Past Speakers of the: LANDON LECTURES

Landon Lecture by Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, Jr.,

U.S. Representative, Massachusetts and Speaker of the House
April 22, 1985

by Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, Jr.

President Acker, Governor Carlin, my good friend Congressman Jim Slattery, members of the Board of Regents, faculty, students, and friends.

Forty-nine years ago, the name of Governor Alf Landon appeared on the ballot as the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, there appeared on some of the same ballots the name of a young Democratic candidate running for state legislature Tip O'Neill.

It was my first successful campaign for public office. And I appreciate the opportunity to come out here today, to the home state of Alf Landon, to honor the man who headed the other political team back in 1936.

I am glad to be here for another reason. As you know, President Reagan often invokes the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I think it is only fair that if a conservative Republican president can bring himself to honor a great liberal, Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, the least I can do is come out here and honor the Republican who ran against him.

I would like to take this opportunity to say something complimentary about our president. When President Reagan was first elected, I, like many others, made the mistake of underestimating his unique abilities. When I first met him I kidded him by saying, "Welcome to the big leagues, Mr. President."

After five years of dealing in close combat with the President, I can now attest to the fact that when it comes to communicating with the American people, when it comes to stating his philosophy clearly and plainly, when it comes to making the strongest possible case for what he believes in, Ronald Reagan, our president, is in a league by himself, and an all-star, as a matter of fact, a hall-of-famer.

In the few minutes I have this morning, I want to offer you my own views of our country's history, my own philosophy of our American democracy and of our American government. I want to put today's headlines in perspective, to review what our country has achieved in the past, what challenges it faces today, and what role it can play tomorrow.

First, I want to report to you on two matters that have been very much in the headlines: my recent visit to Russia and tomorrow's vote in the Congress on Nicaragua.

A week ago today, I returned from an important and dramatic visit to Moscow and Leningrad. Our delegation was bipartisan (Robert Michel, a Republican leader, was with me as a cochairman) and I carried with me a letter from the president to Mr. Gorbachev, the new general secretary of the Communist party.

I have returned with a strong determination that relations between our countries be improved. It is clear to me that the new Soviet chairman is tough, vigorous, and shrewd with a charisma, a Madison Avenue approach, a style you have never seen in the Communist and Russian leaders before. He proved to us in a meeting lasting almost four hours that he is a skilled advocate of his government's positions and will be a tough negotiator.

The key question for the United States is whether this change in leadership will lead to a change in relations between our two countries. Beginning with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Soviet-American relations have declined steadily. We are experiencing what one historian has called a "period of peril" in our relations, similar to the one that happened just after World War II.

These periods of high tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union are a cause of enormous concern. Our two nations are nuclear superpowers. We have the capability of destroying not only each other, but all of civilization.

For 40 years, we have been locked in an economic, ideological, technological, and strategic competition with the Soviet Union, a competition that has spanned every corner of the globe. The invasion of Afghanistan, the suppression of Solidarity in Poland and suppression of human rights in their own country, the shooting down of a Korean airliner, and the recent shooting of an American military officer, Major Arthur Nicholson, in Germany have worsened our view of Soviet policies and intentions.

Yet, fortunately for the world, the intense feelings between our two countries have not led to a direct military conflict. One of the reasons is that our two governments have maintained full diplomatic relations, consulted regularly, and concluded several important arms control treaties. I have returned from my trip to Russia convinced that, at the very least, we need to maintain these vital lines of communication.

I have come to appreciate something even more.

Too often in the past, we have reacted to Soviet behavior with sanctions, such as a grain embargo, that have hurt us almost as much as they have hurt the Soviets. We have to be tough in our dealings with them, but we haven't played it smart through the years and we should play it smart.

Recent Soviet behavior in Afghanistan, Poland, and internally has created major obstacles on the road to normal relations between our two countries. The road to smoother relations is a long, tough, and difficult one, but this much is clear: the farther we advance down that road the easier it will be to avoid war and to guard the peace.

My visit to the Soviet Union reminded me of the difference between the democratic and Communist countries. Here in the United States we have the opportunity to freely discuss our differences. We have the right to speak openly, to question national policy, and to propose alternatives.

