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Public Papers - 1990

Remarks at the American Spectator Annual Dinner

1990-01-22

Thank you, David. And let me say that I deem it a high honor to be introduced by David Morse, a man I've known for a long, long time, a Nobel winner and extraordinary human being. And congratulations, sir, on the wonderful work of Libertad, the work that it's doing to advance the cause of freedom in the world. Let me also pay my respects and recognize Lord Henry Plumb over here, who is with us tonight, also a distinguished international figure -- very proud to be with him and many members of my administration and Senators and Members of the House of Representatives -- our whole team on Capitol Hill. And of course, I'm very pleased to be on Bob Tyrrell's kinder and gentler side. [Laughter] That's his right side, if any question about that.

I understand that this is actually the American Spectator's 1989 annual dinner. [Laughter] Now, that's true conservatism, you see. Wait until the year's over -- completely over -- until you decide whether it's worth celebrating about. [Laughter] But who am I to criticize? Actually, I've learned to be more forgiving about confusions involving the calendar -- ever since I made September 7th a date that would live in infamy. [Laughter]

But I am delighted to be here, and so is Barbara. We are to help celebrate tonight with all of you. Our nation's intellectual life would be more than a little poorer without the American Spectator surveying the scene. Your critical eye helps us see beneath the surface, see beneath and beyond the intellectual fads and fashions of the day, to the ideas and the enduring values that really matter in our society. That's a valuable service, especially today, because there is a tendency these days to mistake surface appearances for the substance of things.

Take an issue like homelessness. There is no condition more repugnant to the democratic values and the dignity of the individual, and there's no problem more susceptible to misunderstanding. We've all heard the law of unintended consequences. Well, what's at work here is what we could call the law of well-intended consequences. And in some ways, our difficulty with dealing with homelessness begins with the label, a label that tells us what the homeless lack is homes.

But the problem is far more complex -- more complex because the real problem of homelessness is not one-dimensional. There are homeless families, cases where the husband and the wife and the children are all together, out on the street. But most often, homelessness is a symptom of a more pervasive problem: drug or alcohol addiction or chronic joblessness or mental illness or family problems -- conditions that prevent the unfortunate people that we see on the streets from caring for their children, from keeping a home.

If our policy towards the homeless doesn't treat these causes, if it doesn't combine the basic need for shelter with other support services˙7E˙7E˙7E that˙7E˙7E˙7E reach˙7E˙7E˙7E the˙7E˙7E˙7E real˙7E˙7E˙7E reasons˙7E˙7E˙7E for˙7E˙7E˙7E homelessness, all the best intentions and all the housing in the world won't get the homeless off the street once and for all and back into society. There is no other way to truly help the homeless break the grip of life on the streets. And so, last November I announced what we call the HOPE initiative -- Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere. Along with help for first-time homebuyers, this new proposal brings other creative solutions to the difficult housing problems facing low-income families -- not new public construction programs that too often prove to be expensive failures but more tenant ownership and housing vouchers to provide more options to more people.

But affordability is only one part of the problem -- availability is the other. We must renew the low-income housing tax credit to spur needed private construction. We've got to go even further. We need policies that encourage the growth and investment that provide jobs, the jobs that translate into homes. And we need enterprise zones to stimulate entrepreneurship. And we need to cut the capital gains tax. And in these pockets of poverty, these special enterprise zones, we need to eliminate that tax altogether.

But the real answer for homeless with mental problems or dependent on drugs or alcohol -- the real answer is shelter plus care. And you're familiar with the McKinney Act. It's now been signed into law and substantially increases funding to reduce homelessness. But the solution to the problems of the homeless require partnership -- Federal, State, and local. Through HOPE, we will improve coordination of basic needs, like shelter, with other social services to help the homeless get the support they need to control their own lives and find the jobs that mean the difference between a life of despair and a life of dignity.

But homelessness isn't the only issue where we need to look beyond superficial, quick-fix solutions. Take our schools, education. There is no single function more vital to society than what goes on in that classroom: cultivating the skills and intellect we need to succeed in the future, transmitting our values -- centuries of experience and hard-won wisdom -- from one generation to the next.

