REMARKS BY THE FIRST LADY
TO THE WOMEN'S LEADERSHIP FORUM
MRS. CLINTON: (in progress) -- your energy and your enthusiasm and your commitment to WLF and to the issues that we are all joined in supporting and advocating for. I want to thank Cynthia again and Chris and all the members of the executive board for your hard work and your continuing commitment to WLF. And it is very exciting to be gathered for this 4th annual national issues conference.
Now, I particularly want to thank my friend and our WLF honorary chair, Tipper Gore. She has really been the driving force behind the WLF from the very beginning and has nurtured it along and given it the attention and care that it needed. And I must say that her commitment on so many levels is an inspiration to those of us who know her and work with her. And I wanted personally to thank her for her countless ways of supporting not only the President and Vice President, but me and so many of the rest of us in this room.
You know, we haven't had a chance to get together in a somewhat manageable group since the election and the inaugural. I have seen many of you on different occasions and have been able to express my appreciation to you, but I want to do that again. I think that there's no doubt that had it not been for your commitment to the principles of the Democratic Party, to your belief that women had an essential role to play in the 1996 campaign and you determined to play it; had it not been for your networking, your speaking out, I don't know that we would have had the same outcome in the elections, from the popular ticket on down.
I honestly believe that the kind of effort that so many of you made in gathering the energy and resources that were necessary to make the case about the kind of country we are working to build was critical to the outcome of the elections in 1996. And I want to thank you, thank you for what you did together; thank you for what you did in your individual capacities.
As Tipper and I traveled around the country during that campaign, we always looked forward to the WLF events because they were raucous, rowdy, enthusiastic, energetic gatherings where the rooms that had been designed for a thousand were bursting at the seams, and people at the last minute were looking around for even larger meeting rooms. So we always left really energized. And I think that that made a big difference in how we saw the campaign and how we carried it out. And I hope it did for you as well.
Because really, the campaign and what you did was not an end in itself. Yes, we were thrilled and very gratified that the President and Vice President were reelected. But Tipper and I can find other ways to spend our time, in a slightly more private setting than the way we do now. (Laughter.) And we would continue to be committed to the issues. But what was really at stake was not that the reelection of the President and the Vice President, it was really a continuing statement about what our national values are and what issues are worthy of our support. And I hope you realize that you were part of making history.
When the President, at his inaugural, stood before all of us on that glorious day, and said, you know, government is not the solution, but it's not the problem either, that was a direct repudiation of the political philosophy that had tried to dominate the American political scene, starting when President Reagan uttered those words about more than 10 years ago now, at his first inaugural. And what my husband was saying is, we have to quit looking for ideological and purely partisan solutions. We have to quit drawing artificial lines between one another.
Yes, it's not the problem; yes, it's not the solution. Who doesn't believe that? What we have to do is create a new partnership between a new defined governmental responsibility and all the rest of us.
And so there was a very important political moment at the 1997 inaugural because it began to put to rest, we hope, the unnecessary divisive, partisan rankling over whether or not the United States is a nation with national commitments and national obligations, national responsibilities, where we are all bound together and where we do have a stake in the success of one another.
Now, how we work all that out is what the political process is for. Some people are always a little bit concerned when they see the hard work of politics being done -- you know that old saying, there are two things you should never see being made, legislation and sausage. (Laughter.) Well, it isn't always a pleasant sight to see how democracy works and there are those who grow faint-hearted and weary and say -- let me out, I can't deal with this.
Well, then that leaves the playing field of democracy to those who have very specific, ideological, personal, commercial interests that they will wish to exploit and advance. And so part of what we are attempting to do, and what the President and the Vice President and the WLF are engaged in doing is broadening the base of participation -- as Senator Daschle said, reigniting the belief that as citizens our goals, our voices, our contributions, our involvement count. And the more we can be involved the more likely we are to see democracy work.
Now, you may know that I was privileged to go to Africa just a few weeks ago and to travel through a lot of countries that are now struggling with how you define democracy, who are attempting to throw off one-party rule, undo the problems of the past, create new conditions for people to be involved. And it was very exciting to see firsthand. But I could also see how difficult the challenges were, because democracy is never easy. It is a complicated business -- millions and millions and millions of equals to try to govern themselves. And there are always difficulties along the road and there is no such thing as a perfect democracy. There is not one in the world.
We are still trying to make a more perfect union as we commit ourselves to doing at the beginning of our country. But there is not any more important task for anyone privileged enough as we are to live in a democracy than to be committed to making it work, and to be willing to stand up and have one's voice heard, have one's vote count.
