THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
July 13, 1998
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
AT NATIONAL TREASURES TOUR KICK-OFF
National Museum for American History
8:48 A.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Is this a great
way to start the week, or what? (Laughter.) Thank you, Mr. Crew,
Secretary Heyman, Ms. Rimel, Mr. Mayor and members of the City
Council, Mr. Moe. Thank you, Denise, as always for being so
wonderful. Thank you, Ralph Lauren, for this incredible act of
generosity and, I think, foresight.
And I want to thank the First Lady for once again
creating something of enduring value to our country in this
You know, Hillary mentioned this, but 1814 was not a
particularly good year for America. And the British did burn the
White House and we've just finished a 15-year renovation of the White
House and we left two of the great stones unpainted to remind people
that it only became the White House after the British burned it, and
when the burn marks couldn't be scrubbed off, the beautiful stone had
to be painted white to cover the memory of what had happened. It's
rather nice, actually, to have a couple of the stones unpainted so
that we don't completely forget.
Not since that time has the United States been invaded.
And so the confidence of all the people who were involved was
well-founded. Francis Scott Key wrote The Star Spangled Banner in
the midst of a very fierce battle. He was standing on the deck of a
ship, behind enemy lines, looking into darkness, searching for the
fate of the flag. The poem he wrote about it became our National
If you remember the words and then you look at this
massive flag, you can imagine what it must have been like in 1814,
waving gallantly during the fight -- standing unconquered in the
dawn's early light. Think how you would have felt if you would have
seen it then.
This Star Spangled Banner and all its successors have
come to embody our country, what we think of as America. It may not
be quite the same for every one of us who looks at it, but in the end
we all pretty much come out where the framers did. We know we have a
country founded on the then revolutionary idea that all of us are
created equal, and equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit
of happiness; that this whole country was put together out of an
understanding that no individual can maximize the pursuit of life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness alone, and so we had to join
together to reinforce each other's efforts.
And then there was another great insight, which is that
in the joining we couldn't repeat the mistakes of the monarchies from
which we fled, and give anyone absolute power over anyone else. And
so we created this written Constitution to say that, okay, we've
got to join together, and some people have to be our representatives
they should be given authority to make certain decisions, but never
unlimited and never forever.
And I'd say that system has worked pretty well over the
last 220-plus years. And that's what that that flag embodies -- at a
moment when we could have lost it all, when the White House itself
was burned, when a lot of people didn't think that we had such a good
idea. And so, now it's standing there -- a little worse for the wear
-- but quite ready to be restored. And in that sense, it is a
metaphor for our country, which is always ready to be restored.
When Hillary and I were talking about what we should do
to commemorate the millennium, and she came up with this phrase,
"honoring the past and imagining the future," I loved it because it
seems to me to be so much two sides of the same coin. You heard her
only slightly making fun of me there about my obsession with the
history of the United States and the White House and this great city.
When I became President, I was often made fun of for my obsession
about the future and trying to modernize the country, and to me, the
two things are not inconsistent at all, because America is a country
that has always been in the act of becoming.
You heard -- if you listened carefully to the remarkable
statement by Secretary Heyman, he mentioned the phrase of the
founders to "form a more perfect union." If you think about it, that
is the enduring mission of America. They were very smart people, and
they understood that any great nation is always a work in progress.
They understood that they could never imagine the far reaches of
America's future. They understood that these ideals they set up
would never be perfectly realized.
And so they gave us a mission that will be just as good
for our grandchildren as it is for us, just as good as it was for
George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, "to form a more perfect
union," because there will always be something there to do better,
always a new challenge. And I agree that if you look at where we are
today, we have both the traditional responsibilities of every
generation of Americans to deepen the meaning of our freedom and to
widen the circle of opportunity, and all these new challenges. One
of them is to deal with our phenomenally increasing diversity.
Didn't you get a kick out of seeing all those kids
standing there doing the Pledge of Allegiance, all their backgrounds?
Who were their grandparents, who were their great-great-grandparents?
Where did they come from, what was their story? It doesn't matter,
because they now have a chance to live the dream that was promised to
all of us so long ago. That's what that flag embodies.
We have all kinds of responsibilities now to the rest of
the world we didn't have before, because now the world is yearning
for freedom and there is no Cold War, and we must summon ourselves to
understand that in the 21st century, preserving everything good about
America at home requires us to be more involved with our neighbors
around the world than ever before.
We have new challenges when it comes to our natural
environment, to prove that we can continue to enjoy the fruits of
material prosperity while replenishing the Earth, not destroying it.
There will be new and different challenges, but we can meet them best
if we remember what got us here. That's why saving the Star Spangled
Banner is important. That's why I asked the American people do it in
the State of the Union. That's why I'm very grateful to Ralph Lauren
today for stepping forward.
You know, most of us have -- well, maybe not most of us,
but a lot of us, including Hillary and me -- have those great Polo
sweaters with the American flag on it. I wish I had one with the
Star Spangled Banner on it because that's the gift that he's given
Now, I want to echo what Hillary said. There is more to
do. President Lincoln and his family and many other Presidents'
families used to stay in a little cabin up with the Old Soldiers Home
here in Washington, D.C. in the summertime because the Potomac was so
hot. That ought to be preserved for all time to come. And this
committee has identified dozens of other sites.
But I also want to emphasize something else Hillary
said, as she begins this tour over the next four days to identify
nationally significant treasures. Every community in this country has
got some piece of itself that needs to endure. And I hope that the
public airing that this event receives today will make people in
every community across our country once again say, what have we got
here that we should preserve for our grandchildren and for all time
to come. Americans need to know the stories of their country, their
states, their communities, their families.
Let me especially thank the History Channel for doing
its part to share the story of the Star Spangled Banner by producing
its own TV documentary and providing teachers with educational
packets about it.
Again let me say to all of you, too, we must continue to
imagine the future. I asked the Congress to pass the Save America's
Treasures program, as well as the biggest research program for the
future in history, and to put them together so that our people could
see that the story of America is a seamless one.
I hope all of you in this room and all of the people who
are involved in this endeavor, every time you see the Star Spangled
Banner for the rest of your life will think about preserving our
past, honoring it; but also will think about imagining the future.
What an imagination it took in 1814 to believe that America had a
The Continental Congress said when it authorized the
first flag of 13 stars that they were "a new constellation." They
were right. When I looked at all those children today saying the
Pledge of Allegiance, I thought, now we are a newer constellation
--different than they could have imagined -- racially, religiously.
We have no longer a small country on the Eastern seaboard, but a
continental nation, with the greatest influence for good the world
has ever seen, and an enormous responsibility for the future.
And that is the last point I would like to make today.
You can neither honor the past, nor imagine the future, nor achieve
it without the kind of citizenship embodied by all of our memories of
the flag. So as you see this flag and leave this place, promise
yourself that when your great-grandchildren are here, they'll not
only be able to see the Star Spangled Banner, it will mean just as
much to them then as it does to you today.
Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)