Past Speakers of the: LANDON LECTURES

Landon Lecture by Jim Wright,

U.S. Representative, Texas and Speaker of the House
April 25, 1988

by Jim Wright

Unlike many people in this audience, I did not have the privilege to know Governor Alfred M. Landon. I did come to admire him for his integrity and his intelligence, his never-failing good humor, and his good common sense.

It is ironic in a way, I think, that he is remembered throughout so much of the country as the unsuccessful candidate for president in a landslide election, or even that he is remembered primarily as the spokesman of one political party, because his legacy is so much broader than that for our country as a whole.

Alf Landon called himself a progressive, and a practical progressive. When he served as governor of this state he championed the pay-as-we-go budget. God knows that's something we could use in the United States today, and something that Jim Slattery, your congressman, as a member of the House Budget Committee, has worked arduously and diligently to try to bring about.

Alf Landon also proposed the graduated income tax, a mark of eminent fairness. He proposed the Farm Mortgage Moratorium Act, and that again throughout this great heartland of America is a topical problem. So many of our farms and farm homes are being foreclosed with gates swinging to on rusty hinges.

In his 1936 book, Alf Landon coined a new phrase, "The New Frontier." And for more than a generation the phrase languished and nobody discovered it and picked it up until a full generation later when it became the rallying cry for a generation of Democrats under the leadership of John F. Kennedy.

He was that kind of man. He had the vision in 1966 at the very first of these lectures in the Landon Lecture Series to recommend that it would be in our best interest if we were to open diplomatic relations and create a detente and understanding with mainland China, and to open up those clogged arteries of trade and commerce and cultural exchange that had so long been shut off as impermeably as the Great Wall of China in its day had shut things off. He was before his time then. Other politicians didn't dare to say that, for fear of being charged with being soft on communism or something of that sort. But Alf Landon with the vision of the pure-hearted had the ability and the courage to say what he thought. Since that time, it has come about, of course, under the leadership of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, primarily. And because of that both countries have flourished and it's been to our mutual benefit.

Alf Landon had vision. He had that quality of which Solomon said, "Where there is no vision, people perish."

So I want to talk today about vision; I want to ask about the future. I want us to think of the future of the United States. Sometimes it's good just to pause and take stock, take inventory, see what we have, where we are, and where we are going.

Ever since a man named Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, men have been guilty of underestimating the value of their heritage, selling out too cheaply. The original discoverer of the fabulous Hope diamond was an obscure British trader and trapper in North Africa who sold it for six British pounds, then the equivalent of about 24 dollars, because he was just grossly incapable of estimating the value of what he held in his hand. Twenty-four dollars coincidentally, about the same sum for which the Indians sold Manhattan Island. Twenty-four dollars and some poorly distilled whiskey. Twenty-four bucks and a hangover. The Manhattan Island, where today footage on most of the streets leases for upwards of $2,400 a running foot.

Lest we be guilty of that same sin of undervaluing the heritage we have here in this richly endowed land of ours, let's just stop and pause and think about it a little bit, the good and the bad.

I assure you that I do not plan to talk all this period. I want most of the time to be for questions and answers if we could do that. I would like for you to have a chance to have a conversation. Somebody said too many political figures spend all of their time answering questions nobody is asking in the first place, and I think that is possibly true. So we ought to ask some questions. We are asking questions, I know, all of us, about the future of the United States.

In Washington, we are reading a book three of us, just before we came in, acknowledged that all three of us are in the process of reading this book. It's a huge big tome. I recommend it to you, if you have the time or the serious interest in the future, and the future of this country, particularly. It's a book called The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, by a professor at Yale named Paul Kennedy. He spins out this scenario, going back over the period of the Hapsburgs and the British of the Victorian realm, and all the great empires that have risen and waned, and he makes a case that there is an almost irresistible temptation on the part of a power when it becomes influential in the world and powerful and rich to over extend itself.

He calls it "imperial over-reach." It becomes so fascinated with the trappings of world power that it wants to assert itself and wield its influence on world events, and begins to neglect the infrastructure at home, and the basic needs of the fundamental social structure at home, and the people at home and in so doing finally gets into trouble abroad and gets into debt at home and sinks into a morass of mediocrity.

