THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary (Selma, California) ________________________________________________________________________ For Immediate Release September 5, 1995
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT IN DISCUSSION OF AMERICAN HISTORY WITH 8TH-GRADE STUDENTS
Lincoln Middle School Selma, California
11:10 A.M. PDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning. Is this the first day of school?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, that's good. I mean, I think it's good. You might not think it's so good. I think it's great. I want to take a little time today to speak with you. I know you've been briefed a little bit about what I want to talk about, but I want to speak just for a few minutes. And then I'd like to answer questions or hear from you.
I think it's very important -- you're in this school named for Abraham Lincoln, who most of us believe was our greatest President -- it's very important that at your age you understand some things about the history of our country, and that you understand what the time you're living in is all about.
In every time in history there are a few basic things that are really, really important, and if you want to make the most of your life you have to know what those basic important things are. So I thought what I would do today is just take a few minutes and talk about three or four of those times, bring up to date -- bring us up to date now, and tell you what I think is most important about this time, and then let you say whatever you want to say or ask whatever questions you'd like to ask.
When Abraham Lincoln was President, as you know, we had the great Civil War. And we had only been a nation for less than 100 years. We were still a relatively small country in terms of population, and we were famous for being a democracy in a world where most countries were not democracies. Most people did not get to vote for or against people at election time and to pick their own leaders.
And the Civil War was really about two things: First of all, it was about whether the country would stay together as one country, or split between North and South; and secondly, about whether we would continue to have slavery, even though out Constitution said that all people were created equal and that people were equal in the eyes of God. So because the Civil War came out the way it did, we stayed one country and we abolished slavery and we began the long and unending task of trying to live in a nation that didn't discriminate against people based on their race. That was a very, very important thing.
And because those two things happened, we then became a very powerful economic country. And the country became more and more industrialized so that by the beginning of this century that we're about to end -- the beginning of the 20th century -- we'd become quite a powerful economic country with quite a large industrial base.
Then World War I broke out and we became involved in a war in another continent for the first time ever. And we tried to help our friends in Europe defeat the attempts of the Germans to take over all of Europe and to establish an empire and make people live under their will -- against their own will.
After World War I, because our country had never been -- we'd never been involved much with other countries before. We didn't much want to be involved in other countries. When George Washington, our first President, left office, he said we should be very careful about getting too involved with other nations and their affairs. So the American people, after World War I, which was over in 1918, went back to their own business, and basically withdrew from the world. Unfortunately, they couldn't withdraw from the world because by then, our economic well-being was caught up with the economic well-being of other people in other parts of the world.
And there was a Great Depression in the 1920s, not only in this country but throughout the world, that led directly to the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany, whom I'm sure you've all read about, and the Nazi power there, and led to the start of World War II.
I have just come from Hawaii, where we ended over a year's worth of celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, which ended in 1945, the year before I was born. World War II was about defeating Hitler, who wanted to establish an empire along with the Italian dictator all over Europe and in Russia. And the Japanese empire, they wanted to control everything in the Pacific -- nondemocratic and running other countries.
When they were defeated, our country then was the most powerful country in the world. The year I was born, 40 percent of all the wealth in the world was generated in America with only six percent of the people in the world, because all the other big countries had been devastated by the war.
So then for the first time ever, really, in our whole history in 1945, America was forced to lead the rest of the world and to be involved in the rest of the world. And we had two reasons for doing so. One is we had to build an economic system that would avoid having another Great Depression, that would enable everybody to make a living and work hard and raise their children and have a good life in our country and in other countries.
The second was that as soon as the war was over, World War II was over, the Soviet Union presented a whole new threat, what was known as the Cold War. And the Cold War basically involved the United States and its allies -- basically Britain and France and the other democracies, and now Japan and Germany -- standing against the expansion of communism which then dominated the Soviet Union, most of Eastern Europe, China and North Korea -- ultimately, and then some other smaller countries around the world; and also involved our being divided because we had nuclear weapons and they did, too. And we knew that if either side exploded the nuclear weapons it could lead to a war that would end the human race because the bombs had the power to kill so many people.
