Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks at the Swearing In of Robert L. Bennett as Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

April 27, 1966

Mr. and Mrs. Bennett and family, distinguished Secretary of the Interior, Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, ladies and gentlemen:

One of the hardest tasks that a President has is to find the right man for the right job at the right time, but when he succeeds, it is a source of great pride and satisfaction to him. And I feel that pride and that satisfaction as we meet here in the historic East Room this morning.

My pleasure is redoubled by the fact that we have found this man from the ranks of our own Federal career civil servants. I may be a little partial to those who have served their country with diligence and dedication through the years, but I am in the process every day of ferreting out from the millions of people who serve their Government faithfully those who merit promotion and who deserve advancement.

I started out back in the early thirties. I have been with the Government now 35 years. And I may not have deserved all the promotions I've got, but you can't say that I haven't been promoted from time to time. I recognize it, I appreciate it, and I am grateful for the system that would permit it.

As I look back here and see a good many of my colleagues of yesteryears, I am grateful for what the people have done to them, too. Clint Anderson over there will not admit it, but he and I were NYA Administrators in the early thirties together, a long time before he ever dreamed he would be a United States Senator from New Mexico.

And speaking of United States Senators, one of the greatest was Robert La Follette.

This morning Mr. Robert La Follette Bennett--who bears this great name of an American who fought all of his life for the rights of his fellow citizens, named for a man who is revered from one end of the country to the other, and now his namesake--comes here to assume a position in which he will be able to carry on that proud tradition. He will be doing it for those problems that he is familiar with and that he thoroughly understands.

I want to make this prediction this morning: that Bob Bennett is going to be one of the greatest Indian Commissioners that the United States of America has ever known. I predict this not because be, himself, is of Indian descent, but because he has already distinguished himself in a lifetime of service to the Federal Government. He first joined the Indian Bureau in 1933 as a clerk in the great State of Utah. And except for his service with the Marine Corps during the Second World War, and his 2 years with the Veterans Administration thereafter, he has been concerned with Indian affairs ever since.

I have noticed that most of the people who come from the great State of Utah have a rare dedication to their Government and an unusual competence. Well, Mr. Bennett is going to need all the experience and all the ability that he can muster. For 161 years have passed since that great President Thomas Jefferson charged his countrymen to treat the original inhabitants of our country "with the commiseration that history requires."

President Jefferson pointed out that our European ancestors found the American Indian "occupying a country which left them no desire but to be undisturbed." That desire was thrust aside by history and Thomas Jefferson's pleas were ignored.

We cannot turn back the hands of time today, but we can, after 161 years of neglect, honor Jefferson's plea. Others have tried. They have known some success, yet far too many of our Indians live under conditions which made a mockery of our claims to social justice. In 1966, the year that is known as the most prosperous year that the United States of America ever enjoyed, Indians on reservations this year have the lowest standard of living in the entire United States.

I was observing some figures upstairs. I am going to deviate just a moment because it may be interesting to some of those who hear this argument about spending all the time. It looks like Congress is going to spend more than we recommend they spend. But I was worried about that. It looks like they may up the budget $3 billion this year already from what they reported from the committees. We could stand some of the upping in Indian housing, because I observed that a certain type of worker in this country, the industry he is in, gets a subsidy, and the amount of total subsidy amounts to $6,500 per year per worker.

I observed the subsidies that we grant on loans--some of them 2 percent, some of them 3 percent, some of them 3 1/2, below the prime rate of 5 1/2 percent--and how many millions that amounts to in a year!

I noticed some of our irrigation-reclamation amounts to as high as $6,000 or $7,000 per family, a hundred-odd thousand dollars sometimes on one farm.

I noticed the payments we had made over a period of years that were in the form of supplements. And then we are debating a very serious matter in the Senate today involving $11 million, or $600 for a poor family. We can send a man a farm check in certain areas of the country for $180,000 for one farm, yet we really get worked up about a $600 subsidy for a poor man who has already paid a fourth of his income for housing in one of our substandard housing areas.

Well now, on most of the reservations in this country, 90 percent of our Indians do not today have decent housing in the year of our greatest prosperity. If we can't do it now, when can we do it? On some reservations, large Indian families have annual incomes of less than $2,000 per year. Indian family income today is less than one-quarter of the national average for the whole country. Now that is something that we ought to be concerned about.

The reason we have this little swearing-in ceremony this morning is not only to honor Mr. Bennett, but to let the country know some of these facts. Because if the President won't tell the country, and you won't tell the country and the Congress, well, we can't do anything about this 90 percent substandard housing and about incomes of under $2,000 a year.

Commissioner Bennett, your President thinks the time has come to put the first Americans first on our agenda. And we are going to give you that job this morning as soon as you are sworn in. From this hour forward, we are going to look to you to discharge that responsibility. I want you to put on your hat and go back over there to that Bureau and begin work today on the most comprehensive program for the advancement of the Indians that the Government of the United States has ever considered. And I want it to be sound, realistic, progressive, adventuresome, and farsighted.

I want the Secretary of the Interior to support you. I want Senator Anderson and Senator Jackson and the Members of the Congress here to pick up that thing and let's write it into the laws of this land so we can remove the blush of shame that comes to our cheeks when we look at what we have done to the first Americans in this country.

I want, during my administration, the time that I am allotted, to put an end to substandard housing and to substandard programs. I am going to depend on you to tell me what needs to be done not only by your Bureau, but by the other departments and agencies in this Government. I want to give you my pledge here this morning that if you fulfill this charge, you will have the full power of the institution of the Presidency of the United States behind you.

Do anything you have to do. If there are cobwebs in the Bureau, then clean them out. Let's set up some Civil Service boards to start hearing the cases, but let's clean them out. Let's get some "can-do" people at work. If you meet resistance, well, I think you know what to do about that. And if you need them, I am going to ask Dillon Ripley to admit you free--Clint Anderson is on the Board over at the Smithsonian--and you go over there and find some of those tomahawks that are still around the Smithsonian.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 11:40 a.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his opening words he referred to Robert L. Bennett, his wife, and Stewart L. Udall, Secretary of the Interior. During his remarks he referred to Senator Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico, Robert M. La Follette, Senator from Wisconsin 1906-1925, Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington, and S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks at the Swearing In of Robert L. Bennett as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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