[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[May 7, 1998]
[Pages 716-720]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks to the Arab American Institute Conference
May 7, 1998

    Thank you, Jim. To Elie Abboud and Fuad Ateyeh, all the members 
of the Arab American Institute, the National Arab American Business 
Association, Palestinian American Congress; to Prince Bandar and the members of the diplomatic corps--all of you, 
thank you for coming. My fellow Americans: I like getting advice from 
Jim Zogby's mother. [Laughter] And she has a 
remarkable read on the world. Her son John, a 
renowned pollster, has nothing on her. In fact, I think her numbers are 
better than his for me sometimes. [Laughter] I also want to say a 
special word of appreciation to Jim for his advice over the years. He is 
a remarkable voice

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for calm and clarity, no matter how heated the issues. But I can tell 
you, he is one of the most forceful, intense, and brutally honest people 
who ever come to the White House to see me. And you should be proud of 
    I understand that I am the first sitting President to address an 
Arab-American conference. [Applause] Thank you. I see Congressman 
Moran in the audience; he came here so the 
Irish would not be alone at the podium. And I thank him for that. 
    I'm honored to be the first President, but I'm surprised, frankly, 
and also a little disappointed, because the Arab-American community has 
made an enormous contribution to this country with basic values that 
made us great: love of family, and belief in hard work and personal 
responsibility, and a passionate devotion to education, which I hope we 
will see engulf every single ethnic group in America today.
    I congratulate you on the way you have found your voice, on speaking 
out on a wide range of domestic issues and not just on the questions 
involving the Middle East. A record number of Arab-Americans are now 
running for and serving in public office, including the United States 
Congress. But even the newest Yemeni immigrants, once poor farmers, are 
now small-business owners, achieving their rightful share of the 
American dream.
    I wanted to talk with you very briefly tonight about how we can work 
together at home and around the world at the end of this century to 
prepare for the challenges and the staggering opportunities of the one 
about to dawn.
    First, we must help all Americans see our diversity as our greatest 
strength. People ask me from time to time why I feel so passionately 
about this, and they assume rightly it's partly, maybe largely, because 
I'm a southerner and I grew up with the old and still unfinished 
business between black and white Americans. But I also grew up in a very 
unusual town for the South. My hometown had only 35,000 people, but it 
was a national park and a place with healing hot waters, and we had all 
kinds of people coming there to retire. So here I was a little boy 
growing up in the South in a town that had two synagogues--35,000 
people--we had two synagogues, a Greek Orthodox Church, a huge Czech 
community, a Lithuanian community, and just about somebody from 
    But my attitudes about Arab-Americans were first formed because I 
was good friends with a young immigrant named David Zorab who came to my home State after he was orphaned and 
grew up to become the valedictorian of my high school class. And he went 
on to become a brilliant physician in Pennsylvania. And I suppose that I 
always wanted all Americans to enjoy the kind of life I had as a child. 
And yet, a lot of people around me didn't have that life, because they 
were imprisoned by their own prejudices. We have to free this country of 
all those prejudices.
    I know it is true that Arab-Americans still feel the sting of being 
stereotyped in false ways. I have done what I could to warn against 
that. The saddest encounter, I suppose, was when we went through the 
heartbreaking experience of Oklahoma City, and many people were quick to 
rush to judgment. And I remember that terrible day when I urged the 
American people not to do so.
    I am very grateful not only to Jim but to 
others among you who have been an active part of my race initiative. And 
I'm very pleased that you're now working with Jewish-Americans and 
members of several European ethnic groups to organize, I think, six 
regional forums on race and diversity around our Nation over the coming 
    These sorts of things don't often make headlines in the news today 
because they work; therefore, they are not sufficiently contentious. And 
when there is no blood on the floor at the end of the meeting, they are 
often considered not newsworthy. They are profoundly important. And I 
believe that there is a deeper hunger among Americans of all kinds to 
discuss these matters in an honest and open way than even most of us 
    I was amazed, I just got a letter from ESPN. They sponsored sort of 
a townhall on race the other night with athletes and coaches and others. 
And I think they were truly astonished because they had about the same 
viewership as they do for a pro basketball game. And moreover, the 
viewership picked up as the program went on, so the channel surfers saw 
it and decided they ought to hang on for a while. So I would encourage 
you to continue that. Don't let any American have the misfortune of 
never having known an Arab-American. You can do that if you try.
    The second thing we have to do is keep working until we bring the 
spark of enterprise and opportunity to every corner of the Nation. It