Now, when a democracy is as old as ours, then there gets to be a little fatigue and people take for granted the blessings that we have. And they don't feel the necessity for being involved. They don't turn out to vote for days and stand in line for hours as they did with the first national election in South Africa. They don't feel the kind of energy that it takes to keep a democracy vital is their business, it's somebody else's concern. And, of course, that undermines the effectiveness of any democratic government.
And so what you are doing is not just supporting the Democratic Party, which is very important because of our principles and our beliefs that has to be continually championed, but you are supporting democracy, with a small d, and there isn't any more important task for any citizen.
As some of you know, the kind of work that WLF has done to reach out and involve women has caught on all over our country. I look around and I see people who have been involved with the WLF from the very beginning and I see people for whom this is your first meeting. And what is then very important about this is that although the WLF is not exclusively a women's organization -- we are glad to have the men here among us -- it is primarily aimed at enlisting the energy and resources of women. And that is important for a number of reasons.
I know from my own travels around the world, and others of you who have done it as well, that where women are committed to be participants in their society, where they are actively involved in the democratic life of their country, their countries flourish. They are able to make decisions for themselves that they feel give them authority over their own futures, to make commitments to their education, their families, their larger society.
And what we found in the 1996 election here at home is that many of the real life issues and concerns that we as women have always talked about around kitchen tables, around water coolers, as we have struggled to make sense of our own lives and to talk about and help create the kind of communities we wanted for ourselves and future generations -- what we have found is -- and I would argue in large measure because of efforts that you have made, those issues are now finally at the top of the political agenda.
We saw that yesterday when the President and I hosted a conference on early childhood development. It was a remarkable event where leading scientists, pediatricians, psychologists, educators, business leaders came together to talk about what science has now told us which, thankfully, many of us knew instinctively or because of our own parents and grandparents, about the importance of those first three years of life and how we could use that information at home, in school, in the workplace and in the halls of government.
Now, maybe a dozen years ago or certainly longer than that it might have been inconceivable for the President of the United States to take time out of his schedule dealing with what people then thought of as the really important issues of the time to talk about and listen to information and research about the importance of reading to and cuddling with and singing to and talking with babies. As the Vice President said yesterday, that was a different concept of the bully pulpit. It was sort of the bully cradle. (Laughter.)
And there are some even today that would argue not only does the President not belong in a conference in the White House doing that, but there's no role really for the government to be talking and working on that. That is an issue that should be left to individuals and to families.
Well, that is not what the President or the Vice President or Tipper or I believe. We believe that preparing our children from the challenges of the 21st century is the primary challenge facing the United States. It, more than nearly anything else one can imagine, will determine the quality of life, the strength of our country, the leadership the United States plays in the rest of the world. (Applause.)
And so, we want to continue talking about these real life issues. The first piece of legislation the President signed, Family and Medical Leave, was built on by expanding Head Start; creating something called Early Head Start, which we want to expand even more because it targets children who are at risk from zero to three, the period we now know is so crucial. The President has fought to make access to nutrition and education and care available to the WIC program. And childhood immunizations have been raised in the last four years in our country to the highest level they have been, and we still have work to do.
Those are just some of the things that this administration has worked on not because they were nice ideas, not because they were political issues for certain constituencies, but because the President and those of us who are working with him know that trying to create the conditions for the successful raising of children is one of the best ways we can guarantee that our democracy continues, to give every child a chance to live up to his or her God-given potential, to play a role in our society.
And so, when we talk about these issues and what we are now facing on the legislative and political agenda, I want to link it to the work that you have been doing because too often these in the past have been viewed as women's issues. Well, isn't it nice that Tipper is heading a campaign to try and do something about this? And isn't it nice that Hillary Clinton's talking about brain development, the first three years. And it's really a nice show of solidarity to their husbands to kind of show up and lead the cheers. But, what does that have to do with the business of the nation?
And I've begun to talk about this as some of you have heard before in a way that, I think, makes some sense and puts it into context, because I was, frankly, surprised and disappointed when during the 1996 campaign, the so-called gender gap was described by some as the feminization of politics -- that if the President of United States goes around talking about family leave or insuring poor children or making it possible for more and more children to be immunized, he's just doing it to try to get women's votes, and that's unfortunate because our President should be talking about really significant issues.
