Speech #1 - Remarks at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast
February 6, 1986
In all the 36 anniversaries of my 39th birthday, this has certainly been -- [laughter] -- the most memorable. George, Barbara, all of you up here on the top shelf together with me and all of you ladies and gentlemen, I am enormously touched. Yes, today is my birthday. Seventy-five years ago, I was born in Tampico, Illinois, in a little flat above the bank building. We didn't have any other contact with the bank than that. [Laughter] Now, here I am, sort of living above the store again. [Laughter]
I'm very happy to be here. And I'd like to begin the remarks that I have with something that I did mention last year, so those of you who are here forgive me, because I'd like to touch on it again. It has to do with the history of this breakfast and the groups associated with it. The story begins in 1942, at the height of World War II. In those days there were a handful of Senators and Congressmen who'd get together now and then to talk about their lives and their jobs and how things were going for them. And one day they talked about how they might be of greater personal and spiritual support to one another. They decided it would be a real help if they could occasionally gather and pray together. And so they began to pray together.
In time, in both the House group and the Senate group, some very important informal rules evolved. The Members would meet in the spirit of peace and in the spirit of Christ. All Members would be welcome, regardless of their political or religious affiliation. There was room enough for sincere seekers and the deeply devout. They'd never publicize the meetings, and they'd never use them for political gain. But most important, the Members would be able to talk about any problem on which they needed guidance, any sadness for which they needed prayers. And everything would be off the record, so no one would have to worry about the betrayal of a confidence. Well, the two groups, one in the House and one in the Senate, met quietly like this for 10 years.
And then President Eisenhower came into the story. One night in 1952 during the Presidential campaign, Dwight Eisenhower confided something to one of his advisers, a close friend, Senator Frank Carlson. And Eisenhower told him that during the war when he was commanding the allied forces in Europe, he'd had a startling and vivid spiritual experience -- he had actually felt the hand of God guiding him, felt the presence of God. And the general told the Senator that this experience and the support of his friends had given him real spiritual strength in the hard days before D-day. Senator Carlson said he understood. He, himself, was getting spiritual help from the Members of a little prayer group in the Senate. And a few months later, the general, who was now the President, asked Frank Carlson over to the White House. And he told him, ``Frank, this is the loneliest house I've ever been in.'' Carlson said, ``Mr. President, I think this may be the right time for you to come and meet with our prayer group.'' And Eisenhower did just that. In 1953 he attended the first combined prayer breakfast.
And ever since, Presidents have been coming here for help and assistance -- and here I am. The prayer meetings continue, as I'm sure you know, in the Senate and in the House. Other prayer meetings have sprung up throughout the Government in every branch. And other fellowships have spread throughout the capitals of the world and parliaments and congresses far away. This is good news, isn't it? A cause for joy. And every year when I come here I think, ``Isn't it something that this good, strong thing came out of a war?'' Out of a tragedy came a triumph. That's a saving grace about sadness. Sometimes the very tears you shed can moisten the soil from which great things will grow. I think the playwright Eugene O'Neill was touching on this when he said, ``The impulse of tragedy is on to life and more life.''
Last week, when the shuttle exploded, we hadn't, as a nation, had a tragedy like that that we actually witnessed it as it happened. And as I watched the coverage on television, I thought of a poem that came out of a war. And it became literally the creed of America's flyers all over the world. I quoted a line from that poem when I spoke on TV the night of the tragedy. That poem was written by a young man named [John G.] Magee. He was 19 years old, a volunteer in the Canadian Air Force. He was an American, but he'd gone there before our country was in the war. He was killed 4 days after Pearl Harbor, but he left something that does live on -- that poem. It says:
``Oh, I've slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling north of sun-split clouds and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of.
Wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence, hovering there I've chased the shouting wind along and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air -- up, up to the long, delirious burning blue I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace, where never lark or even eagle flew.
And while with silent lifting mind, I've trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand and touched the face of God.''