Let me say a word about an area of national policy that is the source of major controversy at the present time. I refer, of course, to the administration's policy with regard to Central America.

In Congress, as you know, we have voted to give massive amounts of military and economic aid to the government of El Salvador. The purpose of this aid is to help that country build a united, democratic nation that is secure against aggression.

It is one thing to help a country like El Salvador that we support. It is another to aid in the overthrow of a government like Nicaragua that we do not support. Too many times in this century, the United States has tried to solve Latin American problems with the use of force. So-called "gunboat diplomacy" has gotten us nowhere; it has only earned us enemies in the Central American region.

Instead of acting to overthrow governments, we should be working with Latin nations attempting to build peace in the region. Our best bet in Central America is not gunboat diplomacy but smart diplomacy. We need to ally ourselves with the process that began at Contadora and base our policy on a firm foundation of regional cooperation.

The Contadora, of course, are the nations of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Mexico. I have talked, within the last month, to the various leaders of nations. About eight days ago I was in Spain. I met Gonzalez, the prime minister of Spain, there. Spain is a socialist monarchy. They have a parliament just like Canada and England. While they call themselves a socialist government, actually, they are a democracy. Gonzalez is one of the young leaders of the world. In his conversation with us, he said the policy of the United States government is wrong. The United States, instead of militarily funding the Contras, should be working for a compromise, and they should be working through the Contadora.

The president of Argentina recently addressed the Congress of the United States. In my private conversation with him, he said, "You should beef up the Contadora. You shouldn't be thwarting their will. You should give them the money to be able to organize. With their expertise, their culture, their language, their knowledge of the area, they can solve this problem for you. Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Spain would stand there as overseers to see if they can help in the prospect."

I have talked with Moi, the president of Kenya, and to the Taoiseach [Prime Minister] of Ireland. Whatever leaders of the nations that I talked to, they all tell us that the policy of the United States government is wrong. And I believe that we should go the Conta-dora route. If it fails, then it's time to look at some other matter. But first, we should try them.

I came here today to discuss a broader, philosophical debate on our country's future. It deals with the role of the government in American life, what we can and should do together to improve the chances of every American for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

I want to begin by doing what President Reagan does so often, quoting Franklin Roosevelt.

The year was 1942, in the dark early days of World War II. The Nazis controlled almost all of Europe. In Asia, the Japanese empire was at its zenith. Our country, having just entered the war, faced the terrible challenge of mobilizing a peacetime economy, still staggering from the Great Depression, into a war machine capable of stopping and beating the worst menace to mankind in history. Franklin Roosevelt never doubted what a united American people could accomplish.

"The most significant fact in recent American history," he said, "is the ability of the American people to face a tough situation and to take orderly and united action in their own behalf and in behalf of the things in which they believe."

Those are not merely the stirring words of a great leader. I testify, as an eyewitness, to what our American democracy can accomplish. I know, because I have witnessed it myself, in my own half century of public life. I have seen for myself, in my own lifetime, what America can achieve.

There are those who come to young people today and preach to them gloom and doom. They tell everything that is wrong with our political system and with our government. They tell you how great things were way back when, and how bad things are today.

Please don't believe that message. People who talk about the "good old days" have either forgotten about the past or never lived through it in the first place.

Let me take a moment to describe a country to you.

This country is a desperate place. Half the people live in poverty. Twenty-five percent of the work force is unemployed. Life is little better for those who are working. The policeman works 12 hours a day 84 hours a week. The fireman is on duty even longer 108 hours a week. The postman delivers mail six days a week, even on Christmas Day. For most, the work week is six days long. The only time workers have for themselves and their families is on Sunday. If you become sick, your world collapses. For most people, health insurance is out of the question.

Life for the elderly is filled with uncertainty, dependency, and horror. When you get old, you are without income, without hope. Only the lucky few, about ten percent of the nation, have pensions. Society security does not exist, and only three percent have health insurance.

In the country I describe there is only the very rich at the top and millions of poor at the bottom with huge and terrible distance between. There is a handful in the middle class. Only a small elite, just three percent, go to college, if you were lucky enough to have been to high school.

