[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1997, Book I)]
[January 6, 1997]
[Pages 5-7]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks at the Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast
January 6, 1997

    Thank you very much, Mr. Vice President and Tipper and ladies and 
gentlemen. Hillary and I are delighted to welcome you to the White 
House. We look forward to these breakfasts. As Al said, we have been 
doing them on a regular basis now, normally around--just after Labor Day 
as we sort of rededicate ourselves to the labor of the new year. But 
this year, we are doing it now for two reasons: One is, obviously, this 
is on the brink of the Inauguration and a new 4-year term for the 
President and for our country; the other is, we were otherwise occupied 
last Labor Day. [Laughter]
    This is a wonderful day to be here. We asked Father Stephanopoulos 
to pray today because, as all of you know, this is the celebration of 
Epiphany in the Christian faith, a time of recognizing Christmas in the 
Orthodox tradition. I also wanted you to pray so that I could say that 
we were all very impressed with the size of the book contract that--
[laughter]--that your son got, and we know we can depend upon you to 
make sure the church gets its 10 percent of that contract. We are very 
proud of him and very grateful to have him here.
    This is the day in the Christian tradition when the wise men came 
bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. And we have much to be thankful for 
and much to pray for, but I think what I would say today is that I asked 
you to come here to share with me your thoughts and to share with you 
some of ours in the hope that we might all become wiser.
    I am very grateful for the progress that our country has made in the 
last 4 years, grateful that we have been given a chance to play a role 
in that progress, and mindful that whatever has been done which is good 
has been done by us together.
    One of my college roommates, who I think is a really smart guy, said 
to me the other day when we were together and joking about our lost 
youth, he said, ``Oh, and one other thing,'' as he was leaving. He said, 
``Don't ever forget that great Presidents do not do great things. Great 
Presidents get a lot of other people to do great things. And there is 
over 250 million of us now, so that's a lot of greatness if you can get 
us all to do the right thing,'' which I thought was an interesting way 
of saying in part what the magic and genius of democracy is all about.
    So we're thinking a lot now about how we're going to build our 
bridge to the 21st century, what we're going to do in this next term. 
I've listened to all of these experts talk about how hard it is for 
Presidents to be effective in the second term because, after all, they 
just got reelected because things went well in their first term, not 
because they had actually thought through what they were going to do in 
their second term. But we've tried to overcome that disability.
    There are a lot of particulars that we could discuss today, but what 
I'd like for you to think about a little bit, from your perspective and 
what you can do--two things: What are we going to do; and secondly, and 
more importantly I think, how are we going to do it? In what spirit 
shall we proceed?
    In any great democracy there are always differences about what are 
we going to do. There always have been, there always will be, and these 
are altogether healthy. It would be--America wouldn't last very long, I 
think, if 100 percent of the people agreed 100 percent of the time on 
100 percent of the issues. What keeps us going--we all know that none of 
us has perfect and infinite understanding of these complex matters 
facing our country and facing the world. But we have devised a system--
we have nurtured and maintained it now for over 200 years--in which 
people can reconcile their differences and come to a consensus and an 
agreement which will push the country forward. So we are enlarged when 
we come to agreement after honest debate in the right way; we are 
diminished if, in the way we treat each other, we preclude the 
possibility of resolution and going forward. And at times like this, 
when things are changing so much, we need the right spirit more because 
we have more to decide, more to deal with. And yet, at times like this, 
we are in some ways put at risk by the absence of that spirit of 
reconciliation and respect.
    There are several specific things I hope we can talk about later 
that I think we could reach broad agreement on. For example, some of you

