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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release November 10, 1999
                        REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT

                           Four Seasons Hotel
                            Washington. D.C.

8:16 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Thank you. Whew, this is a pretty rowdy crowd tonight. (Laughter.) We may have to sing that song before we're done. (Laughter.)

Chairman Garrett, when you were sort of introducing Weldon, and you kept reading all those quotes about his influence and this, that and the other thing -- and I thought this can all be distilled in one sentence: Bill Clinton does what he asked him to. (Laughter.)

I want to thank Weldon and Mel for having me here. And I want to thank you, Chairman Garrett, and the board and all of you who made this dinner possible tonight. I want to thank the members of the administration who are here. Secretary Slater -- do you know what I thought about when Secretary Slater got up to read Reverend Jackson's letter? If Jesse had known Rodney was going to read for him -- (laughter) -- he probably would have come back -- (laughter) -- for fear that Rodney would read it better than he would. (Laughter.) I'll pay for that later. (Laughter.)

I want to tell you, I think Reverend Jackson is where he ought to be tonight, and you should know that he's been with me every step of the two New Markets tours we have taken, and it's been a great joy. We've been friends for many years. I can still remember when we ate french fries in the kitchen of the Arkansas Governor's Mansion more than a decade ago, and talked about how foolish it was that we weren't trying to include all Americans in the economic mainstream of our life. And he was on this road before I was, and I'm glad that we're walking it together now.

I want to thank Secretary Alexis Herman and Aida Alvarez for their leadership. There are others here in this administration -- Alvin Brown does a wonderful job for the Vice President and for me, leading our empowerment zones and enterprise community initiative. And one of the things I want to compliment him on is that we just got, among the victories in this last-minute budget process is we've now fully funded the second round of empowerment zones to give more poor communities opportunities. Thank you, Alvin. (Applause.)

I told Aida Alvarez that if Weldon really had the guts to tell Erskine Bowles that she was the best Administrator of the SBA. (Laughter.) We could all enjoy his misery tonight -- (laughter) -- because you have done a wonderful job. And there are others who are here -- Bill Lann Lee, the head of the Civil Rights Division, thank you, sir, for your leadership. (Applause.) And I see Dave Barram, the government's landlord, GSA, thank you for what you have done here. (Applause.) And Fred Hochberg, at the SBA, out there. And a person who used to be a part of this administration who had a lot to do with "mend it, don't end it," and a lot of other good things, Deval Patrick. Thank you for being here tonight. Bless you, sir. (Applause.)

And thank you for acknowledging Minyon Moore, my political director; and Ben Johnson who runs our One America office; and my good friend, Ernie Green. I tell you, I wish every one of you had been in the White House yesterday for that Gold Medal celebration for the Little Rock Nine. It was one of the most moving things that I have ever had the opportunity to be involved in. (Applause.) Thank you.

I want to also acknowledge the members of Congress here tonight that I believe are here -- Congresswoman Lucille Roybal Allard; Congressman Ruben Hinojosa, my good friend from south Texas; Congressman John Conyers is here, obviously. (Applause.)

And I want to pay special recognition to one other person who is here because he's up for reelection next year; he needs your help, and he is one of the most courageous members of the United States Congress. If ever we had a friend who deserves to be reelected, it's Senator Chuck Robb from Virginia. And I want to ask him to stand up. Thank you. (Applause.)

He may well be the greatest Virginia -- greatest governor Virginia had since Thomas Jefferson in his record in education and in so many other ways. We served together, and I have seen him cast vote after vote in the Senate, knowing that it might cost him his seat. And he just gets up every day and does what he thinks is right. He deserves the support of every thinking person in America who cares about the direction of the United States Senate. He's got a hard fight; I believe he's going to win, but he has to have all kinds of help -- financial, vote, and otherwise to win. And I want to urge you to support him in every way you can. Thank you. (Applause.)

I'm told that Mayor David Dinkin from New York is here tonight. If he's here, or was here, anyway -- and if you're not here, I still think you're great. (Laughter.) You've heard this speech before.

I thank you for this award. You know, I always feel generally that Presidents shouldn't receive awards, that having the job is award enough. But I confess I kind of like this one. (Laughter.) And I'm going to put it on my desk in the Oval Office tomorrow, so you'll begin to see it on television and you'll know how much I like it. (Applause.)