But from the end of World War II in 1945 until just a few years ago, we had this Cold War until communism failed, the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia became an independent country and a democracy and all these other countries that had been governed by communism now have different forms of government -- most of them are democracies in one way or another. China is still a nondemocratic country, but, essentially, the Cold War ended when the Soviet Union collapsed.
And so for four or five years, we've been moving into a new world in which we're reducing the number of nuclear weapons, so that by the time you are grown and you have your own children I hope no one will be afraid of the prospect of two countries going to war with each other and killing millions and millions and millions of people with nuclear weapons.
But we also have a new economy now where, for example, all the agricultural products sold in this valley depend in no small measure on what happens in the world economy -- can they export these products, can they be competitive, are they going to be facing imports from other countries.
So as you look to the future, I hope -- if we do our job right, people my age, from the President on down -- I hope you won't have to worry about a world in which you and your families could be destroyed by nuclear warfare. I hope you will never again have to face the prospect of dictatorships controlling hundreds of millions of people with aggressive attitudes that might force you to go into war.
So as you look ahead into the 21st century, I hope that most of what you will be concerned about is a competition not based on bombs or guns, but based on our minds and our ability to work. And I hope that you will be living in a country that will be the most successful country in the world, because we will find a way, without the pressure of war, to bring us together, to all get along together in spite of all of our differences.
So if you look ahead from where we are now to, let's say, when you are in your early 20s, I think the world will have two great challenges. One is the challenge presented by the global economy and the technology and information revolution -- how can all Americans who are willing to work hard make a good living, get a good job, establish a family and raise their own children. It's a big problem today. Some people are doing well, but other people are working hard and they aren't doing very well.
The second is how are we all going to get along in this world where we're of so many different races and religions and we have so many different opinions on everything. How can we get along. How can we find common ground and work together. I'm sure you see on the news at night the problems in Bosnia, or you see what happened in Rwanda or Burundi in Africa where people of different tribes or ethnic groups or religious groups - they don't threaten you in the sense that nobody is threatening to drop a bomb on you, but they're killing each other rapidly. And even in this country there is a lot of tension still among people with different or religious convictions or ethnic backgrounds.
So I think the two big things you'll have to deal with are how are you going to do well, you and all the people of your generation -- how are you going to do well in the global economy; how are we going to guarantee that the American Dream, which is that if you work hard and obey the law and do what you're supposed to do, will give you the opportunity to live up to your own dreams. And the second thing is how are we going to deal with a world in which, while there are not two great powers threatening to bomb each other out of existence, there are a whole lot of people who basically think that the differences between people are more important than what we have in common, and they're willing to fight and kill and die for that.
When you see a bus blown up in Israel because nobody wants peace in the Middle East -- because some people don't want peace in the Middle East -- that's an example of that. And that's what I -- those are the two great challenges I think you will face.
There's only one you can do anything about right now, and that is your own future -- how you're going to do well in this global economy. And there's one thing you need to know. In the world in which we're living, in the world toward which you're moving, education is more important today than ever before.
Fifteen years ago, just for example, a high school graduate made about 40 percent less than a college graduate in their first year of work. Today the difference is 80 percent. The gap has doubled, because in a global economy, based on information and technology, education really matters.
I come from a farming state that's not the same kind of agriculture you have here in the valley, but even the farmers, I know most of them now bring in their crops based on their ability to use sophisticated computer software, and I'm sure it's the same here.
So while education has always been an important part of the American Dream, today it is an essential part of your future, because if you look at people your parents' and your grandparents' age, for the first time in the last 15 years, for the first time, our middle class in America has basically been splitting apart between people who are doing pretty well in this new economy and people who aren't doing so well -- good people who are working harder, but never getting a raise and don't have a stable income. And almost exclusively -- not entirely, but almost entirely -- the issue is education. People that have higher levels of education are doing pretty well. People that don't aren't doing as well.
And that's why, since I've been President, I've done everything I could not only to put more money into education, but also to provide more opportunities for young people like you to go on to college or to get training after high school if you don't go to college; to give more poor little kids the chance to be in a Head Start program so they can get started to school in a good way. Because education now is more than just giving you an individual opportunity. Your whole country's future and this world's that we're living in and the one you're going to live in depends on our ability to educate our people.
