Remarks by the President and First Lady at Medal of Freedom Presentation

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release August 11, 1999


The East Room

3:15 P.M. EDT

THE FIRST LADY: Please be seated, and welcome to the White House. ThePresident and I are delighted to have you join us as we pay tribute to the menand women who have earned not only our nation's highest civilian honor, but thedeepest gratitude of the American people.

But before we begin, I would like to express my deep sadness and outrageabout yesterday's shootings in Los Angeles at the Jewish Community Center. Iknow that all of us here, and all Americans, join in offering our prayers forthe children and other victims, their families and the entire community.Especially when children are the victims of gun violence, it shocks theconscience of our nation. And I hope our outrage will strengthen our resolve toaddress these scourges of gun violence and hate crimes in America today. Thereis no place for violence or intolerance in our country, and it is urgent that weaddress these issues now.

And we are gathered here to welcome the best of America to the East Roomof the White House -- the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom andtheir families. I'm also delighted that we have so many distinguished guestswith us today. We have members of Congress, Senator Robb, Congressman Scott,Congressman Sisisky. And we have members of our Cabinet. I want to especiallythank Secretary Albright, Secretary Summers, Secretary Daley and Herman,Secretary Shalala and Cuomo, Slater and Richardson, and Secretary and Mrs. West.

It is a great pleasure for all of us to join here inhonoring so many who have contributed to the betterment of ournation and our world. We also have a number of friends of therecipients, including ambassadors and distinguished leaders -- Ibelieve the Governor of Puerto Rico, former Secretary Bob Rubin,and many others who are here to join with us.

This is a ceremony that the President and I look forward towith great anticipation every year, because it is on this daythat we particularly celebrate our nation's democratic ideals,and honor individuals who have helped keep those ideals alivethrough lifetimes of service and achievement.

A former recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom,Barbara Jordan, once said, "What the people want is very simple:They want an America as good as its promise." Today, especially,we are reminded of that promise and our common struggle tofulfill it. We are reminded that any individual can make acontribution to fulfilling our most precious dreams. Our giftsof freedom, our commitment to respect and celebrate ourdiversity, our capacity to offer hope and opportunity to thosewho might otherwise be left behind, and our determination tostand up to acts of violence and inhumanity wherever they exist.

The individuals we honor today have worked to make good onthat promise. They have done so by restoring faith in times ofchange and peace in times of conflict, by defending human rightsand civil liberties, by preserving the natural beauty of our landfor our children and grandchildren. And they've helped fulfillAmerica's promise by reaching out to the marginalized and thepowerless, including our youngest citizens, and lifting them upto recognize their own gifts and abilities.

They have each, in their own way, helped widen the circle ofhuman dignity, and helped make our world a little more secure, alittle more attuned to injustice, than they found it. That isnot only their gift to us and to our country, but to futuregenerations.

It's now my pleasure to introduce someone who has foughttirelessly, also, to make the promise of America real -- not onlyfor every citizen here at home, but for freedom-loving peoplearound the world. And that is, of course, our President, BillClinton. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,welcome to the White House. A special welcome to Senator Robb,Congressman Scott, Congressman Sisisky, Secretary-SenatorBentsen's old colleagues in the Cabinet, and Mr. Rubin, welcomehome. Secretary Kissinger, thank you for coming. GovernorRossello, thank you for coming. Mrs. Ford, we're honored to haveyou here.

Let me just say, before I begin the ceremony, Hillary hasalready said that like all Americans, we have prayed for thewelfare of the children and their families and the entirecommunity affected by the shootings in Los Angeles yesterday.Most of you probably know by now that the FBI received thegunman, who turned himself in, earlier today. I want tocongratulate the law enforcement officials at all levels ofgovernment who quickly responded to the crime, identified thesuspect and kept the pressure on.

We are a long way of knowing all the facts about this caseand, therefore, I think all of us have to be somewhat carefulabout commenting. But what we have heard about the suspect andhis motives is deeply disturbing. Nothing could be further fromthe values we honor here today. Therefore, I would just say,again, I can only hope that this latest incident will intensifyour resolve to make America a safer place and a place of healingacross the lines that divide us.

President Kennedy once said that a nation reveals itself notonly by the people it produces, but by the people it honors.Today, we honor men and women who represent the best of Americawith the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Our nation's foundersbelieved, as do we, that freedom is a gift of God, not only to bedefended, but to be used to improve the human condition, todeepen the reach of freedom, to widen the circle of opportunity,to strengthen the bonds of our national community.

By words and deeds, the Americans we honor today have donejust that. And in honoring them, we honor also the values andprinciples of our nation's founding and our nation's future.Today, I am proud to begin with a man who once held the office Iam now privileged to occupy, and one who has more than earnedthis honor.

From his earliest days as a student and athlete, PresidentGerald Ford was destined for leadership. He was an outstandingplayer on the Michigan football team in a segregated era. Andhis horror at the discrimination to which one of his teammateswas subjected spawned in him a life-long commitment to equalrights for all people, regardless of race.

