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Medal of Freedom Awards Ceremony

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First Lady

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. The President and I are delighted to have you join us as we pay tribute to the men and women who have earned not only our nation's highest civilian honor, but the deepest gratitude of the American people.

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

And we are gathered here to welcome the best of America to the East Room of the White House—the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and their families. I'm also delighted that we have so many distinguished guests with us today. We have members of Congress, Senator Robb, Congressman Scott, Congressman Sisisky. And we have members of our Cabinet. I want to especially thank 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 in honoring so many who have contributed to the betterment of our nation and our world. We also have a number of friends of the recipients, including ambassadors and distinguished leaders—I believe 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 to with great anticipation every year, because it is on this day that we particularly celebrate our nation's democratic ideals, and honor individuals who have helped keep those ideals alive through 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 to fulfill it. We are reminded that any individual can make a contribution to fulfilling our most precious dreams. Our gifts of freedom, our commitment to respect and celebrate our diversity, our capacity to offer hope and opportunity to those who might otherwise be left behind, and our determination to stand up to acts of violence and inhumanity wherever they exist.

The individuals we honor today have worked to make good on that promise. They have done so by restoring faith in times of change and peace in times of conflict, by defending human rights and civil liberties, by preserving the natural beauty of our land for our children and grandchildren. And they've helped fulfill America's promise by reaching out to the marginalized and the powerless, including our youngest citizens, and lifting them up to recognize their own gifts and abilities.

They have each, in their own way, helped widen the circle of human dignity, and helped make our world a little more secure, a little more attuned to injustice, than they found it. That is not only their gift to us and to our country, but to future generations.

It's now my pleasure to introduce someone who has fought tirelessly, also, to make the promise of America real—not only for every citizen here at home, but for freedom-loving people around the world. And that is, of course, our President, Bill Clinton. (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-Senator Bentsen's old colleagues in the Cabinet, and Mr. Rubin, welcome home. Secretary Kissinger, thank you for coming. Governor Rossello, thank you for coming. Mrs. Ford, we're honored to have you here.

Let me just say, before I begin the ceremony, Hillary has already said that like all Americans, we have prayed for the welfare of the children and their families and the entire community affected by the shootings in Los Angeles yesterday. Most of you probably know by now that the FBI received the gunman, who turned himself in, earlier today. I want to congratulate the law enforcement officials at all levels of government who quickly responded to the crime, identified the suspect and kept the pressure on.

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

President Kennedy once said that a nation reveals itself not only by the people it produces, but by the people it honors. Today, we honor men and women who represent the best of America with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Our nation's founders believed, as do we, that freedom is a gift of God, not only to be defended, but to be used to improve the human condition, to deepen 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 done just that. And in honoring them, we honor also the values and principles of our nation's founding and our nation's future. Today, I am proud to begin with a man who once held the office I am now privileged to occupy, and one who has more than earned this honor.

From his earliest days as a student and athlete, President Gerald Ford was destined for leadership. He was an outstanding player on the Michigan football team in a segregated era. And his horror at the discrimination to which one of his teammates was subjected spawned in him a life-long commitment to equal rights for all people, regardless of race.

He served with distinction on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in World War II. Thirty years later, as Republican leader of the House, and with the strong support of his colleagues in Congress in both parties, he was chosen to fill the vacancy in the Vice Presidency, which imposed on him subsequently the awesome responsibility of piloting our nation through the stormy seas of Watergate.

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

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

During 25 years in the House of Representatives, and as House Republican leader, he won respect from both sides of the aisle. It is not just his penchant for hard work, or his acknowledged mastery of everything from budgets to foreign policy to defense, but the way he conducted himself—arguing his position forcefully on the House floor but, at the end of the debate, always reaching over to shake the hand of his opponents. Gerald Ford knew when to put politics aside and when to put the interests of our nation first.

The respect he commands has grown in the years since he left office—whether advising Presidents in the Oval Office, or defending affirmative action, or making the case for free trade on the editorial pages of our leading newspapers. His opinions are still very much sought after. I am immensely grateful for the wise counsel he has given me over the years.

And I think I can speak for Hillary and for all Americans when I also express my appreciation and thanks to Betty Ford, a tremendous First Lady who has demonstrated dignity, strength and resolve, and inspired those qualities in millions of others in the 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 the citation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: A Texas farmhand by the age of six, a bomber pilot by 21, a Congressman by 27, an immensely successful businessman by 35, Lloyd Bentsen saw and did more in his youth than most see and do in an entire lifetime.

During his second 35 years, he managed another whole lifetime of achievement and service, as a distinguished United States Senator from Texas. He rose to become Chairman of the Finance Committee, where he demonstrated his lifetime concern for the interest of business and labor and the poor, and his conviction that America should advance all these together.

