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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release October 27, 1999
                       REMARKS BY PRESIDENT CLINTON,
                            AT PRESENTATION OF
                        CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL TO
                       United States Capitol Rotunda
                             Washington. D.C.

4:02 P.M. EDT

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Gephardt, Mr. Armey, Mr. Ehlers, Senator Lott, Senator Daschle, Senator Thurmond, Senator Abraham, Governor, Chaplain Ford, Chaplain Ogilvie; to the members of the Ford family and the members of the Congress who are here; Secretary Albright, Secretary Cohen, Ambassador Holbrooke. Senator and Mrs. Dole, good to see you. Mr. Michael, Secretary Laird, so many other great Americans who are here.

You know, so many wonderful things have been said here today, I wouldn't be surprised if President Ford didn't leave here and check to see whether the filing is closed in the New Hampshire primary. (Laughter.)

I would like to say that I think every member of Congress and every former colleague you have here is proud to be here, without regard to his or her party. There is one person who is not here I would like to take just 15 seconds to acknowledge because he embodied so many of the qualities that we now revere you for, and that's Senator John Chafee from Rhode Island. We miss him and we are grateful, too, for his contributions to our nation.

It was just a couple of months ago that I had the honor of welcoming President and Mrs. Ford back to the White House to award Gerald Ford the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- so he wouldn't be the only person in his house without one. It is fitting now that both the White House and the Congress have bestowed their highest award on the Fords, because they served both the Congress and the White House so nobly.

In these hallowed halls, President Ford, as Congressman Ford, worked for 25 years. On the House floor, he was a forceful leader. In the caucus room, he was a loyal party leader. In the cloakroom and the committee room, he knew when to put politics aside for the sake of the people.

As has been said, he never sought the presidency. But thank goodness for the rest of us he did not shrink from it, either. He steered us through stormy seas to new and brighter beginnings -- for human rights, for the reduction of nuclear arms, for America's role in the world.

And so many of the issues that occupied him then continue to be on his agenda today, whether he's advising his successors in the Oval Office, or defending affirmative action, or making the case for free trade. I am immensely grateful for all the times we have spent together, for his counsel, for his support, for his always constructive criticism, and for the occasional golf game.

I also want to say, as so many have, a personal word of thanks to Betty Ford. Perhaps no First Lady in our history, with the possible exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, has touched so many of us in such a personal way. Because I lost my mother to breast cancer, Betty Ford is a heroine to me. Because my family has been victimized by alcoholism, and I know what it's like to see good, fine people stare into the abyss of their own personal despair, I will be forever grateful to the Betty Ford Clinic. And for the millions of other people whose lives have literally been turned around and often saved -- they may not have gone to that clinic, but went somewhere because she showed them it was not wrong for a good person and a strong person to be imperfect and ask for help. You gave us a gift, and we thank you. (Applause.)

I also want to say that there's something special about them together. Their children are here, still rooting for them -- and that's something, because kids go through hell if their folks are in politics. They get all the burdens and none of the benefits.

I'll tell you a little story. On September 19, 1993, for what I understand was the only time in the history of America, four Presidents had dinner in the White House. President and Mrs. Ford were there; President and Mrs. Carter were there; and President Bush joined Hillary and me in the White House. It was a magnificent night -- it was the night after the Middle East peace signing between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. And it was the night before we kicked off the campaign to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement. And we were all sort of carried away by the moment .

I invited all the Presidents to spend the night in the White House. I thought that would be a neat thing -- kind of a bunking party, you know. And President Bush stayed and President and Mrs. Carter stayed. President and Mrs. Ford said that they were going to spend the night in the hotel room where they had spent their first night as a married couple nearly 50 years before. They did not have time to come to the White House, they were seeing to their own business, and I love that. (Laughter.) I've told that story 100 times ever since, and I never get tired of it. I think they made the right decision.

Gerald Ford had the great honor of being President on our bicentennial. And on that July 4th, 23 years ago, he stood in Valley Forge and spoke these words: "A nation survives only so long as the spirit of sacrifice and self-discipline is strong within its people." We are here today in no small measure because that spirit was so strong within Gerald and Betty Ford.

