[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[March 2, 1998]
[Pages 314-316]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation Dinner
March 2, 1998

    Thank you very much, Senator, 
Vicki, Caroline and Ed, other members 
of the Kennedy family, Paul Kirk. And I 
say a special word of thanks to all of you who have made this evening 
possible. I thank Senator Jeffords and 
Senator Thurmond and Senator Hatch for being here tonight to restrain the partisan 
impulses that might otherwise overtake Senator Kennedy and me. 
[Laughter] I thank Yo Yo Ma and Jill and all the other musicians who have come here. Mr. 
Secretary General, thank you for the wonderful 
job you do here at the OAS.
    I think I should begin by saying that for me this is not an 
obligation, it is an honor, not only because like every other member of 
my generation I was inspired by President Kennedy but because Hillary 
and Chelsea and I have been profoundly moved by the uncommon kindnesses 
of this family to ours.
    In 1991 I had an event in New York when no one in New York knew my 
name, and I looked up and John Kennedy 
was there. I think it would be fair to say that his name recognition was 
5 times higher than mine among all in attendance. [Laughter] Early in 
1992 Mrs. Kennedy came to an event for me and later went out of her way 
to be helpful and kind to Hillary and to Chelsea in ways that are 
difficult to relate but impossible to overestimate.
    The other day we were spending a weekend in Camp David, and I went 
out with a couple of Members of Congress, cavorting around in the lousy 
weather. Hillary stayed home with her friends and watched Jackie 
Kennedy's White House special, marveling again about the incredible work 
that was done to preserve America's house by Mrs. Kennedy.
    And I do believe that, no matter who writes the history books, when 
people look back on this century, they will say that Edward 
Kennedy was one of the ablest and most 
productive, most compassionate, and most effective men who served in the 
United States Senate in the entire history of the country.
    The JFK Library and its museum are national treasures, but I would 
like to talk about three things that are to some extent both more 
intangible and more tangible in the legacy of President Kennedy that 
will be enshrined forever if all of us do our job and keep this great 
enterprise going.
    First, the spirit of citizen service, most clearly embodied in the 
Peace Corps. President Kennedy said that he wanted to speak to those 
peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break 
the bonds of mass misery. We pledged to them our best efforts to help 
them help themselves. Five weeks later, 37 years ago yesterday, the 
Peace Corps was born. In 3 weeks, when I travel to Africa, my first stop 
will be Ghana, the first place President Kennedy's Peace Corps 
volunteers went to serve. Now they have gone, over the years, to 132 
    Tomorrow America will celebrate these accomplishments during the 
first ever Peace Corps Day, when thousands of former Peace Corps 
volunteers, including Secretary Shalala, 
who was

