[Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents Volume 35, Number 19 (Monday, May 17, 1999)]
[Pages 886-888]
[Online from the Government Publishing Office, www.gpo.gov]

Remarks at a ``Conyers for Congress'' Dinner

May 13, 1999

    Thank you very much. Let me, first of all, thank Bob Johnson and the 
whole BET family for making us feel at home at this wonderful place 
tonight. And I want to thank Kenny Burrell and Donald Byrd and James 
Moody, and also I'd like to thank the musicians who were playing for us 
earlier. They were very, very good, and I enjoyed hearing them.

[[Page 887]]

    I want to say how much I appreciate the fact that so many of John 
Conyers' colleagues are here from the Michigan delegation, from the 
Congressional Black Caucus, and the whole Congress would have showed up 
if they could have. And notwithstanding his claims of false advertising, 
he really is 70 years old. [Laughter]
    Now, I say that in astonished admiration. He has a child who is 10 
years younger than my daughter--[laughter]--maybe more--and one of the 
most impressive young men I've ever met in my life. And thanks to Debbie 
Dingell, he went through the Detroit Auto Show with me, and he knew more 
about the cars than I did. [Laughter]
    Let me say to all of you, there are many things that I appreciate 
about John Conyers. I appreciate the fact that he has supported my 
economic and social initiatives since I've been President. And thanks to 
his leadership, we have tried to do things that make sense--for our 
economy, to give everybody a chance to participate. We've tried to do 
things to help young people stay out of trouble, instead of just 
punishing people after they commit crimes. We've tried to do things that 
make sense to bring people together and to create more opportunity. And 
he's had a big impact on that.
    I appreciate the fact that in standing up for me last year, he stood 
up for the Constitution of the United States. And I'm grateful to him.
    I am grateful for the fact that long before it was fashionable, he 
believed the United States ought to be on the side of human rights in 
South Africa, in Haiti, and throughout the world. So I am very grateful 
to be a friend of John Conyers.
    I am also hoping that if I hang around him long enough, I get to 
meet some more great musicians--[laughter]--I get another chance or two 
to play. I can't tonight. I've got to work. And maybe I'll learn the 
secret of how to look young when I'm 70. People always ask me how old I 
am, and I say, ``I'm the oldest 52-year-old man in America''--or 53, or 
however old I am--I can't keep up with it.
    Let me say one other thing that's very important as I look around 
this crowd tonight--you know, our hearts have been heavy in the United 
States over the loss of the children in Colorado. And our hearts have 
been burdened over the efforts that we are making in Kosovo. And I think 
about the world we would like to build for our children. I think about 
how jazz music brought people together across racial lines, long before 
there was much of any other way to do it in America, long before it was 
cool or noticed--I'm talking about in the twenties and thirties. Mr. 
Gregory, I'm glad to see you here--thank you.
    And I look around this crowd tonight and I think about--those of you 
who are here who are young, you imagine what you want your life to be 
like. And a lot of you, you know all about computers and the Internet 
and how to relate to people all around the world and go into these 
strange chat rooms and talk to people in Mongolia or someplace. And we 
all want to believe it's going to be great and wonderful and 
fascinating. And isn't it interesting, after all our long journey, so 
that we could come here tonight, together--a journey which John Conyers, 
having been in the Congress since 1964, had a lot to do with helping us 
    But isn't it interesting that we had in our own country, a horrible 
murder-suicide, which the young people involved said was perpetrated 
because they felt that they were part of a gang that was not respected 
by others, and they hated other people, partly for racial, partly for 
other reasons. And this is 1999. And these kids were so far gone, that 
that's what they said. And our hearts were broken by it. And all those 
brilliant young people--one African-American, the others not--had their 
whole future taken away because these kids wanted to destroy and then to 
destroy themselves.
    And isn't it interesting that that's sort of against everything both 
that the whole history of jazz but also the potential of America and the 
world represents. And then you look around the world today, and what's 
the trouble? What's the trouble in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East 
and Africa, in the Balkans--from Bosnia to Kosovo--what's the trouble? 
People can't get along because of their racial, their ethnic, or their 
religious differences.

[[Page 888]]

    And so if we ought to think of one thing we can honor John Conyers 
for, thinking about what he stood for in South Africa, think about the 
record he stood for on civil rights at home, what he's fought for on the 
Judiciary Committee--it ought to be the idea that America ought to be a 
good place and a safe place and a full place for all its children.
    Yesterday--I will tell you this story in closing. I want to tell you 
a story. Yesterday, at the request of the Senators from North Dakota and 
Senator Daschle and Senator Baucus, I had a fascinating meeting with 19 
tribal chiefs from the 19 Indian tribes of the High Plains, the Northern 
High Plains in America. And all of you who don't know about that part of 
the country need to know that notwithstanding all the things you read 
about how rich the Native Americans are because of their gambling 
enterprises today, the tribes that don't have those gambling enterprises 
and the tribes that are in the poor, rural areas, a long way from 
economic activity, are still the poorest people in America.
    And so these very dignified, mostly pretty young tribal leaders, men 
and women, came in; we sat in a circle, according to their request, in 
the Roosevelt Room in the White House; and they spoke in their turn 
about the needs of their people. And then after they had done that, the 
person whom they had designated to be their spokesperson stood up in a 
very dignified way and said, ``Mr. President, we have something to say 
about our involvement in Kosovo. We know something about ethnic 
cleansing. We were removed from our lands, and some of the people who 
did it said that it was God's will, which we hear in the Balkans. And we 
have seen America come a very long way. And we have signed this 
proclamation to tell you that we, the leaders of the first Americans, 
support America's policy to stand up against ethnic cleansing and the 
murder of people because of their religious and ethnic background.''
    And then another man said, ``I would like to be heard.'' And this 
young man stood up with great dignity, and he had a beautiful silver 
Indian necklace on. And he said this--he said, ``Mr. President, I had 
two uncles. One landed on the beaches at Normandy on D-Day; the other 
was the very first Native American fighter pilot in the history of the 
American military. My great-great-grandfather was slaughtered by the 7th 
Cavalry at Wounded Knee.'' He said, ``I now have only one son. America 
has come a very long way from Wounded Knee, to the beaches at Normandy, 
to the opportunity I have to be in the White House today. And I love my 
son more than anything, but if he needed to go and fight against ethnic 
cleansing and the brutality and the murdering of people because of their 
race or their ethnicity or their religion, I would be proud for him to 
stand for the United States and for the humanity of man.''
    No one in the room could breathe, we were so moved by this man in 
his simple dignity, representing Americans who still don't have a total, 
fair shot at educational and economic opportunities, who live in places 
that still don't have adequate health care. But he told a story that 
needs to be told.
    So I say to you, you honor John Conyers tonight--the best way we can 
honor John Conyers is to say, we've got a pretty picture of the 21st 
century, and we've got an ugly picture of the 21st century that is every 
last nightmare that has dogged human society since people came up out of 
the caves and first got together, and that is fear and hatred of people 
who are different from us. And we're better than that. And he's helped 
us to be better than that. And we're going to do better still.
    Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 8:45 p.m. at the BET on Jazz Restaurant. In 
his remarks, he referred to Robert L. Johnson, chairman and chief 
executive officer, BET Holdings, Inc.; musicians Kenny Burrell, Donald 
Byrd, and James Moody; Debbie Dingell, wife of Representative John 
Dingell; and civil rights activist Dick Gregory.