George Bush photo

Remarks at the University of South Carolina Commencement Ceremony in Columbia

May 12, 1990

Thank you, President Holderman, distinguished officials of this wonderful university. My special respects to two great United States Senators, Senators Strom Thurmond, Fritz Hollings, over here -- I'm proud to be with them today -- and to Representatives Floyd Spence and Elizabeth Patterson, with us; of course, to my dear friend, your Governor, Carroll Campbell, who's a tremendous partner in our national crusade for excellence in education. I also want to say how pleased I am to be on this stage with Archbishop Iakovos, one of the great church leaders of today.

I know, looking around, that tickets were hard to come by today. It wasn't simply parking. Barbara's here. [Laughter] Thank goodness she's getting an honorary degree there because it was the only way I could get her a seat in this big place. [Laughter] But thank you for honoring her.

And she's in great company, as am I, with today's other recipients of honorary degrees. I don't know how many of you have heard me speak before, but being on stage with Andrew Lloyd Webber is about as close as I'll ever get to a dramatic presentation. [Laughter] Congratulations to you, sir.

And to Michael Eisner: The success that he's achieved at Disney is the envy of CEO's worldwide. His secret's simple: Just surround yourself with the best and the brightest -- Dopey, Dumbo, Goofy. [Laughter] But what you may not know, and you should, is I salute him, too, for his commitment to this concept of Points of Light, the best impulse of America -- and Michael Eisner exemplifies it -- one American willing to pitch in and help another. He's a great American.

Now to you all. I've saluted -- hope I have -- your faculty. I should; they're outstanding -- the trustees and those who govern this great institution, and to the class who I'm here to help these others honor. You've gone to school for 4 years; the last thing you want to hear is a long lecture. But I wanted to use this great university as a forum for some serious foreign policy observations. I've chosen to make each of several commencement speeches this spring a reflection on democratic change. Last week, at Oklahoma State, I focused on the new role of our Atlantic alliance. Yesterday, down in Texas, at Texas A&I, I spoke about technology and the vast frontier of space. This morning, I want to talk about a frontier of a different sort, about the new world of freedom opening up in Eastern Europe.

Now, that's pretty serious business, but I'm going to ask you to bear with me, but telling you I do remember a graduation at Yale, where the graduation speaker got up -- my alma mater -- Y is for youth -- that took 20 minutes. A is for altruism -- young people be altruistic -- another 32 minutes. L for loyalty -- brushed that one off in about 18 minutes. E obviously for excellence -- another 32 minutes. When he left, one student left, praying. And the speaker walked down. "I see you're giving thanks to the Lord." He said, "Yes, sir, I am. I'm giving thanks that I did not go to the University of South Carolina." [Laughter]

So, bear with me, because we are living in exciting times. In the past year, one nation after another has pulled itself out from under communism, onto the threshold of democracy. Each has endured great suffering, tremendous economic damage. We've all seen the images of long lines and empty shelves. But what we can't see so easily, what's beneath the surface but no less real, is the moral damage, the deep scars on the spirit left by four decades of Communist rule.

Because in these regimes, the human spirit was subject to systematic assault. Religion, morality, right and wrong -- any challenge to the rule of the state became the enemy of the state. Believers were persecuted, churches and cemeteries razed. Citizens were turned one against the other, enlisted into the ranks of the regime's informers. Nothing stood outside the reach of the regime, not even the past. History -- well, it was rewritten to suit the needs of the present -- yesterday's heroes airbrushed from the pages of history. Milan Kundera, the Czech author, called it organized forgetting.

Of course, these nations had laws. They had courts. They had constitutions. All in service to the state. They had, in name at least, rights and freedoms; in reality, the empty shell of liberty -- not the rule of law but the perversion of law: rules made not to serve the will of the people but the whim of the party. That's how in Romania the law made it illegal for three or more people to have a conversation in the street. That's how in another country a man whose so-called crime was teaching others about religion was jailed for 6 months. The trumped-up charge: walking on flower beds. We will never know how many dissidents were punished as common criminals and how many millions of others were frozen by fear into silence and submission.

That's the legacy, the landscape of moral destruction. The tragic consequence of four decades of Communist rule: a breakdown of trust. From ancient times, the great minds have recognized the link between the law and trust. As Aristotle wrote: "Law is a pledge that the citizens of a state will do justice to one another" -- the bond that makes the collection of individuals into a community, into a nation.

Fortunately, the moral destruction in Eastern Europe, as you all know, was not complete. Individuals somehow managed to maintain an inner strength, their moral compass; to sustain the will to break through the regime's wall of lies. They did so, as Vaclav Havel [President of Czechoslovakia] put it, by the simple act of "living in truth." They created "flying universities," where lecturers taught in private homes. They formed underground publishing houses and groups to monitor human rights, an authentic civil society beyond the reach of the ruling establishment. And today the builders of those civil societies no longer live underground. They are the new leaders of Eastern Europe. And they've begun to build, on the ruins of Communist rule, democratic systems based on trust.

Today I want to focus on how America can help these nations secure their freedoms, become a part of a Europe whole and free. Early this year, in the State of the Union, I talked about America's role as a shining example, about the importance of America not as a nation but as an idea alive in the minds of men and women everywhere. And that idea was, without doubt, a guiding force in the Revolution of 1989.

Let me share a story with you about a recent American visitor to Romania who asked the people she met what they needed now, what was most important to them. This simple question produced some unexpected answers. In Timisoara, one woman pulled from her purse a worn copy of TV Guide, an issue from July 1987, containing a bicentennial copy of the United States Constitution. And she held it out to the American visitor. And she said, "What we need is more of these."