You told that joke about lift every voice and sing. I remember one time Vernon Jordan and I sang that song to a group of unbelieving people on Martha's Vineyard. (Laughter.) You know, this is all beginning to cause me some difficulty. Last night I spoke to a Hispanic Democratic dinner, and I was introduced by my friend, Miguel Lausell, from Puerto Rico. And he stood up and said, this President has a Latino soul. (Laughter.) And not long ago, Tony Morrison said that I was -- Tony Morrison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning African American writer -- said that I was the first black President America had ever had. (Laughter.) So I thought to myself, now I'll never be able to go home to Ireland. What am I going to do? (Laughter.)

All of this that we're laughing about really stems from something I deeply believe. I believe it about America, but I believe it about every person's journey through life. We all struggle, and we all fail. But we all struggle to live a life of integrity, which means literally that we are integrated; that our mind and our body and our spirit are in the same place at the same time, centered and connected to other human beings.

And I've always believed that in so many ways the purpose of politics is to find a unifying vision that will allow people to release the barriers that keep them from one another so they can join hands and enhance our common destiny.

It's been a privilege to serve. I don't really deserve any awards. I got to be President. And it's the greatest honor that any American could ever have. Your success is the greatest award I could get, because the mission of our country, the eternal mission of our country is to deepen the meaning of our freedom and widen the circle of opportunity and strengthen the bonds of our community. And it turns out that trying to make sure that everybody shares in our prosperity is not only the morally right thing to do, it's good for all the rest of America, too -- which is why all these businesses are here tonight. (Applause.)

So we have come a long way by following the admonition of the Scriptures to be doers of the word and not hearers only.

Twelve years ago, or in the 12 years before the Vice President and I came here, we had a very different view, I think, of ourselves as a country which dominated Washington, and a very different economic philosophy. But in the end, by 1992, it had brought us to a place where we had economic distress and social division, with a government that had been discredited by the people who were running it, who said the government was the problem. And even though along the way I thought they did some quite good things -- standing up against communism, signing the Americans With Disabilities Act -- but all the time telling us that the government was the problem. And also defying the basic laws of arithmetic when it came to doing our budget. (Laughter.)

So in 1992, Vice President Gore and I asked the American people to give us a chance to put people first, to be driven by a vision of opportunity for all, but responsibility from all Americans. I always thought, contrary to the prevailing political rhetoric, that most people wanted to be responsible and would respond to a challenge to do that. And to build a community of increasingly diverse Americans.

We had some new ideas about the economy, about welfare, about crime, about the environment, about national service, about America's role in the world. And with the help of a lot of you here, the American people gave us a chance to try our ideas. And after seven years, the results are in. And I am very grateful that we have the longest peacetime expansion in our history. By February it will be the longest economic expansion in American history, including the second world war and World War I and the times we were fully mobilized.

Nearly 20 million new jobs. A 30-year low in unemployment; a 32-year low in the welfare rolls; a 25-year low in the crime rate; 20-year low in the poverty rates; the first time we've had back-to-back budget surpluses in 42 years, with the smallest federal government in 37 years.

You've been a part of that. That's the America you have made because you have been given a chance to make it. And you should be very proud of yourselves for the role you played in it. (Applause.)

Along the way we tried to make sure that people who worked 40 hours a week and had kids in their homes should not be poor. So we doubled the earned income tax credit and cut taxes for 15 million working Americans; waged the minimum wage, and I hope we're about to raise it again. We passed the Brady Bill which has now kept 400,000 people with criminal or other problem histories from getting handguns, giving us the lowest murder rate in 30 years.

We fought for and won an increase in children's health coverage that will enable us, I hope and believe, over the next year or so to cover 5 million more children with health insurance. Ninety percent of our kids are immunized against serious childhood diseases, for the very first time in our history. We've expanded Head Start and the Family and Medical Leave law has now enabled over 15 million Americans to take a little time off from work without losing their jobs when a baby is born or a parent is sick.