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may be hard to believe, since we have the lowest unemployment rate in 28 
years and the lowest inflation rate in over 30 years and the highest 
homeownership in the history of the country and a record number of small 
business starts in the last 5 years, including those started by many 
Arab-Americans, but not every American has had the chance to reap the 
rewards of this remarkable prosperity. You understand clearly the power 
and the dignity that comes from being able to earn a living to support a 
family. We have to bring this kind of opportunity throughout America. I 
have put before the Congress several proposals to close the opportunity 
gaps: empowerment zones, community development financial institutions, 
housing and other development initiatives. I hope they will be 
positively acted upon this year, and I ask you for your support.
    The third thing we have to do is to build the world's finest 
education system. We have done so with our universities, and we are 
blessed to have people not only of all different races and ethnic groups 
in America attend them but people from all over the world. But no one 
would seriously assert that we had today the finest system of elementary 
and secondary education, and yet it is more important than ever before.
    A couple of days ago, I had a fascinating conversation with the head 
of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, and 
we were talking about the phenomenal prosperity our country is enjoying 
and the number of the developments around the world. And he said, ``You 
know, we really are completely now engulfed by an economy based on 
ideas.'' He said that there is an interesting measure of the total 
physical output of a country compared to its wealth. And he said our 
total physical output in terms of mass is hardly increased at all, while 
the stock market and our national wealth has exploded because we have an 
economy based on ideas. In such an economy, it is unforgivable neglect 
to permit children to grow up and go through the school system and not 
be able to participate in that economy because their minds have not 
developed to the point where they can. And it is not necessary.
    Again, I have laid before the Congress a number of proposals that 
will make education our number one priority and result in dramatic 
improvements of our schools: smaller classes, better teaching, higher 
standards, expanded choice, more discipline, greater accountability.
    Today I met with a group of mayors who endorsed my proposal to end 
social promotion but to increase the amount of help we're giving to 
children who are having trouble in school, more after-school help, more 
summer schools, more support. In Chicago, where they are now requiring 
children who don't make the grade to go to summer school, they're seeing 
children in summer school gain as much as 2 years in reading and 
mathematics capacity, just in one intense summer effort.
    So again I say to you--so many of you know you are the living proof 
that education is the key to opportunity. Just across the river from 
here, in Fairfax County, we have a school district with children from 
180 different national and ethnic groups whose native languages number 
in excess of 100. Now, I think that's a good thing. I think that is a 
great thing for America in a global society. But you can only imagine 
what will happen if they're all well-educated, and unfortunately, you 
can only imagine what will happen if vast numbers of them are not well-
    So think about what brought you all here tonight and how you came to 
be here. And we have to do this. We have to do it. The Federal 
Government, the President, can only do so much. Parents have to do a 
lot; teachers have to do a lot; the kids have to do the most. But we owe 
it to them, as a society, to provide educational opportunity second to 
none and to make sure that every child's mind has a chance to be 
    Now, the fourth thing that we have to do is to continue as Americans 
to lead the world toward peace and freedom. If we can set an example and 
live together across all the lines that divide us, not simply respecting 
but actually celebrating our differences and honoring them--not 
tolerating them but honoring them--we clearly have a responsibility to 
do that elsewhere.
    Now that the cold war is over and people are not being drawn like 
magnets to two different economic and political systems, it is natural 
that people would reexamine the premises on which they are organized and 
on which they govern themselves. It is, I suppose, natural--at least it 
is predictable--that we would even have a resurgence of destructive 
ethnic impulses, as we have seen in Bosnia, as we see

