Skip Content
U.S. Flag

Address by President Gerald R. Ford, May 23, 2001

Former President Gerald Ford speaks in the Old Senate Chamber.

View the Video

Introductory Remarks by Senator Trent Lott

My colleagues, and our special guests, today we are delighted to have you all here for the our latest edition of the Leader's Lecture Series. We were delayed just a moment because I actually had prepared remarks and they were not here. I did not want to wing this one.

Our guest today is someone we certainly all know and love and value so much. Senator Daschle and I were just visiting with him. Looking at his itinerary for just this week, he has been in Boston and New York and Washington; he is going to Palm Springs and Albuquerque. We were concerned he was thinking about another national campaign with a schedule such as that. (Laughter.)

But it has been quite a week for our good friend, former President Gerald R. Ford. He received the very distinguished Profiles in Courage Award. Senator Kennedy and I spoke of that. (Applause.)

Tonight he will give us some thoughts on his service in the Congress. Then he will go and attend his granddaughter's graduation. What a week. We are honored he would give us this time with him so we could benefit from his thoughts.

I have so many memories of Gerald Ford. I hardly know where to begin.

Some of you may think he made a terrible mistake way back in 1972, when I was a young 30-year-old staff assistant to my predecessor, Congressman Bill Colmer, who was the chairman of the Rules Committee. The minority leader, Gerald Ford, heard I might be thinking about running for Congress. He came over and said: By the way, you should run as a Republican. And so I did. So I have blamed him all these years for my declining net worth -- (Laughter) -- financially and other ways.

But he meant an awful lot to me then. I watched him and I respected him. And what he thought and what he had to say to me meant a great deal to me then. He gave me some good advice along the way.

He will not remember this, but actually I was at a social event one night during the early part of Watergate, and as young Members of Congress sometimes tend to do, I was mouthing off a little bit too much. And he pulled me aside and suggested I reserve judgment until I knew the whole story. It struck me like thunder. But I shut up. (Laughter.)

Thank goodness.

Then I remember the moment when he came into the House Chamber for his first presentation to the Joint Session of Congress after he had been sworn in as President of the United States. It was a tough time. Howard Baker remembers, Bob Dole, and Bob Byrd -- we all know what a challenging time it was for our country. But he rose to the occasion. And the phrase he used that night -- that I have never forgotten, that sums it up so well -- he said: I'm not a Lincoln, just a Ford.

He was not any gold-plated politician who had asked for what had been thrust upon him. He was just a man of the people, from Michigan. He and Betty Ford brought a lot of dignity and decency at a time when we really needed it. So we will always be very indebted to him.

This special forum has brought before us a number of individuals who have exercised great leadership and have had a time in the Senate. And they have had a great deal to do with the governance of our country.

Our speakers have had a diverse background from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, from both parties, and they have spanned an age differential of four decades. Some have been better known in public life than others. But none of them, I think, has rivaled our guest this evening for the enduring affection of the American people.

As we visited in my office across the hall, I listened and watched as my good friend, Senator Tom Daschle, spoke also of that affection for our former President, Gerald Ford. So now I call on Senator Daschle to give us the benefit of his remarks about this special man.


Introduction by Senator Tom Daschle

Thank you very much, Trent.

I think, for the record, it might be appropriate that we note a former honoree is with us tonight. He has just been confirmed as our next Ambassador to Japan, Senator Howard Baker.

Mr. Ambassador.

In the 5 years Senator Lott and I have worked together as leaders, Trent has had many good ideas. Some days, I think he has had too many good ideas.

But this Lecture Series is undoubtedly one of his very best.

Shortly after he became majority leader, Senator Lott decided we ought to take advantage of the unusual, perhaps unprecedented, number of former Senate leaders who are still living; we ought to find a way to share with the nation what he called "the wisdom and insights that can be gained only by a lifetime of service to free people."

Our guest this evening is the eighth speaker in this series. He is also proof that Scott Fitzgerald was wrong. Not only are there second acts in some American lives, every once in a while you come across one of those rare people who is living an extraordinary third act -- someone like President Gerald Ford.

The first act in President Ford's public life was played out mostly in the House of Representatives -- to considerable critical acclaim. The second act took place, of course, in the White House. The third act -- well, that act is still unfolding, and, like many good stories, it contains some surprising developments.

