Remarks at a White House Presentation Ceremony for the President's Volunteer Action Awards

June 30, 1987

Thank you all very much, but it's you who deserve the applause. It's a great honor for me to welcome all of you to the White House. The truth is, your presence here makes me feel a bit humble. You've all done such great work for charity and the private sector initiative effort. You know, I have to tell you, I've never been very good at fundraising myself. [Laughter] No, I mean this going out and asking people for something like that -- that's the reason I got into government. We don't ask for it; we just take it away from you. [Laughter]

You know, there's a story about a smalltown charity. A new chairman was elected, and he was going through all the records as it came time for the annual charity drive, and he saw where one of the richest men in town had never given a penny. So, he went to see him, and he said that he'd been going through the records, and he said, ``The records show that you have never given anything to the annual town charity.'' And the man said, ``Well, do the records also show that I had a brother who was permanently injured as a result of a wound in World War II and is unable to work or take care of himself? Do they show that my sister was widowed with seven children left and no insurance and no means of support?'' Well, the chairman, a little abashed, said, ``Well, no, our records don't show that.'' Well, he said, ``I don't give them anything. Why should I give something to you?'' [Laughter]

Well, thankfully, that kind of thinking is about as alien as you can get, not only to the people gathered here today but to the American character in general. Perhaps the most striking thing about Americans is their generosity of spirit. The famous chronicler of early 19th-century America, the Frenchman de Tocqueville, remarked upon this quality. He went back after visiting America, and he said: These Americans are the most peculiar people in the world; no sooner do they recognize a need that isn't being met than they round up their neighbors, form a committee, and start addressing that need.

Well, it's a remarkable fact -- one I've often said that philosophers should contemplate -- that the freest nation on Earth is also the most altruistic, its people among the most generous anywhere. You know, when you've been around for as long as I have and have lived through most of the 20th century, there's not a whole lot that surprises you. Some time ago, however, I saw something that really touched my temperature control. It was one of those TV commentators going on and on, scolding the American people, saying we'd become selfish, we were only out for ourselves, had lost our dedication to community and country. Well, I don't know what crowd he's hanging around with, but they sure aren't representative of the American people.

A recent poll by George Gallup found voluntarism in this country has reached a 10-year high and is on a steady upswing. And the report found that ``despite the high mobility of families in the United States, the increase in women in the work force and charges that Americans are increasingly preoccupied with their material well-being, voluntarism continues to grow in this nation.'' Last year it set another new record, as it does just about every year. Private giving to worthy causes in this country was somewhere in the neighborhood of $87 billion last year. It's interesting to note the Gallup Polls have also found that voluntarism to be a particularly American trait, with charitable activity here far outstripping other countries. So, all I can say about those who pontificate about the new selfishness in this country -- maybe they should get out of their TV studios and introduce themselves to the real America.

Of course, what a lot of these people mean is not that the American people should give more, but that the Government should take more. Somehow freely given, personal charity doesn't count for them; only the public dole, bureaucratic largess that is backed up by coercive powers of the state. Well, government, of course, has its place, but we've seen in the last two decades that the impersonal giving of government can often do more harm than good, creating a welfare trap from which the poor and under privileged can rarely escape.

The fact is, it's probably more important to give well and wisely than to simply give. And that kind of intelligent giving, thoughtful charity, and volunteer spirit is what you, the recipients of this year's Volunteer Action Awards, so perfectly exemplify. I wish I had time to mention each and every one of the individuals and organizations that are here by name. But let's just say that the good you do reaches beyond your specific projects and all the many people that you've helped. You're part of an American tradition of neighbor helping neighbor; you're keeping it alive and making it grow. Your work touches all of our hearts, embraces all Americans, and draws them into one community of caring. As that same Alexis de Tocqueville said: ``These Americans, so generous and always ready to volunteer, are a peculiar people.'' And we can be awfully proud of that fact.

As you know, this great American spirit has caught the attention of people around the world. In fact, last November the first International Conference on Private Sector Initiatives took place in Paris, France, where leaders of six other countries got together to hear about our success in America. And earlier this month, while I was at the economic summit in Italy -- they must have had a terrible spring there, because when we went over in the helicopter, I looked down -- all the streets were flooded. [Laughter] I attended there in Venice an Italian-American Conference on Private Sector Initiatives. And as a result of that conference, Italian leaders have formed their own national task force to try to establish programs in their countries like the ones that you've organized here. And it was wonderful. I went to that meeting -- I was asked if I would come and address this group a little bit -- and I looked out, and I was seeing old familiar faces there, the Americans who had come from here over there to help them as they got this task force established. Incidentally, one of their first projects was there in Venice. They built an American-Italian park, and that's what it's called -- the American-Italian Park.

So remember, when you return to your hometowns and you tell your coworkers about this trip, let them know what they're doing is not just making their town a better place but our nation and the world as a whole.

And now, I'm going to ask Donna Alvarado, the Director of ACTION, and Governor Romney to come up here and assist me in the presentation of your awards.

[At this point, the awards were presented to the recipients.]

Thank you all. God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 1:15 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House following a luncheon for the award recipients. In his remarks, he referred to George W. Romney, the chairman of the board of VOLUNTEER -- The National Center, and Donna Alvarado, the Director of ACTION, the two organizations which sponsored the program. The 1987 award recipients were: George Wager, Anaheim, CA; the Los Angeles/Orange County Corporate Volunteer Council, Los Angeles, CA; the Campus Outreach Opportunity League, Washington, DC; Dr. Robert A. Hingson, Ocilla, GA; Talkline/Kids Line, Inc., Elk Grove, IL; 20 Good Men, Kansas City, KS; Hexagon, Inc., Bethesda, MD; the Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn, Henderson, NV; the Stephanie Joyce Kahn Foundation, Long Beach, NY; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local No. 25, Melville, NY; Capital Cities/ABC and the Public Broadcasting Service, New York, NY; Sylvia Lawry, New York, NY; Ruth Johnson Colvin, Syracuse, NY; the North Central Mental Health Services Teen Suicide Prevention Volunteer Program, Columbus, OH; Jack A. Glover, Roseburg, OR; the Ronald McDonald House Volunteers, Media, PA; Exxon Co., U.S.A., Houston, TX; and Shell Oil Co., Houston, TX.