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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release October 16, 1999
                         REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT

                        The Washington Hilton Hotel
                             Washington, D.C.

8:37 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you ladies and gentlemen. First of all, let me thank you for your warm welcome to Hillary and me. Thank you, Frank Guarini, for being my friend for all these years. Thank you President Joe Cerrell. To all the distinguished guests here and the honorees; the members of Congress, Gerry Ferrarro, Ambassador Foglietta, Ambassador Rosepepe. To our distinguished Italian guests, Maria Bartomoli, Ambassador Salleo and, especially, Foreign Minister Dini.

I would like to say a special word of appreciation at this point to the Prime Minister and the government of Italy for standing with us and working with us for the cause of our common humanity in Kosovo and, before that, in Bosnia. We could not have done it without Italy and I am grateful. (Applause.)

Justice Scalia and Cardinal Hickey and all the others here -- you stole my line about 50 percent of my four Chiefs of Staff being Italian. The other two wish they were. (Laughter.) I thank you for all the gifts from Campania, including the beautiful flowers for Hillary. We visited there when the 1994 conference of the G-7 nations was held in Naples. And we have been very blessed by our times there. I understand my friend, Dick Grasso, and the Barnes and Noble CEO, Leonard Riggio, are both from that region of Italy. I'm about to go back to Florence and I'm only supposed to stay a day, so if I play hookey and stay an extra day I want 3,000 of you to write an excuse for me, just like I used to get when I missed a day of school.

I guess I ought to say, since this is baseball season, that I'm sure of one person who would like to be here tonight who can't be is Joe Torre. (Applause.) Now, I'm not taking sides in the baseball series; but the Yankees do have two Italian Americans on their team -- Joe and the catcher, Joe Girardi. And no city in America has been better to me than Boston; but the Red Sox haven't had an Italian since their pitcher, Frank Viola, retired. So I think we ought to get the Red Sox an Italian baseball player to balance out our equal opportunity agenda throughout the country. (Applause.)

You know, from the beginning of our country, Italian Americans have made invaluable contributions. And I want to say a special word of thanks, not for all those which I could litanize, and you know them, but for the National Italian American Foundation's leadership, for our efforts to build one America.

I'm very grateful that this is a country in better shape than it was seven years ago when I first came here. I am very grateful for the chance that I have had to serve. (Applause.) I'm grateful for the Italian Americans who have helped to ensure the success of our administration. I'm glad that we have the lowest unemployment rate in 29 years and the lowest welfare rolls in 30 years and the lowest poverty rates in 20 years, the lowest crime rates in 26 years and the first back-to-back surpluses in 42 years. (Applause.)

But I have to tell you that the most important thing we have to do to get ready for the 21st century -- even more important than our efforts to continue to grow our economy, is to build one country out of our diversity. If we do, if the American people really can come to have that wonderful balance which enables us to celebrate our diversity and our unique ethnic and religious tradition -- which makes America a very interesting place to live -- and still say our common humanity is even more important, we'll figure out how to deal with all the other things.

Last year, one of only two years I've missed since I first came here seven years ago, I was up for nine days and nights at the Wye Plantation trying to keep the Middle East peace process on track. If you look around the world at how I have spent my time as your President -- working for peace in the Balkans, among Muslims and Croats and Serbs, among Albanian Muslim and Serbian Orthodox Christians; for peace in the Middle East, among Arabs and Jews, among Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Jordanians and Lebanese; for peace in Northern Ireland among Catholics and Protestants; to set up protections against that kind of tribal slaughter we've seen in Africa among people who shared the same land, in one case in Rwanda, for 500 years.

It is truly interesting that at the dawn of this new millennium, when we're exhilarated by all these technological and scientific advance that are being made -- one man told me that when I have grandchildren they may be born with a life expectancy of 100 years; we know that our kids are using the Internet and talking to people all over the world and knowing things we couldn't know -- isn't it interesting that in this quintessentially modern era our biggest problem is the most primitive and ancient of human failings: the fear of the other, people who are different from us.

And what a short step it is from fearing people to hating them to dehumanizing them, which legitimizes doing away with them. And isn't it interesting that at a time when the crime rate in America is at a 26 year low, we still have these vicious examples of a man shooting children at a Jewish community school and then going out and murdering a Filipino postman; another man saying he belonged to a church that didn't believe in God, but did believe in white supremacy, killing an African American basketball coach in Illinois and then murdering a young Korean Christian as he walked out of his church.

And all these other examples -- the young gay man, Matthew Shepard, a year ago this week being stretched out, literally, upon a rack; James Byrd being pulled apart in Texas because he was an African American. Not because all Americans are like that -- almost all of us aren't -- but because in each of us there is this fragile scale, like the scale of justice Mr. Scalia must try to balance in his work. And in this scale we wake up every morning with some curious balance of light and dark, of hope and fear. And when the scale gets badly enough out of whack, the easiest thing to do is to strike out against the other.

So I say again to you, Italian Americans have been subject to discrimination and bigotry in times past in America. You still are subject to stereotypes that I think are unfair and unrepresentative, to be kind about it. (Applause.) But it is because of the values you share with other Americans that we have a prosperous economy and a healing society. And we just have to remember that overall. Yes, I hope a lot of your children make hundreds of millions of dollars by starting Internet companies; yes, I hope that my plans to take care of the aging of America and save Social Security and Medicare will prevail; I hope our plans to elevate the quality of all of our schools will prevail; I hope I can convince both parties in Congress to resist temptation and save enough of this surplus to get us out of debt for the first time since 1835 over the next 15 years. I hope all of that. But remember this: the most important thing is to build one America out of this crazy quilt of all of us who live here. (Applause.)

Last week, Hillary and I had the 8th of her Millennial Evenings at the White House. And we had an expert in the Internet, who helped to design the architecture of the Internet; and an expert in genomics, who talked to us about the human genome project and the miracles it will bring. He says one day the intersection of computers and gene studies will enable us to put digital, microscopic digital pieces in all parts of the human body to do even the repair work on shattered nerves to the spine. And we talked about all the miracles out there.

And the genomics experts said, but what I want you to understand is that of all the possible permutations among people with all many, many parts of every gene, 99.9 percent of us is identical to that of every other human being. And the genetic differences among groups -- that is, individuals among the Italian community, for example -- are more significant and greater than the aggregate average genetic differences between Italians and Irish and Africans and Latins. It's important to remember. For people of faith, it reflects the wisdom of our Creator.

So I say again, I'm indebted to you for many things: your work ethic, your family ethic, your creativity, your energy, your passion -- it made America a much more interesting place and it fueled this remarkable run we have had. But your commitment, the thing that neither Italians nor any other human being are subject to degradation and prejudice because of who they are, that we will learn to honestly and openly express our differences and enjoy our differences, but reaffirm our common humanity, make no mistake about it -- just pick up the paper any day, look at the perils of the present day. We are in a conflict between modern possibility and primitive hatred. One America is the only answer, and you're leading the way.

Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)

END 8:50 P.M. EDT