Transcript of Attorney General John Ashcroft
National Youth Summit June 27, 2002
Well, thank you very much. Pleasure to be here today. And I've never seen as many FFA members and 4-H'ers in one room before in my life.
Someone said, "Are you the last speech?" I said, "I'm sure they hope so." It's a little bit like the fellow who was asked, "Have you lived here all your life?" And the guy said, "I hope not."
But I'm delighted to be here. I want to say a special thank you to Tommy Thompson. He's a great, great national leader. He was a tremendous governor. It's an honor to serve with him. Also, thank you to Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, and of course, Congressman Burr. Dr. Wade Horn, thank you for caring about fathers and parenting.
Thanks also to Harry Wilson, who's the associate commissioner for the Family and Youth Services Bureau, which is staging today's summit. What a tremendous service this is to America.
All of you have done wonderful work as advocates for children, families and communities. And your contributions are both vital and valuable, and I'm grateful.
Thank you for mentioning the history of the Attorney General's Office. The Attorney General's responsibility is the responsibility of safeguarding the liberty and freedom and the environment in which people flourish.
When you look at the first Cabinet of the United States of America, George Washington assembled the Secretary of State to deal with foreign nations. A Secretary of War -- doesn't really take a rocket scientist to know what his job was, just to wage war. We call it the secretary of defense now. The Secretary of the Treasury to gather the resources. And an Attorney General. It's no wonder that the responsibility to safeguard the environment of human rights and civil rights and freedom and the human dignity of individual citizens has fallen into the responsibility and into the confines of the Attorney General's Office.
And make no mistake about it, America is not a country that is better than other countries because we are better than other people. We are not better than other people, just look around this room. You'll find out, we are other people. We have come from every corner of the globe. It's not because we are better, it's because we happen to live in a culture that respects the human dignity of every person and the rights of every person. It's a culture that is invested in safeguarding those rights.
There was 160, 150 or so years ago – maybe a little less -- a woman named Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem that graces the base of the Statute of Liberty. Some of you have learned it, some of you will learn it. It's beautiful poetry - all of it was called "The New Colossus." Just four lines or so are on the base of the statue.
You remember the words: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teaming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
The profound insight of Emma Lazarus was not that she understood the value of freedom; she understood it more completely than any others that I know. You see, she doesn't say give me your top 10 percent. She doesn't say give me the honor roll. She doesn't say if you didn't go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton, you need not apply.
She said that freedom is so powerful that the culture of the United States – which respects the human dignity and the civil liberties and the responsibility and the equality of men and women, boys and girls, people from every corner of the globe – she said that's so powerful that it doesn't matter whether you send us your best or your worst. That the, sort of, the energy of freedom, is so important that send us the wretched refuse of your teaming shore. That's good enough that we'll be able to make it and it'll work well.
What a tremendous sort of testimony that is to what America is as a community, and that's why it's so important that we respect those values and we continue to support them.
And so, as you look toward your responsibilities of leadership, let me say to you that I thank you for being willing to invest in yourself and making a commitment to leadership. Make no mistake about it, you are a leader. As a matter of fact, almost everyone in the world is the most important leader to someone else. The president's a very important leader, but to my children, I'm probably a more important leader than even the president. And there are people who look to you for leadership.
And so, it's important for us to think about the values that we can project so that we continue to foster this climate of human achievement that we find in this community called America.
The greatest responsibility of a society, in my judgment, is the transmission of values from one generation to the next.
GK Chesterton defined education as the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to the other. And that's what we're really here to talk about, being leaders and teachers of the new generations and those that follow in the United States of America.
Often it seems as though there's a great divide between older and younger people. Young people sometimes view older generations as inaccessible. Too often older generations tend to preface the word "youth" with the word "rebellious."
But the success of our younger generations will depend in large part upon the commitment and the attitude of both older and younger generations in developing relationships. And I think when we look at young people in America, we need to look at young people as the future. It's been said rather profoundly that children are 25 percent of the society but they're 100 percent of the future.
So we need to look carefully and think carefully. And instead of allowing gaps to intervene between us, we need to build bridges to make sure that we do that job of transmitting the values and capacities and the respect for this community we have called America, which will allow us to endure and prosper, and allow us, as well, to be that upheld lamp beside the golden door of opportunity.
Part of our responsibility as adults, whether we're parents, teachers or leaders, is to recognize that in everything we do, we teach. We don't do things that are neutral, but our actions perhaps do shout louder than our words. When we sacrifice for other people, for our communities, for our beliefs, we teach young people that there are more important things than we are.
And I shouldn't limit that by saying we teach young people. I can't tell you how many good things I have learned from people vastly younger than I am.
The most important thing my father ever taught me -- and thank you for making reference to the fact of my father, who was an outstanding person. I've often said this, that the most important thing my father ever taught me was that there were more important things than me. He taught me that there were things so important that I could give my life to, that the well-being of our communities was so important that it was something worthy of sacrifice.
Just as our parents and teachers and mentors have paved the way to our success, we must in turn work to make sure that those who follow us are on the same path that respects the human dignity and decency and values, the equality and liberty and freedom that provide a basis for human achievement.
There are lots of ways for us to do this. Mentoring, for example, has proven to be one of the most effective ways for older generations to impact the lives of younger generations. At the Department of Justice, our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has lead the effort to establish and support mentoring programs. And we've heard countless stories of young people whose lives have been changed forever by their relationship with mentors.
Let me hasten to add that because there is mentoring that takes place related to governmental programs, you should never assume that the most important mentoring or that mentoring somehow has been preempted by government. The most important mentoring takes place in a variety of other settings, but what we do is important.
I think of Frances Drake as one of the success stories of mentoring. She grew up with a father in prison and a mother addicted to drugs. By the age of 13, Frances had adapted to that lifestyle, adopted those values. She was a gang member, a drug user and a habitual runaway. She put it this way, "It was all I knew." And then she went on to say, "But by about 15, I started wondering if there wasn't something better I could do with my life."
And then Frances connected with Carolyn Demme, a community services officer for the Clarke County Gang Task Force in Vancouver. Carolyn saw her potential and refused to give up on her. Over time, Frances learned to trust Carolyn and managed to turn her life around. She returned to high school. Now volunteers at a 911 center and works part-time.
Frances says her success is a result of her relationship with her mentor and describes her new beginning in life as this kind of response to the fact that someone cared enough to be a mentor and a teacher.
She put it this way, and I'm quoting, "The side of life I never got to see," that's a new beginning. I'm continuing to quote now, "I'm finding out that I'm smart, that I can do things. Before I just figured I'd wind up in jail. Now I've got a plan for my life."
I'm so glad to see so many of you in this audience. Today I've been talking a lot about the responsibility that the older generations bear, but I want to remind you that part of the responsibility rests with the young.
You're living in a unique moment in history. No one can deny the fact that our times are times of difference and challenge. But America has come together united in a desire to serve, to protect this country. Out of the ashes of September 11th, there has emerged a new spirit of service and of community.
As a nation, we watched the heroic efforts of rescue workers, police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, countless other volunteers. All of these men and women put aside their personal well-being, willing risk their lives, put aside their personal lives because they gave up their lives for a devotion to their jobs, worked beyond fatigue in order to help heal their broken communities.
But we must not forget that communities all across America have needs, some not quite as dramatically displayed as those on September 11th. And no need is too small or is so unimportant as to not be a call to those of us who wish to have real meaning and to share our lives.
Every adult who reaches out to you will have a lasting impact on your life, and you will have a lasting impact on the life of those to whom you reach out.
President Bush has asked that all of us to, as citizens of this great land, understand the wonderful opportunity that comes in public service. He wants all of us to give a significant contribution to our country; thousands of hours over the course of our lifetimes, in order to make sure that we understand the value that comes even to us from serving.
Many of our soldiers who are on the front lines of battle overseas. Sometimes we think of how tough we have it. I'm always reminded of the fact that there are those who are sacrificing in ways that far exceed any sacrifice I'm called on to make.
As young people, you can be on the front lines here at home to strengthen and serve our community, our community of America and the various communities from which we come. Every contribution, no matter how small, will make a difference.
Tomorrow you'll hear from Bob Flores, the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Bob will explain how government can work with the private sector to address the current and future needs of our nation's youth. Our goal is for the approaches modeled here by participants in this youth summit to be implemented, replicated, copied in communities all across America.
Well, at the risk of losing my credibility with the young people in this audience, I'll conclude today by mentioning that last month I managed to struggle through my 60th birthday. I began the seventh decade of my life. I've now lived long enough to know that there is nothing more important in life than relationships, than friendships. And the most important friendship is the friendship that teaches; the friend who enriches the life of another, who helps a fellow human being understand that our mistakes are really opportunities to learn, that our successes are opportunities to move forward to even greater successes.
Now, let me make sure that you understand at least my feeling about friends. They are not the people who ask the least of you. They may be the people who ask the most of you, who help you reach the maximum of your potential. But when they call upon you for greatness, they do so in the context of support and in the context of love and in the context of contribution. That's the definition of a friend.
In Washington, this week, there's a special friend who, out of a special act of friendship, sought to make sure that her friend could reach the maximum of his potential. I have the privilege of going to church with this woman, named Bonnie Dukes. Bonnie's a teacher. One of her students suffered from kidney failure, and he was in need of a transplant. So Bonnie, his teacher, stepped forward and said, "He's not just somebody else. He's one of my students, a fantastic kid who has the rest of his life to live."
Bonnie didn't think of herself. She thought of what she could give. She could offer her student and her friend a real opportunity to make a contribution on his own. She said, "What I'm doing could affect my life, but I've lived a good life. I have no regrets. And if I could give that opportunity to him, because he has so much time ahead of him, that's what I'll do." She stepped forward last March to make that offer, and this week she followed her offer into the hospital for purposes of sharing a kidney with a student.
Each of us has the opportunity to share the resources we have with those around us who are in need. And that's the kind of inspiration that almost is hard to hear about.
I come from the state of Missouri, and Mark Twain was raised in Missouri, the home town of Larry Thompson, the Deputy Attorney General, Hannibal, Missouri. And he put it this way, "There's nothing so embarrassing as a good example."
Sometimes people step forward and they do things that are so compelling by virtue of their devotion, dedication and emotion, that they make the rest of us ask serious questions about the extent to which we are willing to help other people and we're willing to make the contribution that's called for in this great country, which offers opportunity and responsibility, yes, and duty and equality and liberty to every citizen on an equal basis.
We do have the responsibility, in Chesterton's words, to pass the soul of our society on to a new generation.
We can teach by saying and we can teach by reading, but we will teach best by doing. As young people, we need for you to understand that the friendship you receive from a caring adult is one that you can pass on to others. It will not only enrich you, but it will confer upon you a responsibility as well. The friendships you extend to each other should energize you to be of greater service. The legacy that all of us inherit is the hope for future generations.
So hold this legacy of service and leadership high, and bear it gratefully. Cherish your education, your friendships, your freedom. Understand that this context of freedom and this framework of opportunity that we take lightly too frequently and that we call America is a precious set of responsibilities, unique, to be cherished, and to be nourished. It is a gift given to us for the purpose of giving it to others. That's not only a duty and a responsibility, it's an opportunity for which we should be thankful.
Thank you very much. God bless you and God bless America.