Remarks to Students From Hine Junior High School on Abraham Lincoln

February 12, 1987

The President. Good afternoon, and welcome to the Old Executive Office Building. Now, you might have heard that just last week I celebrated the 37th anniversary of my 39th birthday. [Laughter] And come to think of it, I guess that makes me older than any four or five of you put together. [Laughter] But at my age, I can't tell you how good it makes me feel to be with young Americans -- to share your optimism and your energy and your hopes for the future. So you see, you've given me a gift today, and I want to begin by simply saying thank you.

Before I talk about the heritage of Abraham Lincoln that we cherish, I want to mention a decision that I've made today of special significance to your families and ultimately to you. I will be sending to Congress a plan for providing through Medicare protection against the tremendous costs of catastrophic illness. Now, for those of you who might not have heard that term, that is those peculiar things that can happen, either by way of an accident or an ailment -- a disease that results in hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expense. And I'm certain that each of you has parents or grandparents or knows others who are facing the crisis of a catastrophic illness. The proposal I'm announcing today is a giant step forward in helping those who, before now, would have had to make a choice between financial ruin or death. With the protection that this plan will provide, senior citizens will now be safe from the worst fear of old age: having their life savings taken away to pay the costs for an acute care due to a catastrophic illness.

Well now, we've gathered here this afternoon to celebrate the life of Abraham Lincoln. And I suppose I'd better point out that, despite what you may have heard, it's not true that honest Abe and I went to school together. [Laughter] It is true, however, in this young country of ours, that when I was your age there were Americans who could remember Abraham Lincoln -- people who had heard the tall lanky man promise ``malice toward none'' as he stood on a platform at the Capitol to give his second inaugural address; people who had gathered in a field in the gentle land of southern Pennsylvania to see the gaunt, war-weary President dedicate a cemetery with the Gettysburg Address; people who'd heard Mr. Lincoln swap jokes with country politicians and seen his dark eyes sparkle; people who'd stood by the tracks in silence as a train draped in Union flags rolled past, bearing the body of the fallen President from Washington across the great spaces of the young Nation back home to Springfield, Illinois. Indeed, on Memorial Day there would be members of the Grand Army of the Republic marching in that parade, veterans of the Civil War. Even now, ours remains a young nation. And Lincoln gave voice to that youth. For even in the bleakest moments, even when he set his face grimly toward war, he was untouched by cynicism or loss of faith. Mr. Lincoln believed -- he believed in freedom, believed in the goodness and the ability of his heroes -- the people of this country.

Abe Lincoln was born in 1809 in a log cabin in the western wilds of Kentucky. And he spent his entire youth and boyhood in poverty, in frontier places where men hewed down endless trees, forcing the forest with their own muscles to give up its poor land for crops; where women cooked over open fires and washed their clothes in creeks. Formal education was impossible, but young Lincoln pored over the few books he could find, studying the Bible in particular, probably the only book that his family owned. And I'm sure you must have heard that sitting by the open fire as a boy, he would work out arithmetic problems and so forth with a piece of charcoal on a wooden shovel that was there by the fireplace. The first lesson that the life of Abraham Lincoln has to teach is: You don't have to be rich to love learning and make something of yourself.

Before he became President, Lincoln succeeded as a lawyer in only a modest way; and in politics, he failed repeatedly. He lost his first race for the State legislature in Illinois. And when at last he was elected, he ran twice for speaker of the Illinois house. And both times he was defeated. In 1856 he campaigned for his party's Vice-Presidential nomination, and the nomination went to another. In 1858, he ran for the Senate, and he was defeated. Even as President, Lincoln at first seemed a loser. The Union armies met defeat in the crucial early engagement of the Civil War, then frittered away time drilling on their campgrounds when they should have been pursuing the enemy. In England, the most powerful nation in Europe, informed opinion sided with the Confederacy and held that it would be a matter of months before the North lost the war and the crude, backwoods President was forgotten. That's the second lesson Mr. Lincoln can teach us: If you are in the right, ignore defeat. Persevere. For in persevering, Lincoln saved the Union and won freedom for the more than one-tenth of the population that had been kept down in bondage.