The other thing I would say is there is something you can do about the second problem, which is all these racial and religious and ethnic tensions that you see all over the world. The United States, of all the big countries in the world, is really the most ethnically diverse. We have -- I mean, look around this room. Los Angeles County has people from over 150 different racial and ethnic groups. And if we can learn to get along, to respect each other's differences and to work together, then it means that the United States will have a huge advantage in the 21st century as other people find it impossible to bury the hatchet and to reach across their different religious and racial and ethnic lines. If we can do it, we're going to have a huge advantage.
So anything you can do as a student, as a young person dealing with other young people to learn to really respect people who are different from you and understand them -- it's okay to disagree with them, but to find a way to work together, that will really help your country. And it will also give you a better future.
Anyway, that's a short history of the last 130 years of America -- 140 years -- and where I think we are and where I think we're going. I really believe that there's a very good chance that you will live in the best period in American history, that you will live in the most exciting period in American history, that you will have more opportunities to do more things than any group of people ever has. But it depends upon our dealing with those two challenges -- we've got to learn to get along with people that are different from us and work together, and we have to educate everybody. If we do that, we're going to be fine.
Anybody have any questions, comments?
STUDENT: Did you always set high education goals for yourself?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, always. I was -- I lived with my grandparents until I was four because my -- or from the time I was two until the time I was four, because my father was killed in an automobile accident just before I was born. So my mother went back to nursing school so she could get some training and could support me. And my grandmother and grandfather, who didn't have a lot of -- my grandfather only finished the sixth grade, but they really drilled into me from the time I was small that I should do well in school. And they taught me to count -- they even had me reading little books when I was three and four years old. So it was a big thing in my family. And my mother was also very strongly in favor of education and so it was always a big issue in our family. And I always understood that it would help me personally.
But when I got out of -- let me -- what I want to emphasize is the difference between then and now, my time and your times. When I got out of high school, our country's unemployment rate was about three and half percent, or something like that. And I literally didn't know anybody who wanted a job that didn't have one -- nobody. And everybody I knew who worked had a good chance of getting a raise year in and year out. So that people with very high levels of education, they might do better, they might make more money, but all Americans really had a pretty stable situation economically when I got out of high school.
That's just not true anymore. So that it's not just a question if you want to be president or governor or the superintendent or the principle that you need to have high educational aspirations. Every one of you is smarter than you think you are. Your mind will absorb more, you can learn more, you can develop more than you think. And it's very important now. And it's very different than it used to be. Now, it's got to be a -- learning has to be something for everyone now.
But, yes, I did -- even when I was a little boy I was raised to believe that I had to learn as much as I could and that, even though I came from a family with no money or no particular standing, that it didn't matter. If I worked hard and learned a lot, I could do whatever I wanted to do. That's what my family raised me to believe. It turned out they were right.
STUDENT: What did you want to be when you were young?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, when I was -- I'm not sure I thought about it that much when I was your age. But when I was in high school I was basically interested in three things: I was interested in music, and I was very serious about it. I was interested in medicine and I considered studying to become a doctor. And I was interested in what I'm doing now -- I was interested in public service.
And when I grew up, it was a noble thing to want to be an elected official. I see all these surveys now where parents don't want their children to go into politics and people think it's a bad thing to do. I don't believe that. The political system which gave Mr. Dooley a chance to serve in Congress and gave Ms. Easton the chance to be the Education Superintendent and gave me a chance to be a Governor and then a President is what's kept this country going for 200 years.
So when I was raised, just like I was raised to believe and have high education aspirations, I was raised to respect the political system that we have and to believe in it. And I still feel that way. So those are the three things I was really interested in when I was in high school.
And finally, I just decided that I wanted to do what I'm doing now because I enjoyed it more and because I thought I was better at it. I think, generally, you need to find something you really like to do with your life and something you think you can become good at and do it. It doesn't mean you always win at what you're doing or you'll always be successful. I've lost two political races in my life. And I have not always achieved everything I've tried to do in the public offices I've held. But I think that generally you'll be happier if you do something that you're interested in and that you think you can be good at, even if it's extremely difficult.
