[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1996, Book II)]
[July 18, 1996]
[Pages 1148-1154]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks to the American Legion Boys Nation and Girls Nation
July 18, 1996

    Thank you very, very much. I want to welcome all of you here. And 
before I begin the program let me say I'm sorry I'm a little late today, 
but we have been working, as I'm sure you understand, all day long on 
the plane crash last night. I want to talk to you about your future, but 
before I do I'd like to say just a word about the people that were on 
that plane.
    I'm determined that we will find out what happened, but I want to 
urge all the American people not to jump to any unwarranted conclusions 
about the tragedy. We should focus today, our thoughts and our prayers, 
on the families of the victims of that terrible, terrible tragedy last 
night. And you should know that everybody in our country that we believe 
can make a contribution to finding out what happened is on the job, 
working overtime.
    I want you to know if you haven't heard that there were 16 high 
school students from Pennsylvania on that flight. Any tragedy like this 
is made deeper if young people's lives are lost,

[[Page 1149]]

people who haven't yet had their chance to live up to their God-given 
promise. These young people were from the Montoursville High School 
French club in Pennsylvania. They were young, committed, filled with 
excitement about the prospect of visiting France. Our country will be 
poorer for their absence. And the rest of you will have to work a little 
harder to live up to your promise and to theirs as well.
    The mayor of that small community was just on television, and I had 
a visit with him a few moments ago. And he said, you know, this is a big 
hurt that's going to last a while. I'm sure that's true. So I'd like to 
ask you before we begin the formal program today to join me in a moment 
of silent prayer for those students, for the other victims, and for 
their families.
    I would like to welcome our leaders here from the American Legion, 
Joe Caouette, Lawrence Sperry, Judge Pete Johnson, a member of my Boys 
Nation class back in the Dark Ages. [Laughter] I welcome Peggy 
Sappenfield; Katherine Morris, the director of Girls Nation; Ron Engel, 
the director of Boys Nation; Jack Mercier, the director of activities 
who was also there and was a counselor to my class; George Blume, the 
legislative director.
    I'm sure all of you know this is always a special day for me. It's 
the 50th anniversary of Boys Nation, almost my 50th anniversary on Earth 
here in a few weeks. [Laughter] This is only the second time ever, the 
first being the Bicentennial, when Boys Nation and Girls Nation have 
come to the White House together.
    I remember a lot of things about my visit here in 1963, not only my 
much-heralded shake of hands with President Kennedy and the meetings we 
had with other leaders, but I remember very vividly the young men I was 
with from other States, the conversations that we had about the kind of 
world we would inherit and about what we had to do about it. Our 
obligations were focused, I think, especially on the issues that 
dominated our Nation more than 30 years ago now. We talked a lot about 
the struggle for civil rights and equal opportunities for all Americans. 
We talked a lot about the struggle against communism and the cold war.
    To be sure, we weren't the first generation of Americans to have 
those conversations. They have been constant in our history. And we know 
that many of those who founded our Nation more than 200 years ago were 
themselves very young.
    I'd like to ask you to think, because we are now on the verge of a 
new century, about what it was like the last time we stood on the edge 
of a new century. There's a magnificent portrait right over there in the 
corner of Theodore Roosevelt by the great American artist John Singer 
Sargent. Teddy Roosevelt became Vice President in the election of 1900 
and was soon elevated to the Presidency when President McKinley was 
assassinated. He was our President for 7 years, in the beginning of what 
became known as the progressive era. He was the youngest person ever to 
become President of the United States. And as we stood at the dawn of a 
new century, he was infectious with his optimism and absolutely 
contagious in his determination to take on the problems of America and 
to make the new era we were then entering work for all Americans.
    That was a time, like this, of enormous change. We were around the 
turn of the century moving from being primarily an agricultural country 
to being primarily an industrial country. We were moving from being 
primarily a people who lived on farms, in small, isolated rural areas, 
or in small communities to being a people who lived primarily in towns 
and in cities. And it changed dramatically the way we work, the way we 
live, the way we related to each other. There were enormously good 
things happening, but a lot of things that weren't so good that required 
a vigorous response by our Nation. And so Teddy Roosevelt led our Nation 
in that response and started, as I said, what became known as the 
progressive era. He and Woodrow Wilson--one a Republican, one a 
Democrat, both former Governors--were instrumental in kind of breaking 
out of the pattern of past thinking that had dominated our political 
life and taking America in a new direction.
    It falls to your generation to do something like that now, because 
we are changing in ways that are, to some extent, more profound than we 
changed a hundred years ago. Instead of moving from the agricultural to 
the industrial age, we're now moving into an information age where every 
form of human endeavor will be dominated by the profound computer chip.
    Bill Gates said in his book ``The Road From Here'' that the digital 
chip was the most profound revolution in the way human beings 
communicate with each other since Gutenberg print-