Now, is that inevitable? Well, I am going to argue that it is not inevitable. I don't think it has to happen. It does not necessarily become our destiny just because it has been the destiny of other civilizations who strutted across the stage of world leadership only to fade and wane, a brief promise unfulfilled. We don't have to do that, we can do differently.

So I want to suggest to you that ours is a country that ever since its beginning has had what we call the American Dream. We've been a little different from other countries. We were different, essentially, from those countries of Europe who believed that if they could endow an aristocratic group with enough learning and enough education, that they could look after things for the rest of us. We didn't believe that. We believed that our destiny was to spread the rights of learning as broadly as possible; to spread ownership as broadly as possible. To have a kind of a peoples' capitalism in which the people themselves were able to own their own homes, literally, step-by-step.

Oh, we didn't come to this overnight. But over the years and over the generations since we have come to it. John Adams put it very well. John Adams, in the torchlight of the American revolution, said, "I must study politics and war in order that my sons may study mathematics and philosophy, in order that their children may have the liberty to study painting, poetry, and music." That has set a theme for what has come to be called the American Dream. It has been the idea that each generation ought to do a little bit better than the one before.

And yet now we have come in this decade upon a new phenomenon, not rising expectations, not a phenomenon of upward mobility, which has been our goal and has characterized our country from the beginning, but a new phenomenon of downward mobility which I think is unacceptable to us.

As a matter of plain fact today, in this decade we have doubled what we spend on military things, and extended our reach throughout the world and to tell you the truth, I voted for most of those things. I have voted for increases in military expenditures because I didn't want to put us at the mercy of countries that have no mercy. But the truth of it is that we have neglected things at home and we have reached a point where today the average 30-year-old couple finds it harder, not easier, to buy and own a home than that couple's counterpart, older brothers and sisters, did 10 or 12 years ago. That's not good enough for America.

You find the situation today in which the average 40-year-old couple, struggling to save enough money to send their kids to college, finds it harder, not easier, than it was 10 or 15 years ago to send their kids to college. That's not good enough for America.

So this past week in the Congress we have been looking at the trade bill. We passed that trade bill by about three to one in the House, just this last Thursday.

It bodes well to become law as a result of three years of arduous work on the part of 13 committees in the House, and a number of committees in the Senate, and then many months of hammering out on the anvils of mutual compromise a conference committee report that melded the best of both House and Senate versions.

And now, we have the conference committee report and we passed it about three to one. I earnestly hope it is not vetoed. I hope the president will reconsider his objection to one minor provision in the bill, minor in the scope of the whole 1,000 page bill, and will sign it.

It's an important thing that we do because we're saying by means of this trade bill that we are not going to accept mediocrity. We are not ready to allow this country to lose its competitiveness in world markets. We're not ready for America's future to be behind us. We think our future is ahead of us. And yet we have got some staggering obstacles still to overcome.

Our trade deficit has grown each year for the past seven years, until last year when we suffered the biggest trade deficit any country ever suffered in the entire history of the human race. One hundred-seventy-one billion dollars. The United States, years before this, had begun to suffer a deficit in such big things as automobiles and steel, but last year for the first time we suffered a deficit in those things in which we had specialized: high-tech information, industrial goods, computers, and telecommunications equipment and business machines. We suffered a deficit in them this past year.

In the past five years our country has sunk from being the world's biggest creditor nation, a nation to which other countries owed more money than was owed to any other country in the world, until today we're the world's biggest debtor nation. I'm not just talking about the national debt, although that's a staggering figure in its own right. I'm talking about the debts that we owe to foreigners. We owe more than Brazil owes, owe more than Mexico owes, owe more than any other country in the world because we have tolerated this trade deficit and allowed it to grow so inexorably and so rapidly over these past five years.

Last year, the United States sank from first in gross national product per capita to third. We aren't even second anymore, and that happened last year. In just these last few years, foreign ownership of American assets has more than doubled from 700 billion dollars in 1983 to one and one-half trillion dollars in 1987. Today nearly 21 percent of the assets of American banks are owned by foreigners.

Last year the two biggest exports from our largest port, the port of New York and New Jersey, were scrap metal, mostly from junked automobiles, and wastepaper. The wastepaper is sent to Oriental countries which remake it into corrugated boxes that they use to send goods to our markets.