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

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

For a lifetime of exceptional service to his country, I am proud 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 forcing the world to face up to an ugly past, we help shape a more honorable future. That fairly describes his own personal mission over these last 20 years. As chairman of Seagram's, he's helped to build on his father's legacy and take the company to new heights. As President of the World Jewish Congress, he's traveled the world to expose the legacy of oppression of the Jewish people and to spur action on their behalf.

Winning freedom for Soviet Jews in the 1980s; demanding justice from financial institutions on behalf of Holocaust survivors in the 1990s; and, in between, supporting philanthropies that work to break down barriers between nations and lift the lives of disadvantaged young people. A life of remarkable citizen service.

Colonel, read the citation.

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

No matter how divisive the issue, however, Evy always seemed to find a way to bring people together, to find a solution. As she 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, she had won a special chair in the House Chamber, a special spot at the poker table in the Filibuster Room -- (laughter) -- and a special place in the hearts of even the most hard-bitten politicians in Washington; even more important, for decades and decades, 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 20 years, in a poverty-stricken barrio in Puerto Rico, Sister Isolina Ferre started passing out cameras to children. She told them to photograph whatever they saw. The point of the project, she later recalled, was not just to teach young people to take pictures, but to teach them to take pride in themselves. That is what Sister Isolina does best: teaching people to see the best in themselves and in their communities, and making sure they had the tools to make the most of the gifts God has given them.

Armed only with her faith, she taught warring gangs in New York, City to solve their differences without violence. In Puerto Rico, her network of community service centers, the Centros Isolina Ferre, have transformed ravaged neighborhoods by helping residents to advocate for themselves. Her passionate fight against poverty, violence and despair have earned her many awards and countless tributes from all around the world. Sister Isolina once said that a community grows only when it rediscovers itself. On behalf of the many communities you have helped to make that wonderful discovery, a grateful nation says thank you to you today.

Colonel, please read the citation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: I wonder whether any of the assembled parents, family and friends in the audience at the law school graduation at Howard University in 1933 knew that they were watching history in the making.

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

One of these men was the late Thurgood Marshall. We're honored to have his wife here with us today. (Applause.) The other was the man it is our privilege to honor today, Oliver White Hill. Together, these two struck a fatal blow against the injustice embedded in our nation's law—the disgraceful doctrine of separate but equal—that kept Americans apart and held too many Americans back for far too long.

In the 45 years since the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education—which both Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill were active in—Oliver Hill has barely had time to catch his breath. Throughout his long and rich life, he has challenged the laws of our land and the conscience of our country. He has stood up for equal pay, better schools, fair housing—for everything that is necessary to make America, truly, one, indivisible and equal.

The presence in this audience today of so many people who have devoted their lives to the cause of civil rights is ample evidence to the absolutely irreplaceable role he has played over these 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 first young man to work his way through college who made ends meet by skipping meals. But surely he is one of the few people who ever served his country in World War II by agreeing to stop eating altogether. (Laughter.) He volunteered to participate in a military experiment on the effects of starvation, hoping to help doctors find new ways to treat returning POWs and concentration camp survivors, bespeaking a lifelong passion to alleviate the suffering of the victims of human rights abuses.

Forty years later, after a career spent advising public officials at the highest level, he would again help his country to fight oppression in Europe. As head of the United States delegation overseeing the Helsinki Act, his unflinching words kept human rights at the center of East-West relations. An uncommonly gifted negotiator, he won crucial arms control agreements.

Together, these efforts helped to set in motion the collapse of communism and the beginning of a new era of democracy. He has excelled—as a diplomat, a philanthropist, a humanitarian. He has served both Republican and Democratic presidents well. In so doing, 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 Edgar Wayburn when he first laid eyes on the spectacular vistas of the land north of San Francisco—for then we could have experienced the wilderness from his unique and wonderful perspective. As it is, millions of Americans and visitors from other lands have been able to experience our great American wilderness because of Edgar Wayburn.

From the broad shores of Point Reyes—where we spent our second anniversary—to the sharp peaks of the Alaska range, to the majestic heights of the California Redwoods, Edgar Wayburn has helped to preserve the most breathtaking examples of the American landscape. In fact, over the course of the more than half-century, both as President of the Sierra Club and as a private citizen, he has saved more of our wilderness than any other person alive. And, I might add, his wife, who is here with us today, has been his colleague every step of the way in that endeavor. Those who have been involved in these struggles with him credit his success to his persistence, and to his profound conviction as a physician and a conservationist that our physical health depends upon the health of our environment.

As we look toward a 21st century in which the world and the United States must combat new challenges to our environment, and especially the challenge of climate change, we will need Edgar Wayburn as a model and a guide. And we should be very grateful that we have him.

Colonel, read the citation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

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

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


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August 1999

Medal of Freedom Awards Ceremony

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