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President Clinton Speaks at Opening of the Thoreau Institute

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The Briefing Room

Office of the Press Secretary
(Lincoln, Massachusetts)

For Immediate Release June 5, 1998


Walden Woods
Lincoln, Massachusetts

5:30 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Well, we've been here a longtimein this beautiful setting, and if Thoreau were here, he would say we needmoresilence and less talk. But I have immensely enjoyed what has been said.

Senator Kerry has been a consistent, devoted supporter oftheenvironment, and he was profoundly eloquent about it today. SenatorKennedyhas worked so hard for projects like this one for so long now, but he has away of telling a personal story that brings home to people who might nototherwise be engaged the importance of the moment.

You know, I thought I'd get a few browny points for cominghere and saying, because of his work here I gave Don Henley the NationalHumanities Medal last year. But that's nothing compared to Ted Kennedycominghere and calling him the big fish and the distant drummer at the same time.

(Laughter and applause.)

I would very much like to thank all the people who Donmentioned. I know Ed Begley Jr. and Tony Bennett were on before -- they'vebeen good friends of ours. I thank Jimmy Buffett and Joe Walsh and all themusicians and other friends of Don who have helped. I thank you, Kathi,foryour magnificent work. And I'm grateful to the National Endowment for theHumanities for supporting this project. And I thank you all for clappingwhenwe said we weren't going to let it be done away with, along with the NEA.(Applause.)

I'd like to recognize two people who aren't here today, butwho played an important role in getting this endeavoroff the ground with Don -- the late Paul Tsongas and the lateMichael Kennedy. Thank you, to them. (Applause.)

Hillary and I got to walk a little along the pathcoming down here today. It's very frustrating being where we arenow because back when we had real lives, we used to walk in thewoods a lot. (Laughter.) And so to be able to come here andonly be able to walk 200 yards so that our friends with thecameras could at least get a good picture so the American peoplecould get a real feel for the magnificent work that's been donehere, it winds up almost being more real to them than it is to ussometimes. (Laughter.) But it was enough just to see what movedThoreau to move here on July 4, 1845, so that he could livedeeply and deliberately.

In a way, he was engaging in his own experiment inindependence, in the finest tradition of American citizenship. Alot of you know that Thoreau was a friend of Emerson, who talkedabout our Revolution as the shot heard 'round the world. In manyways, Thoreau's sojourn here at Walden was also a shot heard'round the world. And it continues to echo today. That's why,as Hillary said, we have to, all of us, support saving it, alongwith our other national treasures.

I want to reiterate something Don said in a ratherdelicate, soft, Southern fashion -- they need more money hear.(Laughter.) And since we'll probably be on television, if anyonewithin the sound of my voice -- (laughter) -- whoever readThoreau, who was ever inspired by his writings and what he stoodfor -- we have to raise a $12 million endowment and pay off aconstruction loan -- send a check. You'll be proud you did.Thank you. (Laughter and applause.)

Well, let me get back to the point I mentioned.Thoreau has echoed over the decades and now more than a century.And what do we have to learn from him and what does it mean in21st century terms? First, we have to live in harmony withnature. What does that mean? That's one thing for one guyliving on a pond -- you've got 260 million people in thiscountry; they can't do that. What does it mean?

For us, it means that we have to completely give upthe notion that we can only grow our economy if we destroy theenvironment and we'll just do it little by little. We have tolearn a whole new way of thinking so that we grow our economy byimproving the environment and living in greater harmony withourselves here in this country and around the world. It is afundamental insight that Americans of all political factions, allbackgrounds, all walks of life must embrace. (Applause.)

Second, in an era where for the first time inhistory more people on the globe live under governments of theirown choosing than do not, the first time ever a majority ofpeople live under governments of their own choosing, it is wellto remember that oppression still lives in the world and thatthere is a great deal of tension and, as the good book says, warsand rumors of war. We must not forget both the power and moralsuperiority of civil disobedience over violence in the face ofinjustice.

As Hillary said, Dr. King, Gandhi, Mandela, all weremoved by the insights of Thoreau. We must not forget that today.We must not forget for a moment the value of self-reliance; normust we forget the fact that Thoreau came here and wrote aboutsolitude, that he learned more about his fellow human beings andthe proper relations among people from his solitude because if hehad too much contact with other people, he thought you came totake too much for granted and frittered too much away. We mustbe both self-reliant and interdependent. And that is a lessonthat Thoreau learned that we can learn from him today. And in aworld that is getting smaller and smaller and smaller, it is avery important lesson, indeed.

Finally -- I love this quote so I want to close withit. We have to understand that in a fundamental moral way we areinterconnected not only with nature, but with all other people,and that any attempt to define ourselves in a way that elevatesus at someone else's expense -- any effort anywhere in the worldby people to put themselves in a group that can only succeed ifthey're putting someone else down is wrong and, in this world,unaffordable.

Listen to what Thoreau said. "Let us settleourselves and work and wedge our feet downward through the mudand slush of prejudice and delusion till we come to a hard bottomand rocks in place which we can call reality."

It is a great mistake to think this man was just adreamer. Like all truly wise people, he understood that altruismwas the ultimate form of enlightened self-interest; that no onecan pursue self-interest and material things devoid of a heart ora spirit.

Today we still have a whole lot of "mud and slush ofprejudice and delusion" in this and every other society. Withall our prosperity we still can't afford it; there is too much tobe done.

So let us hope and pray that Walden Pond willflourish. Let us hope and pray that people will come to thesewoods forever from now on, to learn not only more aboutthemselves and their relationship with nature, but the properorder of human society and the responsibility of every citizen topreserve it. If that happens, Don Henley and all of his cohortswill have given an astounding gift to America's future.

Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)

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