Skip to main content /transcript



President Bush Addresses Notre Dame's Graduating Class

Aired May 20, 2001 - 15:49   ET


DONNA KELLEY, CNN ANCHOR: We apologize; we are interrupting "WORLD BEAT" for you, because we want to bring you President Bush. He's at Notre Dame; he's giving the first commencement address of his presidency. He's going to call for a new battle against poverty. And he was awarded an honorary degree today, his sixth honorary degree, a doctor of law. Here's the president.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you all for that warm welcome, Chairman McArtin (ph), Father Scully (ph), Dr. Hatch (ph), Notre Dame trustees, members of the class of 2001.


It is a high privilege to receive this degree. I'm particularly pleased that it bears the great name of Notre Dame. My brother Jeb may be the Catholic in the family, but between us, I'm the only Domer.


I have spoken on this campus before. It was in 1980, the year my dad ran for vice president with Ronald Reagan. I think I really won over the crowd that day. In fact, I'm sure of it because all six of them walked me to my car.


That was back when Father Hesburgh was the president of this university during a tenure that in many ways defined the reputation and values of Notre Dame. And it's a real honor to be here with Father Hesburgh and with Father Joyce (ph). Between them, these two good priests have given nearly a century of service to Notre Dame. I'm told that Father Hesburgh now holds 146 honorary degrees.


That's pretty darn impressive, Father, but I'm gaining on you.


As of today, I'm only a 140 behind.


Let me congratulate all the members of the class of 2001. (APPLAUSE)

You made it, and we're all proud of you on this big day.

I also congratulate the parents who after these years are happy, proud and broke.



I commend this fine faculty for the years of work and instruction that produced this outstanding class.

And I'm pleased to join my fellow honorees as well. I'm in incredibly distinguished company with authors, executives, educators, church officials and eminent scientists.

We're sharing a memorable day and a great honor, and I congratulate you all.


Notre Dame, as a Catholic university, carries forward a great tradition of social teaching. It calls on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic, to honor family, to protect life in all its stages, to serve and uplift the poor.

This university is more than a community of scholars. It is a community of conscience and an ideal place to report on our nation's commitment to the poor and how we're keeping it.

In 1964, the year I started college, another president from Texas delivered a commencement address talking about this national commitment. In that speech, President Lyndon Johnson issued a challenge. He said: This is a time for decision. You are the generation which must decide. Will you decide to leave the future a society where a man is condemned to hopelessness because he was born poor? Or will you join to wipe out poverty in this land?

In that speech, Lyndon Johnson advocated a war on poverty which had noble intentions and some enduring successes. Poor families got basic health care. Disadvantaged children were given a head start in life.

Yet, there were also some consequences that no one wanted or intended. The welfare entitlement became an enemy of personal effort and responsibility, turning many recipients into dependents.

The war on poverty also turned too many citizens into bystanders convinced that compassion had become the work of government alone.

In 1996, welfare reform confronted the first of these problems with a five-year time limit on benefits and a work requirement to receive them. Instead of a way of life, welfare became an offer of temporary help, not an entitlement but a transition. Thanks in large part to this change, welfare rolls have been cut in half. Work and self respect have been returned to many lives. This is a tribute to Democrats and Republicans who agreed on reform and to the president who signed it, President Bill Clinton.


Our nation has confronted welfare dependency, but our work is only half done. Now we must confront the second problem -- to revive the spirit of citizenship, to marshal the compassion of our people to meet the continuing needs of our nation. This is a challenge to my administration and each one of you.

We must meet that challenge because it is right and because it is urgent.

Welfare as we knew it has ended but poverty has not. When over 12 million children live below the poverty line, we are not a post- poverty America. Most states are seeing the first wave of welfare recipients who have reached the law's five-year time limit. The easy cases have already left the welfare roles.

The hardest problems remain: People with far fewer skills and greater barriers to work. People with complex human problems like illiteracy and addiction, abuse and mental illness. We do not yet know what will happen to these men and women or to their children. But we cannot sit and watch, leaving them to their own struggles and their own fate.

This is a great deal at stake. In our attitudes and our actions we are determining the character of our country. When poverty is considered hopeless, America is condemned to permanent social division, becoming a nation of caste and class, divided by fences and gates and guards.

Our task is clear, and it's difficult. We must build our country's unity by extending our country's blessings. We make that commitment because we're Americans. Aspiration is the essence of our country. We believe in social mobility, not social Darwinism. We are the country of the second chance where failure is never final. And that dream has sometimes been deferred. It must never be abandoned.

We are committed to compassion for practical reasons. When men and women are lost to themselves, they are also lost to our nation. When millions are hopeless, all of us are diminished by the loss of their gifts.