This land I describe is not some third world nation in Africa. It is the United States of America, the America of the 1930s, the America I knew when I first entered public life.

When I look at the problems we face today, I never forget how far we have come in a half century. By the 1970s, we had cut poverty in this country from 50 percent, where it was in the 1930s, to just 11 percent in 1979.

The America of the 1980s is no longer a nation with a small upper class and giant lower class. In America today there is a broad middle class. Sixty-five percent of our young men and women are able to go on to college. Ninety-nine percent of our workers have some form of health insurance. Social security has made it possible for people to retire with a minimal, steady income, not to have to live in fear and dependency. Without such protection, half of those people now living on social security would be living in poverty.

This massive improvement in American life did not come about by accident. It happened because, in F.D.R.'s words, our people faced up to a tough situation and took united action in behalf of the things they believed in. It resulted from national policies that stimulated the development in energy, housing, transportation, and every other sector of the economy. Economic growth came about, most of all, because government at every level was willing to invest in the most vital of all national resources, the individual human mind.

We did these things . . . the Congress of the United States, the presidents along the line . . . because in a democracy, you prescribe to the will and the wishes of the majority of the people.

These achievements in economic and social progress were not the work of just one political party alone.

America survived the dust bowl of the 1930s because of the grace of God and because the American farmer developed the know-how to take agriculture to the level of a science in this country.

Our agriculture is the wonder and salvation of the world because of universities like Kansas State, established more than a century ago through the inspiration of the greatest of all Republican presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

It was Franklin Roosevelt who saw the calamity that old age could be and founded social security. It was FDR again who sent a group to study those who were overseas fighting. They came back saying that the greatest desire was an education. The Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights that gave so many of your parents and grandparents the chance to go to college and that helped create the great American middle class we have today. Education has been the greatest asset that this nation has.

It was President Dwight Eisenhower of Abilene, Kansas who oversaw construction of our great interstate highway system that has helped to open up the heartland of American to economic progress and development. It was this same Republican president who signed the National Defense Education Act, which offered so many deserving young Americans the opportunity to go to college and which established education as a vital element in our nation's strength and security.

The social progress of the past 50 years has improved working conditions, provided health protection through Medicare, and provided secure retirements through social security. At the same time, our society has accepted a strong role in caring for those who cannot take care of themselves: the sick, the handicapped, the elderly. We have provided a safety net for those who need protection, who cannot, for whatever reason, fend for themselves.

Such achievements are rarely recognized today. Whenever I meet with a group of successful business people, someone always stands up and says we would be much better off without government. For such persons, I have a very simple question: Who paid for your college education? Was it a state government that helped pay for a state university? Was it a community college or a city university? Or was it the GI bill that financed your education or was it a government-sponsored loan?

Then, I have another question for them: If they, the "success stories" of this country, needed a helping hand up the ladder of success, why should we not try and give the same help to those young people who are trying to get ahead today? If government could offer opportunities to young people back in the 1950s and 1960s, why should we deny that same help to young people in the 1980s?

I believe it is wrong for someone who has found his way up the economic and social ladder to pull that ladder up behind him, to deny those who are at the bottom the chance to pull themselves up. No society can exist on a public philosophy of I GOT MINE; FORGET THE OTHERS.

We Americans believe in fair play. As citizens of this country we accept the duties as well as the privileges of a democratic society. Just as parents must take care of their children when the children are young, so must children ensure the livelihood of their parents when they grow old. That is the basis of modern society and of civilization itself.

Too often we hear politicians and journalists demean the role of government enterprise and tell us what we cannot accomplish. But those who argue that government cannot perform valuable services go against the history and against the grain of this great nation of ours.

America has worked, America has progressed, because we have combined our enterprise, both public and private, for the good of all. That is how we pulled our nation out of the Great Depression, won the second World War, released the power of the atom, and put Americans on the moon. That is how we built the fairest, free-est, most progressive society in the history of the world.

Much of our progress has been based not on the work of one party acting alone but through the building of a consensus between our two great political parties.