[[Page 1150]]

ed the first Bible in Europe 500 years ago. It won't be very long, 
especially if we succeed in hooking up every classroom and library to 
the information superhighway, before people in remote mountain 
communities or the poorest urban neighborhoods of America can go to 
school, hook into a computer, and do research on volcanoes in Australian 
libraries, for example. This is going to have enormous implications for 
the whole nature of work, how we learn, how we relate to each other. And 
it is a fascinating thing.
    We're also moving--as people then moved from rural areas into the 
cities, we now are primarily an urban and suburban people. But people 
will be able to live in rural areas more easily than they used to 
because of the computer, and to do different things. And no matter 
whether we live in rural or urban areas, we will have to identify 
ourselves more and more as citizens of the world as well as Americans.
    We're not dominated by a cold war world anymore where every country 
is either in the camp of democracy or the camp of communism, where we 
worry about the imminence of a nuclear war that could take the lives of 
the whole country away. But we do have a whole set of new problems in 
the world that directly relate to the fact that the cold war is over and 
things are more open now, and it's easier for people and ideas and money 
and technology to move around and cross national boundaries.
    And when people become more open to new ideas and new information it 
means that there are also more opportunities for the organized forces of 
destruction to take advantage of that openness. That's why terrorists 
can put poison gas on a subway in Tokyo or blow the World Trade Center 
up or the Federal building in Oklahoma City or set bombs in London or 
the Holy Land or do all the other things that you've read about in the 
last few years. The more open we are to moving around and working with 
each other, the more we'll have to be vigilant in dealing with these 
problems. It's why we're all more vulnerable to organized crime and drug 
running that crosses national lines. It's why we have to be more 
vigilant in dealing with the problems of the proliferation of small-
scale nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons.
    All of these things are the new security threats. And interestingly 
enough, there's also a very old problem that's rearing its head all over 
the world as the big threat of communism recedes. And that is the 
tendency of people everywhere to look down on each other, ultimately 
hate each other, and maybe even kill each other because of their racial, 
ethnic, or religious differences. That is at the heart of what is going 
on in the Middle East. That is at the heart of what is going on in 
Northern Ireland. That is the heart of what is going on in Bosnia. We 
have the most vigorous, vibrant, multiethnic democracy in human history, 
but that is at the heart of what is going on in these church burnings 
and that is at the heart of what led some mean-spirited people to paint 
swastikas on the doors of African-American Special Forces personnel at 
Fort Bragg in the last couple of days. The most patriotic members of a 
minority you could imagine still being subject to that.
    Why is that? Because all throughout human history you see people 
being told that they should evaluate themselves not based on who they 
are, what they stand for, and what their values are, what's in the 
Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, but 
on who they're not, what color they're not, what religion they aren't.
    So you have to fight all that. Your generation will have more 
opportunities than any generation in human history. You will have more 
chances to live out your dreams in more different ways than any group of 
people who have ever lived. We have a chance to extend opportunities to 
people who would have automatically been left in the backwater of 
history without a second thought just a few decades ago because of their 
gender or their race or because of their disabilities. Things that now 
we wouldn't think of doing used to be the ordinary run-of-the-mill thing 
just a few decades ago.
    So, on balance, as I look to the 21st century, I think this is going 
to be a great time for you. It is going to be a great time for America 
if we meet our challenges and protect our basic values. No country in 
history has ever lasted so long as a free country, a free people, with 
so many different kinds of people in it. And the world is coming our 
way. But there are still these dark forces of destruction that we have 
to stand against. And you have to speak against it when you see it in a 
big horrible way, in a manifestation of terrorism. But you also have to 
stand and speak against it when you see it in subtle ways, in your 
neighborhoods, on your street, in your schools. We've got to be able to 
treat each other with respect based

