challenges we still face and the losses we have endured, the fact that we still have to reassert our love of liberty, our belief in progress and our struggle for common ground, that is how I think you ought to look at this budget debate. This is not about whether to balance the budget. We can easily adopt a seven-year balanced budget plan that is consistent with our objectives and our values and our obligations to each other. The question is whether we will.

And this balanced budget debate is really two debates. It's a debate about whether we will finish the job of balancing the budget and get out of 15 years — well, really 12 — from 1981 to 1993 — to January of '93 was the only period in our country's history when, without regard to the condition of the economy, we created a persistent, structural deficit. We had never done that before. There is plenty of blame to go around.

We have been working to change it. Any approach requires tough decisions. What we decided to do in 1993 was to bring the deficit down but continue to invest in the things that would grow the economy over the long run and would bring the American people together, would help us to find more common ground — education, the environment, research, technology, the protection of the basic social safety net through Medicaid and Medicare.

The debate now is over how to balance the budget and it really is — it stands for what the role of government should be in the United States in the 21st century. It's not about big government. We've resolved that. The government's going down. If we don't reduce the deficit another penny, the government will be 270,000 smaller when I speak next year — if we don't do anything else. This is about what the government should do.

There is a view today strongly pronounced that in the global economy of the 21st century, anything the government does much beyond having a strong national defense and an aggressive highway program is probably an unwarranted intrusion on the free enterprise system. That is a slight overstatement. I'm not trying to be unfair now, I'm just telling you there is a view the government usually does more harm than good and that it basically is sort of an accumulation of yesterday's institutions and bureaucratic imperatives and ideas that undermine our march to the future.

Now, I agree with some of that because I've worked so hard to change it. But I don't believe there is any — any — evidence that the marketplace alone can permit us as a people to advance our values. I don't believe there is any evidence of that. (Applause.)

So we have to decide, you know, what do we need to spend to grow together, to preserve our liberty, to advance our values, to continue to have progress, to give everybody a chance to win. And how do we have to do it. That's really what this debate's all about.

Let me give you just a few examples. And admittedly —and let me say, we are all sworn to secrecy about the last three days, but I think you'd feel better about your country if you'd seen them unfold. I'm convinced that we're all trying to get there, and that we have real, honest differences of opinion and real deep differences in our world view; but we are trying to get there on the goal we agree on, which is to pass a balanced budget plan for the country that will get the discipline back in our budget, keep interest rates down and enable the private sector to grow. I believe that. So that's my — that's the good news. I'm convinced that we are trying.

But there are real policy decisions here. For example, if you believe that the government is the problem and, therefore, should do less across the board, do you believe that we should permit drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — which is only 10 percent of the available land drilling for — the other 90 percent is already open for drilling. And at the same time that we should stop spending government money — your money — on energy conservation programs which will produce more energy than all the oil that's in the national wildlife refuge. If you believe the government shouldn't do any of that, the answer is probably yes.

But if you have a less — if you're not as opposed to government action then it's pretty hard to justify why you drill and cut out so much energy conservation, you're going to give up more energy than you're going to get — and run the risk of changing the environment and also changing the culture of a native tribe that depends upon that national wildlife refuge for its way of life.

A lot of business people here believe we ought to have sweeping tort reform because they think the state governments don't have enough sense or don't have the political independence or whatever to give them the legal systems they need. We've always had tort law, personal injury law has always been a matter of state law. A lot of people say no, the states have messed it up for so long it's time for the national government to take it away from the states and have a uniform system of contract law to protect business.

Now, if you believe that do you believe at the same time it is time for the national government to abandon the safety net for people who are poor, and most of whom are working poor — I want to emphasize that, the vast majority of whom are working poor — and turn the Medicaid program — which is for the elderly, for the handicapped and for the very poor children — the school lunch program, the food stamp program and the welfare program over to the states to run however they please, when you don't even think they have enough sense to run their contract law right. (Applause.)

Now, I understand — I know I'm reflecting my bias here, and I don't pretend not to, but these are the questions we're being asked to answer. Do you believe that in the name of balancing the budget we should cut taxes $200-and-whatever billion if it means to get there we'll have to cut our research budget by a third? Japan just voted to double its research budget. Hillary entertained, I think, nine Nobel prize winners at the White House the other day and seven of them had done their work on government research grants. A very distinguished Republican business executive on my Science and Technology Advisory Council came in the other day and said, "I just want to tear my hair out," he said, "we cannot — we cannot reduce our research budget by a third. We cannot do this. It is consigning us to second-class economic citizenship in the years ahead."

I say that to say these are difficult decisions. It is not just about balancing the budget, it's about your philosophy about what the role of government should be and what we have to do together. But we are honestly trying to get there, all of us. I am convinced that today the discussion I had with the Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader and the Democratic leaders was a discussion in good faith. We are trying. And you should feel good about that on this New Year's Eve.

Let me close with this thought. The reason I love this weekend so much is that no matter how exhausted I am when I get here, no matter how preoccupied I am with other things, I see the faces of the children; I see people whose life stories I've heard now for 12 years and I've watched unfold; I meet new people who have new things to teach me; and I understand again not only the importance and the great gift of being an American, but just the very gift of being alive.

That is a great thing that Phil and Linda Lader have given us. We have to scrape away our cynicism, we have to shelve our pessimism. You cannot be here, you cannot be a part of this without going away believing more in our country, believing more in your own families, believing more in your own potential to grow and learn and change. And that is the gift of Renaissance Weekend.

When Hillary and I were in Ireland — I don't know if I'll ever have two days like that again in my lifetime — but I was so grateful that the United States, at a moment of possibility, could help to bring these people together, could help to convince them to put their weapons down, could help to support the Prime Minister of Great Britain and the Prime Minister of Ireland as they were taking their own risks for peace — risks which could put them in danger, as well.

And when we were there in Belfast, walking along the Shankle and the Falls, the great Protestant and Catholic streets where the troubles began and where so many people died, and I saw all those young people — Protestant and Catholic alike — reaching out, cheering, because the United States stood for peace and for opportunity and for hope, by the thousands, saying in their very expressions that we will never, never go back to the way it was. I thought to myself if there were just some way we could all. live every day with that spirit, we could all believe in ourselves and our future every day with that level of feeling. That's what I wish for you on this New Year's.

I want to read something to you that I found in a book that Nobel prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney gave to Hillary when we were in Ireland, because it's how I always feel when I leave Renaissance Weekend, and how I felt when I left Ireland. "Now it's high water mark and flood tide in the heart, and time to go. What's left to say?

Suspect too much sweet talk, but never close your mind. It was a fortunate wind that blew me here. I leave half ready to believe that a crippled's trust might walk, and the half true rhyme is love."

That is Renaissance Weekend. That is our great opportunity and our enduring obligation. Happy New Year. (Applause.)

APP Note: The transcript of these remarks were not published in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents or the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States but was released by the White House in the form of a press release.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Renaissance Weekend Dinner in Hilton Head, South Carolina Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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