[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 nations. 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 [[Page 315]] 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 life. 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 statement. 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 [[Page 316]] 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.