And I remember when I went to college, sometimes I made the worst grades in what were supposed to be the easiest courses, and then sometimes the hardest courses I did better in just because I cared more about it and I would throw myself into them.
So that -- I don't have any advice for you except to find out what you really -- what you like, what you care about and then do it without reservation -- whatever.
STUDENT: Mr. President, I'm very overwhelmed by your visit this morning. But how was it like meeting President Kennedy?
THE PRESIDENT: It was -- well, for me, it was an incredible experience. And it was interesting. In 1963 when I went there to the White House, I was 16 years old. I had been out of Arkansas, I think, twice in my life -- out of my home state. I think I'd only been out of the state twice. And I got this trip to Washington with these other -- a hundred of us, who were young boys who were at this -- in this program I was in. This was the American Legion Boys Nation program.
And I really wanted to meet President Kennedy because I admired him and I liked him and I agreed with what he was trying to do. And I liked him because he was highly controversial in my home state and throughout the South because he was trying to finish the work of the Civil War. He was trying to pass all the civil rights legislation. He was trying to eliminate racial discrimination. And he was taking a lot of heat for it. And a lot of people in my part of the country weren't for him because of it. But I was for him because of it, because I believed in what he was doing. So it was not only a great thing for me to meet the President, but I thought that he was really looking out for our future, and I thought I would live in a better America because he was President. So I was very excited about it.
And I remember the day it occurred. I didn't know if the President was going to shake hands with all of the 100 boys, but because I was from Arkansas, I was at the top of the alphabet -- (laughter) -- and because I was above average in size, I could sort of elbow my way up to the front of the line. (Laughter.) So I made sure I got to shake his hand -- although he was quite nice, he stayed around. I think he shook most people's hands that day.
But it was a wonderful thing, you know. That's a great thing about this country. I mean, I just -- here I was coming from a modest-sized town, and one day I was shaking hands with the President, kind of like this. That's one of the great things about democracy. You know, your families' votes count just as much as mine does.
STUDENT: What are your plans after you leave office?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't know. I haven't thought about it much. Once in a while I think about, but I haven't -- you know, if I stay healthy, and I've been blessed with pretty good health, I hope I can continue to do some things that are useful for my country. I'm not much on just laying around. I like to work and I like to do things. So I'll try to find something very useful to do that will help America and help the causes that I believe in in this country and around the world. But I haven't really thought about it much. It takes all my concentration to do my job.
Did you have your hand up?
STUDENT: What do you think the most important thing you've done while you've been in office is?
THE PRESIDENT: I think the most important thing I've done in office is to basically make the presidency a place where problems are dealt with again. You know, in other words, instead of just being -- what I've tried to do is to use the office of the presidency to actually tackle the problems of the country and not just to make speeches and talk and try to stay popular. And I've done a lot of controversial things. And I know I've made some mistakes, but I have actually used the power of the presidency to take on things that have not been taken on.
For example -- I'll just give you some examples. When I became President, the debt of our country had gone up by four times in only 12 years. We literally quadrupled the national debt from 1981 to 1993. And it was unconscionable. But it's not easy to reduce it. But we reduced our annual deficit from $290 billion a year to $160 billion this year in only three years. And it was the first time since right after World War II that our country has reduced deficit spending three years in a row.
There was a crime bill that had been languishing around for six years in the Congress to try to help local communities fight crime more. We passed it; puts 100,000 more police officers on the street, stiffens punishment, provides some prevention programs for local communities to give kids something to say yes to, instead of things to stay no to.
There's a bill that had banging around in Congress for seven years called the Family and Medical Leave Law, which we passed, which gives most working people in this country the right to take a little time off if they have a sick child or a sick parent without losing their jobs.
We had -- I passed a number of other bills through the Congress. Trade legislation -- very -- the NAFTA bill, which helped the valley in its farm exports, was very controversial. We passed that. We passed the Brady Bill, a bill that was very controversial. It had been banging around for six or seven years in the Congress that nobody wanted to -- no president would really take it on -- that requires people who buy handguns to have a background check before they can get a handgun to see if they've got a criminal record or a mental health history. And we passed that bill.