For more than 20 years after Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, many Americans -- perhaps most -- thought he had made the wrong decision. Certainly in 1976, many voters thought the pardon had been a mistake -- a fact that undoubtedly contributed to President Ford's reelection loss that year. But a few years ago, that consensus began to change. The American people started to see the Nixon pardon not as an act of collusion, but an act of courage.

Two years ago, President and Mrs. Ford received the Congressional Gold Medal -- the highest honor the Congress can bestow on a civilian -- for the enormous contributions they have made to our nation, individually and together. And earlier this week, as Trent noted, President Ford received another well deserved honor, the prestigious Kennedy Library Foundation's Profiles in Courage Award.

In his introduction to Profiles in Courage, President Kennedy wrote that leaders who take principled stands they know will be unpopular do not do so out of contempt for their constituents; to the contrary, they do it because they have a deep "faith in people's ultimate sense of in their ability to honor courage and respect judgment...and faith that -- in the long run -- people will act unselfishly for the good of the nation."

Gerald Ford has always had that sort of faith in the American people. It is one of the reasons, I think, for his great success.

As a leader in the House, he set a standard we would all do well to follow. He was a master of consensus-building, cooperation, and honorable compromise.

In fact, Mr. President, I understand that when you became Vice President, and a member of this Senate, one of the first calls you made was to your old golfing buddy, Tip O'Neill.

As President, Gerald Ford did more than wake us from a nightmare, he made it possible for us to dream again.

Like the other great statesman from his hometown, Arthur Vandenberg, President Ford has always been a committed internationalist. During his years in the White House, he helped restore our nation's prestige in the world community by working to achieve peace in the Middle East, preserve detente with the Soviet Union, and set new limits on the spread of nuclear weapons.

As if that were not enough, in addition to all of those professional accomplishments, President Ford also had the good sense to marry one of the most candid and courageous women America has ever produced. (Applause.)

We wish she were here this evening. I hope you will give Mrs. Ford our warm regards.

Like all of the leaders from whom we have been privileged to hear in this series, President Ford believes deeply in the possibility -- and the necessity -- of principled compromise. I recently came across an article in which he talked about the genesis of that faith. He said: "I come by my political pragmatism the hard way. My generation paid a very heavy price in resistance to extremists and dictators."

This weekend, we will honor others who paid the ultimate price to resist tyranny. And for that reason, and many others, this evening seems to be the perfect time to hear from our distinguished guest.

Welcome home, Mr. President. We are honored that you are here.

Introduction by Senator Trent Lott

Well done, my good friend, Senator Tom Daschle. There is not a lot that could or should be added to that. But I am going to attempt a little more.

I want to note, Mr. President, that in addition to former colleagues of yours in the House and, of course, those you knew in the Senate, we have a number of your long-term friends here: Former Cabinet secretaries, people who helped you get through confirmation, some of your friends in the media -- and there are many now -- (Laughter) -- and then, too, actually.

But I want to welcome them all. I will not attempt to name them all. But we thank you for being here.

Just a bit more.

Many of us, of course, know that Gerald Ford was President at a difficult time, and that he served as Vice President briefly, but I think he would want to note -- and maybe he will later -- that he was always really a man of the House. He served, I believe, some 26 years in the House of Representatives. And he truly fulfilled what I think James Madison had in mind when he served in the House and in a leadership role. But he also never lost his touch with the people, with the folks back in Michigan, and in his hometown.

He served in the leadership in the House. And then in the Presidency, as I said earlier, that was a very difficult time. Many of the people at that time had felt a loss of trust, and they felt injured by the process we had just been through. What we needed was one good man to give us some new direction and to restore our spirit.

Well, we got him in Jerry Ford. We got him through an untried constitutional procedure, hurriedly enacted and, in some respects, awkwardly employed. If any of you remember that, that was the first time we had voted under the constitutional amendment to bring in a Vice President by the Congress. I served on the Judiciary Committee. I remember it quite well. So if anyone ever doubted that heaven watches over America and our great republic, they should not have doubted it anymore after that experience. He was selected. He was confirmed by the Congress. And he went into this very difficult time.

Apart from the circumstances that brought him to the White House, his was not an easy term in office for other reasons. We had tragedy in Southeast Asia. We had economic troubles here at home. The challenges were enormous. The decisions were hard. But whether or not you agreed with them, you respected the way he made them.

Part of leadership is grasping the nettle when no one else wants to touch it. Our speaker grabbed for more than his share of thorns.