The top legislative priority before our Congress trying to serve this American nation and our future has been the passage of this omnibus trade bill. It is a comprehensive bill, but it can be boiled down, I think, to three words. I want to give you just a little feel for what it is we are trying to do: the rules, and the tools, and the schools, to make us number one again.

Let me mention the rules just briefly. We are asking in this bill that the rules of international trade provide a level playing field. Free trade, yes, absolutely. Fair trade. We are asking only that other countries treat our goods on their markets just exactly the same way we treat their goods on our markets. No better, no worse. We think we've got a right to ask that. We are suggesting that the time has come now that all the nations of the world that engage in trade must respect the products of one another, and not use them as battering rams to tear down the economies of one another.

Let's go back just a few years. At the end of World War II, we decided it was to our advantage as a nation to try to help developing countries create something of their own, throughout the world, particularly in Asia and Africa, but mainly in Asia. There were countries that just didn't have anything to start with. They would have liked to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but they didn't have any bootstraps, and so we thought it was to our advantage, and it was to our advantage no doubt, to help them get started with little indigenous industries of their own. So we opened our arms and our ports to the products that they would make and send to us. And we looked the other way, frankly, when they built their little umbrellas of protection over their infant industries and systematically began to exclude the goods that the United States was shipping to them. Because we thought, well, it's all right. That didn't amount to much of our market. Let's allow them to get a good start, and therefore they won't be quite so vulnerable to the blandishments of communism and other "isms" that are rampant in the world. That way they can build their own strong economies and then be politically stable.

That made good sense then. But time passed, and those countries are no longer developing countries, they are highly developed countries. Today a great many of them are using our market as a dumping ground, and their goods as a battering ram for entry into our markets. What they are doing is that they are selling goods that they make on our markets cheaper than they will sell them to their own people on their own markets, as a device of breaking some of our manufacturers. Then they can get the whole market, they think. And while they are doing that, they are systematically excluding American goods from some of their markets.

To give you just a few illustrations, in some cases it is creative red tape, where if one of the American manufacturers applies for a permit to send goods to one of the markets abroad, that permit will be processed indefinitely, continuously, voluminously, and nothing ever gets done. It's never approved. In another case that was told to me a few days ago by Lee lacocca, in one instance we sent a shipload of 200 American-made automobiles that finally, after a certain amount of badgering, were permitted into the market. But the ship was unloaded once it landed at the dock one car a day. In another instance, the requirement was made that any American goods of a certain type, if sold on their market, had to be advertised in English. How many Toyotas you reckon we would be buying if they had to be advertised in Japanese?

So in response to this kind of thing, the thing that we have found so hurtful to us, we have asked that other countries that trade with us, and that want to claim freedom of our markets, simply must do exactly that, and give us freedom on their markets. The rules, a new set of rules, fairness.

The second thing is that the trade bill provides the tools that will try to help make us competitive again. It tries to stimulate investment in modernizing those aging industrial plants and machinery in the United States that have become outmoded, to the end that we improve our productivity and that we improve our competitive stature, and that we put a keen edge on American competition again. It provides a new incentive for investment in America, in building America. You know, the investment rate in the United States is the second lowest in all the industrialized world and that's a darn shame, it shouldn't be, wasn't 12 years ago and is today.

Last year, Japan invested 2.8 percent of its total gross national product in non-defense research and development and to find new methodologies, new technologies, new products; 2.8 percent. And Germany 2.6 percent. In the United States it was only 1.9 percent. In a recent poll of West Germans we found that only six percent of them considered the tag, "Made in the U.S.A.," to be indicative of quality today.

Now, we can do better than that. We must do better than that, and this bill that we just passed in the House and that will pass in the Senate, I predict, on Tuesday, establishes a National Institute of Technology to help, particularly, small businesses find ways to convert new discoveries and new inventions into marketable products that we can sell abroad.

The bill also strengthens and beefs up the foreign commercial service, so that when we do try to sell on foreign markets we will have somebody in every American Embassy whose main job it is to go out and try to help market the sale of American-made goods, so there will continue to be products, opportunities, and jobs for people here in the United States to turn out those goods.

In addition, the bill provides improved financing opportunities for individuals who want to sell on foreign markets, just as foreign countries provide financing for people who want to sell on our market. It makes us more competitive. It provides the tools to make us competitive again in world commerce.

And finally the schools. Maybe this is the most important part of what we are trying to do. We have allowed our self, unfortunately, to lag behind in the greatest goal of all and that is quality education.

