[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)] [February 11, 1998] [Pages 211-212] [From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]
[[Page 211]] Remarks at the First Millennium Evening at the White House February 11, 1998 The President. Thank you very much, Professor Bailyn, for that wonderful, wonderful lecture. I thank the First Lady and Ellen Lovell for conceiving this entire Millennium series. The others will have a hard act to follow. I can't think of a better way to inaugurate this series of lectures than with one on the founding of our Republic, also the first White House cyberspace lecture. We are truly imagining--honoring the past, not by imagining the future but through the prism of the future. I thank Bernard Bailyn for what he said and the way he said it and for a lifetime of work. We received the distilled wisdom tonight of more than four decades of hard thinking and work about what it means to be an American and what America means to Americans and to the rest of the world. I was rather amused--he said, ``You know, when we started, we had all these people who came from a lot of different places; they moved around a lot; they disagreed a lot; they were disdainful of Government''--I thought, what's new? [Laughter] But they were also, as Professor Bailyn said at the end of his remarks, at their best moments profoundly idealistic and always, always appropriately suspicious of untrammeled power in the hands of anyone in the Government. They were very wise about human nature, our Founders. They understood that there was light and dark in human nature. They understood that we are all imperfect, but society is, nonetheless, improvable. And in some ways, I think their most important charge to us was to always be about the business of forming a more perfect Union. As I said in my State of the Union Address, they understood it would never be perfect but that we always had to try to make it more perfect. And that is what they always tried to do, and when they left the scene, they instructed us to follow suit. And we've been at it ever since. We have a lot of questions that we have to face about the new millennium: We're more diverse than ever before; can we really be one America? How do we have a Government that is flexible enough and strong enough to give people the tools they need to make the most of their own lives and still avoid the abuses that the Founders understood would always be there when people were too driven by power, instead of the larger purposes of America? How can we widen the circle of opportunity to include everyone in a market system that seems inherently exclusive in some ways? There are lots of other challenges facing us, but I think our ability to meet the challenges of the 21st century rest in no small measure on our understanding of the constant values and insights with which we began. By honoring the past, we know there were forebears there who were always imagining the future. By imagining the future, we must do so with the hope that all of our successes will honor our past, for it is there, in the depth of our values and the genius of our system, that we began the long journey that has brought us to this day and that I am convinced will take us to better days ahead. Thank you again, Professor Bailyn. And now I'd like to turn the discussion over to the Director of the White House Millennium Council, Ellen Lovell, and we will begin with the questions. [At this point, the question-and-answer portion of the program proceeded.] The President. I'll just give you a couple of examples. I agree with you on this. I do think that we're very patriotic if patriotism means loving country and caring about its future more than you care about your immediate self-interest. I think we're still capable of that. And I could give you two or three examples. I think the enormous response we've had to the idea that we have to save the Social Security system for the 21st century before we go around spending this first surplus we've had in 30 years on tax cuts or spending programs is an example of patriotism. I think the enormous reservoir of interest we've had in this whole issue of climate change and how we can preserve the environment for 21st century America is an example of patriotism, because selfishness is just going ahead and gobbling up whatever was here before us. I think all these young people all over America that are responding to the call to serve in their communities is an example of patriotism. [[Page 212]] So I think--why I am so glad you're here--I think that it's not because we're not patriotic, but I think a lot of the basic patriotic elements of America--that is, the things that make us go--we do tend to take for granted, which is why I think it's so important that we take the occasion of entering a new millennium and a new century to think about the basic things again, so we'll be more sensitive to them. Why do we have a Bill of Rights? Why do we have a Government with certain powers to unify us as well as certain limits so that it can't abuse us? What does all this mean? I think that we've been around so long now, and Americans get up every day just expecting the country to work, and so we tend to take for granted what's really best about our country. And I think that can be bad. But I do think that the country is fully capable of patriotic action, if patriotism means sacrificing today for something greater tomorrow. [The discussion continued.] The President. I was just going to say, following up on that, I think you can look at basically all the big turning points of American history, all of them, and say that we survived and sort of went on to a higher level of achievement because two things happened: one, we reaffirmed the Union in new circumstances instead of letting it become weaker and divided, obviously, in the Civil War; and secondly, we expanded the meaning of liberty in a new and different time but in a logical way. And I think if you go back throughout the entire history of the country and you look at every major turning point in history, it was a triumph for the idea of union and for the idea of liberty. And I hope that that will always be the case. But I believe that to be true. I also--we had a cyberspace question here about, should we learn anything from 1900? It may just be pure accident, but it's interesting that in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson was elected, when the century changed, we were essentially--we began the movement from being essentially a colonial society to a continental one. In 1900, when William McKinley was reelected and Theodore Roosevelt soon thereafter became President when Mr. McKinley was killed, we began to come to terms fully with the implications of the industrial revolution on our society. And in 2000, we will be still about the business of fully coming to terms for the implication of the technology and information revolution in our society. So I think there--you might be able to go back and see how people were dealing with it, what principles were there, whether they are relevant to today, and it might also be interesting to see what some of the predictions were in 1900 that turned out right and what turned out wrong, as a way of adding a grain of salt to whatever all the rest of us are going to be saying in 3 years. [Laughter] [The discussion continued.] The President. First of all, let me say to all of those who have followed us in other sites, thank you for joining us. Technology really has turned out to be a wonderful thing. We had 4,000 hits on our website after the State of the Union. So Americans really are tuning in in positive ways on the Internet. Professor Bailyn, thank you for reminding us of the things that are profoundly, essentially American about our Nation, about our past, and, therefore, critical to our future. I want to thank Hillary again and Ellen Lovell for conceiving of this idea and executing it. I want to welcome you all to leave Abigail Adams' washroom here--[laughter]--and go down to the State Dining Room where we'll all be able to visit for a few moments now, and ask everyone to tune in when in about 3 weeks we have the next one of these. Thank you very much, and good evening. Note: The President spoke at 7:45 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Bernard Bailyn, professor emeritus of Harvard University, who gave the first lecture in the Millennium series, entitled ``The Living Past--Commitments for the Future.'' This lecture was the first Internet cybercast originating from the White House.