Empower Cities to Solve Problems, Clinton Says Urban Areas Are the Economic and Cultural Lifeblood of the Nation, President Declares in Interview
Here are excerpts of President Bill Clinton's interview with members of the Post-Dispatch editorial staff on Friday afternoon:
Q.: IF THERE'S one thing that you might say as a result of this that you could leave behind for the cities, what would it be?
Clinton: A legacy of commitment to their economic revitalization and to empowering them to solve their social problems. Obviously it is not an easy thing to do. The economic issue is made more difficult by the size of the federal deficit which we are trying to address, and I'll come back to that.
The social problems are just because they've been a generation in building. You can't turn them around overnight. If I might, I think that I made a decision which I think was the right decision. The first thing I had to do was get the overall health of the American economy back in order. And to try to concentrate on revitalizing some of our most basic parts of our economy.
We now know that we're going to have three years of deficit reduction, baring some totally unforeseen development, in a row for the first time since Truman was president. Our job growth is proceeding along quite well.
. . .In terms of other economic initiatives, I have done everything I could working with the Congress to make the cities more attractive as places for investment with the empowerment zone legislation, and we'll have the first empowerment zones designated in the not too distant future. As you know, St. Louis has entered an application and they've worked very hard on it here. The mayor talked to me about it today.
What I'm hoping will happen is that the quality and the number of those applications will be so great that it will persuade the Congress that we have to increase the number of them. . . . We also have tried to strengthen the Community Reinvestment Act, the community development banks, and increase the availability of educational training . . .
Dealing with the social problems, we've increased Head Start, we've increased investment in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, we've passed the unearned income tax credit, which will make work more attractive than welfare and reward low-wage workers.
We're working on health care, welfare reform, and the crime bill makes it a large amount of money - about $8 billion - for prevention programs which will overwhelmingly flow into the urban areas. We'll try to help deal with a lot of the problems that afflict our young people and I think all these things will be quite helpful. So I think we're moving in the right direction.
. . . The cities still are in many ways the economic and cultural life blood of our country. They also have most of our diversity which will either be the source of our undoing or our secret to continued prosperity in the 21st century, depending on how we handle it. Another reason I've been so concerned by the attempt to sort of transform our politics from the debate over how to make the most of our potential and how to get this country together and who can most successfully divide the American people based on cultural or racial or ethnic lines.
Q.: You spoke of wanting to revitalize the cities. When you say that, would your policy be aimed at restoring the cities to what they were, say, in the 1950s, or do you perceive some different economic role for cities in the context of metropolitan areas?
Clinton: I think the cities will be different from what they were in the 1950s. First of all, the country is simply much more diverse than it was then. But what I want to do is try to find a way for the cities to be places where there will be beacons of opportunity. Our urban areas have always had a significant number of our poor people, particularly new Americans. But they have also been viewed traditionally as beacons of opportunity. I want to make sure that we can restore the conditions of civilized life and strong communities to our cities, and I want people who live in our cities to have a sense that they all matter and that their problems can be solved.
You've really got sort of a dual life in cities now, maybe even more than ever before, because of the nature of economic power being rooted in finance and information, communications. Urban areas have a disproportionate amount of economic power, but it's also where a lot of the underinvestment, the disinvestments, currently a lot of the breakdown of family and community and the disappearance of workers, and we have to try to build on our strengths and at the same time attack those weaknesses.
Q.: What do you propose to do to reverse the flight of the middle class out of the cities back into the cities?
Clinton: I think in large measure a lot of that will have to be done city by city. But what I want to do is help give cities the tools to do it. I think making cities safer is one big thing that has to be done. I think having the cities with functional educational institutions is very important. It hasn't gotten a great deal of notice this year because of so much controversy that is still being debated in Washington on the crime bill, health care and other things, but we passed some very important education legislation this year. So I think we'll help out the school systems over time with the School 2000 bill and the School to Work bill in particular. But I think also, again, a lot of these things have to be done on a city by city basis but the federal government can help.