Let me just give you a couple of illustrations. Last year, we graduated from American colleges and universities about 54,000 young Americans with mathematical, scientific, and engineering disciplines 54,000. Japan, with just half our population, was graduating 70,000, half again as many more.

Or look at it another way. Japan has in the United States some 10,000 business representatives selling Japanese goods on the American market. All of them speak excellent English. And we, by comparison, have only about 500 people representing American businesses in the Japanese market and hardly any of them speak Japanese. You see what I am saying? We ignore education, it shouldn't be any wonder to us why we fall behind in trade.

Unfortunately, American students do not do as well in math and science and several of the other technical subjects, and certainly not in foreign languages as the students from each of the other industrialized countries are doing today. Thirteen percent of American adults are functionally illiterate as compared with only two percent in Japan. Now, you see, I don't want to keep bringing up Japan. I can bring up West Germany. I can bring up a number of other countries, but that just happens to make the most dramatic difference. That's not our destiny. We don't need to settle for second best.

It's not necessary for us to do that. So we passed this bill strengthening job training, strengthening vocational training opportunities of every kind, trying to make it easier for Americans to go to college. You know what I think the very best investment this country ever made? Maybe an example might be the Louisiana Purchase but that was before my time. I am not really quite that old, despite of the fact I have been there all these terms as the president has told you. I think the best investment I know anything about in our time and my time was the GI Bill of Rights, at the end of World War II. The GI bill made it possible for an entire generation of young Americans, my generation, to get a college education.

Has it cost us? No, it's made money for us. It's been the best investment in cold cash dollars and cents that we've ever made, because it allowed people to have higher earning power as a result of the education they got, and because of that higher earning power, they paid back more in extra taxes to the government of the United States by a quotient of 25 or 30 to one for every dollar we spent, making it possible for them to get an education.

So those are the things I think that we must do. The United States' efforts to retrain displaced workers have been hampered by the fact that 77 percent of the white collar workers and 82 percent of the blue collar workers get less than 30 days notice if they are going to be thrown out of work and they don't have the time or the opportunity to look around and try to enlist in a new technology, if the skills for which they have been trained are no longer useful on the marketplace. So this bill authorizes those funds to strengthen and beef up our education and we think it is a great bill, and we urge you to be supportive of it. It's the first step.

The next step is really to strengthen quality education for all of America's students, all of America's children, and all of America's future. You know, it disturbs me that I read recently a current opinion poll which reports that Americans for the first time in the history of this country are saying that they expect their children to have a lesser standard of living than they themselves enjoyed. Now that expectation is just fundamentally contrary to the basic spirit of America. It's unworthy of us. It's negativism.

We just must not be satisfied with that. As a nation we're as big as our dreams; we're as strong as our faith. America doesn't have to settle for just fair; we never have. We shouldn't now. We do not have to accept shoddy workmanship as a norm, prevalence of drugs in our society, rising crime rates, falling standard of living, less public civility. Those are not the norms of American behavior. We don't have to settle for that. We do not have to accept budget deficits and trade deficits as unavoidable and inevitable. These do not add up to an acceptable national self image. We can do better. We have done better than that, we can do a lot better than that.

Mediocrity is not our destiny, we don't have to be satisfied with that. Together we can build a better future and we can make it come to pass. That's my message to you today. I see an America resurgent in world commerce where "Made in the U.S.A." once again is a badge of quality and value throughout the world. We can do it. I see an America renewed in spirit and dedicated to the goal of quality education where the humblest child of this land will have as his or her birthright, a right to an educational opportunity equal to that reserved for aristocracy in other countries.

I see an America in which the dream of home ownership is a living reality for every young couple who wants a home. I see an America in which there is a useful job for every citizen who is willing to work. No, no, not the idea that the country owes me a living. No, not that the government owes everybody a living. No. But that a nation as beneficently endowed as ours has been does owe the humblest one of us a real opportunity to earn a living.

And you know something else, I see a possibility of America at peace. I believe that we can achieve that. Last year, one of the television networks broadcast a documentary entitled "The Face of the Enemy," and it demonstrated how we can create enemies in our own minds. We think negatively of their people, and expect the worst of them, and we sort of build mental stereotypes that keep us ever from developing any degree of understanding between us, and if both sides do this, both sides think negatively of one another and reinforce those thoughts by our self talk, the result is that bad feelings are perpetuated and peace is stifled in the cradle. I don't think it has to happen. It doesn't have to happen in Central America. It doesn't have to happen in our relationships with the Soviet Union.