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think I made a mistake when I signed the welfare reform bill, and I 
don't. But one thing that we all ought to be able to agree on is, the 
bill will not succeed--the bill does nothing, it just changes the rules. 
It doesn't put anybody to work. In 4 years we have reduced by 2.1 
million the number of people on welfare, the biggest reduction in 
history, by doing the kinds of things that now this bill requires every 
State to do. We just went out and worked with the States and came up 
with innovative ways to get around old rules and regulations and do them 
anyway. Now every State has got to try to do that for every person.
    My objective here is, once and for all, to take the politics out of 
poverty and to treat all able-bodied people the same at the community 
level. What I long for is a system of community-based support for people 
who are out of work through no fault of their own but a system of 
community-based norms that require people who can work to work when 
there is work. Now, if you say that everybody who is able-bodied can 
only stay on welfare 2 years continuously unless the State decides to 
continue to support them for some other reason--and we did give a fund 
so that hardship cases could be treated in that way--then every 
community has to have a system for putting those people to work.
    Now, let me pause at this; you can all think about this. This new 
law gives every State the right to give the welfare check to any 
employer, including a church, as an employment and training subsidy, who 
will hire someone from welfare. If every church in America just hired 
one family, the welfare problem would go way down. If every church in 
America challenged every member of that church who had 25 or more 
employees to hire another family, the problem would go away, and we 
would really have a system in which in times of recession we'd have more 
people unemployed at the community level. In good times we'd have fewer 
people, but we would always have a community-based commitment that 
crossed party lines and religious lines and every other line to give 
able-bodied people the dignity of work and support them in the most 
important work they do, which is raising their children.
    The second thing I wanted to talk about a little bit is this whole 
business of immigration. The things I don't like about the welfare law 
have nothing to do with welfare and everything to do with the way we 
tried to save money, I thought unfairly, on legal immigrants. Our 
administration has done a lot to cut down on illegal immigration, but we 
believe that legal immigration has served our country well. It has, 
however, made us more diverse. And so immigration is really the 
touchstone where we deal with not only what are we going to do but how 
are we going to do it.
    I believe that we have learned a lot in 220 years--really more than 
300 years--about how hard it is for people of different races to get 
along. We know that that is difficult in all societies and all times, 
and it's something you just have to keep working at. But now America is 
not a white and black America. America is a country with scores, 
hundreds of different racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Our biggest 
county, Los Angeles County, now has over 160 different racial and ethnic 
groups within one county. But it's all over America. Wayne County, where 
Detroit, Michigan, is, has now over 140 different racial and ethnic 
groups. Detroit was a place where we used to think of where you 
basically had white ethnics who immigrated from Central and Eastern 
Europe and African-Americans and white Southerners who immigrated out of 
the South because they couldn't make a living in places like my home 
State in the Depression and later--now, 140 different racial and ethnic 
    How are we going to deal with that? Against the background of what 
you see in Bosnia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, all of 
these things, these destructive impulses people have, how can we prove 
in America that we can all get along, not without giving up our basic 
beliefs but in finding a ground of mutual respect? It seems to me that 
that may be the single most significant decision facing the United 
States. We have a lot of other things we have to deal with in the next 4 
years, the whole question of the entitlements burden when the baby 
boomers retire and education initiatives that I intend to push and 
finishing the work of balancing the budget and all that. That's fine, 
but if we can all find a way to hold up to the world not only the 
example of our freedom but the example of our freedom in the 21st 
century global interdependent world in which anybody from anywhere can 
live here, and if you show up for work or you show up for school and you 
do what you're supposed to do and you're a good citizen, you can be part 
of our

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country, and we'll respect your faith, we'll respect your differences, 
and we'll find a way to work together, then I believe the preeminence of 
the United States will be assured throughout the next century. And I 
think you have to think about it in long terms like that.
    What causes a society to rise and fall? We clearly are proving that 
we're getting back to our basic values. The crime rate is going down. 
You saw the--has gone down now for several years in a row for the first 
time in 25 years. We have inequality among working people going down--
and I'm very proud of that--for the first time in 20 years. We have a 
lot of our other social problems being ameliorated, the teen pregnancy 
rate dropping substantially for the first time in a good while. Drugs, 
alcohol, tobacco are still a problem for very young people. Drug use is 
going down in society as a whole but still going up among young people.
    So we're on the cusp here, maybe, of turning a lot of our social 
problems around. We know what we ought to do. Can we do it in the right 
way, in a spirit of reconciliation? And can we recognize that in this 
exciting new world there's no way in the world for us to know the answer 
to all these questions that are out there before us?
    And that's the last point I'd like to make. If we do things in the 
right way, we'll get enough of the right answers to keep moving our 
country forward and to keep doing the right thing for the rest of the 
world. And we won't be right all the time, but that's just because we're 
human. So that's the last thought I would like to leave with you.
    The beginning of wisdom, I think, is humility and respect for what 
you may not know. Now, we were talking around the table here about the 
last speech Cardinal Bernardin gave in which he said that the precious 
gift of time should not be wasted on acrimony and division. And he said 
that knowing he just had a little bit of time left. The truth is, all of 
us just have a little bit of time left. He just knew it, and we don't. 
And 3 weeks or 30 years, it's a little bit of time in the life of a 
country, the life of the world.
    So I say to you--I ask for your guidance, for your prayers for our 
country, for the efforts that all of us are making. I ask for your 
specific involvement, particularly in the two issues I've mentioned, on 
the welfare and immigration issues. But most important of all, I ask for 
your help in creating a sense of reconciliation, the right sort of 
spirit in which we can deal with these issues. As people of faith on 
this Epiphany, I think we should all ask that that be made evident to 
    Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 9:59 a.m. in the State Dining Room at the 
White House. In his remarks, he referred to Rev. Robert G. 
Stephanopoulos, Holy Trinity Cathedral, New York, NY, who gave the 
invocation, and the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, former Archbishop of