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Public Papers - 1989

Remarks at a White House Dinner Honoring the Nation's Governors

1989-05-22

Good evening, everybody. Fellow public servants, politicians, stemwinding orators -- [laughter] -- it's a tough group to speak with, but look, it's an honor to welcome you to what Franklin Roosevelt called the house owned by all the people and which Harry Truman termed the finest prison in the world. [Laughter] Incidentally, Barbara and I don't feel that way about this magnificent place. We love it, and please, don't any one of you attempt to do anything about that. [Laughter]

I want to commend Governor Baliles for his leadership of the NGA [National Governors' Association], and let me pass our best wishes to Terry Branstad, who's coming in. As you know, Henry Bellmon -- I didn't see Henry tonight, but he'll like this one -- his fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers once said, ``Politics isn't worrying this country one-tenth as much as parking space.'' [Laughter] What he meant was that often Washington loses perspective and we forget what matters: people and their concerns. I concluded long ago that as Governors you are where the action is. And there's always a budget to be balanced or a school to be built, or you've got to find what works. And I, too, like what works. And I try to understand your problems; and if I didn't, I have a hunch that one of your own, John Sununu, my able Chief of Staff, would help me out on that.

But as we gather here tonight beneath a painting which forms a study in how problems can be met and overcome -- and I'm talking of course about Healy's magnificent painting of Abraham Lincoln about the end of the War Between the States -- it makes a profound impression on me. Incidentally, there's another variety of this painting upstairs that some of you have seen, and it's the exact same pose. But in the one upstairs, he's conferring with his three generals, but in exactly the same pose as this one, except there's a rainbow, which signifies the end of this war that divided us and symbolizes hope for the future.

But Lincoln, as I'm sure for others of you, is one of my favorite Presidents, and I know most Americans feel that way. But I'm reminded daily of him, for so often we pass the room which served as his office upstairs. As he abolished slavery, he saved the Union, and he preserved for future generations the canons of democracy. And in this painting you get a feeling, I think, of his agony and his greatness. In fact, all around it, you feel a sweep of history when you're in this marvelous building, and of the men and women who acted boldly, courageously to write the pages of our history. I believe that our pages, too, can be extraordinary, pages that you all are writing -- Barbara and I in some way might be writing.

You look around at the world today -- and we were chatting about this here -- the fascinating changes that are taking place -- obviously in the Soviet Union, but clearly today in China. Bar and I lived there in 1974 and 1975, and if anybody had predicted that the force of democracy was such that you'd see a million kids in Tiananmen Square -- and nobody would have believed it back then, and here they are. You look at the changes inside the Soviet Union. You look at the accord in Angola. You look at Panama, where really almost for the first time you've seen this tremendous expression of the democratic will of the people, and then see that aborted by a totalitarian -- and then see the countries in Central America unite in a resolution at the OAS [Organization of American States], condemning this kind of behavior, because they themselves sense this inexorable move to democracy. And we are living in very, very exciting times.

And around the globe, leaders are learning what you already know: To survive, government must be responsive and responsible, for if not, the people are gonna find leaders who are. And that's why we have the marvelous device called a free election. And it's not easy, of course.

But sometimes you, I know, must feel as Lincoln did. One night, a stranger found him in the street with two of his sons, both of whom were sobbing uncontrollably. ``Whatever is the matter with the boys, Mr. Lincoln?'' a stranger asked. He sighed and observed, ``Just what's the matter with the whole world. I've got three walnuts, and each wants two.'' Well, that's the way our business is. That's the way it is for Governors, and that's the way it is with the President of the United States. We're pulled in countless directions, but we treasure these American lessons. Democracy works; our system works. It works in Dover or in Des Moines; it works in Portland, Richmond -- Portland, Oregon; Portland, Maine. And it works because when it comes to problemsolving Washington does not know best; the people do.

Jefferson wrote: ``The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.'' Let us use that liberty to find solutions, to find what works, enrich our lives. And in that spirit, I ask all of you to raise your glasses to the American people and to you, the Governors, their trustees, and to the American system that remains after 200 years the greatest in the history of the world, the model for nations struggling to be free this very day.

Thank you all for being with us. Jerry, and to you, sir, and all the Governors, Barbara and I salute you and extend to you our most profound respects.

Note: The President spoke at 9:40 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Governors Gerald L. Baliles of Virginia and Terry Branstad of Iowa, chairman and vice chairman of the National Governors' Association, respectively, and Gov. Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma.

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