I had the privilege last year, in fact a year ago this month, in leading a group to the Soviet Union, an official delegation. I saw great change there. We spent about two hours with Gorbachev, and two hours with Ligachev and two hours with Chevrikov. I am not trying to tell you the Soviet Union is a democracy. It's not a democracy. It's a dictatorship. Nobody you know would want to live there. It's not that, but it is changing, and for the first time I saw a willingness on their part to acknowledge that they haven't created the workers' paradise, and that they've got some problems. Gorbachev put it this way, he said, "Look, you people rode on some of our best highways, and I guess you probably thought that these compare reasonably well with your own highways, I'm told that they do." But he said, "You may not have noticed that beyond those highways in the lateral sectors, there aren't any paved roads. There are no farm roads. I understand that you people have paved farm market roads, where your farmers can bring their goods to markets. We don't have any of that." He said, "We'd like to have it." He said, "We'd like to be able to spend money on that kind of thing, we'd like to be able to spend money on creating medicines and finding ways to cure diseases, and try to find ways to improve our production of consumer goods, if we didn't have to spend so much money on military hardware."

That made a certain amount of sense to me. You know, we don't have to agree with them about everything. I don't agree with them by any manner of means, but you don't have to agree with someone in order to be at peace. I don't know whether peace is possible but I do believe as a result of an experience that I had that it is. While I was there, I was given the opportunity to speak to the Soviet Union people on television. Nationwide television. I was told afterward by our State Department people that the time allotted to me, prime time, was the very time that was chosen by Gorbachev when he wanted to speak to the Soviet people himself. You know, when you got them out there listening, you don't have much competition, it's just one station is all you got there. So I leaped at the opportunity.

I said, "Now, look, I want to say what I want to say and I hope you don't intend to cut me off." "Oh, no, we're not going to cut you off, say whatever you want to say, 15, 20 minutes, however long you want to talk and then if you would answer some questions." I said, "Fine." I spoke to them, and said to them what I thought was a message of peace from our country, that we don't hate them. I said, "You know, here we are spending about 300 billion dollars this year on weapons and we're doing this because we are afraid of what you people would do to us if we didn't, that's why we're doing it." I said, "I suppose your country is spending about the same amount, maybe 200 billion rubles which is about 300 billion dollars. Perhaps it's for the reason that you're afraid of what you think we might do to you if you didn't. So wouldn't it make a whole lot more sense if both of us mutually and verifiably could start reducing these weapons in a way that you could come and look, and we could come and look at yours, verifiable, mutual, nobody gets an advantage but each of us would have more money to spend feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and trying to find eradications for diseases, for building libraries and schools, and things that ennoble the human race."

Then I said, "If you feel this way, or if you don't feel this way, I would like you to write to me." I was wearing a little lapel pin that the State Department had given to each of us, crossed flags, the United States flag and the Soviet flag, and I said, "If you write me a little letter, I'll send you one of these."

Three thousand people from that sprawling country wrote me letters. Most of them were in Russian, about a third of them were in English, the younger people were writing in English. They were from young people, students, they were from young couples, they were from guys my age who participated in World War II and remembered that experience. And as a result of that I'm convinced I don't know what the Soviet leaders say but the plain people in that country want peace. So I see a possibility of America at peace.

I also see an America renewed, an America composed not of the abstract and disconnected collection of self-centered individuals, each seeking his own advancement, but rather a team, we can be a team, as members are reinforced by the inner strength of collective self-confidence and a genuine caring for one another.

Many centuries ago, the philosopher Socrates was talking on the street in Athens with a friend named Glaucone. Socrates was describing his ideas of the ideal city. He called it the City of God. Finally his friend said, "Socrates, I do not believe that any such city that you described exists in heaven, and I don't think one ever will exist on earth." And Socrates replied, "Whether such a city as that exists in heaven or ever will exist on earth, I shall affix my eyes upon that city, having nothing to do with any other and in so doing, I will help to bring it about."

The transcription of this Landon Lecture was accomplished through the cooperation of the Kansas State University Libraries and the Office of Mediated Education.

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