We've opened the doors of higher education with the HOPE Scholarship and other tax credits and more Pell Grant fundings and tax deductibility for interest on student loans. The air is cleaner; the water is cleaner; the food is safer. We set aside more land in protected areas than any administration in the history of this country except those of Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt.

One hundred and fifty thousand young Americans, and some not so young, have entered the AmeriCorps program and served in their communities all across America, solving problems and working with people, helping children, dealing with natural disasters, rebuilding dilapidated housing, doing any number of things to make our country a better place. And we have made a clear commitment to building one America in the 21st century.

We've tried to reach out, I might add, in ways that are not always apparent. You know and you've made -- I like that joke about how my administration doesn't look like the one on West Wing. I don't recognize that White House, you know? (Laughter.) It's a cute show, but it ought to be more diverse because America is. And our administration is.

You know that. You know the record of our appointments to the federal bench and the efforts to increase the effectiveness of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. We've also, I might add, tried to make sure that people who have different political views than mine had their rights respected, that all federal employees were citizens and could be citizens, that the religious convictions of federal employees and children in our schools could have the widest possible protection. So I haven't tried just to bring into this tent of one America people who will vote for me at the next election, but all people who should feel that they have a place at America's table.

But we have made a special effort on the economic front to help people who have traditionally been left behind. We've increased by two and a half times the number of small business loans to African American entrepreneurs, and by two and a half times the number of SBA loans to Hispanic entrepreneurs since 1992. (Applause.)

And beneath those economic statistics that I just ran off -- the 30 years, 30 years, 20 years -- I wish you all could remember that and just tell everybody between now and the next election -- (laughter) -- we have the lowest levels ever recorded of African American poverty and child poverty; the lowest Hispanic poverty rate in a generation; the lowest female unemployment rate -- listen to this -- lowest female unemployment rate in 46 years. (Applause.) And the lowest African American and Hispanic unemployment rates ever recorded since we started separate statistics in the 1970s. (Applause.)

Now, I think the important question is what do we intend to do with this. You know, I worked as hard as I could, and I will continue to every day for the next 430-some odd days I have to be President, to keep this country going in the right direction, to build that bridge to the 21st century we talked about in 1996.

A nation is almost like a vast ocean liner out in the Pacific somewhere -- to turn it around you can't do it on a dime, it takes time. And we've worked hard for seven years, and the country is moving in the right direction. The question is, what are we going to do with it?

This is the only time in my lifetime that we have had this level of economic strength, free of any pressing domestic crisis or foreign threat, so that we literally can look ahead into this new millennium and say, what would we like America to be for our children and our grandchildren. Because as good as things are, we know two things -- we know, number one, nothing stays the same forever, good or bad. So like all moments, this one will pass. Something will happen sometime down the road. Nothing stays the same forever.

The second thing we know is, we know right now that we have some big challenges still out there. I'll mention some I won't talk about tonight in any detail, but just you ought to think about them. We know right now that the number of people over 65 is going to double in the next 30 years and we'll only have two people working for every one person drawing Social Security. We have to decide right now whether we're going to deal with that.

We know right now that Medicare is supposed to run out of money in 15 years and that 75 percent of the elderly people in this country can't afford prescription drugs. We know right now -- children bigger than the baby boom generation, and they're much, much more diverse. In Senator Robb's home state, just across the river from the White House, the Alexandria school district has children from 180 different racial and ethnic groups whose parents speak 100 different languages. One school district.

And we know that while we have the best system of higher education in the world, and this administration has succeeded, literally, in opening the doors of college to everybody who is willing to work for it now, no one can seriously assert that every one of our children is getting a world-class education kindergarten through 12th grade. And we know if we really want to have one America we have to deal with that.

We know right now that people who are connected to the Internet and are computer-literate and understand that have big economic advantages. Even poor people get big economic advantages. I learned in northern California last week that this company, E-Bay -- I bet a lot of you have bought things from E-Bay, you know E-Bay -- you know there are now over 20,000 people making a living off E-Bay? Not working for the company, trading through the site. Many of them, I learned from the company people, used to be on welfare. So we know that it makes a huge difference, and yet we know there's a digital divide out there. The Vice President and I have worked hard to close it in the schools.

