Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks at the Swearing In of Wilbur J. Cohen as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.

May 16, 1968

Secretary Cohen and family, Mr. Vice President, Members of the Cabinet, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished Members of Congress:

One thing I have always noticed about Wilbur Cohen is that he never does anything without a reason. Usually I can figure out what he is up to. But for the life of me, I just can't understand why he chose the man he did to administer the oath of office this morning.

In any discussion of our social history, two landmark laws deserve very special mention, social security and medical care. Each was passed after very long and searching debate in the Congress. Each looked at one time or another like it was a very lost cause.

Each is a monument to the compassion and the enlightenment of the American Nation and each bears the indelible mark of one man--Wilbur Cohen.

If there is any man in America whose record and whose devotion to public service qualify him for high office, it is Wilbur Cohen. I am glad that I had a chance to participate in that decision that brought him to the highest office in his field.

He has been a planner, he has been an architect, he has been a builder, and he has been a repairman on every major piece of social legislation in the last 35 years.

He hasn't minded being a private in the rear ranks and now he is a general in the front ranks. But he will be doing the same things.

During the early years of the long battle for health insurance Wilbur wasn't always the best loved leader in the land, at least in the medical society meetings.

After one earnest speech before a medical society, I am told a doctor came up and offered to provide Wilbur personally with free medical care. In fact he volunteered to make a no-cost incision--from here all the way over to here [indicating the neck]. He said he could economize by not using anesthetics.

But Wilbur kept on working and as we meet here today, more than 19 1/2 million Americans are getting the benefits of Medicare and the benefits of his long hours, his patience, and his understanding and his devotion to his country.

Today the reformers would do well, I think, if they would just take Wilbur Cohen's life and study it. In a time when we are hearing so much about power, black power, white power, green power, and student power, perhaps someone should do an analysis of another kind of power--"Wilbur power."

You might define it as "Will power" with something added. Certainly it is the power of optimism over pessimism. Certainly it is the power of involvement over indifference. It is the power of reason over rhetoric. It is the power of the patient, persistent reformer over the noisy zealot. I have found that it is power that gets the job done.

Wilbur Cohen knows that you cannot move a nation from an ivory tower. But he has also learned that you can't move a nation with a bulldozer.

It took more than 20 years to achieve Medicare, and this man's determination and his skill in the agonizing art of turning dreams into law worked the miracle when lesser men could only stamp their feet in frustration.

A friend once said that Wilbur feels every person in the country who is at home alone, who is sick, is his personal responsibility.

But we did not come here for this ceremony simply to praise Wilbur's past record, great as that is. Wilbur Cohen is taking the oath of office today because I believe that he knows the needs of our country.

He knows the need to raise the national spirit. He knows the need to win new victories in new ways against disease and ignorance and poverty. He knows how urgent it is to erase the old indignities and to do it now, to end the old inequalities and to do it now, and to replace neglect with opportunity and to do it now.

Our future is filled with unfinished business, but it is rich with hope and with a great deal of opportunity, too.

So, Wilbur, we welcome you, knowing that any man who marries a redhead from Texas is a man who really loves challenges.

Note: The President spoke at 1:06 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. Following his remarks Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey administered the oath of office to Secretary Cohen. The Secretary's remarks in response are printed in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (vol. 4, p. 805).

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks at the Swearing In of Wilbur J. Cohen as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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