I remember in particular his many vetoes of congressional spending bills. And as a former House member, he knows that quite often the Congress does not necessarily appreciate that. I remember being in a small band of congressmen who voted repeatedly to confirm those vetoes. But he was trying to do the right thing to prevent an economic tailspin that later came.

In this, as in other matters, he was determined to do what was right for the American people instead of what was popular, because many of these vetoes were not popular. Perhaps as a result of that approach, he knew the pain of a close electoral defeat. But even then, he made sure he put his country's interests ahead of his own, and he worked to make sure that his successor had a smooth transition into office.

At the time, I suspect, most Americans, as Tom alluded to, did not really realize how much we owed this man in the courageous stance he took. But time has a funny effect on people. With the passage of time, we look back and say, he did the right thing, he showed real courage. That is why he got this award that was alluded to, the Kennedy Profiles in Courage.

He faced the crisis of war, and he faced the crisis of depression, but more than anything else, I think he faced and dealt with the crisis of our spirit. In that time, he and the First Lady brought the Government a candor and a decency that did much more than just raise our spirits, they went back and restored the values of the heartland and caring, and they treated us like neighbors at a time when we needed it.

So I think that more than anything else, we owe a debt of gratitude to President Jerry Ford for restoring the nation's faith in our Constitution, and in our laws, and in ourselves.

So join me and Senator Daschle in welcoming, for this occasion, our good friend, President Jerry Ford.

Mr. President.

Address by President Gerald R. Ford

Please, won't you all sit down.

Thank you very much. Please. Thank you. Thank you very, very much, Trent and Tom.

I thank all of you. It is a very, very high honor and a very great privilege for me to be here on this occasion under these circumstances. I thank you, Trent and Tom, for your much too kind and far, far too generous remarks.

It is nice to see all you young fellows and young ladies here. (Laughter.)

I do not think there is anybody in either the House or the Senate who is still here who was here when I came as a freshman in January of 1949. Am I correct or inaccurate? It was a long, long time ago.

But it is so nice to see some dear friends, such as Bob Dole. You all don't know that when I first ran against Charlie Halleck in 1965, it was a neck-and-neck race, and the Kansas delegation, under Bob Dole's leadership, gave me the margin, so that I won by the landslide margin of 73-67. That started all of this.

And, of course, Howard [Baker] and Nancy [Kassebaum-Baker], the whole family are very, very, very dear friends.

And Senator [Kay] Hutchison up there, I started her in State government. How many years ago? A long time ago.

Of course, Bob Byrd; he and I served together in the House. And he gave me a grilling when I was up for confirmation as Vice President. And thank you for your long friendship.

I will be forever grateful, Ted [Kennedy], to you and Caroline for the most generous and wonderful action you took last week. Betty and I will be forever appreciative of your kindness and thoughtfulness.

A Man of the Hill

I just want to say thank you to Trent and Tom on receiving this invitation. Quite frankly, I wondered what I could contribute to this Leader's Lecture Series. As someone who spent 25 years in the other body, I had a sneaking suspicion that Tom and Trent asked me on the theory that I would never get here on my own.

But, of course, I have at least a footnote in Senate history. For all too brief a time it was my privilege to serve as your presiding officer. I made friendships then which I have cherished ever since. More than a man of the House, I consider myself a man of the Hill. And I am very, very proud of that. So while I may have lived at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue for 2 1/2 years, this area here has always been my home, and I am very proud of that.

I must confess that a lengthy career in the House had not fully prepared me for the byways of the world's greatest deliberative body. In preparing for this lecture, I came across something from another Vice President, Calvin Coolidge. "At first I intended to become a student of the Senate rules," wrote Coolidge, "but I soon found that the Senate had but one fixed rule, which was to the effect that the Senate would do anything it wanted to do whenever it wanted to do it."

"When I had learned that, I did not waste [any more] time...," Coolidge went on, "because they were so seldom applied."

No doubt Senator Bob Byrd would have a different assessment on that.

Just so you don't get the wrong impression, Coolidge hastened to add that no one can become familiar with the inside workings of the Senate without gaining a great respect for it. It was true then, and it remains true today. Certainly those who watched the recent debate over campaign finance reform were impressed by the combination of passion, on the one hand, and civility which it represented. I congratulate you on that performance.

