July 22, 1986
The President. Thanks very much, and welcome to the White House. I don't suppose I should tell you now -- you know, this was all supposed to take place in the Rose Garden, but with the clouds overhead we couldn't quite see you all sitting out there in the rain if that should happen. But, now, wouldn't you know that as long as we changed it inside -- you're probably more comfortable here because it's warm outside. [Laughter] But just as soon as we moved it in -- just when I came out of the White House over there to cross the street -- the Sun came out. [Laughter]
Well, a warm welcome to your national president, Rick Malir, to your other national officers, and to John Kelley of Chevrolet, the company that has done so much to make your visit to Washington possible. And by the way, I thought you might like to know that we have somebody here at the White House who has a place in his heart for the FFA. You see, my Special Assistant for Legislative Affairs, Fred McClure of Texas, used to be an FFA State president and national officer.
Well, this is the sixth time in 6 years that I've spoken here at the White House to a gathering of the Future Farmers of America. It's something I make a point of, because there's no finer organization in the country than the FFA, and I'm sure you agree. America is grateful for its farmers; they're the best in the world. It's true that lately farmers have had a long run of just plain bad luck: embargoes during the last administration; inflation; and now, in one part of our country, a great drought. Believe me, our administration, under the fine guidance of Secretary [of Agriculture] Lyng, is committed to seeing farmers through. We're spending more on farming than ever before. Indeed, aid to farming has risen faster than defense spending.
Already, the future is beginning to look up. Interest rates are down, easing the terms that farmers have to pay to get in the spring planting or purchase new livestock or equipment. And with the tax reform now under consideration in the Congress, we'll be limiting the ability of those who make their money someplace else to take advantage of agriculture by using it as a tax dodge. In other words, we'll be giving farming back to farmers. So, while times may be tough, the future for American farmers -- your future -- I think, looks bright.
Now, there's nothing I enjoy more than a little country humor. One of the great things about having you here is that I get to tell a farm joke. [Laughter] Now, first I need a setting, but -- Rick, you're from Kansas, right?
Mr. Malir. You bet.
The President. Okay. This takes place in Kansas. [Laughter] There was an old Kansas farmer there. He had a piece of creekbottom land that had never been developed at all -- it was all rocks and brush and all messed up. And he started in on it, clearing it -- the underbrush, and hauling away the rocks, then cultivating the soil there. And he planted a garden -- everything from vegetables on to corn, and it really became a garden spot. And he was pretty proud of what he'd done. So, one Sunday morning in church after the service he asked the preacher if he wouldn't stop by to have a look.
Well, the preacher arrived. And he took one look and he said, ``Oh, this is wonderful.'' He said, ``These are the biggest tomatoes I've ever seen. Praise the Lord.'' And he said, "Those green beans, that squash, those melons.'' He said, ``The Lord really has blessed this place. And look at the height of that corn.'' He said, "God has really been good.'' And the old boy was listening to all this, and he was getting more and more fidgety and finally he blurted out, ``Reverend, I wish you could have seen it when the Lord was doing it by himself.'' [Laughter]
I've always liked that joke because it makes a good point: God did give us this great and good land, but it's up to us to make it flourish and to preserve its freedom, to see it grow, and to keep it a nation of greatness. Soon my generation will pass that task on to you, and I wondered for awhile about what I might say to you as you prepare to become America's leaders. Then it occurred to me that there could be no better way to give you hope for the future than to speak to you for a moment about the past. In particular, the part of the American story that I've witnessed in my own lifetime.
When I was about your age, if you can take your minds back that far -- [laughter] -- America was in the midst of a Great Depression. And really -- that Great Depression -- you had to experience it to know how unusual, how unique it was. Things we've called recessions in recent years were booming prosperity compared to that particular thing that happened in our country. In fact, the unemployment rate had risen to just about a quarter of the work force -- a fourth of all Americans were out of work.
I was -- about that time -- was working my way through college. I had a summer job every summer as a lifeguard. And there wasn't any complaining about working conditions. I was the only lifeguard at that particular beach -- a beach on a river, and I worked 7 days a week. And you worked from morning until whenever the swimmers got tired of swimming at night. And I had not one thought about complaining -- I had a job. But one of the better jobs I had was during the school year on the campus. I washed dishes in the girls dormitory. [Laughter] But, I was very lucky because all around me, friends and their parents were out of work. If there ever was a time to believe America's future was grim, it was then. Believe it or not, the Government had radio announcements -- no television at that time -- on the air regularly, telling people: ``Don't leave home looking for work. There are no jobs.''
But here we are just a half a century later, with the American people enjoying a standard of living undreamed of during the thirties or even during the boom years of the twenties before the Great Crash. In these 50 years, employment in America has risen by tens of millions; real, disposable income per person has gone up by over 200 percent; and life expectancy has increased by more than 14 years. You know, I've already lived some 20 years longer than my life expectancy when I was born, and that's been a source of annoyance to a number of people. [Laughter]
And just think of all we take for granted today that we didn't even use to -- well, it didn't even use to exist -- things like television and computers and space flights. You may not believe it, but you're looking at a fellow who can actually remember what a thrill it was listening and waiting for the word to hear that Charles Lindbergh had landed safely in France -- the first individual to ever fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Now, that same fellow also happens to remember what it was like to gather around the television a little later and watch the first Americans walk on the Moon. Imagine it -- in a single lifetime -- from Charles Lindbergh in that solo flight across the Atlantic to Moon landings. And they wonder why I'm an optimist.
Well, what about your generation? I'm convinced that you're on the verge of a new age. Today freedom is on the march throughout the world. Just a decade ago, for example, there were very few democracies in Latin America. Now 90 percent of the people in Latin America live in democracies or countries that are moving swiftly into that situation. Peace itself is moving to a surer footing, especially with the research on our Strategic Defense Initiative, SDI, as it's referred to. Washington is very big on initials. A defense system, SDI is, that may soon be able to protect our nation and our allies from ballistic missiles, just as a roof protects us from the rain. And our economy is growing as America leads the world in a technological revolution -- a revolution ranging from tiny microchips to voyages through the outer reaches of the solar system, from home computers to agricultural breakthroughs like new disease-resistant crops. And all of this awaits you. Of course you'll face challenges; so must each generation as it comes of age. But you need only be true to the values that made this nation great, and they were very simple -- faith and family, hard work, and freedom -- and you, too, will know greatness.
Well, it's time for me to do what the little girl who wrote me a letter after I got this job told me to do. She told me all the problems that I had solved, and she had them down pretty good to what they were. And then she wound up with a P.S. that said, ``Now get back to the Oval Office and get to work.'' [Laughter] So, if you have any suggestions for next year's farm joke, let me know. [Laughter] I try not to repeat. But in the meantime, again, it's great to have all of you here.
Thank you all, and God bless you all.
Note: The President spoke at 11:34 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. In his opening remarks, he referred to John Kelley, marketing manager, Chevrolet Truck Division, General Motors Corp.