Well, I think that the women of this country were ahead of the curve when it came to determining what politics will mean in the future because it is not just about traditional ideals of realpolitik. Yes, our relations with China, our efforts to try to bring peace to the Middle East or Bosnia or Northern Ireland, our support for democracy and prosperity around the world are critical. And that kind of realpolitik engagement is a necessary part of what it means to be the indispensable nation of the world today.
But that is not all there is to politics or democracy as we end the 20th century. I think it is a blessing that we are also now talking about what I call real-life politik. How is it we will raise our children -- (applause.) Because of the conference yesterday and the other efforts of the administration and because of your work, more and more Americans are understanding that if we don't try to focus on the issues that affect our children, then our country will never reach its full potential and our democracy will not be as strong as it needs to be.
So I urge all of us to continue to help involve more women and to have the kind of understanding that you have exhibited at this issues conference about the way we are interconnected, and how it does make a difference in our own lives if we are committed to helping other people fulfill the potential of their lives as well.
This is a very exciting time to be involved in American politics. It is not an easy time for those of us who are involved, as we all are, because it is a challenging time. But think about why there is so much challenge going on. I think in large measure it is because there are great issues at stake. They sometimes become obscured in the daily back-and-forth of what makes the news headlines, but what's really going on under the surface are tectonic shifts that are very much going to determine what kind of politics and nation we have in the next century. And it is worth fighting for. It is worth fighting for issues like Head Start and child care and higher education standards and better health coverage. (Applause.)
So I hope that you will take from this conference not only a lot of very good information which I've heard has been exchanged and good ideas from the speakers who have addressed you, a renewed commitment on your own part to reaching even more people, talking even more vigorously about what is at stake at this point in history in our country, and giving even more women the chance to be involved, to find their own voices, to speak out for what they in their hearts believe, and for the kind of country they want to help build.
You know, it's a very exciting time, it's a very challenging time, and there are lessons around the world about how it can also be a sobering time. One cannot travel in the places that I have been without being reminded about how fragile life can be, about the odds that people all over the world face every single day, about the work that the vast majority of women do just to keep their body and soul and their families together.
And I want to end with one wonderful moment from my trip. I was in Uganda. Now, the recent history of Uganda is a sobering message about the inhumanity of man to man, and dictatorships and tyrants. And while I was in Kampala, I visited with a group of Rwandan women who had just survived the genocide that afflicted their country. And I walked into this very ordinary looking conference room to see these beautifully dressed women in their traditional dresses, sitting around a table. And their faces were tired, their eyes were somewhat hooded and shadowed, and they talked in very soft voices.
And the woman who was the leader of the group, who is now a minister in the Rwanda government, in a very matter-of-fact unemotional way, described to me what had happened to her and her family and many of the women and the families they represented around the table. And she pointed out one young woman who explained in French how she had been macheted and how she had nearly lost her arm and tried to keep her arm intact while she searched for medical care. And finally infection set in and she lost her arm. And another woman talked about being in one of those horrific refugee camps that Tipper visited, and what it was like to be in a situation where all the rules of what she thought human behavior and conduct were no longer applied.
Then they handed me an album, and the album consisted of page after page of some of the most horrific pictures you can imagine -- bones and skulls and bodies and orphans, deserted places. But as I turned the pages, all of a sudden I saw people on construction sites. I saw gatherings of people that were described to me as meetings. And by the end of the album, I had moved from the horrors of the genocide to the possibilities of the rebuilding and the renewal. And I could hardly take it all in. And one of the women said, you know, it really makes a difference whether people believe they and their neighbors can live peacefully together and each person's child is a child of God. She said, we lost that, and now we have to find it again.
And later on that same day, I went to a large conference center where I spoke to about 2,000 or so Ugandans, mostly women. And one of the ways that Uganda has tried to deal with its past is by opening as much as possible participation to all people, particularly women. They have a woman vice president. She said to me, one of the ways we have healed ourselves is by making sure what women care about is what the country cares about. Because before all that anyone cared about was power and money -- not children, not the future for everyone. We will make sure that what women care about is what the country cares about. (Applause.)
I hope that we continue to work to be sure that what America cares about is what women about -- without apology, without being defensive, without giving ground to those who try to belittle and deride concerns about what happens to babies in their first three years as being unworthy of presidential attention. And instead, I hope that we will keep in mind the energy that you have seen in this conference. And I will take it and put it into my movie of my time in Africa and remember with such pleasure the faces of the women I saw there and the faces of the women I see here, and to know that we so much in common because of the kind of future we want to build together.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore