Presidential Radio Address - 12 February 1994
Good morning. Twenty-six days ago the people of Los Angeles suffered a devastating earthquake. Sixty-one people died; thousands of homes were destroyed; thousands of people were hospitalized. Highways were broken and twisted by the violent movement of the earth.
Because of the extent of the damage, I have just approved $8.6 billion in emergency disaster assistance for the people of California to help them rebuild roads and other public structures, to fix gas lines, provide small business loans, and help pay the expenses of people who have lost their homes. Many have lost everything. With $900 million in aid already on the way, the total payment nears $10 billion, the largest Federal disaster assistance ever. Our country's mission, as it is after every national disaster, is to help our people recover from this tragedy and to get on with the business of everyday life. Across much of our country, everyday life has been interrupted by heavy snow and harsh winter cold. So please take care of yourselves and your neighbors who may need help.
When we respond to others in need, we show that bad weather or earthquakes or floods can bring out, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, "the better angels of our nature." By the way, Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky 185 years ago today. He became President just as our country was coming apart, and he lived in the White House during the 4 most troubled years in American history. From here he appealed to the best in the American people when they were going through their worst. Here his hand trembled as he set his pen to the proclamation that declared slaves thenceforth and forever free. In freeing the slaves, Lincoln freed America. A war to preserve the Union as it was became a struggle to redeem the promise of our Declaration of Independence, which holds that all men are created equal.
Lincoln went to Gettysburg, the bloodiest battlefield on our continent, to dedicate a cemetery for the war dead. There he asked America to "... resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this Nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth." We call Lincoln the Great Emancipator, but we might also call him the Great Conciliator because no person in our history ever did more to bring us together, this vast nation of great diversity, of many political and religious beliefs and all its ethnic backgrounds.
As the Civil War neared its close, many of the victors approached the vanquished with pride and with punishment. But Lincoln called for humility and forgiveness. His second Inaugural Address contained none of the bitterness toward others, none of the petty partisan attacks that had grown so frequent in those days. "With malice toward none; with charity for all," he said, "with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up that Nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations." At that moment, it was as if Lincoln had stretched out his long arms to gather up the people from every region and every corner of the country to make our Nation whole, to shepherd it beyond the war and move it forward. Only one month later, he was gone, his life taken on Good Friday, 1865.
Lincoln's legacy has touched us all down through the ages. Few now remember that he signed the homestead law giving 160 acres of land to pioneer families in search of better lives. A son of a frontier family himself, he signed a law to create land-grant colleges, which have educated America's sons and daughters ever since. Lincoln's work allowed people from ordinary backgrounds like his own to rise in life and accomplish extraordinary things. Today that work goes on. Our job here is to build up and strengthen the great American middle class, to give opportunity to all, to help our communities rid themselves from crime and drugs, to help families protect themselves from bankruptcy due to spiraling health care costs, to move people away from lifetime welfare toward full-time work, and to allow everyone who works hard to get ahead and compete and win in the new global economy.
Still the question recurs, can we do better? Just as Lincoln asked us when he said, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew."
"Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history," he said. "We ... will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. ... We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. ... We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of Earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless." Those words from Abraham Lincoln should guide our path today.
Thanks for listening, and may God bless us all.