He served with distinction on an aircraft carrier in thePacific in World War II. Thirty years later, as Republicanleader of the House, and with the strong support of hiscolleagues in Congress in both parties, he was chosen to fill thevacancy in the Vice Presidency, which imposed on him subsequentlythe awesome responsibility of piloting our nation through thestormy seas of Watergate.

Steady, trustworthy, Gerald Ford ended a long, nationalnightmare. He also ended a long and bitter war. And he signedthe Helsinki Treaty on Human Rights that sent a signal of hope topeople throughout the world and hastened the fall of communism.

When he left the White House after 895 days, America wasstronger, calmer and more self-confident. America was, in otherwords, more like President Ford, himself.

During 25 years in the House of Representatives, and asHouse Republican leader, he won respect from both sides of theaisle. It is not just his penchant for hard work, or hisacknowledged mastery of everything from budgets to foreign policyto defense, but the way he conducted himself -- arguing hisposition forcefully on the House floor but, at the end of thedebate, always reaching over to shake the hand of his opponents.Gerald Ford knew when to put politics aside and when to put theinterests of our nation first.

The respect he commands has grown in the years since he leftoffice -- whether advising Presidents in the Oval Office, ordefending affirmative action, or making the case for free tradeon the editorial pages of our leading newspapers. His opinionsare still very much sought after. I am immensely grateful forthe wise counsel he has given me over the years.

And I think I can speak for Hillary and for all Americanswhen I also express my appreciation and thanks to Betty Ford, atremendous First Lady who has demonstrated dignity, strength andresolve, and inspired those qualities in millions of others inthe way she has shared her life with us.

President Ford represents what is best in public service,and what is best about America. Colonel, please read thecitation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: A Texas farmhand by the age of six, a bomberpilot by 21, a Congressman by 27, an immensely successfulbusinessman by 35, Lloyd Bentsen saw and did more in his youththan most see and do in an entire lifetime.

During his second 35 years, he managed another wholelifetime of achievement and service, as a distinguished UnitedStates Senator from Texas. He rose to become Chairman of theFinance Committee, where he demonstrated his lifetime concern forthe interest of business and labor and the poor, and hisconviction that America should advance all these together.

Then, at the tender age of 71, when he had every right tosettle back and enjoy the comforts of retirement, Lloyd Bentsenanswered my call to take on perhaps the toughest challenge of hispublic life: to become Secretary of the Treasury at a time ofgrave economic difficulty for our nation.

He accepted that challenge with characteristic gusto. Hebecame one of the strongest voices in America and in ouradministration, for fiscal discipline and expanded internationaltrade. He became an acknowledged world leader in financial andeconomic affairs. His work with Chairman Greenspan and Mr. Rubinand others on our economic team earned respect around the world.Under his leadership in 1993, when some of the rest of us had ourdoubts, we passed the economic plan that paved the way for whatis now the longest peacetime expansion in our history.

For a lifetime of exceptional service to his country, I amproud to bestow the Medal of Freedom on Lloyd Bentsen.

Colonel, read the citation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Edgar Bronfman once said that, in forcingthe world to face up to an ugly past, we help shape a morehonorable future. That fairly describes his own personal missionover these last 20 years. As chairman of Seagram's, he's helpedto build on his father's legacy and take the company to newheights. As President of the World Jewish Congress, he'straveled the world to expose the legacy of oppression of theJewish people and to spur action on their behalf.

Winning freedom for Soviet Jews in the 1980s; demandingjustice from financial institutions on behalf of Holocaustsurvivors in the 1990s; and, in between, supportingphilanthropies that work to break down barriers between nationsand lift the lives of disadvantaged young people. A life ofremarkable citizen service.

Colonel, read the citation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Evy Dubrow came to Washington more than 40years ago, ready to do battle for America's garment workers --and do battle she did. When it came to the well-being of workersand their families, this tiny woman was larger than life. Thehalls of Congress still echo with the sound of her voice,advocating a higher minimum wage, safer work places, bettereducation for the children of working families. And inopposition, to President Ford and me, she also was against NAFTA.(Laughter and applause.)

No matter how divisive the issue, however, Evy always seemedto find a way to bring people together, to find a solution. Asshe put it, there are good people on both sides of each issue.And she had a knack for finding those people.

By the time she retired two years ago, at the age of 80, shehad won a special chair in the House Chamber, a special spot atthe poker table in the Filibuster Room -- (laughter) -- and aspecial place in the hearts of even the most hard-bittenpoliticians in Washington; even more important, for decades anddecades, she won victory after victory for social justice.

Colonel, read the citation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Sister Isolina Ferre. For more than 20years, in a poverty-stricken barrio in Puerto Rico, SisterIsolina Ferre started passing out cameras to children. She toldthem to photograph whatever they saw. The point of the project,she later recalled, was not just to teach young people to takepictures, but to teach them to take pride in themselves. That iswhat Sister Isolina does best: teaching people to see the bestin themselves and in their communities, and making sure they hadthe tools to make the most of the gifts God has given them.