Like all men, Lincoln was affected by the prejudices of his time -- even in his first years as President he held that, subject to certain conditions, slavery could never be tolerated. But Lincoln kept thinking; his understanding of human dignity deepened. In September of 1862 Lincoln assembled his Cabinet. He explained that he'd made a vow regarding human freedom to himself and, he added hesitatingly, to ``his maker.'' When Congress convened in December, he explained, he would push for compensated emancipation in the States that had remained loyal to the Union. And then President Lincoln read the text of the Emancipation Proclamation, a document declaring that in the rebel States, all Americans, whatever their color, should be ``. . . thenceforward and forever free.''

This is Lincoln's greatest lesson, this lesson in liberty. He understood that the idea of human liberty is bound up in the very nature of our nation. He understood that America cannot be America without standing for the cause of freedom. He had often asked himself, Mr. Lincoln once said, what great principle or idea it was that held the Union together for so long. ``It was not,'' he said, ``the mere matter of the separation . . . from the motherland.'' It was something more. It was ``. . . something in that Declaration of Independence giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world . . . it was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men.''

In other countries, young men and women your age look back on the histories of their nations to emperors and kings, glorious figures raised in palaces, attended upon by servants, given every refinement of education by the most eminent scholars of the day. You as Americans look back on a different kind of figure; a poor man; a humble man of the frontier and prairie whose parents could neither read nor write; a man polite society looked down on because he told too many jokes. Yet, for all that, a man who shook the world by consecrating himself and his nation to liberty. You know, I have to tell you something about that joking thing. A great many people criticized him. They thought he laughed too much and had jokes. He had an answer for them. He said, ``I couldn't perform the duties of this job for 15 minutes if I couldn't laugh.'' And then he went on and said something else, also -- not at that same time. He said also that he couldn't perform the duties of that office if he didn't feel that he could ask for help from someone who was wiser and stronger than all others.

Perhaps you and I can best honor Abraham Lincoln by continuing his work. We see in recent incidents at Howard Beach, New York, and Forsyth County, Georgia, that racism is still with us -- North and South. Let each of us work to eliminate this scourge from our country. And in our own lives let us strive to live up to Mr. Lincoln's example: his respect for gentleness, for knowledge; his humor; his tolerance of his fellow men; his abiding love for America.

You know, living in the White House is kind of an experience. You can't ever be free of the knowledge of who and how many have preceded you there. But as more telling with Lincoln than with everyone, because just down the hall from where we go to sleep at night is Lincoln's Bedroom, furnished exactly as it was back there for him. And there's even a legend in the White House that he's still there. As a matter of fact, people who've worked there through several Presidents will go out of their way to tell you, yes, that they believe he is. Now, I haven't seen him myself. [Laughter] But I have to tell you, I am puzzled. Because every once in a while our little dog, Rex, will start down that long hall toward that room just glaring as if he's seeing something and barking. And he stops in front of Lincoln's door, the bedroom door. And once, early on in this, I just couldn't understand it. So, I went down and I opened the door, and I stepped in, and I turned around for him to come on, and he stood there, still barking and growling and then started backing away -- [laughter] -- and would not go in the room. So, the funny thing, though, is I have to feel -- unlike you might think about other ghosts -- if he is still there, I don't have any fear at all. I think it would be very wonderful to have a little meeting with him and probably very helpful.

How many of you have gone to the Lincoln Memorial? You must have. Well, now I want to ask you -- the first time I was ever there, someone, a veteran of being there, told me to do something. And I wonder if you were ever told to do it. And that is, to go in and stand on one side of that great monument and look up at the profile of Lincoln. But then to go round to the other side of the statue and look at the other side of Lincoln. And what the artist has accomplished -- if you ever have another chance, go there and try this: on one side in that face you see strength. You see the thing that he had that made him able to deal with those problems. When you get around to the other side, that side of the face, you see compassion. You see the great kindliness of that man. Now, I don't know how the artist accomplished that, but it's there. So if you haven't done that, make another trip sometime and see if that isn't true.