I used to think it was a poem about the joy of escaping gravity, but even more, it's a poem about joy. And God gave us joy; that was His gift to us. We've all been sad the past week, and yet there was something good about the way we wept together as we said goodbye and suddenly re-remembered that we are a family. And now the time has come to remember the words of the Bible, ``Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.'' A minister who spoke at the memorial service the other day said he hoped we all remembered not just the grief but the grandeur and the grace of life. Much of that grandeur comes from the joy that God gave us.
All of us know of that wonderful individual, Mother Teresa, that living saint. If you've ever met Mother Teresa, you know what I mean. She's probably thrust into your hand a pamphlet telling you to love Christ. She wouldn't mind my saying that she's no longer young. If she were here she'd say, ``Look who's talking.'' [Laughter] But she is no longer young, and she's not always well. But she's inexhaustible. You may have heard of her trip to Ethiopia at the height of the famine. She got there after a terribly long journey, but went without pause straight to a food distribution center. Thousands of those people crowded around her trying to touch her. She stood there and shook hands, 10,000 of them. And later she was asked, ``How could you do that? Weren't you exhausted?'' And she said, ``It's my faith that feeds me.''
Well, sometime back, a Senator approached her when she was visiting Washington and said, ``Mother, the problems of the world are so terrible and things look so bad, what can we do?'' She said, ``Love God.'' Different things impel different people. Mother Teresa is impelled by joy. She sings like a woman in love and she is -- in love with God. She's a great example of the truth of a great paradox: that mankind can find freedom only in surrender, joy only in submission, wealth only in what we give away, and safety only in a promise -- God's promise of life everlasting.
Mother Teresa shines with joy in spite of the fact that she spends so much of her time in the unhappiest places on this Earth. If you look at the world stage, you don't see a lot to make you glad, but in the midst of hellish circumstances -- in Mexico after the earthquake, in Ethiopia during a famine, in South Africa and Angola and Nicaragua -- in all those painful places we still see joy, God's gift, and the energy that it gives.
There are perhaps 3,000 of us here in this room. The wealthy and the powerful, those who've known neither wealth nor power. We have teachers here and diplomats, inmates from a local reformatory, captains of industry are here and so are just moms and dads and insurance salesmen and people that do things like that -- such diverse lives. And yet we all have in common the usual problems of life, the usual difficulties. And we're trying to achieve some kind of happiness while, in the process, causing as little pain to others as possible. We have so much in common -- we share an anchor that roots us in the heavy seas, and that anchor is the joy that God gave us. Let our thoughts today be of how man harnesses his sadness and turns it into triumphant work. And that's what I wish for all of us in this room -- that in our individual work this year, we will fight on for what's right and good and resist the badness that is in us and that we'll do it with joy, because God gave that as a gift to be used.
If I had a prayer for you today, among those that have all been uttered, it is that one we're so familiar with: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.
Thank you, and God bless you all.
Speech #2 - Remarks at Memorial Day Ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery
May 31, 1982
Mr. President, General, the distinguished guests here with us today, my fellow citizens:
In America's cities and towns today, flags will be placed on graves in cemeteries; public officials will speak of the sacrifice and the valor of those whose memory we honor.
In 1863, when he dedicated a small cemetery in Pennsylvania marking a terrible collision between the armies of North and South, Abraham Lincoln noted the swift obscurity of such speeches. Well, we know now that Lincoln was wrong about that particular occasion. His remarks commemorating those who gave their ``last full measure of devotion'' were long remembered. But since that moment at Gettysburg, few other such addresses have become part of our national heritage -- not because of the inadequacy of the speakers, but because of the inadequacy of words.
I have no illusions about what little I can add now to the silent testimony of those who gave their lives willingly for their country. Words are even more feeble on this Memorial Day, for the sight before us is that of a strong and good nation that stands in silence and remembers those who were loved and who, in return, loved their countrymen enough to die for them.