Sixty years have passed since an aspiring lawyer from Grand Rapids shouted himself hoarse at the 1940 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Along with several thousand other equally boisterous supporters in the gallery, we made the hall ring with "We Want Willkie. We want Willkie." Little could I imagine at that time how eventful the years ahead would be. Never in my wildest dreams could I have envisioned myself standing in this place, before this audience, only days after receiving the Profiles in Courage Award at the Kennedy Library. For that, I will be forever grateful, Ted.

The award takes its name from one Senator's portrait gallery of Senators who risked their popularity for their principles. One of them was Daniel Webster, "the godlike Daniel" to his admirers. At a critical moment in the nation's history, when disunion loomed and popular democracy itself was threatened with extinction, Webster faced an excruciating choice. Here, within these very walls, he looked into his political grave.

The galleries were packed, the atmosphere charged with electricity, as Webster rose to his feet. "Mr. President, I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, not as a Northern man, but as an American. Hear me for my cause."

Webster's cause was the Compromise of 1850. Like most compromises, it was easier to criticize than to embrace. For doing the latter, Webster was denounced by his allies in the abolitionist movement. Public meetings wrote him off as a turncoat or worse.

Barely two years later, Webster died a broken man, only to be immortalized in his own time by a fellow Bay Stater. Why? Because however unpopular his action might have been at the time, Webster helped to delay the Civil War for a decade. As a result, the chances were vastly increased that when war did come, it would forever eradicate the stain of slavery from American soil.

More than 150 years later, we have yet to fulfill all the promises we made to ourselves and to our maker at the time of the birth of this Republic. But we have come a long way from the decidedly unrepresentative convention that assembled in Philadelphia to establish the first republic in modern times. Indeed, the genius of our democracy is that we remain an unfinished nation, a work in progress. Much of the work is entrusted to all of you here in this great deliberative body. Everyone in this room faces their own tests of conscience each and every day.

Senator Vandenberg

Harry Truman famously defined a statesman as a politician who has been dead for 20 years.

It is a good line, but it fails to account for those special leaders who manage to save their nation by outgrowing purely local views or narrow partisanship.

Arthur Vandenberg was such a man. He holds a very special place in my life. Before Pearl Harbor, I emulated the isolationist outlook of my fellow Midwesterners -- Senator Vandenberg included at the time. A tour of duty in the South Pacific, aboard a combat aircraft carrier with nine battle stars, convinced me very strongly otherwise. After four years in the Navy, I came home to Grand Rapids a convert to the bipartisan foreign policy newly espoused by my fellow townsman, Arthur Vandenberg.

Inspired by Vandenberg's example, I came to believe that only American leadership could shape a future where peace was possible and freedom secure.

This was a big idea in 1948, big enough to make me take on an entrenched isolationist Congressman in that year's Republican primary. He believed the world ended around the Michigan-Indiana border.

I thought it extended at least as far as Berlin and Beijing. On primary day, the voters surprised the pundits by agreeing with me. And that is how I came here.

I will never forget how Senator Arthur Vandenberg and his lovely wife took a shine to Betty and me. We were married 2 1/2 weeks before my first election. We came to Washington looking for an apartment, looking for friends, and the Vandenbergs sort of took a shine to us and took us in. Betty and I now have been married 53 years, and we look back with such wonderful, wonderful recollections of this great city and this great Capitol.

On Senator Vandenberg's last birthday, in April of 1951, the Vandenbergs invited Betty and me to a dinner at their apartment in the old Wardman Park Hotel. So you can imagine how pleased I was to learn of your decision to add his portrait to the august company of Clay, Webster, Calhoun, LaFollette, and Taft, whose presence graces the Senate Reception Room. Half a century ago, it was no anomaly to speak of the Truman-Vandenberg foreign policy. Early in 1949, I was ushered into the Oval Office for the first time to hear an American President outline a foreign policy worthy of America at her most generous. As it happened, Harry Truman was the first of eight presidents, backed by twenty congresses of both parties, who would stand firm against Soviet expansionism and finally rescue us from the narrow window ledge of nuclear standoff.

Across the hall from my old congressional office, in the Old House Office Building, as we called it then, was another young Navy veteran of the Pacific front, John F. Kennedy. Although our parties differed, our priorities were much the same. We were both internationalists in our outlook, both willing to accept the responsibilities of global engagement. We often walked over to the floor of the House together when the bells rang. Once there, we might go our separate ways, but we never sacrificed our friendship to our ambitions.

