I have spoken on this campus once 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 president of this university, during a tenure that in many ways defined the reputation and values of Notre Dame. It's a real honor to be with Father Hesburgh, and with Father Joyce. 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. (Applause.) That's pretty darn impressive, Father, but I'm gaining on you. As of today, I'm only 140 behind.
Let me congratulate all the members of the class of 2001. 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 an eminent scientist. 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 the 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.
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 to 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 rolls. 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.
There is a great deal at stake. In our attitudes and 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 are 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 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, in crisis pregnancy centers, in programs that tutor and conduct job training and help young people when they happen to be on parole. All these efforts provide not just a 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.