And we're committed to compassion for moral reasons. Jewish prophets and Catholic teaching both speak of God's special concern for the poor. This is perhaps the most radical teaching of faith that the value of life is not contingent on wealth or strength or skill, that value is a reflection of God's image.

Much of today's poverty has more to do with troubled lives than a troubled economy. And often when a life is broken, it can only be restored by another caring, concerned human being. The answer for an abandoned child is not a job requirement, it is the loving presence of a mentor. The answer to addiction is not a demand for self sufficiency, it is the personal support on the hard road to recovery.

The hope we seek is found in safe havens for battered women and children in homeless shelters and crisis pregnancy centers, in programs that tutor and conduct job training and help young people who may happen to be on parole.

All these efforts provide not just the benefit but attention and kindness, a touch of courtesy, a dose of grace.

Mother Teresa said that what the poor often need, even more than shelter and food, though these are desperately needed as well, is to be wanted. And that sense of belonging is within the power of each of us to provide.

Many in this community have shown what compassion can accomplish. Notre Dame's own Lou Nanny (ph) is the former director of South Bend Center for the Homeless, an institution founded by two Notre Dame professors. It provides guests with everything from drug treatment to mental health services to classes in the great books to pre-school for young children.

Discipline is tough. Faith is encouraged, not required. Student volunteers are committed and consistent and central to its mission.

Lou Nanny (ph) describes its mission as repairing the fabric of society by letting people see the inherent worth and dignity and God- given potential of every human being.

Compassion often works best on a small and human scale. It is generally better when a call for help is local, not long distance. Here at this university you've heard that call and responded. It is part of what makes Notre Dame a great university.

This is my message today. There is no great society which is not a caring society, and any effective war on poverty must deploy what Dorothy Day called the weapons of spirit. There's only one problem with groups like South Bend Center for the Homeless: They're aren't enough of them.

It's not sufficient to praise charities and community groups. We must support them, and this is both a public obligation and a personal responsibility.

The war on poverty established a federal commitment to the poor. The welfare reform legislation of 1996 made that commitment more effective. For the task ahead, we must move to the third stage of combating poverty in America. Our society must enlist, equip and empower idealistic Americans in the works of compassion that only they can provide.

Government has an important role. We will never be replaced by charities. My administration increases funding for major social welfare and poverty programs by 8 percent. Yet government must also do more to take the side of charities and community healers and support their work.

We've had enough of the stale debate between big government and indifferent government.

Government must be active enough to fund services for the poor and humble enough to let good people in local communities provide those services.

So, I've created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.


Through that office we are working to ensure that local community helpers and healers receive more federal dollars, greater private support and face fewer bureaucratic barriers. We have proposed a compassion capital fund that will match private giving with federal dollars.


We have proposed allowing all taxpayers to deduct their charitable contributions, including non-itemizers.


This could encourage almost $15 billion a year in new charitable giving.

My attitude is, everyone in America, whether they are well off or not, should have the same incentive and reward for giving.

And we're in the process of implementing and expanding charitable choice, the principle already established in federal law that faith- based organizations should not suffer discrimination when they compete for contracts to provide social services.


Government should never fund the teaching of faith, but it should support the good works of the faithful.


Some critics of this approach object to the idea of government funding going to any group motivated by faith. But they should take a look around them. Public money already goes to groups like The Center for the Homeless and, on a larger scale, to Catholic Charities. Do the critics really want to cut them off? Medicaid and Medicare money currently goes to religious hospitals. Should this practice be ended? Child care vouchers for low-income families are redeemed every day at houses of worship across America. Should this be prevented? Government loans send countless students to religious colleges. Should this be banned? Of course not. (APPLAUSE)

America has a long tradition of accommodating and encouraging religious institutions when they pursue public goals.

My administration did not create that tradition, but we will expand it to confront some urgent problems.

Today I'm adding two initiates to our agenda in the areas of housing and drug treatment. Owning a home is a source of dignity for families and stability for communities. And organizations like Habitat for Humanity make that dream possible for many low-income Americans.

Groups of this type currently receive some funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The budget I submit to Congress next year will propose a three-fold increase in this funding, which will expand home ownership and the hope and pride that come with it.


And nothing is more likely to perpetuate poverty than a life enslaved to drugs. So we propose $1.6 billion in new funds to close what I call the treatment gap -- the gap between the five million Americans who need drug treatment and the two million who currently receive it.

We will also propose that all these funds, all of them, be open to equal competition from faith-based and community groups.

The federal government should do all these things, but others have responsibilities as well, including corporate America. Many corporations in America do good work and good causes, but if we hope to substantially reduce poverty and suffering in our country, corporate America needs to give more and to give better.


Faith-based organizations receive only a tiny percentage of overall corporate giving. Currently six of the 10 largest corporate givers in America explicitly rule out or restrict donations to faith- based groups regardless of their effectiveness.