HUD is, for example, trying to work with cities to help them do diversified housing, not just housing for poor people here and housing for wealthy people here and nothing for middle class people. One of the reasons that we spend a lot of time working with the Chicago Housing Authority, for example, is that Vince Lane is the board chairman up there and I have been acquaintances and good friends for the last several years and I've seen a determined effort there to set aside housing for middle-class people.
. . . I think how you do this depends on what the facts are in each city and what your options are. But I think the federal government's responsibility is to try to provide both an overall healthy economy and then whatever specific strategies are needed so that we can help empower the cities to do these things.
Q.: One thing that worked very well here in St. Louis was the Historic Tax credit . . .
Is there a chance for that coming back?
Clinton: I hesitate to say yes outright because I don't want to prejudge the next year's budget. In other words, I was determined to get through these two budgets with a real nail in the deficit and I think we've done a good job of that. But I believe I'm not and never have been someone who believes that tax incentives make no difference. I think they do make a difference and I think the Historic Preservation tax credit was a very good thing for urban America. . . . So I think it's something that needs to be looked at. I can't make a commitment now because I don't know what the numbers are going to be then but I've always believed that it worked and that it's a good thing.
Q.: Do you think city-county desegregation programs hurt the cities in the sense that they take people out of the neighborhoods where they are needed?
Clinton: I think in some places that is probably true. I think in other places it is not. That's one of the reasons we never made educational policy totally at the national level and why it's also difficult to make educational policy in a court.
What you want is to have are functioning, vibrant schools where children learn at international standards. We know that to make that work, you have to have a high level of parental involvement, and the distance from school has something to do with that level of involvement. On the other hand, we also know that there are a lot of isolated inner-city schools where all the kids live fairly close to where they go to school and they don't have any athletic equipment, they don't have any extracurricular activities, they don't have a functioning music department, they don't have up-to-date textbooks and high levels of learning are not occurring.
The people of St. Louis should take a searching look at the facts and they should ask themselves what are the alternatives. I think integrated education is important. I think it matters to people to grow up in a diversified community, to grow up and go to school with people who are different from them racially and economically, that poor people are not isolated in any way. But what really matters in the end is do the schools function well and are the children learning.
Q.: Would some of the cynicism about at least the political process be muted if the campaign finance reform bills were enacted?
Clinton: If campaign finance bill passes and the lobby bill passes, I think it will help some. But let me say that I think it is and, believe me I think that particularly the lobby bill, which calls for much stricter disclosure and much tighter restrictions on what lobbyists can do for and with people in public life. I think those things will make a difference particularly if they are widely understood. On the other hand, politics will always be a struggle, particularly when there is an agenda of change. And there is nothing you can do in a democratic society, particularly if you have elections which required large amounts of advertising, to totally equalize the influence of the organized and the disorganized.
And I say that as somebody who has really suffered from it. I mean basically the people I am trying to help with health-care reform are disorganized and the people that would be disadvantaged if we had a more rational system are highly organized but that is in the nature of the struggle. Yes I think it will help. I think it will even the scales if we could pass campaign finance reform, if we could pass lobby reform. But people will still have to be willing to fight for change. They will have to be willing to risk defeat. They will have to be willing to be defeated and then to come back and fight over and over again until successful. And you can only do that if somehow deep down in your gut you believe that ultimately the system works and that you can prevail. . . .
Q: Could you talk a little bit about the so-called Christian right?
Clinton: . . . I try never to use those words: "religious right" or "Christian right" because I think it's a misnomer. First of all I think there are millions of Americans who believe that things are out of whack in this country. That there's too much crime, too much violence, too much out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Twenty-seven percent of the pregnancies end in abortion and that's too many, even though it's the lowest percentage since '76.
That basically things are just out of control and that the main reasons have nothing to do with or couldn't be addressed by the passage of some government program, that there has to be some sort of personal revolution in the country - some changed behavior. That's plainly not all wrong. I mean there are some cultural problems in this country that require cultural responses and changed behavior. A lot of those folks have been drawn into politics.
I believe that serious Christians believe that their number one responsibility in life is to try to do God's will. They are also taught that they should be good citizens. And I think that that is a legitimate thing. I have never discouraged it.