Armed only with her faith, she taught warring gangs in NewYork, City to solve their differences without violence. InPuerto Rico, her network of community service centers, theCentros Isolina Ferre, have transformed ravaged neighborhoods byhelping residents to advocate for themselves. Her passionatefight against poverty, violence and despair have earned her manyawards and countless tributes from all around the world. SisterIsolina once said that a community grows only when it rediscoversitself. On behalf of the many communities you have helped tomake that wonderful discovery, a grateful nation says thank youto you today.

Colonel, please read the citation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: I wonder whether any of the assembledparents, family and friends in the audience at the law schoolgraduation at Howard University in 1933 knew that they werewatching history in the making.

Among the many talented people who graduated that day, twomen stood side by side -- one the valedictorian, the othersalutatorian. Separated in class rank by a mere point or two,they were united in their determination to hasten our nation to aday when equal opportunity was the birthright of every American.

One of these men was the late Thurgood Marshall. We'rehonored to have his wife here with us today. (Applause.) Theother was the man it is our privilege to honor today, OliverWhite Hill. Together, these two struck a fatal blow against the injustice embedded in our nation's law -- the disgracefuldoctrine of separate but equal -- that kept Americans apart andheld too many Americans back for far too long.

In the 45 years since the Supreme Court handed down itslandmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education -- which bothThurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill were active in -- Oliver Hillhas barely had time to catch his breath. Throughout his long andrich life, he has challenged the laws of our land and theconscience of our country. He has stood up for equal pay, betterschools, fair housing -- for everything that is necessary to makeAmerica, truly, one, indivisible and equal.

The presence in this audience today of so many people whohave devoted their lives to the cause of civil rights is ampleevidence to the absolutely irreplaceable role he has played overthese many decades. Our nation is in his debt.

Colonel, read the citation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Max Kampelman was probably not the firstyoung man to work his way through college who made ends meet byskipping meals. But surely he is one of the few people who everserved his country in World War II by agreeing to stop eatingaltogether. (Laughter.) He volunteered to participate in amilitary experiment on the effects of starvation, hoping to helpdoctors find new ways to treat returning POWs and concentrationcamp survivors, bespeaking a lifelong passion to alleviate thesuffering of the victims of human rights abuses.

Forty years later, after a career spent advising publicofficials at the highest level, he would again help his countryto fight oppression in Europe. As head of the United Statesdelegation overseeing the Helsinki Act, his unflinching wordskept human rights at the center of East-West relations. Anuncommonly gifted negotiator, he won crucial arms controlagreements.

Together, these efforts helped to set in motion the collapseof communism and the beginning of a new era of democracy. He hasexcelled -- as a diplomat, a philanthropist, a humanitarian. Hehas served both Republican and Democratic presidents well. In sodoing, he has been a quintessential American citizen.

Colonel, read the citation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: I wish we all had been there with EdgarWayburn when he first laid eyes on the spectacular vistas of theland north of San Francisco -- for then we could have experiencedthe wilderness from his unique and wonderful perspective. As itis, millions of Americans and visitors from other lands have beenable to experience our great American wilderness because of EdgarWayburn.

From the broad shores of Point Reyes -- where we spent oursecond anniversary -- to the sharp peaks of the Alaska range, tothe majestic heights of the California Redwoods, Edgar Wayburnhas helped to preserve the most breathtaking examples of theAmerican landscape. In fact, over the course of the more thanhalf-century, both as President of the Sierra Club and as aprivate citizen, he has saved more of our wilderness than anyother person alive. And, I might add, his wife, who is here withus today, has been his colleague every step of the way in thatendeavor. Those who have been involved in these struggles withhim credit his success to his persistence, and to his profoundconviction as a physician and a conservationist that our physicalhealth depends upon the health of our environment.

As we look toward a 21st century in which the world and theUnited States must combat new challenges to our environment, andespecially the challenge of climate change, we will need EdgarWayburn as a model and a guide. And we should be very gratefulthat we have him.

Colonel, read the citation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: The ancient Greeks used to bestow varioushonors upon citizens who performed outstanding service --everything from laurel crowns, the equivalent of our Medal ofFreedom, to a lifetime of free dinners at state expense.(Laughter.) I have not yet won bipartisan agreement in theCongress for that to be attached to the Medal of Freedom, but Ican invite you to join us in the state dining room for areception.

Ladies and gentlemen, if hearing these life stories doesn'tmake us all prouder to be Americans, I don't know what would. Ithank these people, for the lives they have lived and the lightthey have shined.

Again, we welcome them and all of you to the White House,and ask you to join us in the state dining room.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

END 3:55 P.M. EDT

What's New - August 1999

PSA on School Violence

U.S. Humanitarian Relief Efforts for Turkey Earthquake Victims

Success in Drug Enforcement

Medal of Freedom Presentation

America Goes Back To School, 1999

National Governors' Association

Americorp's National Civilian Graduation

National Youth Anti-Drug Event

50th Anniversary Of The Chairman Of The Joint Chiefs Of Staff

Welfare to Work

Debt Reduction

AMA Endorses Patients' Bill of Rights

Remarks on the Los Angeles Shooting

Bio-Energy Climate Change Event


100th Meeting Of Veterans Of Foreign Wars and The 86th Meeting Of The Ladies' Auxiliary

Departure for Little Rock, Arkansas

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