Yet, we must try to honor them -- not for their sakes alone, but for our own. And if words cannot repay the debt we owe these men, surely with our actions we must strive to keep faith with them and with the vision that led them to battle and to final sacrifice.
Our first obligation to them and ourselves is plain enough: The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we -- in a less final, less heroic way -- be willing to give of ourselves.
It is this, beyond the controversy and the congressional debate, beyond the blizzard of budget numbers and the complexity of modern weapons systems, that motivates us in our search for security and peace. War will not come again, other young men will not have to die, if we will speak honestly of the dangers that confront us and remain strong enough to meet those dangers.
It's not just strength or courage that we need, but understanding and a measure of wisdom as well. We must understand enough about our world to see the value of our alliances. We must be wise enough about ourselves to listen to our allies, to work with them, to build and strengthen the bonds between us.
Our understanding must also extend to potential adversaries. We must strive to speak of them not belligerently, but firmly and frankly. And that's why we must never fail to note, as frequently as necessary, the wide gulf between our codes of morality. And that's why we must never hesitate to acknowledge the irrefutable difference between our view of man as master of the state and their view of man as servant of the state. Nor must we ever underestimate the seriousness of their aspirations to global expansion. The risk is the very freedom that has been so dearly won.
It is this honesty of mind that can open paths to peace, that can lead to fruitful negotiation, that can build a foundation upon which treaties between our nations can stand and last -- treaties that can someday bring about a reduction in the terrible arms of destruction, arms that threaten us with war even more terrible than those that have taken the lives of the Americans we honor today.
In the quest for peace, the United States has proposed to the Soviet Union that we reduce the threat of nuclear weapons by negotiating a stable balance at far lower levels of strategic forces. This is a fitting occasion to announce that START, as we call it, strategic arms reductions, that the negotiations between our country and the Soviet Union will begin on the 29th of June.
As for existing strategic arms agreements, we will refrain from actions which undercut them so long as the Soviet Union shows equal restraint. With good will and dedication on both sides, I pray that we will achieve a safer world.
Our goal is peace. We can gain that peace by strengthening our alliances, by speaking candidly of the dangers before us, by assuring potential adversaries of our seriousness, by actively pursuing every chance of honest and fruitful negotiation.
It is with these goals in mind that I will depart Wednesday for Europe, and it's altogether fitting that we have this moment to reflect on the price of freedom and those who have so willingly paid it. For however important the matters of state before us this next week, they must not disturb the solemnity of this occasion. Nor must they dilute our sense of reverence and the silent gratitude we hold for those who are buried here.
The willingness of some to give their lives so that others might live never fails to evoke in us a sense of wonder and mystery. One gets that feeling here on this hallowed ground, and I have known that same poignant feeling as I looked out across the rows of white crosses and Stars of David in Europe, in the Philippines, and the military cemeteries here in our own land. Each one marks the resting place of an American hero and, in my lifetime, the heroes of World War I, the Doughboys, the GI's of World War II or Korea or Vietnam. They span several generations of young Americans, all different and yet all alike, like the markers above their resting places, all alike in a truly meaningful way.
Winston Churchill said of those he knew in World War II they seemed to be the only young men who could laugh and fight at the same time. A great general in that war called them our secret weapon, ``just the best darn kids in the world.'' Each died for a cause he considered more important than his own life. Well, they didn't volunteer to die; they volunteered to defend values for which men have always been willing to die if need be, the values which make up what we call civilization. And how they must have wished, in all the ugliness that war brings, that no other generation of young men to follow would have to undergo that same experience.
As we honor their memory today, let us pledge that their lives, their sacrifices, their valor shall be justified and remembered for as long as God gives life to this nation. And let us also pledge to do our utmost to carry out what must have been their wish: that no other generation of young men will every have to share their experiences and repeat their sacrifice.
Earlier today, with the music that we have heard and that of our National Anthem -- I can't claim to know the words of all the national anthems in the world, but I don't know of any other that ends with a question and a challenge as ours does: Does that flag still wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave? That is what we must all ask.