Like Webster and Vandenberg before him, Jack Kennedy understood that in the high stakes game of history, only those who are willing to lose for their convictions deserve to win at the polls. At the same time, he grasped that only those whose convictions do not blind them to the search for common ground can hope to rally a political system intentionally designed to frustrate utopian reformers.

Our Political System -- A Work in Progress

At times it may seem as if our political system resembles nothing so much as Doctor Doolittle's mythical beast, the Pushme-Pullyu, which wants to travel in opposite directions at the same time and, not surprisingly, winds up going nowhere.

To its harshest critics, Washington, DC, is a chamber of horrors; to many of those holding office, suppression. But to me, Washington is a mirror held up to the people and the process you represent. If this city is less civil than it might be, isn't that a reflection of a society coarsened by tabloid values, one in which fame is confused with notoriety, and shame is the surest ticket to fifteen minutes on daytime television?

In a culture where more people recognize Oprah than the Speaker of the House, it is easy to say that politics have been crowded out of our lives by other forms of mass entertainment. The problem with this theory is that Oprah doesn't set your taxes or run your schools or commit young Americans to foreign wars.

An election campaign is a conversation we have with ourselves. Lately it seems as if many Americans are barely on speaking terms with one another. Just as bad, millions of us have tuned out of the conversation altogether. Consider recent campaigns, with their focus groups, ever shrinking sound bites, and consultants who act as if they are candidates. Contrast that with the race Jimmy Carter and I had a quarter century ago. And I think all of you know Jimmy and I are very dear and warm friends. As the first post-Watergate candidates, we were governed by a stringent limit on how much we could spend. A quarter century later, there is more money than ever and less participation than at any time in recent history.

Of course, the '76 campaign was shaped by more than federal spending limits. Because the specter of Vietnam, on the one hand, and Watergate, on the other, loomed so large, I found myself, in effect, running two campaigns: the first to win a full term, and the second to restore the shattered confidence of the American people in their democratic institutions. I was unsuccessful, as we all know, in the first. But as I left Washington, I could take some consolation in knowing that the national mood was different from what it had been just a few years earlier.

Twenty-five years later, I sense a return of grassroots dissatisfaction, not necessarily directed at any politician or party, but at a system that appears too remote, too unresponsive, and, finally, too unrepresentative. In some ways, the problems we experienced back then were actually preferable to the current climate, for a generation ago it was possible -- if depressing -- to trace voter unhappiness to specific policies and personalities. People objected to the war, to the way it was being conducted, and to the Presidents of both parties who were in charge.

In a democracy, such differences are a sign of health -- only indifference is fatal. Put another way, I would much rather deal with honest contention than creeping cynicism. This, I fear, is the greatest single difference between the disillusionment of the seventies and the widespread feeling among today's electorate that politics are irrelevant to their lives. No doubt some of this is rooted in perceptions of how we treat one another.

Like most Americans, I am an optimist. And I am proud of my nature. I grew up in a household where there were three rules: Work hard, tell the truth, and be sure to be home at dinnertime. It is not a very sophisticated philosophy, but it has gotten me through a lot of tough, tough times.

Honest Contention vs. Creeping Cynicism

There is something else I learned at an early age, something I would heartily recommend to anyone who contemplates a life in politics. I learned that most people are mostly good most of the time. I learned to fight hard for my beliefs without questioning the motives or patriotism of those who believed otherwise. Thus, I come before you this evening not to bury political moderation but to be proud of it and advocate it.

For my own part, I readily admit to a bias in favor of two-party politics. On the surface, you might expect this to be a recipe for polarization. And no doubt there are some within the electorate for whom ideological purity is an overriding concern. Yet our parties are instruments of government much more than they are vehicles of protest. First they define our differences, then they mediate them. In doing so, they serve as an ideological shock absorber, cushioning the impact of change and forging a consensus acceptable to the vast majority of Americans who travel in the middle of the road. Back in the sixties I used to play straight man to Senator Everett Dirksen. Our operation became known as the "Ev and Jerry Show." Neither one of us was bashful about criticizing the imagined shortcomings of the Great Society. Yet our differences with President Johnson's program, however they might seem at the time, were programmatic, not personal. We might question the other side's ideas, but never its motives or its patriotism.

Everett Dirksen memorably observed: "I live by my principles and one of my principles is flexibility."