I also have a very strict view of the First Amendment's freedom of religion. I worked hard to get the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed through Congress and when I was a governor I passed a bill that permitted home schooling under certain circumstances and we bent over backward to try to have the religious child care centers able to comply substantially with our state regs without having to do things they thought violated their faith. I think that we are a deeply religious people.
Now you have . . . an extreme conservative movement in America that seeks to get religious people to follow it by saying that you can tell everything you need to know about somebody politically and their fitness for public office based on what their position is on abortion, whether they are pro-choice or not. And, at some vague but normally undefined - because the more specific they get, they more trouble they get in - some undefined position with regard to how homosexual Americans should be treated. And that there are no other issues. Everything is what the Bible capsulizes everything about your morality publicly into those two issues and that's how you're defined.
Some say the government, that the Bible, the moral position is to be against government involvement in anything including health care. But that's really the touchstone, and I think that those who say that if you disagree with them on those issues you are immoral and unfit.
Some go even further and say it's therefore all right to say or do anything against you. I think it just tends to get pushed to more and more extreme. That's what I'm against. I'm against what I would call the "radical" right, but I think it's wrong to use words like Christian and religious.
There are a lot of Christian people in this country, and a lot of Jewish people in this county and a lot of people of other faiths in this country who are deeply religious who are very strong with their family values and are very good citizens who don't agree with those folks. So I think what is important is not to get drawn into the cultural war the way they define it, but to try to always require them to be specific about what their position is and about what they are saying about their opponents and about how they are conducting themselves. But not say you don't belong in politics if you have religious convictions.
DeTocqueville said that America was great because America was good. And if we ever stop being good, we would no longer be great.
I think that you can look at the conditions that exist in America with children being killed and high rates of birth where there was never a marriage and you can say, these things are not good for America, and we ought to change them - without saying you have to be a right-wing Republican to do the right thing.
What we really need is a careful and specific debate on that - and one by the way I have sought. I've had a lot of different groups of religious leaders to the White House usually to a breakfast, and we sit around and talk about these things, often in terms of the scriptures if that's the way they want to talk about them. I welcome this. I think the fact that people of faith are appalled by problems in America and want to be engaged in them is a plus. But it's like anything else. When you feel very strongly about something, you have to know that you can be manipulated and that your genuine impulses can be twisted and that's what I think happens from time to time.
Q: Rush Limbaugh? Had you planned on getting into that?
Clinton: No. First of all the Limbaugh thing was way overblown. I had a little KMOX thing, a little paragraph there, when I was talking to them on the radio and I could hardly hear on the airplane - I didn't know if they could hear me. Because we had a real staticky thing. And he was asking me questions and I just saw the little paragraph I had on KMOX said that they had just added Limbaugh to their programming.
So I thought, they asked me the question, we were talking about cynicism or something, I said you know I didn't criticize them for having Limbaugh there.
What I pointed out was that that whole approach to our national life, where you kind of (have) attack journalism or whatever you call it - attack radio - was becoming more and more prominent. And it's fine if you want to do that and it's entertaining, but the problem that I have is there's no sort of offsetting corrective viewpoint.
What did Garrison Keillor say about Limbaugh? I thought he said it pretty good. He said something like, "It would be so much fun to say those things, but can you imagine actually having to believe them?"
I've been talking about the cynicism thing for quite a while now. And that's a line I've been using for months, the "Sometimes if you're really positive you're boring, but if you're really good at attacking somebody you can get a talk show." It doesn't have anything to do with Limbaugh. I've been saying that for months now. On occasion I just put that line in my speeches where it seems to be appropriate, as an illustrative thing.
. . . I'm a free speech guy. I'm for whatever people want to hear and whatever people want to say. I've got a very broad view of that. . . . The work that you're doing here is what I think is more likely to make a difference to America over the long run.…
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Publication information: Article title: Empower Cities to Solve Problems, Clinton Says Urban Areas Are the Economic and Cultural Lifeblood of the Nation, President Declares in Interview. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO). Publication date: June 25, 1994. Page number: 13B. © 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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