Just the other day, we announced a campaign to try to reduced smoking by young people, because we know 3,000 young people start smoking cigarettes every day in America. And 1,000 of those 3,000 young people will have their lives shortened because of it, because of lung cancer or heart disease or strokes. But nobody had ever done -- nobody had ever done anything about it before in the White House because they didn't want to make the tobacco lobby mad, because they've got a lot of money and they're powerful.
Every job I've ever had in public life I've tried to do things. And what I've tried to do is to change the attitude about what we can do. I want you to believe that your country can work and that you can have a good future and that you can solve your problems. That's what I want you to believe. I don't believe in cynicism. I don't like people who are cynical or skeptical. I like people who get up every day and think they can make something happen.
So, I mean, if you ask somebody else what the most important thing I've done, they'd probably say, we -- our economic program turned the economy around, created seven million jobs and got economic growth going again. But I think -- but I believe the most important thing we've done is to prove that we can do things again, that you can actually take these problems on a make a difference and look to the future.
We made the college loan program more affordable for millions of young people. But to do it, we had to take on powerful banking interests that are now trying to get their money back because we took some money away from the middle men in the college loan program so we could lower costs for people like you to go to college.
We just did a lot of things. And I think the most important thing I've done is to try to force the government, and hopefully the American people, to keep looking toward the future and to say, okay, here are these problems, let's take them on, let's move into the future.
Even the major effort I tried that failed -- to try to provide health insurance for all American families -- even though I failed to do it, a lot of the things that I advocated are now happening anyway. And I think that the President is supposed to be someone who tries to bring the American people together around good values and high hopes and then to get people looking toward the future. You know, work together and work for tomorrow. And I think that largely I have achieved that. And that's what I intend to continue to do.
STUDENT: Since you've been President, what's the hardest decision that you've had to make?
THE PRESIDENT: That's a very good question. Interestingly enough -- let me tell you, first of all, interestingly enough, the hardest decisions are often not the ones that you would think. They're often not the ones that are most controversial.
Let me just mention two -- one Mr. Dooley was involved in. I think the -- I'll mention two that were very hard for me.
One was right after I became President I was told by the Republican leaders in the Congress that they would not vote for my budget -- none of them would vote for it, no matter what I did to it; that they wanted a partisan issue and that if I tried to bring the deficit down -- if it didn't work, they would blame me, and if it didn't, they would say, well, I raised taxes in '93 to bring down the deficit. So I had to pass an economic program -- I had to put together an economic program that would bring our country's deficit down by $500 billion only by members of my own party. And we had to make all kinds of decisions about what it would take to do that, including some things that I didn't necessarily agree with.
And that was very hard for me because I went to Washington determined to work with Democrats and Republicans. And I was shocked to find out how partisan it was. And it was very hard for me -- I mean, I was shocked to find out people say, well, I'm just not going to work with you because you're in the other party; I'm just not going to do it, we have to oppose you; that's the political thing to do. It turned out they were right, it helped them politically. But that was very hard for me to accept and very hard for me to deal with -- and then to figure out what to do to pass the program, but we did it.
And because we reduced the deficit, and reduced interest rates, and invested more in education at the same time, and gave California and other states some money to deal with the impact of base closing and defense cutbacks, we got the economy going again. But it was hard. It was really, really hard.
And the other thing that was -- sort of the hardest thing to do was to decide what to do, how to deal with Bosnia. For a long time it was very difficult because I think the United States has to work within the United Nations and within the rules set within the United Nations for a problem like Bosnia. But it's hard for us when we're the strongest country in the world, when other countries are -- don't do what we think they should do. And we have no way to make them do it because we didn't have soldiers there. But that was very hard for me.
Now I have to tell you I agree with what we're doing in Bosnia. I strongly -- you may know this from the news, but NATO planes are striking the Bosnian Serb targets again today in Bosnia because they refused to take all their heavy weapons away from Sarajevo and stop shelling the city. And we strongly supported that.
So now we're working together, and I agree with the policy. But that was very hard for me. Now that the Cold War is over, it's very important that other countries all take some responsibility for dealing with problems in their area and that we work with them. But it's hard when you're trying to work with somebody and what they want to do is not what you want to do. That's tough.