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in Kosovo even tonight, in other parts of the world; as we saw in the 
tragedy where somewhere between 700,000 and a million people were killed 
in Rwanda in the short space of 100 days, and without weapons of mass 
destruction, so that it had to be done in the grizzliest, most inhumane 
    But we can do better. In Northern Ireland, representatives of all 
the major parties have reached an historic agreement that I hope and 
pray will be ratified by the voters of Northern Ireland and the Republic 
of Ireland in just a few days. I think all of us, and especially all of 
you, should take a special measure of pride that those talks in Northern 
Ireland were chaired by George Mitchell, 
the former majority leader, who is, of course, also of Lebanese descent.
    Today I met with members of a group of Irish people who had all lost 
sons or husbands or brothers in the Troubles. They are now working to 
help each other and others like them work for peace, both inner peace 
and peace among the Irish. And I suppose, in every part of the world, 
you can hardly have one without the other.
    We are now also, as all of you know, working very hard to regain the 
momentum for peace in the Middle East. The last year has been so 
frustrating for the people of the Middle East, so frustrating for the 
peace-loving people in the Palestinian areas and in Israel, that it's 
easy to forget how far we have come in the last few years. We've had the 
Oslo accords, the Washington peace signing in September of `93, the 
Hebron agreement, unprecedented security cooperation, the open dialog 
that had been established; all these things were quite important. They 
have brought the possibility of peace closer than ever before. All I'm 
trying to do is to regain that momentum. We have an opportunity to get 
this process moving again and to move forward.
    It has been my experience in life--and I've lived long enough now to 
see it--that in almost every area of human endeavor, opportunities do 
not last forever; they must be seized. And I hope this one will be 
seized. Difficult choices have been made--will have to be made--by 
Palestinians and Israelis alike. And we cannot impose a solution because 
we--even you--will not have to live out the consequences. But we must--
we must--try to help find enough common ground to return to the dialog. 
Keep in mind, what we are trying to do is to get the parties over a 
hurdle so they can get into these final status talks, so we can stay on 
the timetable established a few years ago by both the Palestinians and 
the Israelis to finish the whole thing by this month next year. Now, I 
am sending Ambassador Dennis Ross back to 
Israel tonight to go the extra mile to help the parties seize this 
    All of you know what invaluable benefits peace can bring to the 
people of the region. All of you know how much suffering has been 
undergone by people because of the absence of peace. All of you know how 
much extra suffering has been borne every time there is an interruption 
of normalcy. We have got to get this done. I am doing the very best I 
can, and I know you are, too.
    I have given a lot of thought to what makes people get into downward 
spirals. We see it in horrible terms when violence occurs and life is 
lost, not just in the Middle East but anyplace--in Bosnia, where we were 
able to end a war, in other places. We see it in less violent ways when 
people in positions of public responsibility get into a downward spiral 
of destructive attempts to hurt each other for political reasons that 
have no larger public purpose.
    We all have to struggle every day. I used to tell my daughter when 
she was at home that it's almost like all of us get up every day with an 
inner scale inside, with lightness and constructive, positive behavior 
on one side and all our darkest fears on the other. And the scales are 
always shifting in balance, and every day you have to get up and push 
the scale down on the right side. We all have to fight it. And when I 
get very discouraged about it, and I think, well, we're all just going 
to run up against a dead end, I try to remember the examples of people 
who have overcome more than I can imagine. I'll never forget the first 
time I talked to Nelson Mandela about how he 
actually made himself overcome his hatred of his oppressors so that he 
could wait and endure 27 long years until he could bring it all 
together. And he said, ``You know, they took a lot from me when I was in 
prison. I never saw my children grow up. I lost my personal life. I was 
brutalized. I was humiliated. Finally, it occurred to me they could take 
everything away from me but my mind and my heart. Those things I would 
have to give away. I decided not to give them away.''

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    I ask you to remain resolute and to remain passionate, but always to 
be large. Do not give away the best part of your own lives. Do not give 
away the best part of your hopes. We will prevail.
    Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 8:35 p.m. at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. In his 
remarks, he referred to Elie Abboud, president, National Arab American 
Business Association; Fuad Ateyeh, president, Arab American Congress; 
Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabian 
Ambassador to the United States; James J. Zogby, president, Arab 
American Institute, and John J. Zogby, president, Zogby International, 
and their mother, Celia Zogby; and President Nelson Mandela of South