Perhaps to some, Dirksen's folk wisdom may appear a cynical contradiction in terms. I didn't see it that way, for in the great defining struggle of civil rights, Ev Dirksen's flexibility enabled him to put aside narrow questions of party advantage and remind his colleagues that it was another Illinois Republican, by the name of Abraham Lincoln, who had given the GOP its moral charter as a party dedicated to racial justice. Together, both parties rose to the occasion, insisting that America banish bigotry and make good on its ancient promises. And the political process responded, as it should when big ideas come along, to ride the current of history.

Unfortunately, there are some on the right and some on the left for whom "consensus" is a dirty word. A few mistake the clash of ideas for a holy war. I never claimed to be a political philosopher. I never claimed to be anything more than a plain-spoken Midwesterner, conservative on money and liberal on human rights. While I never regarded government as an enemy, I was perfectly happy to have politicians of both parties stay out of the people's wallets, out of their classrooms, out of their boardrooms, and out of their bedrooms.

For me, tolerance is more than a virtue, it is the crowning glory of a society whose greatest strength lies in its diversity. I am hardly alone in this. At heart, most Americans are pragmatists. We want to make things work, we want to be self-reliant, but not at the expense of the community. We value authenticity as much as ideology, especially in this age when so much of what passes for public life consists of little more than candidates without ideas hiring consultants without convictions to stage campaigns without content.

The net result: Elections without voters.

No first-class democracy can tolerate second-class citizens. At the same time, isn't it also true that any popular government derives its legitimacy from the active involvement of its citizens?

Last November, barely half the eligible voters went to the polls to choose a President. More Americans watched the Super Bowl between the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants than exercised their democratic right to select between George W. and Al Gore.

The two events may not be unrelated, for in politics, as in sports, many Americans feel more like spectators at a game. Millions are turned off a political culture that measures democracy in decibels. It is against this backdrop that the debate over campaign finance affords both parties a rare opportunity to regain public confidence by devising legitimate workable rules that limit the influence of big donors while preserving essential rights of free speech.

Increasing Political Participation

Hardly less important than limiting the power of the few is increasing the involvement by the many. For much of our history, political parties helped to acclimate newcomers to these shores. No one proposes to turn the clock back to an era of big city machines, when corruption flourished and paternalism ruled. But surely the parties have a role to play in conducting a national civics course, with special emphasis on reaching out to the newest Americans -- those who have chosen to come here from other lands because they prize our freedoms.

Unfortunately, the more political parties try to make themselves over into vehicles of entertainment, the smaller the audience. Perhaps the answer is to stop making politics more like television and, instead, make television pay more attention to politics. That means free time for the major candidates on all leading media outlets. It means more than 4 1/2 hours of convention coverage every 4 years.

Some network executives have complained that the conventions have become overly scripted. Perhaps we would have more spontaneity if the networks didn't lay down an ultimatum that they could only cover one hour each night of the convention.

But if there is too little media attention paid to the unglamorous aspects of self-government, in my opinion there is far too much showered on the trivial and the tawdry. Let me put it bluntly: If I want to attend a horse race, I will go to the track. If I want to choose a President, or a member of Congress, I would like to rely on serious, substantive reporting about issues, character, and performance. An informed electorate deserves something better than "gotcha journalism" which puts the spotlight on the reporter rather than the candidate, asks questions designed to entrap rather than elucidate, and ignores difficult issues with long-term consequences to concentrate on the flap of the moment.

Once upon a time, parties mattered. So did party loyalists and the conventions they attended. We could do a lot worse than to recreate the sense of belonging to a cause larger than ourselves, which, in turn, made Washington something more than a gigantic sound bite factory.

While I am at it, let me put in a good word for the much abused smoke-filled room of political legend. Over the years -- and it goes back a long time -- I have sat in more than my share of those smoke-filled rooms. At times, I have even inhaled.

It was a strong party system and, yes, a boss or two, who gave us Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman, and Eisenhower -- not to mention such distinguished also-rans as Al Smith, Tom Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, and even my youthful hero, Wendell Willkie, who owed his nomination to more than those noisy galleries in Philadelphia.

Based on personal experience, I believe our parties will never regain public confidence until they look beyond the consultants and the tracking polls.

As President, facing a stiff challenge from the right wing of my own party in 1976, I was urged to abandon our efforts to promote black majority rule in what was then Rhodesia. Did Henry Kissinger, as Secretary of State, really have to choose the height of the Republican primary season, I was asked, to fly to Africa and denounce the vestiges of colonial rule?