Now the conventional wisdom -- current wisdom, I guess you call it on the back page of the Spectator -- is that there's nothing wrong with our schools that can't be corrected, if only the Federal Government would just get out that checkbook and write a check. Well, we all know the bigger the pricetag, the better the quality, right? Well, the fact is, we already spend as much or more than the other industrialized societies and democracies on education -- an average of almost ,000 per student each year. And we all know the results: Our schools simply are not making the grade.

So, what's wrong? It's not a question of cash. We've got to use our resources more wisely -- look to the schools that do work, find out why, translate their success into the goals that all schools can aim for. And then we've got to take two more crucial steps. We've got to give parents a choice in their children's schools, and we've got to give our schools the freedom and flexibility they need to strive for higher standards -- and then hold them accountable.

There is no shortcut to better schools. And there's also no shortcut to the victory line in the race against drugs and crime. There's no simple solution to a problem as complex as this. And here again, it'll take a partnership of people reaching into every neighborhood and every school.

You know, at the Federal level, we've developed a comprehensive national drug strategy to attack this insidious plague on four fronts: enforcement, interdiction, education, and treatment. And I salute our drug czar, Bill Bennett -- why we call people czars in the United States, I don't know. But if there's ever a guy that deserved the title, it's Bill.

But over the past year, we've sent Congress our proposals -- and frankly, we have made progress in some areas. I'm pleased that Capitol Hill provided us with the reinforcements that we asked for -- new agents, new prosecutors, new prisons -- to catch, convict, and hold those who value America so little. But these new troops can't do it alone. Simply put, we must have tougher laws on the books. And that means increased mandatory time for firearms offenses, the death penalty for anyone who kills a law enforcement officer, and no more loopholes that let criminals go free.

Working together, the administration and Congress can make even more progress. But our drug and crime problems go beyond government solutions alone. Getting addicts off drugs or making sure that hardened criminals do hard time will take the commitment of everyone who cares about this country. And it will take a return to the values that have taught generations of Americans the difference between right and wrong. It's not an easy road to travel, but it is the surest route to a drug-free America.

And that's why, with all the flash and the fluff in the world today, there's something we can't afford to lose sight of, something deceptively simple: It's who we are that makes this nation what it is. You know -- we all know -- democracy is more than the machinery of government, more than just a system of checks and balances, clashing interests. More than anything else, democracy depends on the decency of its people. And I am convinced that there is in this country a deep reservoir of democratic decency -- a respect for others, a sense of responsibility, a solid recognition that values matter. This reservoir of decency is there for us to draw on to renew our dedication to the fundamental ideals of a free government.

And it's not a matter of each individual waging a lonely battle against the impersonal forces of society -- we're not alone. The values I'm talking about have a home in the family, in our churches, and in our communities. And these institutions are strong, much stronger than the alarmists out there would have us believe. Each of them contributes to our public life, enriches it in ways beyond measure. Each of them makes this nation strong, gives it a sense of purpose and a role in the world.

And this is the culture that sustains us, the culture that we must ourselves sustain. And that's our challenge today. I must confess, I worry at times about the dissolution of the family, about the diminution of the family. But fundamentally, the institution is strong. And our challenge, then: to see the values and institutions that endure beneath the kaleidoscope of modern culture.

The American people understand there are no snap answers, that the only solutions that succeed are ones consistent with these core values. And for all the noise and the clatter of contemporary culture, that's cause for optimism. The calendar offers each of us convenient launch points for a fresh start. Sometimes it's a new day, a new year -- now, a brand-new decade. And the beginning of the nineties invites America to clearly put its signature on the 20th century, to write the next chapter in a book of spectacular achievements in freedom, economics, human advancement, world leadership. I welcome the nineties with a genuine sense of optimism. It's an ideal time to renew our vows and our values, time to look beyond the next paycheck and the next personal problem, time instead to look to the next generation.

And so, I am optimistic about our future for one compelling reason: To succeed, we do not have to acquire any new qualities. The courage, ingenuity, and compassion that made us the leader of the free world is still in every one of us. And we simply have to remember that the American adventure isn't over -- it's just begun.

Thank you all very much. God bless you and the Spectator, and God bless the United States of America. And thank you for letting Barbara and me come by.

Note: The President spoke at 7:25 p.m. in the ballroom at the Willard Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Lord Henry Plumb, former President of the European Parliament, and R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., editor of the American Spectator, a monthly magazine.

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