Four years ago, we had only 4 percent of our schools and classrooms connected to the Internet. Now 51 percent are, and we're trying to make sure 100 percent are by the end of next year. We're getting close. But there are kids out there in schools that cannot be wired because they are so old and in such disrepair. Forty percent of the schools in New York are over 70 years old. Some of them are still heated by coal. The average age of school buildings in Philadelphia is 65 years. And I could go on and on.

I was in a little town in Florida not very long ago, a little town, where there were 12 trailers out behind the grade school. So this is a challenge; we know about this.

I know, and I hope that you believe that there is really an environmental challenge that the whole world faces in this climate change business, and that if we continue to warm the climate at this rate, at some time in the next century the water levels will rise as the polar ice caps melt, the sugarcane fields in Louisiana will be flooded; much of the Florida Everglades will be flooded; some island nations could disappear. And the whole quality of life in America could be changed. The distribution of agricultural opportunity could be irrevocably altered.

But we also know that you don't have to burn more greenhouse gases to get rich anymore, as a nation. It's not necessary. There are technological advances that are now available, and those that will soon be available which will enable us to totally change that.

Congressman Conyers and I went to the Detroit Auto Show together and we looked at automobiles that use mixed gasoline and electrical engines that will soon become commercially available that get 70 miles a gallon, and that can be economical even at presently relatively low gasoline prices. But we have to -- we know that.

We know that in the future we'll have to deal with the challenges from terrorists and drug runners and organized criminals around the world, and they'll increasingly work together, and they will use the very things that we're using -- the Internet and technology and the openness of borders -- against us. We know that. What are we going to do about it?

I say all these things not to alarm anyone, but to say that we know right now what most of the large challenges of the next 30 years will be, and right now, for the first time in my lifetime, we have the prosperity and the confidence and the coherence to deal with them. But they require decisions.

I said yesterday when we were celebrating Ernie and the other members of the Little Rock Nine that the things that those kids did when they walked up the steps and into the schools, and they were abused and they were run off and they went through this trial, is they forced everybody else to make a decision. Before that I was like everybody else; I thought segregation was a terrible thing, but I never had to really speak about it. I was 11 years old; what the heck did it matter to me? I was more worried about when recess was, or something. You know, it was just the way things were.

But sometimes when people act, they change everything. And everybody had to make a decision then. Because there it was. Well, that's where we are now. Except there is no crisis, so we don't have to make a decision. We can just wander on and not deal with this.

Now, how many times in your personal life, in your family life, or in your business life, have you made a mistake because you thought things were going so well you could afford to be distracted, diverted, or indulgent? How many times? It happens to everybody. There's not a person in this room it hasn't happened to. It is human nature.

And so I say to you, the greatest honor I could have is to know that you will work with me for the next 430-some odd days and that you will continue to work to make sure that we do not blow this precious moment. This is an incredible opportunity and an enormous responsibility. And it's never happened in my lifetime, ever. Not once have we ever had this much prosperity, this much confidence, and the absence of a pressing, convulsing domestic crisis or foreign threat. And we will never forgive ourselves if we let our children and our grandchildren down by not looking into the future and saying, here are the big challenges facing this country and we intend to meet them.

And I just want to mention two more. Number one is there are people in places which still have not participated in this prosperity. That's what the Vice President's employment zones and enterprise community initiative has been all about. That's why we worked hard to establish these community development financial institutions that some of you have participated in. That's why we worked so hard to enforce the Community Reinvestment Act and then to save it in this last banking legislation -- because 95 percent of all the lending every made under that 22-year-old law has happened since this administration has been in office. (Applause.)

And that's what this New Markets Initiative is all about. We will never have every single neighborhood in an employment zone; we can only pick those that have their act together and have the biggest problems, and try to make the fairest judgments we can. But what I have sought to do by going around the country is to say, look, there are all these other places, and shouldn't we at least give investors in America the same incentives to invest in poor areas in America we give them to invest in poor areas in Latin America, or Africa, or Asia.

I support American investment around the world. I am trying to pass right now the Africa trade bill and the Caribbean Basin Initiative before this Congress goes home. But I believe that the most important markets we have are the untapped markets still in this country that need to be developed. (Applause.)

