[Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents Volume 37, Number 4 (Monday, January 29, 2001)]
[Pages 209-211]
[Online from the Government Printing Office, www.gpo.gov]

Inaugural Address

January 20, 2001

    Thank you, all. Chief Justice Rehnquist, President Carter, President 
Bush, President Clinton, distinguished guests, and my fellow citizens. 
The peaceful transfer of authority is rare in history, yet common in our 
country. With a simple oath, we affirm old traditions and make new 
    As I begin, I thank President Clinton for his service to our Nation, 
and I thank Vice President Gore for a contest conducted with spirit and 
ended with grace.
    I am honored and humbled to stand here where so many of America's 
leaders have come before me, and so many will follow. We have a place, 
all of us, in a long story, a story we continue but whose end we will 
not see. It is a story of a new world that became a friend and liberator 
of the old, the story of a slave-holding society that became a servant 
of freedom, the story of a power that went into the world to protect but 
not possess, to defend but not to conquer.
    It is the American story, a story of flawed and fallible people 
united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals. The grandest 
of these ideals is an unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, 
that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever 
    Americans are called to enact this promise in our lives and in our 
laws. And though our Nation has sometimes halted and sometimes delayed, 
we must follow no other course.
    Through much of the last century, America's faith in freedom and 
democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, 
taking root in many nations. Our democratic faith is more than the creed 
of our country. It is the inborn hope of our humanity, an ideal we carry 
but do not own, a trust we bear and pass along. Even after nearly 225 
years, we have a long way yet to travel.
    While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even 
the justice of our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are 
limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of 
their birth. And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we 
share a continent but not a country. We do not accept this, and we will 
not allow it.
    Our unity, our Union, is a serious work of leaders and citizens and 
every generation. And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a 
single nation of justice and opportunity. I know this is in our reach 
because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves, who creates us 
equal, in His image, and we are confident in principles that unite and 
lead us onward.
    America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are 
bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our 
interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must 
be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every 
immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, 
    Today we affirm a new commitment to live out our Nation's promise 
through civility, courage, compassion, and character. America at its 
best matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility. A 
civil society demands from each of us good will and respect, fair 
dealing and forgiveness.
    Some seem to believe that our politics can afford to be petty 
because in a time of peace the stakes of our debates appear small. But 
the stakes for America are never small. If our country does not lead the 
cause of freedom, it will not be led. If we do not turn the hearts of 
children toward knowledge and character, we will lose their gifts and 
undermine their idealism. If we permit our economy to drift and decline, 
the vulnerable will suffer most.

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    We must live up to the calling we share. Civility is not a tactic or 
a sentiment; it is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of 
community over chaos. And this commitment, if we keep it, is a way to 
shared accomplishment.
    America at its best is also courageous. Our national courage has 
been clear in times of depression and war, when defeating common dangers 
defined our common good. Now we must choose if the example of our 
fathers and mothers will inspire us or condemn us. We must show courage 
in a time of blessing by confronting problems instead of passing them on 
to future generations.
    Together we will reclaim America's schools before ignorance and 
apathy claim more young lives. We will reform Social Security and 
Medicare, sparing our children from struggles we have the power to 
prevent. And we will reduce taxes to recover the momentum of our economy 
and reward the effort and enterprise of working Americans.
    We will build our defenses beyond challenge, lest weakness invite 
challenge. We will confront weapons of mass destruction, so that a new 
century is spared new horrors. The enemies of liberty and our country 
should make no mistake: America remains engaged in the world, by history 
and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favors freedom.
    We will defend our allies and our interests. We will show purpose 
without arrogance. We will meet aggression and bad faith with resolve 
and strength. And to all nations, we will speak for the values that gave 
our Nation birth.
    America at its best is compassionate. In the quiet of American 
conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our 
Nation's promise. And whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that 
children at risk are not at fault.
    Abandonment and abuse are not acts of God; they are failures of 
love. And the proliferation of prisons, however necessary, is no 
substitute for hope and order in our souls. Where there is suffering, 
there is duty. Americans in need are not strangers; they are citizens--
not problems but priorities. And all of us are diminished when any are 
    Government has great responsibilities for public safety and public 
health, for civil rights and common schools. Yet, compassion is the work 
of a nation, not just a government. And some needs and hurts are so deep 
they will only respond to a mentor's touch or a pastor's prayer. Church 
and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, 
and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws.
    Many in our country do not know the pain of poverty. But we can 
listen to those who do. And I can pledge our Nation to a goal: When we 
see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to 
the other side.
    America at its best is a place where personal responsibility is 
valued and expected. Encouraging responsibility is not a search for 
scapegoats; it is a call to conscience. And though it requires 
sacrifice, it brings a deeper fulfillment. We find the fullness of life 
not only in options but in commitments. And we find that children and 
community are the commitments that set us free.
    Our public interest depends on private character, on civic duty and 
family bonds and basic fairness, on uncounted, unhonored acts of 
decency, which give direction to our freedom.
    Sometimes in life we're called to do great things. But as a saint of 
our times has said, ``Every day we are called to do small things with 
great love.'' The most important tasks of a democracy are done by 
    I will live and lead by these principles: to advance my convictions 
with civility, to serve the public interest with courage, to speak for 
greater justice and compassion, to call for responsibility and try to 
live it, as well. In all these ways, I will bring the values of our 
history to the care of our times.
    What you do is as important as anything Government does. I ask you 
to seek a common good beyond your comfort, to defend needed reforms 
against easy attacks, to serve your Nation, beginning with your 
neighbor. I ask you to be citizens: Citizens, not spectators; citizens, 
not subjects; responsible citizens building communities of service and a 
nation of character.
    Americans are generous and strong and decent, not because we believe 
in ourselves

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but because we hold beliefs beyond ourselves. When this spirit of 
citizenship is missing, no Government program can replace it. When this 
spirit is present, no wrong can stand against it.
    After the Declaration of Independence was signed, Virginia statesman 
John Page wrote to Thomas Jefferson, ``We know the race is not to the 
swift, nor the battle to the strong. Do you not think an angel rides in 
the whirlwind and directs this storm?''
    Much time has passed since Jefferson arrived for his inauguration. 
The years and changes accumulate, but the themes of this day, he would 
know: our Nation's grand story of courage and its simple dream of 
    We are not this story's author, who fills time and eternity with his 
purpose. Yet, his purpose is achieved in our duty. And our duty is 
fulfilled in service to one another. Never tiring, never yielding, never 
finishing, we renew that purpose today, to make our country more just 
and generous, to affirm the dignity of our lives and every life. This 
work continues, the story goes on, and an angel still rides in the 
whirlwind and directs this storm.
    God bless you all, and God bless America.

Note: The President spoke at 12:05 p.m. at the West Front of the 
Capitol. Prior to the address, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist 
administered the oath of office.