Now, the controversial things I've done were not so hard for me. For example, when I sent our troops into Haiti to remove the dictators it was -- the only difficult thing there was understanding how to do it in a way that would minimize the likelihood that any Americans would die. But whether we should do it or not seemed the right thing to me.
The most unpopular thing or the thing I've done that had the least popular support -- I don't know if it had the most opposition, it had the least popular support -- was to help Mexico when it was about to go bankrupt several months ago. A lot of -- nobody -- there was a poll on the day I made the decision that said the American people were against it 81 to 15. They thought I was doing the wrong thing to try to help Mexico. But I thought I was doing the right thing because I knew if Mexico collapsed we'd have a lot more illegal immigration problems. I knew that they wouldn't be able to buy any of our products. I knew that there was a serious chance that there would be an economic collapse in other countries in Latin America. So, basically, I had more information than most Americans did, so even though I was making a very controversial and unpopular decision, it turned out to be an easy one for me.
So sometimes the controversial decisions are not the hardest ones.
TEACHER: I think we're -- I'm trying to keep an eyeball of the time, and I think -- unless you'd like to take one last question.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, let me take one more.
STUDENT: Did you ever think about being President when you were young?
THE PRESIDENT: I did, but I didn't really -- I did. I guess when I met President Kennedy I thought about it. But it wasn't -- it wasn't that I really thought it would happen. I mean, I thought -- Abraham Lincoln said when he was a young man, he said this -- this is something you should think about, whatever it is you want to do -- he said, I will work and get ready, and perhaps my chance will come. That's what Abraham Lincoln said. And since you're here in the school named for him, that's a very good thing for you to think about in your own life, whatever your ambition and hope is.
I didn't really decide to actually run for President or think about it seriously until the 1980s. I thought about running in 1988 and decided not to, and then I decided to run in 1992 and was fortunate to be elected. But I thought about it in terms -- I thought in general terms, I aspired, actually, to be a senator from Arkansas when I was a young man. And it turned out I never got a chance -- I never served in the Congress. I was a governor, and then I got to be President.
But I think every young person, if you're interested in public life, you think, well, maybe that could happen. But I don't think that I focused on it in the same way I did when I started running, for example. It's just something you say, well, Lincoln said it best, I'll work, get ready; perhaps my chance will come.
TEACHER: Thank you. Eleanor, our student body president, has something in her desk that she'd like to give to you, some things for our school.
Eleanor, why don't you come on up.
(A gift is presented to the President.)
THE PRESIDENT: I like that. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you. This is great.
Well, I've had a wonderful time. Lindsey asked a question. Let me close by saying this. If you do anything in life where you make decisions, you're going to make some that don't turn out right, or some, maybe even if you didn't make a mistake, the consequences, the unforeseeable consequences turn out to be very bad. So sometimes the decisions that are the most difficult on the front end don't have those kind of consequences.
The budget had happy consequences. But the worst days as President are days when things happen that you set in motion that are bad. The other day, three of our peacekeepers, three of our negotiators died in Bosnia in an accident, in a complete accident. But they were all men about my age with children about my daughter's age and about your age. And you feel terrible about that. When our soldiers were killed in Somalia, it was the darkest day of my presidency for me.
I say that to make this point in closing: Anything you do with your life, some of the things you do, they're just not going to work out like you meant for them to. You're going to make mistakes, or bad things will happen that you have no control over. And the important thing is that you keep going. You have to believe in yourself, believe in your dreams, believe in the life you want to live, and keep going, because we're all human and things are not always going to work out.
But I can tell you that now I have been to 30 years' worth of high school reunions. I've never missed a high school reunion. We have one every five years. And the saddest people in my high school class are not the people who have failed, but the people who didn't try to do what they wanted to do.
So I leave you with that thought. You just figure out what it is you want to do and go for it. And if you don't make it, you'll still be better than if you hadn't tried in the first place. You've just got to get up every day and keep living and keep believing that your life can be good.
Don't forget what I told you -- you live in a time in which education is more important than in any time in the whole history of the United States. So it's important to make the most of this time in school because there is no alternative because of the world we live in. Besides that, you'll have more fun in your life.
Thank you. Good-bye. (Applause.)
END 11:45 A.M. PDT