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on our shared values, not our essentially superficial differences.
    Very interesting, don't you think, that this movie ``Independence 
Day'' is becoming the most successful movie ever? Some say it's because 
they blew up the White House and the Congress--[laughter]--and that may 
be. But, you know, you see story after story after story about how the 
movie audiences leap up and cheer at the end of the movie when we 
vanquish the alien invaders, right? I mean, what happened? The country 
was flat on its back, the rest of the world was threatened, and you see 
all over the world all these people have all of a sudden put aside the 
differences that seem so trivial once their existence was threatened, 
and they're working together all over the world to defeat a common 
    Why can't we work together to achieve common dreams? What is it 
about people that they need to adopt creeds that will enable them to 
demean other people and look on them as subhuman and take their lives 
away? We have to fight that. You're living in a time where, literally, 
you're going to be able to do things that have not been invented yet. A 
lot of you will be in jobs within a decade that have not been invented 
yet. The patterns of work and life, of travel and learning will be 
unbelievable. And no nation is as well-positioned as the United States 
if we seize our opportunities, meet our challenges, and protect our 
    You have to ask yourself--and I hope you'll take the time before you 
leave here, before you leave the White House, before you leave the 
Capital City--the whole history of our country is here--and say, ``What 
kind of country do I want to live in? What do I want America to look 
like when my children are my age? And what should I do to help America 
look like that?'' A simple question. Those are the questions I asked 
myself before I ran for President, because I knew that it's a rather 
rigorous enterprise and you have to have a high pain threshold today to 
do this sort of thing. [Laughter]
    And to me, there are three simple answers. When my daughter is my 
age and I have grandchildren, I want America to be a place where the 
American dream is alive for every person who's willing to work for it, 
no matter where they start out in life. I want America to be a place 
that is coming together, not being split apart; that really appreciates 
all the differences that are in this country and binds us together by 
the things that have held us together all this time. Just go back and 
read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of 
Rights. And I want this country to continue to be the world's strongest 
force for peace and freedom and prosperity, because we are doing 
something in this country that needs to be done in the rest of the 
world. People have to be able to bridge their differences and find a way 
to work together.
    Now, that's what I want--fairly simple things; three things. And I 
work for it up here every day with a simple strategy: I think we have to 
create more opportunity for everybody, demand more responsibility from 
everybody, and do everything we can to build a community and make 
America stronger and our families, our towns, and our national community 
as well.
    There are some very specific things that we've tried to do. Four 
years ago our economic house was out of order. We quadrupled our debt in 
4 years. We had a $290 billion deficit. We had the slowest job growth 
rate since the Great Depression so we had to do some basic things just 
to put the house back in order. And we had a very simple strategy: Drive 
down the deficit to reduce the burden of debt on future generations; 
lower interest rates and get investment back to put people to work; 
expand the trade in American products and services around the world 
because that creates more high-wage jobs here at home; and invest in 
education, technology, research, and the preservation of the 
    Four years later it's obvious to me that that strategy is working. 
Our deficit is less than half of what it was. It was $290 billion; it's 
going to be $117 billion this year. This is the first time in every year 
of a President's term that the deficit has been reduced since the 
1840's. But we had to do it because we have never had a time in history 
when we built up so much debt so quickly. And the American people have 
responded. Our economy's created over 10 million jobs. So we're moving 
in the right direction. But that had to be done. It is not enough, but 
it's an important first step.
    In terms of our leadership for peace and freedom, in many parts of 
the world we're better off today than we were 4 years ago, and there are 
no nuclear weapons pointed at any one of the United States for the first 
time since nuclear weapons were developed. So we're moving in the right 
direction. We're finally beginning to