Mr. President, there's one other personal thing I want to say. Every American remembers where he or she was when you became President. We're all up here talking now about how great you were in healing the country, and the wonderful words you said. But you made some tough decisions, too. And when you made your healing decision, you made the Democrats and the liberals mad one day, and then you made the conservatives mad the next day. You made everybody mad at you.

I was a young politician trying to get elected to Congress. Thank God I failed; otherwise I would have never become President, probably. But I want you to know something personal. It was easy for us to criticize you, because we were caught up in the moment. You didn't get caught up in the moment, and you were right. You were right for the controversial decisions you made to keep the country together, and I thank you for that. (Applause.)

So it is our common honor to thank these people for their contributions for America, and my pleasure now to ask the Speaker and Senator Thurmond to join me as we present them the Congressional Gold Medal.

(The medals are presented.) (Applause.)

PRESIDENT FORD: Please sit down. Thank you. (Applause.)

Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, distinguished members of the Cabinet, members of the House and the Senate, ladies and gentlemen. With your indulgence, I would like to reminisce a bit, informally if I could.

It was 51 years ago that at the other end of the Capitol I took the first oath of office from Speaker Sam Rayburn. My new bride, Betty, was in the gallery for the first time, and, of course, over the years was there many. I was very lucky my first term. I was appointed to the Committee on Appropriations and served there for 16 years under two outstanding, very tough chairmen: Clarence Cannon of Missouri, and John Taber of the State of New York.

I was very lucky also because I was assigned to the subcommittees on defense and foreign aid and intelligence. And that experience over a period of 16 years was invaluable in my later service at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

In 1947-48, President Harry Truman was the occupant of the White House. And the Republicans in the 80th Congress controlled the House and the Senate. That was the beginning of the Cold War that went on for almost 50 years, ending in 1989-1990.

At the outset of that Cold War, President Truman recommended to the Congress the Marshall Plan, a wonderful program to help Western Europe rebuild itself after the tragic World War II. And at the same time, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, from my hometown, was chairman of the committee in the Senate that handled all foreign policy issues. And the combination of Senator Vandenberg convincing the House and the Senate to support the Marshall Plan was significant in our start in the struggle against the Soviet Union.

At the same time, President Truman recommended to the Congress Greek-Turkish aid, and that was an essential program because both Greece and Turkey were absolutely key in the struggle against the Soviet Union and its allies.

But that bipartisanship was vitally important as we began to struggle over a half a century against the Soviet Union. So, subsequently, several years later, President Eisenhower, a Republican, recommended the authorization and the appropriations for NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was an organization to provide for Western Europe a military barrier against any aggressive action by the Soviet Union.

And in the Congress under Ike, there was Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson -- Democrats, the Democrats controlled the Legislative Branch. But again, the kind of cooperation that was essential in that critical period was handled with both the Executive and the Legislative Branches working together. And of course, NATO was a tremendous success and eventually was critical to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demolishing of the Iron Curtain.

The truth is, over this 45-50 year period there were nine Presidents who were involved and 20 congressmen -- Democrat Presidents, Republican Presidents, Democrat Congresses, Republican Congresses. But the kind of arm-in-arm working relationship was a critical, important factor in the fact that we won the Cold War. And as I look back over a few years in government, I feel good that I had a small part, both in the Legislative Branch and in the White House, in providing that freedom and liberty would prevail against communism and Marxism.

Well, Mr. Speaker, I didn't intend to speak so long. But I ask unanimous consent if I may have an additional four minutes and revise and extend my remarks.

SPEAKER HASTERT: Without objection. (Applause.)

PRESIDENT FORD: And all this distinguished body, to be perfectly honest with you, on an occasion such as this, inspires somewhat mixed feelings. Of course, I am deeply grateful to the Congress for recognizing Betty and me on this occasion. At the same time, I know it's customary for former Presidents to lie in state in this magnificent rotunda. Listening to all those fulsome tributes, I wondered if maybe you weren't jumping the gun just a bit. (Laughter.) I had to pinch myself to make sure that I was really here. (Laughter.)

Today, Betty and I have come home. Come home to this fabulous city that holds so many meaningful memories for both of us; to this historic building that I truly cherish; and this wonderful institution that I love at the bottom of my heart.