The federal government will not discriminate against faith-based organizations and neither should corporate America.


In the same spirit, I hope America's foundations consider ways they may devote more of their money to our nation's neighborhood and their helpers and their healers. I will convene a summit this fall asking corporate and philanthropic leaders throughout America to join me at the White House to discuss ways they can provide more support to community organizations, both secular and religious. Ultimately, your country is counting on each of you. Knute Rockne once said, "I have found that prayers work best when you have big players."



We can pray for the justice of our country, but you're the big players we need to achieve it. Government can promote compassion. Corporations and foundations can fund it, but the citizens -- it's the citizens who provide it.

A determined assault on poverty will require both an active government and active citizens. There's more to citizenship than voting, though I urge you to do it. There's more to citizenship than paying your taxes, though I'd strongly advise you pay them.


Citizenship is empty without concern for our fellow citizens, without the ties that bind us to one another and build a common good. If you already realize this and you're acting on it, I thank you.

If you haven't thought about it, I leave you with this challenge: Serve a neighbor in need, because a life of service is a life of significance.

Because materialism ultimately is boring, and consumerism can build a prison of loss. Because a person who is not responsible for others is a person who is truly alone. Because there are few better ways to express our love for America than to care for other Americans. And because the same God who endows us with individual rights also calls us to social obligations.

So let me return to Lyndon Johnson's charge: You're the generation that must decide. Will you ratify poverty and division with your apathy? Or will you build a common good with your idealism? Will you be a spectator in the renewal of your country, or a citizen?

The methods of the past may have been flawed, but the idealism of the past was not an illusion. Your calling is not easy, because you must do the acting and the caring. But there is fulfillment in that sacrifice which creates hope for the rest of us. Every life you help proves that every life might be helped. The actual proves the possible, and hope is always the beginning of change.

Thank you for having me, and God bless.


KELLEY: At Notre Dame, President Bush, with his first commencement address of his presidency, talking about a new battle against poverty: compassion, concern and caring about your fellow citizens. He talked about government having an important role, but how important it is for people to get involved in caring for each other and doing something to help each other.

He even talked about President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, and he quoted him saying: "Will you decide to leave the future to a society where a man is condemned to hopelessness because he was born poor, or will you join to wipe out poverty in this land?" He talked about the 1996 welfare reform, and how over 12 million children are still living below the poverty line, and that most states are seeing that first wave of those folks who have the five-year limit on welfare benefits.

Our Kelly Wallace is traveling with the president, and she is here joining us. Hi, Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, hi there, Donna. The White House is billing this as one of the major addresses of Mr. Bush's presidency so far. You heard him do a number of things, returning to his compassionate conservatism, a theme we heard him talk about a great deal during the presidential campaign.

The president talking about marshaling the compassion of Americans to, in his words, take on the next step in this war on poverty, and then, Donna, you heard him saying he believes the solution to this next fight in the war on poverty is his faith-based agenda. The president talking about his initiative, which includes some controversial ones, allowing religious charities to compete with other groups for federal dollars to provide programs to help deal with some of society's biggest problems, such as helping move people off the welfare rolls, such as helping people cure their drug problems.

Again, this is a very controversial initiative. Some people believe it blurs the separation between church and state. Even, Donna, some religious conservatives, some right-wing members of the president's own party are very concerned about having federal money go to religion, concerned about what impact that will have. Also concerned that some rather questionable or controversial religions, such us Scientology, could get some federal funding through the president's plan.

One other note, Donna: some politics here, the president speaking to a leading Catholic university here at Notre Dame, and the White House has made it very clear that it is definitely trying to reach out to Catholic voters. Analysts viewing Catholic voters as a key voting block when it comes to the next election in 2004 -- Donna.

KELLEY: Kelly, the president kind of addressed some of his criticisms too on his faith-based programs. He said that there are already some programs in place, and why would you get rid of those, and that these would be kind of an expansion on that?

WALLACE: That was interesting. And that really, I believe, was the first time we heard the president go into such great depth about these other programs. He noted Catholic charities, he noted, I believe, a center on homelessness. He said that these programs already receive public money, would you want to go ahead and take that money away? So, the president trying to speak out to his critics, but there is -- there are definitely still some concerns about how you would do it. If you have a religious charity, how do you make sure that there is no funding for actual religion going on, making sure that that money is just going to the social programs.

So definitely, some questions. No real legislation right now, Donna, the White House developing some recommendations to send to Capitol Hill. Not likely to see any legislation for this exact part of the president's plan probably until the fall -- Donna.

KELLEY: All right, at Notre Dame there with the president, Kelly Wallace. Thanks very much.

And the president does travel later today to Yale University, which is his alma mater, and he will give the address to the graduation ceremonies there tomorrow.



Back to the top