REMARKS BY THE FIRST LADY
ELIE WIESEL HUMANITARIAN AWARDS,
NEW YORK CITY
April 14, 1994
|MRS. CLINTON: Thank you very much. I am
overwhelmed by this entire evening, and I am feeling not only
overwhelmed but quite unworthy in the face of all of the
words that have been said and all of the emotions behind
those words: the hopes that they carry, and the challenges
they face on the way to being fulfilled.
I was very honored when I received word that the
Foundation wished to bestow this award on me. And as I have
thought about being here with you this evening, I have had
many mixed feelings. I certainly looked forward to spending
the time that I've had the opportunity to do so with Elie and
Marian tonight, two people whom I admire.
I told Elie last night that as I was putting my
daughter to bed she asked me if I would be home tonight, and
I told her no, I would be in New York, and what I would be
doing. She immediately got out of bed and found her copy of
Night and gave it to me, and said, "You might want to reread
it on the way to New York."
I have been very moved and grateful for the kind
words that my friends Barbara Streisand and Carly Simon, two
women whom I am very grateful to for their friendship and
support -- and to all of you who made this dinner possible
and who support the work of this foundation.
It is important to stop on occasion, like we are
doing this evening, bringing together so many in this room
who represent the power of intellect, the power of money, the
power of politics, the power of academia, the power of
volunteers, and to spend some time thinking about the words
that moved us, the stories, and perhaps rekindling our own
commitment to doing what we can to take whatever action is
available to each of individually and through our communities
and our countries, to help children.
I was particularly honored that the prime minister
would be here. She is someone who is facing many challenges
in her country. And our country, and certainly the
President, are standing ready to help. But let's think for a
minute about where we are and what lies ahead of us if we
really expect that our children will inherit a world safer
and ready for the challenges that they face.
I was struck by the kinds of parallels between the
words of a young woman whose book you may have read, who has
so movingly described what it is like for a child today in
the world that is too often cruel and filled with war. She
wrote: boredom, shooting, shelling, people being killed,
despair, hunger, misery, fear, that's my life.
The life of an innocent 11-year-old girl, a
schoolgirl without a school, a child without games, without
friends, without the sun, without birds, without nature,
without fruit, without chocolate or sweets, with just a
little powdered milk, in short, a child without a childhood.
That young woman, Zlota Filopovich (phonetic), wrote those
words on June 29, 1992.
Fifty years earlier another child sounded the same
alarm with her own words, awakening us to the folly of
indifference and the terrible toll it takes on our young.
She wrote: "until all mankind, without exception, undergoes
a great change, everything will be destroyed and disfigured,
after which mankind will have to begin all over again."
Those were Anne Frank's words.
Those were the words of another child caught up in
another -- following another war. But they are the words
that you could hear throughout the decades, and that if we
listen we can hear today.
We can hear the cries of the children in Rwanda,
Burundi. We can hear the cries of the children in Brazilian
slums who are hunted by vigilantes and slaughtered at night,
children in Thailand who are involuntarily ensnared in rings
of prostitution and slavery, children in Somalia, starved and
diseased until they are as frail as match sticks, children in
Sarajevo, so numbed by violence that they no longer flinch at
the sounds of bombs in their streets. Unfortunately, the
persecution and the resulting fears of children knows no
Here in America, not far from where we are this
evening, in one of the great centers of learning and
education, there are children who do not flinch at the sounds
of gunfire themselves. Just this week the Carnegie
corporation issued an extensive report decrying the
conditions of millions of infants and children in our own
As unthinkable as it may seem, over the last 30
years conditions have actually worsened for American children
ages zero to three. Yes, we have made progress, and we can
point to it and take pride in it, but as Elie Wiesel has
reminded us often, our technological and scientific progress
has outpaced our progress as moral beings, and that is
certainly true when it comes to the treatment of our
We have machines that can detect tumors in the
brain for those who are able to access them, yet 60 percent
of American children are not immunized by the age of two. We
have the finest libraries in the world, like this magnificent
one, yet we have millions of our children who leave school at
an early age, or even graduate unable to read and write
adequately. We have the most elaborate and expensive system
of justice that has ever been invented, yet more and more
American children resolve their disputes not with words or
debate, but with guns.
So in the face of this it is very hard for me to
feel what I know I should feel, which is the joy of this
honor. I accept it, and I'm grateful for it, but it serves
in some ways as a rebuke, because I and many in this room
have worked for many years advocating changes that we thought
were needed to promote the well-being of children, and yet we
see so many unmet needs around us.
It is not enough that we sympathize with the plight
of children here and around the world. Sympathy is
important, but empathy is even more important, and action is
essential. We may not ever be able to comprehend the pain
and suffering that many children feel during their days and
nights, but we know what children need.
We know, because we try to give it to those
children in our families and the children that we have any
kind of relationship with. We know what produces healthy,
productive young people. We know it starts with making sure
that they have decent health care and conditions for living,
educational opportunities, the right combination of love and
discipline, and attention. We know what children need. We
lack the will to insure that every child has the opportunity
for those needs to be met.
As we are looking forward to the 21st century, a
century which, as was said earlier, in some ways started with
Sarajevo, and unfortunately seems to be ending there, two
bookends of folly and hatred, of irrationality, of spite --
ancient enmities overcoming the present and leading into the
future. We must do better, and we can start here at home by
resolving that in our own lives we will make more of a
commitment to the children whom we can touch.
Simple acts of kindness and understanding
accumulate. Those in business can ask themselves, how do I
help my workers not only be good workers but also good
parents? How do I provide opportunities to them to do that?
How do I extend the skills of the business community into the
larger community, and provide services and resources to
We've made some changes in the last year that will
bear fruit. Tomorrow is not a red-letter day in America.
It's tax day. But it is a red-letter day for 17 million
working American families whose taxes will go down because we
need to be sure that the people who are raising children in
their homes in America have incentives to stay off welfare,
to lift themselves out of poverty, to take care of their own
And yes, we are pushing a crime bill that will try
to restore sanity to our streets and our neighborhoods so
that children will be able to walk safely to school and play
in parks again. And we will do what we can to reform a
welfare system that has kept enslaved in dependency millions
of mothers and children. And we intend to provide a health
care system that will enable every child to have the kind of
basic health care that you and I take for granted and have
provided to our own children.
But beyond these programs and these changes, there
is something more at stake. It is not enough just to look to
the kinds of legislation or regulation, or business changes
that are needed. This is at bottom, a moral and ethical
concern. Our country has an opportunity again to recommit
itself to human rights around the world and here at home. To
once again make very clear that we are a great country
because we value the individual dignity of each person,
respect that person's rights, and provide opportunities for
those responsible and willing to take advantage of them.
So it is with great pleasure I come tonight, with
some trepidation that I accept this award, not feeling worthy
of it, but hoping it will spur my conscience and my
commitment, and also hoping that all of us will look into the
eyes of the children we see on the streets, those in our
schools, who are very different from us, come from very
different backgrounds, and know there's a spark of the
immortal in each of them, and that if we help to fan it we
will not only be giving life to children, we will be giving
life to ourselves and to the country we love. That's what I
hope all of us can commit ourselves to.
Thank you very much.
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