Remarks Announcing the Formation of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centennial Commission

May 18, 1982

The President. Well, I'm very proud to accept that on behalf of the people of the United States -- my landlords. [Laughter] [The President was presented with painting number one in a series of six paintings of the Statue of Liberty by Peter Max.]

Good afternoon. Today we're launching, as you well know, a commission whose task will be the rehabilitation of one of our most cherished symbols of liberty.

Much has been said over the years about the diversity of the American people and the vitality and resilience of the American character. Well, that character isn't centered around any one religious denomination -- for in our country there are many religions; everyone has a right to worship God as he or she chooses. It isn't based on any one ethnic group or race -- for our people come in all shades and shapes, and we remain dedicated to the proposition that all of them are created equal. And I've found out in my present capacity now, that I love to tell jokes now and then. But I'm almost restricted to Irish jokes -- [laughter] -- I can't stray for fear of some misunderstanding. [Laughter]

But our national character is based on a common identity with a single ideal, a shared value that overcomes our differences and unites us as a people. What has made us a nation is our love of liberty and our realization that we're part of a great historic venture, an experiment in freedom to test the ability of people to live together in freedom, respecting the rights of others and expecting that their rights, in turn, will be respected.

I've said on a number of occasions that I can't help but believe -- you can call it mysticism if you will -- that God must have placed this land here between the oceans to be found by a certain kind of people and a kind only in one thing: that whatever corner of the world they came from, they had the courage -- and the desire for freedom that went with it -- to uproot themselves and come to this strange land, beginning back when it was the most underdeveloped land in the world, and come here leaving family and come to a strange language and everything that went with that kind of a move.

I think our vision of liberty is reinforced by shared symbols and experiences. Perhaps the strongest image of them all is the one that for millions of Americans was their first glimpse of America -- that Statue of Liberty.

At the turn of the century, America was blessed with an influx of new immigrants who became citizens and played a significant role in building our country and protecting our freedom. Most of them entered under the shadow of the statue and were processed into the United States, as we know, through Ellis Island. Between 1892 and its closing in 1954, Ellis Island was the clearinghouse for millions of immigrants. Many who passed through the gates at Ellis Island had little more than what they carried with them, yet they possessed a determination that with hard work and freedom, they would live a better life and their children even more so.

They were captured by the American dream. And both they and their new country were the better for their efforts and their faith, because they not only came here for something but just as they came from every corner of the world, they brought something from every corner of the world to this great melting pot. And maybe in so doing, they proved how artificial are the prejudices and the hatreds that exist in the world, because we proved that we could all mix and, I don't know, to this day, one of the first questions you usually ask when you make friends with someone is what is their ancestry? What country? And it used to be that they'd say Irish or German or French or whatever, and now they have to say three of four names because they've mixed. In fact, I've got three in mine -- Irish, English, and Scotch -- and our children can add a fourth and have another country now. But today we declare that no longer functioning as it is, Ellis Island as a processing center, its contribution is not over. It remains a unifying memory for millions of our citizens.

Our goal is to restore Ellis Island in time for the celebration of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, beginning on July 4th, 1984. I might add one note: The Statue of Liberty was built with funds contributed by people from all over France. Its base was constructed in part with contributions from American schoolchildren. And restoring Ellis Island, another monument to our freedom, is worthy of the same kind of heartfelt, voluntary effort. Both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island can help us all remember how grateful we should be to live in this land of freedom and good will.

You know, I know that there's one here -- or have you already told them? Lee's [Lee Iacocca, chairman of the Chrysler Corporation] parents came to this country in search of that kind of opportunity through Ellis Island. And he certainly has proven what America has to offer for those immigrants, or for the sons and the daughters of them.

So now, I just thank you all for being here with us today to help launch this campaign. And God bless you all.

Secretary Watt. Thank you very much, Mr. President.

When I introduced the other members of the Commission, I failed to have them stand up. Would you stand up? I'm not sure where you are -- the other members of the Commission that have been appointed. And if, Mr. President, if these men that have agreed to serve on the President's Commission would come forward, I'd like to introduce the President to you, and we'll catch him before he gets out. If I could ask you men to come over here. And Lee, if you'll join us.

[At this point, Secretary Watt introduced the commission members.]

The President. Well, I think we're all grateful to these gentlemen that are going to take on this task, and I know that we'll get it done.

And they told me now that I have to leave and go back to work. [Laughter]

Note: The President spoke at 1:35 p.m. in the East Room at the White House after being introduced by Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt.

Prior to the President's remarks, Secretary Watt addressed the audience, which included several Commission members, and introduced Lee Iacocca, who is the chairman of the Commission.

The Commission is composed of private citizens who have volunteered to enlist the resources of the private sector in restoring the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.