So I ask you to think about that. You'd be amazed -- again, this is another example where doing what the right thing to do is also good for the rest of America. You would be amazed how much time we have spent over the last year and a half figuring out how can we keep this economic expansion going. All previous economic expansions have come to an end either because the economy gets so heated up that we get inflation, and then when you break the inflation, the medicine to break the inflation is so strong, it breaks the recovery -- or because the recovery just runs out of steam.

Now, we've kept this one going, largely thanks to you and people like you. Thirty percent of it has been powered by technology; 30 percent of it, until this Asian financial collapse, was powered by exports. Traditional economic theory dramatically underestimated the impact of technology to increase productivity, and underestimated the impact of open markets in holding down inflation.

So we can keep it going. But to keep it going, with unemployment at 4.1 percent, what have we got to do? If you go into a neighborhood in an inner city, if you go into an abandoned small town that lost its factory and has nothing left, if you go into a Native American reservation -- Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota -- there are plenty of smart people up there. I walked up and down the street with a 17-year-old girl that is as intelligent as any high school child I've talked to since I've been President. But they have 73 percent unemployment. That is wasted human potential.

And if you invest there, you create new businesses, new jobs, and new consumers and new taxpayers, and you grow the economy without inflation, by definition, because you are getting both new producers and new consumers. This is the right thing to do for the people that are there. It's the right thing to do for the rest of us because we want this ride to go on just as long as it can. (Applause.)

The other thing I want to say is, if I could leave America with one legacy, and somebody said to me tonight, well, you're going to have to go now and we'll give you one wish -- you know, the genie deal -- (laughter) -- but you don't get three wishes, you just get one -- I'd still pick one America. Why? Because I think when we're getting along and when we're not just tolerating each other, but when we respect and like each other, when we've got a framework for dealing with our honest differences that enables them to be worked out without everybody falling out, the American people nearly always get it right. I mean, why do you think we're around here after over 220 years?

Look at all the stuff we've weathered. I mean, we had these founding fathers who said we're all created equal, and they were slaveholders. And even white guys couldn't vote if they didn't own property, never mind the women, right? We worked it out. So now we just kept on working at it and we worked it out. But what is the signal measure of our progress? We kept finding ways to bring more and more and more people into the circle of freedom and opportunity. And then their minds figured out how to maximize the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, how to provide mass education, how to integrate immigrants from all over the world into the mainstream of American life.

This one America deal is much bigger than just sort of feel good, let's all be nice, don't anybody be prejudiced or say anything at a dinner party you'd be embarrassed by. (Laughter.) And, to be serious, it's much more than being tough on people who commit hate crimes, although I badly want that hate crimes legislation to pass. It is an understanding about the way we should live if we all want to do well. It is in the nature of the American idea and the core of what it means to be a human being.

Isn't it interesting to you -- I mean, do you ever think about this? We continue to have these horrible hate crime incidents in America, and then we see these other countries convulsed by the tribal slaughter in Rwanda; the awful, terrible treatment of the Kosovar Albanian Muslims in Kosovo; the treatment of the Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia; the continuing conflict among the Catholics and the Protestants in Ireland which we're trying to bring to an end; the continuing conflict in the Middle East. What is the common element in that and the hate crimes?

It is that, for all of the wonders of the modern world, we're most bedeviled as societies by the oldest problem of folks living together -- we still have a hard time with people who aren't like us. You know? Have a hard time with people that aren't like us. And yet, the truth is, when we get over it and let it go, we find that life is a lot more interesting than it used to be.

I told somebody last night, the first time I went to a Cinco de Mayo celebration in San Francisco I thought, where has this been all my life? (Laughter.) Man, I like this. Where has this been? (Laughter.) I like this.

So we're laughing, but there's a grain of truth here. Why do American Christians buy books by the Dalai Lama in record numbers, about the ethics of the new millennium? Because he has a very important piece of the truth, and he has very important peace inside.

So I say to you, look for the unifying vision and continue to work for it. And be clear and focused on the magic moment in which we live. Be humble enough to know it will not last forever, it is not in the nature of human affairs. And if you really want to honor what you have done and the spirit of this award, which you have so kindly given me, make the most of this moment. It is the chance of a lifetime to build a future of our dreams.

Thank you. (Applause.)

END 9:00 P.M. EST