Well, I guess that's enough of a history lesson here for today. There are many stories about Lincoln that could be told, but I know that I'm not to keep you here any longer. And I just want to thank you all for being here. And that thing that I said about loving our fellow man and tolerance and so forth -- I was blessed. I was raised in a family that -- my mother and father told my brother and myself that the greatest sin there was was intolerance, prejudice against any other people for any reason. And we grew up with that, both of us, and I'm happy for it. And your generation, you don't have anything to live down as my generation did, of previous practices that were based on prejudice. So, just make up your minds and believe firmly, we're all God's children, equally beloved by him. And as he made it plain, by loving one another, we in turn do love him.

So, God bless all of you, thank you very much.

Mr. Coles. Mr. President, I realize that your schedule is very busy, but I would feel very remiss if I didn't have an opportunity to convey to you some of the messages that we at Hines feel.

You know, a few years ago, as I look back down the annals of time, as I travel back to 1809 -- I see a little baby, a baby who could not know his destiny; a baby who could not know that the unity of the whole country will rest in his hands; a baby who could not know that he will be responsible for the removal of a nation's shackles. And then, as time progresses, I see this boy gradually accepting the mantle of manhood. And then, as we come up to 1863, I see, as Dr. King said, ``a facilitating President signing the Emancipation Proclamation.'' And then, as we come through the years, as we come up to 1983, another Republican President is in the White House. This President also saw the need to remove shackles. These were the shackles of indifference toward education. President Lincoln's proclamation was used to unite the country, but President Reagan's proclamation was used to unite the minds. President Lincoln's proclamation can be found in any reference book, while President Reagan's proclamation is a living testament to the commitment of educational excellence.

The shackles that President Reagan loosed were not physical shackles; they were the shackles of ignorance. They were the shackles that bound the mind and kept the school from reaching its maximum potential. It seemed as if nothing could break these bonds. And then there came a man, a man with the authority to make a change and the compassion to do so. This man, much like Abraham Lincoln, saw the condition and proceeded to rectify it. And it was then that the school adoption program was implemented. And now I, on behalf of the students of Hines Junior High School, wish to thank you, Mr. Reagan. If it was not for -- if it were not, rather, for your proclamation, we wouldn't have had a chance to ride the battleship Eagle. If it wasn't for your proclamation, we wouldn't have had a chance to have a Redskins All Star Club with tutoring in all of the four major subject areas, with communications and cultural enrichments; we wouldn't have had a chance for Redskins and Redskinettes to come to Hines and sponsor many social events; we wouldn't have had that chance if you hadn't decided to make a change. The gratitude that we feel is not for mere words to define.

But we also wish to thank Mrs. Dole. We wish to thank all of the Maritime Associates. I could stand up here all day long and I could never finish telling you the things that DOT has done for Hines. But instead, I'll conclude by saying this, as a famous orator once stated: ``In order to discover new oceans, first you must have the courage to lose sight of familiar shores.'' Those people that I have named -- they were in actuality helping Hines to discover new oceans. Whenever President Reagan signed a bill or advocated legislation for the improvement of the schools in any way, shape, form, or fashion, he was in actuality helping Hines and our advocates to discover new oceans.

And now, with that in mind, I wish now to present to you, Mr. Reagan, this Hines Junior High School jacket. But we sincerely hope that you will not consider this as merely a jacket. We hope that you consider this as a symbol of the bond that we now share. And with this jacket comes a lifetime association with the Hines family. And with a open heart do we welcome thee.

The President. Thank you very much. I am very proud to have this. And, you know, I know there are present here -- and I have met here a few on the platform -- principals, some teachers, as well as students. And I know at your age, it's awfully easy sometimes to get very frustrated and sometimes think they were oppressing you. I remember once sitting in the principal's office when I was in high school. [Laughter] I hadn't been invited there for a social. [Laughter] And he said something that I remembered over the years. He said to me: ``You know, Reagan, I don't care what you think of me now. I'm only concerned about what you may think of me 15 years from now.'' And more than 15 years later, and before his death, I had the opportunity to tell him how I felt about him -- 15 years later -- and how much a part he had played in my life and how indebted I was to him.

So, God bless all of you here, and thank you very much for this.

Note: The President spoke at 1:34 p.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. Michael Coles was a ninth-grade student at the school. Elizabeth H. Dole was Secretary of Transportation.