I think you will remember that, Bob [Dole].

The polls gave us one answer and individual conscience a dramatically opposing one.

Kissinger went, as he and I had scheduled. I lost a few primaries, and undemocratic Rhodesia was set on the course to genuine self-rule as the independent nation of Zimbabwe.

Restoring Community

Wherever I go, I get a sense of longing for community and the desire on the part of grassroots citizens to be part of something bigger and far nobler than themselves. This attitude is particularly evident among the young, many of whom feel deprived of a great cause in which to enlist.

Of all the challenges that face this country in a new century, none is more important than restoring our frayed bonds of community, of giving each American a sense that he belongs to something larger and finer than himself. That is what democratic government both demands and offers, because democracy is about nothing if not the dispersal of authority. The genius of America is not that we dictate society's objectives from the top down, but that we organize them from the ground up, and that we -- you and I -- do the organizing.

It often seems as if our problems go unaddressed until they all become totally unmanageable. Then, when management is inadequate to the task, we look to leadership. That is the paradox of our democracy: We are never better than in a crisis, even one generated by our neglect or selfishness. Ironically, the bigger the issue, the greater the need for parties to help us organize consensus. It was true when I entered politics because I felt strongly about the future role of America and the role it should play in the world. And it will be just as true as we debate such sensitive subjects as the future of current entitlement programs.

Fortunately, those who combine strong principles with a taste for political moderation needn't look far to find a role model. Exactly 100 years ago, an assassin's bullet catapulted Theodore Roosevelt into the Presidency, for he understood that unregulated monopoly could pose an even greater threat than unrestrained government.

Everywhere his countrymen looked in the first days of the Roosevelt era, they saw a dynamic leader for whom breaking with tradition was a tradition: Inviting a black man, Booker T. Washington, to dine at the White House; assailing the vast industrial conglomerates called trusts; bringing under Government's watchful eye the production of meat, food, and drugs; setting aside vast areas of the unspoiled West for generations as yet unborn.

To the average American, TR was easily the most captivating, democratic chief executive since Lincoln. Yet at heart, he was a thoughtful, pragmatic product of Manhattan's elegant brownstones who balanced budgets and threw open the windows of a musty society to forestall more violent changes. "He serves his party best," said TR, "who most helps to make it instantly responsive to every need of the [public]."

I said earlier that Washington was a mirror reflecting our instincts. That includes the instinct for political survival. Call it a hunch, but I think it is a mistake to underestimate the American people, millions of whom are willing to help forge the necessary consensus that will keep entitlements from strangling our economy or mortgaging the future of our children. In any event, here is a challenge worthy of American democracy in the 21st century.

Which brings me to my final point: The Founders designed a government in which it is easier to do nothing than to do a great deal all at once. But they also counted on the will and the wisdom of Americans to conceive and implement reforms where necessity demands solutions. So I leave you with the most radical thought of all and a hint that big issues and big ideas may yet revitalize public faith in a system that earns our trust by appealing to what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

Entitlement programs, we are told, represent the third rail of American politics. Touch it and you die -- politically, at least. Wouldn't it be ironic if those supposedly untouchable third rails were to supply the very track that would carry us into the next century and a renewal of confidence in a political system that is wise enough to listen and strong enough to lead?

Two hundred years ago, our first president summed up both the glory and the frustration of American politics when he said: "...a democratic state must feel before it can see; that is what makes it slow to act. But the people, at last, will be right."

What troubles may plague the city named for George Washington, they can be resolved as long as we place our ultimate trust in the people.

Six decades later, I guess you could say I still want Wendell Willkie. On his Indiana tombstone, an open book of granite, the following creed is written:

"I believe in America because in it we are free --

Free to choose our government, to speak our minds

To observe our different religions.

Because we are generous with our freedom, we share

Our rights with those who disagree with us.

Because we hate no people and covet no people's lands

Because we are blessed with a natural and varied abundance

Because we have great dreams and because we have the

Opportunity to make these dreams come true."

How unreasonable such beliefs must have seemed in 18th century Europe or 20th century Moscow. How strange they must seem, even now, in Havana or Baghdad or Beijing. How very unreasonable -- and how thoroughly American.

Thank you very much.

Return to Leader's Lecture Series Table of Contents Page