Toast at the State Dinner for Prime Minister Poul Schluter of Denmark
September 10, 1985
Prime Minister Schluter, Mrs. Schluter, and distinguished visitors, welcome to the White House. It's been a pleasure to have you as our guests. As one would expect between close allies, our meeting today with the Prime Minister was straightforward, useful, and reflected the genuine friendship of our countrymen.
I was happy to have had the opportunity to congratulate you, Prime Minister Schluter, on the success that you've had in your country in putting in place economy-building measures, including a far-reaching tax reform program. [Laughter] I can well imagine how difficult that task has been. [Laughter] Our efforts at tax reform remind me of one of Denmark's better known fairy tales. When I talk about reforming the tax shelter -- or system, I should say, I can visualize a beautiful swan. All the special interests see is an ugly duckling. [Laughter] I think the national debate over tax reform reflects the strength and soul of our democracy. The outcome is still in doubt. Every citizen is free to participate in the decisionmaking process. All sides are going to the people to muster support, and once the issue has been voted on and settled, there will be no recriminations. The losers won't be sent to some gulag. Everyone -- winners and losers -- will feel proud to live in a country committed to freedom of speech and press and dedicated to the principles of representative government.
This is what binds not just Americans but the free citizens of all lands, especially the people of our two countries. That bond is evident in so many ways. Perhaps the most impressive is in the magnificence of one of the resounding monuments to American freedom -- the great stone carvings on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. There, the son of Danish immigrants, Gutzon Borglum, immortalized in granite the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. He died before he saw the completion of his work, but his son carried on. And today it stands as a tribute to the flame of liberty that burns red hot in the soul of a man with roots in America and Denmark.
One of the greatest threats to freedom is that it will never be taken for granted -- or, pardon me, I should say, it will be taken for granted is the threat. It never should be. But there are many reasons for confidence. And a story I came across recently truly inspired me, and I'd like to share it with you. Ms. Drake is here in the audience, who brought this story to my attention. Natalia and Nels Mortensen, both in their eighties, live in a small town of Marstal on the island of Aero in Denmark. For the last 40 years, they have been tending the gravesite of a young man they never met. They dig the weeds out, they place flowers -- red, white, and blue ones -- on the grave, and always there is a small American flag, and when it gets too worn, they replace it with another.
They're watching over the final resting place of U.S. Air Force Sergeant Jack Elwood Wagner, who died when his plane was shot down off the coast of that island, fell into the sea after a bombing raid over enemy territory on June 20th, 1944. Jack Wagner's body washed up on shore in occupied Denmark 18 days after his bomber crashed, and the word spread quickly. When the Nazi occupation troops finally arrived to bury the young American, they found nearly the whole town of 2,000 had been waiting at the graveyard since early that morning to pay tribute and homage to the young American flyer. The path had already been lined with flowers. And when the enemy troops -- they, incidentally, had removed his identification before the troops had arrived -- when the troops had laid him in his grave and left, then the townspeople placed two banners of red, white, and blue flowers on the grave. They conducted a funeral service. One of the banners had a ribbon which read, ``Thank you for what you have done.''
Jack Wagner was a 19-year-old American from Snyder County, Pennsylvania. They'd never met him, yet the people of the small town -- thousands of miles from his home -- felt they knew him, because they said he was a young man who gave his life for their freedom. The Mortensens have tended his grave four decades now, just as if he were a member of the family. We invited them to be here tonight, but they wrote and told me that, at their age, they didn't believe that they could take on such a long trip. But Jack Wagner's sister is here tonight -- Mrs. Woll, would you stand for just a second and let us -- [applause]. She has been to Denmark to meet the Mortensens and to thank them for what they've done.
Let all of us learn from their devotion. After our meeting today and the heartfelt good will of this evening, I think we can all be certain that in the future our two peoples will continue to stand side by side as members of the same family -- the family of free people. Incidentally, I should have added that, with the age of the Mortensens, the village in which they live has already officially made it plain that when they can no longer care for the grave, the village will take it over as an official function of that village.
So, I think we shall have two toasts tonight. First, a toast to Her Majesty, the Queen of Denmark -- to the Queen. And would you also join me in a toast to Prime Minister and Mrs. Schluter and to our Danish friends and allies.
Pete Rose has been at bat twice, and he hasn't hit yet. [Laughter]
Note: The President spoke at 9:51 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House. Following the toast, the President referred to Cincinnati Reds baseball player Pete Rose, who was one hit away from breaking Ty Cobb's record for the most career base hits.