In the days after World War II, President Harry Truman launched the Marshall Plan which saved Europe and laid the foundation for the Western Alliance. He could not have done so without the aid of such Republicans as Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and Congressman Christian Herter of Massachusetts.

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower did not dismantle the New Deal, but accepted such advances as social security.

President Lyndon Johnson could never have signed the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s without the bipartisan support of Republican leader Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Many times in our history, one party has managed to learn from the other party.

For years, Democrats argued we should end the isolation of China and open up ties with the People's Republic. When a Republican president finally took this historic step, we Democrats applauded him.

For years, we Democrats have argued for a tax reform, that the system is wrong, for the need to make the system fairer. If President Reagan presents such a measure, we Democrats will be there to help.

For years, Republicans argued against the evils of big deficits. They convinced many Americans, including many Democrats, of the need for greater fiscal responsibility. Unfortunately for the country, some Republicans seem to have forgotten their own lesson along the way for the deficits keep growing.

Today, we face serious challenges.

Despite the economic recovery of the past two years, there are serious pockets of economic despair.

The poverty rate, which had declined dramatically by the 1970s, has risen since 1979 from 11 percent to 15 percent of our population. It is particularly high among younger Americans. A disturbing 25 percent of our children of preschool age are living below the poverty line.

Across much of America's industrial belt there is a rust bowl to rival the dust bowl of the 1930s. We need to rebuild American industry and to establish fair trade laws that give our industry a fair chance to compete in world markets.

Hundreds of thousands of American farm families face a terrible dilemma. They are caught in a tightening vice of high interest rates that drive up the cost of doing business and a high priced dollar that cuts their markets both here and abroad. While the administration remains opposed to our legislation to extend farm credits, I am hopeful that it will take some steps to cut interest rates and restore a reasonable price for the dollar.

Most of our problems relate to the budget. Our national debt has doubled since 1981. It will triple again by the end of this administration unless we take the tough steps that are needed. If President Reagan accepts tough reductions in Pentagon waste, we will be ready and prepared to find savings on the domestic side. Just as we reached agreement on revenue policy in 1982, and social security reform in 1983, we can achieve an agreement on budget and tax reform in 1985, and I predict that we will.

I cite these challenges not because they are insurmountable but because they can and will be overcome.

I began my public life in 1936 on a slogan of "work and wages." I remain convinced that our greatest goal is to give the average family the opportunity to earn an income, to own a home, to educate their children, to take care of the family in questions of health, to have time for recreation with them, and to have some security in their later years. That is still the American dream and it is still worth fighting for.

Today, there are those who argue that the way to achieve this dream is to go it alone, to forget about those less fortunate. This new morality says that the young should forget about the old, the healthy should ignore the sick, and the wealthy should forget the poor.

In America that is an alien philosophy; our country has never stood for that. We Americans believe in hard work, in getting ahead, but we also believe in looking out for the other fellow. That has been the tradition of America, from the early days when settlers got together for barn raisers. It continues today, as Americans, down to the youngest school child, chip in to help the starving in Africa. How pleased we are. That is the American way of life. Thanks to the know how of the American farmer and the generosity of our country itself, you here in the breadbasket of America are pursuing the work not only of man, but of God.

I have just come from a country, the Soviet Union, that recognizes neither the existence of God nor the rights of man. I have returned to a nation that has insisted from its earliest beginnings that the individual human being is of fundamental value; that the humblest, meekest person has the right to be treated with dignity and respect.

Our whole history has been a 200 year struggle to strengthen and enlarge the benefits of democratic freedom; to include women and minorities and young people into our electoral process; to protect the individual rights and welfare of all our citizens, to build social and economic opportunity for everyone. Looking back at a half century of public life, I have seen the greatness of this struggle and I have seen truth in the optimism of my friend Jack Kennedy.

"Our problems are manmade therefore, they can be solved by man. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable and we believe they can do it again."

With American ingenuity and American generosity, this, our nation under God, will not only survive our current challenges; it will prevail, it will flourish.

These are the views of man who, in the twilight of his career, as he steps out of public life and pulls down the shade, truly looks at America.

Thank you.

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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