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build compacts and partnerships all around the world to combat terrorism 
and the other problems that I mentioned.
    We've worked hard to give you cleaner air and cleaner water and to 
preserve the natural resources of the land. I think one of the essential 
ideas that has to dominate the thinking of both parties and all 
Americans as we move into the 21st century is that you can develop the 
economy without destroying the environment. In fact, you can enhance the 
development of the economy with the right sort of environmental 
strategy. And if we continue to believe that the only way we can grow 
our economy is by destroying our environment, some day there won't be 
any economy to develop. And we have got to do that now. We have to make 
that commitment now.
    You know, it's amazing how many science fiction books and movies are 
all predicated on the fact that one day we won't have any environment 
left in America, we won't have any trees left, the air won't be fit to 
breathe. I'm amazed--we've now got with this new sci-fi channel on one 
of our cables here--it's amazing the percentage of movies that come on 
that thing that are predicated on the fact that we are determined to 
destroy our environment. We must not do it.
    I also believe that we must not continue to tolerate the levels of 
crime and violence we have in our country. We have a crime rate coming 
down 4 years in a row now. We've got 100,000 police we're putting on the 
street in community policing. We've finally done something about putting 
guns into the hands of young people; we have a zero tolerance strategy 
for guns in schools. We've abolished a few assault weapons, 19 kinds, 
and passed the Brady bill. And I want to point out that a lot of people 
said some bad things when we did it. There's not a single hunter that's 
lost a rifle since we abolished the assault weapons and passed the Brady 
bill. But there are 60,000 felons, fugitives, and stalkers who could not 
get handguns because they were checked and their criminal record was 
found out and they did not get the guns. And America is safer as a 
result of that.
    So we have to continue to work on the crime problem. And I want to 
make a personal plea to you. Citizens have a role to play in this. 
Yesterday the Vice President and I had representatives from citizens 
patrol groups all over America here at the White House, and we announced 
that the cellular telephone association is going to give 50,000 phones 
to these citizens patrol groups, so that when people are out here 
walking the streets and they find something wrong, they can immediately 
call the police department or the hospital, to the emergency room, or 
the fire department.
    But in spite of all of our progress, the crime rate among people 
under 18 and the violence rate among people under 18 is still going up 
in most communities in America. That's because there are too many young 
people out there on the street that are raising themselves, that are 
joining gangs doing bad things because they're not in good gangs doing 
good things. We all want to be part of something. I mean, look, you've 
got the same shirt on; you're in a good gang today. [Laughter] It's an 
important thing to know. And you can do that. You can have more 
influence on a lot of young people than I can. So I urge you to deal 
with that issue.
    And finally, and most importantly, if we want to see everybody do 
well in the 21st century, we've got to give everybody the tools to do 
well. And more important, more than ever before, that means education. 
We've worked hard to improve educational opportunities here, but we have 
more to do. And I want to encourage all of you to do what you can to 
support increasing access to high-quality education, from our 
initiatives to hook up all the classrooms to the Internet, to help the 
school districts that are hardest pressed in the country get some money 
to do rebuilding and repairs, to opening the doors of college education 
to everyone.
    I hope that Congress will agree with me to give a tax deduction for 
the cost of tuition for college. I hope the Congress will agree with me 
to give a tax credit that will enable everybody to at least get a 
community college diploma, because we need to make at least 2 years 
after high school as universal for education as high school is today.
    If you look at the economy, if you look at the census figures, if 
you look at the people that are doing well and the people that aren't, 
it is absolutely clear that in the information age the gains to 
education are far more profound than at any time in our history. And we 
have simply got to do more to make it universal if we want America to 
grow together instead of drift apart. We can do it. You can do it if you 
demand that it be done.