And there on the streets of Timisoara -- in a country where food is in short supply, where homes are without heat and streets dark at night -- there a woman pins her hopes on our Constitution. What that Romanian woman wanted, what all the nations of Eastern Europe aspire to, is democratic life based on justice and the rule of law.

Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary stand now, in the spring of 1990, as America stood in the summer of 1787. Who will be their Franklins, their Washingtons, their Hamiltons, their Madisons, their men and women of towering genius, the nation builders who will set in place the firm foundations of self-government? Some of them we know by name, the heroes of the Revolution of '89. But for Eastern Europe's constitution builders, the work has only now begun because the fate of freedom depends not just on the character of the people who govern but whether they themselves are governed by the rule of law.

And just as the framers of our own Constitution looked to the lessons of history, Eastern Europe's new democracies will look to their own parliamentary past, to Europe's example and, of course, to our own American Constitution. And that's why we must export our experience, our two centuries of accumulated wisdom on the workings of free government.

Already we're actively engaged with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with an ongoing series of exchanges bringing jurists and parliamentarians, political leaders here to the United States to meet their American counterparts. And today I'm pleased to announce four new initiatives, four steps that the United States will take to support democratic development in Eastern Europe.

First, America will continue to act to advance economic freedom. In the past year, we've committed more than $1 billion in direct economic assistance to Eastern Europe. We've extended loans and credits, opened our markets through most-favored-nation status, and promoted American investment. And today I'm pleased to announce yet another economic initiative: The Export-Import Bank will provide Poland a new line of medium-term export credits and loan guarantees for purchasing machinery, technology, and services from American suppliers.

And second, the United States will work to help ensure free and fair elections in Eastern Europe. And next week, we'll send a Presidential delegation to observe the elections in Romania and another team to next month's elections in Bulgaria.

Third, America will work to broaden the mandate of the CSCE, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Less than a month from now, as one of the 35 nations of the CSCE, the United States will take part in a conference on human rights, including free elections, political pluralism, and the rule of law. And I've instructed Ambassador Max Kampelman, head of our delegation, to seek a new consensus on these cornerstones of freedoms, rights, and democracy. As I said last week at Oklahoma State University, we must work within the CSCE to bring Eastern Europe's new democracies into this commonwealth of free nations.

Fourth and finally, we will work to strengthen the foundations of free society in Eastern Europe. And I am pleased to announce today the creation of a Citizens Democracy Corps. Its first mission: to establish a center and a clearinghouse for American private sector assistance and volunteer activities in Eastern Europe. We know the real strength of our democracy is its citizens, the collective strength of individual Americans. We're going to focus that energy where it can do the most good.

America has much to contribute, much it can do to help these nations move forward on the path to democracy. We can help them build political systems based on respect for individual freedoms; for the right to speak our mind, to live as we wish, and to worship as our conscience tells us we must; systems based on respect for property and the sanctity of contract; laws that are necessary not to amass fortunes, not to build towers of gold and greed, but to provide for ourselves, for our families; systems that allow free associations -- trade unions, professional groups, political parties -- the building blocks of a free society. We've got to help the emerging democracies build legal systems that secure the procedural rights that preserve freedom and, above all, a system that supports a strict equality of rights, one that guarantees that all men and women, whatever their race or ancestry, stand equal before the law.

In this century, we've learned a painful truth about the monumental evil that can be done in the name of humanity. We've learned how a vision of Utopia can become a hell on Earth for millions of men and women. We've learned, through hard experience, that the only alternative to tyranny of man is the rule of law. That's the essence of our vision for Europe: a Europe where not only are the dictators dethroned but where the rule of law, reflecting the will of the people, ensures the freedoms millions have fought so hard to gain.

There is still work to be done. In the Baltic States, where people struggle for the right to determine their own future, we Americans, so free to chart our own course, identify with their hopes and aspirations. For, you see, we're committed to self-determination for Lithuania and Latvia and Estonia. And ultimately, the Soviet Union itself, now committed to openness and reform, will benefit from a Europe that's whole and free. Democracy and freedom threaten absolutely no one.

We sometimes hear today that with freedom's great triumph -- and, oh, what exciting times we're living in -- that America's work is done. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want to close today with a story about the enduring power of the American idea and the unfinished business that awaits the generation that you proudly represent.

It's about a town called Plzen in Czechoslovakia; a town that just last week celebrated the day, 45 years ago, when it was liberated by American troops. Of course, within a few short years, Plzen's dream of freedom vanished behind the Iron Curtain, and with it, the truth about that day back in 1945. A generation grew up being taught that Plzen had been freed not by your fathers and granddads in the United States Army but by Soviet soldiers dressed in American uniforms. But the people of Plzen knew better. They never forgot. And today, finally free to speak the truth, the town invited their true liberators back. After 45 long years, those old American soldiers returned to the streets of Plzen, to the sounds of "The Star-Spangled Banner," to a hero's welcome.

Those GI's, my generation, were your age in 1945. And now it falls upon you, the graduating class of this great university, to uphold our American ideals not in times of war, thank God, but in a time of tremendous excitement, helping these nations secure the freedom that your fathers and grandfathers fought for, the freedom millions only dreamed of until today.

Once again, it's been my honor to share this special day with you, your families, and your friends. Thank you, and may God bless this great university and the class of 1990. Thank you all very, very much. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:25 a.m. at Carolina Coliseum on the campus of the university. In his remarks, he referred to James B. Holderman, president of the university; Archbishop Demetrios A. Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America; composer Andrew Lloyd Webber; and Michael D. Eisner, chairman and chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Co. Following his remarks, the President traveled to Lynchburg, VA.

George Bush, Remarks at the University of South Carolina Commencement Ceremony in Columbia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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