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a volunteer in Iran, and I might add has volunteered to go back if it 
will help our new efforts. [Laughter] Thousands of Peace Corps 
volunteers have agreed to talk with students around our country about 
their life-changing experiences.
    The JFK Library also has a Library Corps, perhaps not as well known 
as the building itself, started by this foundation, which is inspiring 
young people in Roxbury, Dorchester, South Boston to work after school 
on community service projects.
    Inspired by President Kennedy's example, I have done what I could to 
advance the cause of citizen service. I just asked for the largest 
funding increase for the Peace Corps in history, in the hope that we can 
put 10,000 volunteers overseas by the turn of the century.
    Our national service project, AmeriCorps, has already given 100,000 
young people a chance to earn some money for college while they serve in 
their communities. One of my happiest days as President was when we 
walked up the South Lawn of the White House with all the first group of 
young people, and I met Senator Kennedy, 
and we signed the bill.
    Soon, tens of thousands of those young people will be working with 
elementary school students, to teach them to read, and middle school 
students, promising to stay with them throughout their careers to make 
sure they get a chance to go to college, too.
    So we thank President Kennedy and all of you for the spirit of 
citizen service.
    The second thing that I would like to say in appreciation to the 
legacy of President Kennedy is that he did a lot to remind us all that 
we owe it to ourselves, to our children, and to our future to cherish 
and proliferate exposure to the arts. The First Lady and I have tried to 
do that in our celebration of the millennium. We have been having these 
Millennium Evenings. We had the great Harvard historian Bernard 
Bailyn the other night, and this Friday night 
we will have the brilliant cosmologist Stephen Hawking. A week from tonight we will also highlight four vernacular 
dances that have entered our unique dance: tap, Lindy-hopping, jazz, 
and--so help me, I didn't organize this--Irish step dancing. [Laughter]
    I want to thank Yo Yo Ma for the work that he 
has done to try to bring the arts, and music in particular, to so many 
Americans who might otherwise have never had a firsthand experience with 
what can lead us all to a higher level of understanding and enjoyment of 
    Finally, and most personally, I am here because President Kennedy, 
Robert Kennedy, their generation, made me admire and believe in public 
service and made me understand that it could be fun but that it also 
carried with it certain responsibilities. They made me believe that it 
was not a bad thing but a noble thing to want to exercise power but only 
if it were exercised for some larger purpose. There are many people in 
this room tonight who could be standing here making exactly the same 
    Just before I came over here, I finished a magnificent new biography 
of Theodore Roosevelt by H.W. Brands called 
``The Last Romantic.'' It's a terrific book, and it's only 820 pages 
long. [Laughter] But I was thinking--because President Roosevelt died 
right after the close of the First World War, I was thinking about the 
whole sweep of the century that President Kennedy's life marked and that 
his service marked in such a profound way.
    This century we are about to leave was dominated by the consequences 
of the industrial revolution, the growth of very big organizations--
economic organizations, governmental organizations--and the attendant 
wealth and power and possibility and threat that revolution spawned. So 
that for most of this century, Americans in positions of responsibility 
and ordinary American citizens have both had an incredible opportunity 
to find wealth and personal fulfillment and greater expression of 
freedom because of the organized development of this time. But they have 
also had an enormous responsibility to stand up against the new horrors 
that vast organized power presented to them, whether in greed or bigotry 
or outright totalitarian oppression.
    John Kennedy made us believe that in public service you could fight 
for the things that ought to be fought for; you could fight against the 
things that ought to be fought against; and that the sole purpose of 
power, fleeting though it is, was to be applied to the best of your God-
given ability to those worthy goals.
    Now, we're about to enter a new century with problems and 
opportunities unparalleled in history, speeding along at a pace and with 
a complexity that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. 
There is a lot of good in the fact that the knowledge of the world is 
now doubling--sheer facts are doubling every

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5 years. We see in the human genome project miraculous health 
discoveries being made almost weekly now.
    But we also know that in this new world, where the Internet is 
exploding and 65,000 new sites are being added every hour of every day, 
that there will be new ways that people who are organized for the abuse 
of their power will present new threats, perhaps terrorists or organized 
criminals or narcotraffickers, perhaps in the forms of chemical or 
biological or small-scale nuclear weapons, perhaps unwise leaders being 
too greedy in the short run, forcing poor people off their land into the 
teeming cities of poor countries, devastating the environment, leading 
to the spread of disease.
    So we will now live in a new area where humankind will have all 
kinds of new possibilities for good and all manner of new things that 
need to be fought against. I hope that the children of this age will 
find a way to believe in America the way President Kennedy helped me to 
believe in America and to believe that the political process leaves the 
ultimate power in the people and gives its elected Representatives a 
precious chance just to bring out the good and stand against the bad. It 
is the eternal human obligation. He made it seem fun and noble and good. 
The least we can do is to keep the torch burning.
    Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 9:10 p.m. in the Hall of the Americas at 
the Organization of American States. In his remarks, he referred to 
Victoria Kennedy, wife of Senator Edward M. Kennedy; Caroline Kennedy 
Schlossberg and her husband, Edward; John F. Kennedy, Jr.; Paul G. Kirk, 
Jr., chair, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation Dinner; Jill 
Horner, wife of cellist Yo Yo Ma; and Secretary General Cesar Gaviria of 
the Organization of American States.