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    Finally, let me say that I believe we've got to do something more 
than we have done--many things more--to help strengthen the American 
family. And we have to recognize that families are in a different 
position than they used to be. I heard--someone made a funny joke last 
night, making fun of, to some extent, the Congress, to some extent, me--
saying, you listen to people talk in Washington and they say the problem 
with people on welfare is that they want to stay home with their kids 
instead of going to work. And then they give a speech and say the 
problem with middle-class families is the mothers want to go to work 
instead of staying home with their kids. You know, and it's funny--you 
think about it. [Laughter]
    What's the real issue? What's the real issue? The real issue is most 
people who are parents work; most people who are parents who work have 
to work. So what should our goal be? Our goal should be to help 
Americans succeed at home and at work.
    I look at all of you--and if you want to make a contribution to our 
future, I want you to be able to make it. But I also think the most 
important contribution you can ever make is to have children and raise 
them right and make them good and strong and good citizens and good 
people, like you are. So what we should be doing is to think about 
instead of making it an either-or we ought to ask ourselves over and 
over and over again, what can we do to help people succeed at home and 
at work?
    That's what the family leave law was all about. That's what my 
efforts, which have been very controversial, to try to help schools with 
experiments that they want to adopt, including curfews, or even in some 
school districts, school uniform policy, that's what that was all about. 
You may think it sounds bad, but you're all here in one. [Laughter] And 
we haven't sought to impose them, we just sought to give schools the 
opportunity to adopt them if they wanted. That's what our controversial 
efforts to prevent the advertising and distribution and sales illegally 
of tobacco to teenagers is all about, trying to help parents deal with 
the implications of being away from their kids a lot, working, but also 
trying to do a good job raising their children.
    It's also a large part of what the Vice President and I have worked 
on in the area of television. You know, we passed a law, the 
telecommunications law, which will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, 
but it also required in new television sets that a V-chip be placed that 
would give parents more control over the programming their young 
children watch. And all the entertainment industry agreed to set up a 
ratings system for television, which we thought was a very, very good 
thing. And we're working on that, they're working on it.
    The television today is very different than it was when I was 10 or 
11 years old, or 6 or 7. We have hundreds of studies, literally hundreds 
of studies showing the staggering number of hours that young people have 
spent watching people get killed by the time they're 16 or 17, and 
showing clearly that it makes people more numb to violence, less 
sensitive to the impact of their behavior on others.
    So we've worked hard on that. But I don't think that is enough. And 
I just want to mention this issue, because I think it's very important. 
We have been working very hard not only to have a ratings system and a 
V-chip, which is sort of a negative thing, but also to try to bring more 
positive educational programming for children to television. This month 
we're challenging members of the entertainment industry who have done a 
great job on this rating to come to the White House to talk about 
improving the quality and quantity of children's programming. So the 
industry is doing its part.
    The truth is that what we need now is for the Government to do its 
part. The Federal Communications Commission has had before it for a long 
time now a measure that would require broadcasters to put a minimum of 3 
hours a week of quality educational children's programming on. If you 
think about all the hours the television is on a week, 3 hours a week 
doesn't seem like too much, at least doesn't seem to me. It's less than 
2 percent of the Nation's air time. The initiative is stalled, and some 
people have opposed it. But the airwaves clearly, under our law, are 
designed to promote the public interest. I can't imagine anything we 
could do that would better promote it than to put more quality 
educational programming for children on television. So I'd like to ask 
all of you to support that. And I hope very much that the Federal 
Communications Commission will finally act on it.
    Well, these are some of the things that I think we're facing as we 
move into the 21st century. We've got a responsibility, those of us in 
my generation, particularly those of us like

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me that had extraordinary opportunities to be in places like where you 
are over 30 years ago, to try to create opportunity, to try to create a 
framework within which everybody will be expected to be responsible and 
to try to bring this country together as a community.
    But most of your lives are still ahead of you. And every one of you, 
if for no other reason than you're a part of this program, will have a 
disproportionate opportunity--a disproportionate opportunity to exercise 
leadership. And therefore you have a disproportionate responsibility to 
do a good job with it, every one of you.
    When you go back home, your friends will look at you a little 
differently. They'll listen to you a little more closely. They'll want 
to know what you saw up here. They'll want to know what your opinion is. 
And I am telling you, you have got to be thinking now in this rapidly 
changing world, what do you want the country to look like when your kids 
are your age? What do you want your work years to be like? How do you 
want to feel about your country? And what do you have to do to get 
    And I leave you with this. It's very fashionable for people today to 
say, ``Well, it doesn't really matter what's going on in Washington. 
Nobody can make a difference. Why should I vote; it's all a bunch of 
bull.'' I'm telling you, in the 4 years I have been President, I now am 
more optimistic than I was the day I got here. I believe more strongly 
than I did the day I got here about the potential of all of us working 
together to make good things happen.
    And this country is a very great country. There are 10 million more 
people working than there were 4 years ago; 8 million people have 
refinanced their homes; 3.7 million people have homes who didn't have 
them; hundreds of thousands of people have better college loans than 
they did; 45,000 young people are working to rescue their communities in 
our national service programs and earning money to go to college. Don't 
let anybody ever tell you that you can't make a difference in a 
democracy, that you can't change the course of the country, that you 
can't lift people up or pull people together. That is not true.
    And the most important thing maybe you can do in the short run when 
you go home is tell people this country works. That's why we have been 
around for 220 years. This country works. This is a great country. And 
you have to pull your weight and challenge your friends and family 
members to do the same. But I will say that if you do it, the best days 
of this country are still ahead.
    Thank you, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 1:33 p.m. in the East Room at the White 
House. In his remarks, he referred to Mayor John Dorin of Montoursville, 
PA; Joseph Caouette, chairman, Americanism Commission, and Lawrence 
Sperry, national commander's representative, American Legion; Peter 
Johnson, 1963 Boys Nation alumnus; and Peggy Sappenfield, national 
secretary, American Legion Auxiliary.