I hope you'll agree, Mr. Speaker, that age has its privileges, among them the right to offer whatever perspective comes from having lived a long and eventful life. There is, though, something I learned at an early age, something I would heartily recommend to anyone who contemplates a lifetime in politics. I learned that most people are mostly good, most of the time. Indeed, as far as I'm concerned, there are no enemies in politics, just temporary opponents who might vote with you on the next roll call.

My partner in the Ev and Gerry Show, Senator Everett Dirksen, had a great line, and I'll quote: "I live by my principles, and one of my principles is flexibility" -- end quote. (Laughter.) Ev understood that healthy partisanship is the lifeblood of American democracy.

Yet, the clash of ideals should never be confused with a holy war. Some people equate civility with weakness and compromise with surrender. I strongly disagree. I come by my political pragmatism the hard way, for my generation paid a very heavy price in resistance to the century we had of some extremists -- to the dictators, the utopians, the social engineers who are forever condemning the human race for being all too human.

In the course of some 86 years I have seen more than my share of miracles. I remain convinced that politics is a very noble calling. (Applause.) One worthy of enlisting the idealism and the commitment of a young America.

History tells us that it is only a matter of time before your generation is going to be tested, just as mine was tested by the economic depression of the 1930s, foreign tyranny in two world wars and the hateful traditions of Jim Crow. To you will fall the responsibility of crafting a political process that rises above focus groups and sound bytes; for supplementing material prosperity with a spiritual purpose and a spiritual goal.

Outwardly, your America may not look the same as ours -- new technologies, new industries, new forms of communication, medical breakthroughs -- these and many more promise to expand the frontiers of life in the new millennium.

I strongly disagree with the critics, the skeptics, the pessimists who condemn and criticize America and its record in the 20th century. I think on the big challenges we did darn well. For example, America won two World Wars against aggression and oppression. We overcame the catastrophic economic depression of the 1930s. Since the end of World War II, we were successful against five economic recessions. Our scientists solved the scourge of polio, and I am sure they will find an answer to AIDS. America's astronauts planted the Stars and Stripes on the moon. Finally, democratic capitalism won the Cold War against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The Iron Curtain was demolished by freedom and by liberty.

But amidst all that is new, I hope you never lose the old faith in an America that is bolder, freer and more just with every passing generation. America is a work in progress. And all of us -- past, present and future -- have been or will be the torch carriers, the torch carriers for liberty and freedom in the 21st century.

Thank you. Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)

MRS. FORD: Thank you. Mr. President, all of you wonderful people who are here, good afternoon. I can't tell you -- I feel as though my chest is busting with all the absolutely fantastic things that were said. I thought I was going to sprout wings and fly right out of the top of the Rotunda. But to me, it is so special to be here, to see my husband honored on this occasion. It just has me so full of gratitude. And to share in this recognition by Congress is beyond anything I could possibly have imagined.

Mr. Speaker, as you probably know, yours is the only job in this town that Gerry really ever wanted. (Laughter.) But fate has a way of overtaking the best laid plans. And as a result, we did live in the White House for two and a half years at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Now, believe me, I'm not complaining about fate, but this house, to me and to Gerry -- the people's house -- will always be our true home.

For 25 years -- and I have Steve and Susan here to absolutely verify this -- this majestic building was a friend to me and to our children. As they grew up, we spent countless hours in both the House and the Senate galleries listening to debates, and absorbing the legislative workings of the representatives of the people.

Standing here now, I can't help but remember that cold and blustery day, on January 1977, when we took our leave of Washington. And following President Carter's generous remarks and tribute to my husband, and all that he had done to heal our country, we found ourselves leaving the Capitol, walking past row after row of Capitol police.

For many years, as we were here, they had been more than just friends to us. In a very real sense, they were like an extended family. And as all America came to know last year during that tragic event, they not only protect us, but they stand guard over democracy, itself. Today I'm glad to see some of them here, as well as all of our friends and so many of you who have enriched our lives beyond any measure that you can possibly know.

And to you, Mr. President, for all your wonderful remarks, and for everybody who honors us with their presence here, I thank you for this very special occasion. It's one, of course, that we will treasure and we will never forget.

And to all of those who have blessed us with your friendship over these years, it's wonderful to see you, and please accept our gratitude and our love for all that you have been, and for all that you are, to Gerry and me and to our children, and most importantly, to our country.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

                               4:30 P.M. EDT