Address by President George Bush, 1997 Recipient Schweitzer Award

Address by President George Bush
Recipient of the 1997
Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize

Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland
October 9, 1997

I am delighted to be back at Johns Hopkins University--and honored to receive this highly prestigious award, the Albert Schweitzer Gold Medal for Humanitarianism.

I have to say: It is an overwhelming experience to receive an award bearing the name Albert Schweitzer. When I think about Albert Schweitzer, I think about a man to whom service to others was a creed. I think about a man who lifted the lives of countless people, and whose selfless example has inspired countless more. I think about a man of tremendous character, who did the Lord's work with humility and decency.

Of course, today Schweitzer looms over us as a man of saintly proportions. He is rightly revered, for his devotion to improving the human condition--in body, mind, and spirit--has had a profound impact on mankind.

But Schweitzer also inspires us for the personal hardships he overcame.

It was an article by the Paris Missionary Society that revealed his life calling to Schweitzer, an urgent petition explaining the need for physicians in the French Congo, today Gabon. To that point, in 1904, he was widely recognized as a talented musician and a respected theologian. So his decision to forego what would have been a more comfortable lifestyle for medical school and, ultimately, Africa proved to be a controversial one to those around him.

For contradicting the common wisdom of his time, Schweitzer was branded a radical. Indeed, in this day and age, Schweitzer would have been deemed "politically incorrect"--and, no doubt, the subject of endless talk shows.

But back then, the Paris Missionary Society--the same organization advertising their dire need for health care workers--rejected his application because they didn't want to give a public platform to a "free thinker" who possessed strong theological beliefs. In their view, Schweitzer was trouble.

Schweitzer and his wife, Helene Bresslau, were not about to let a bureaucratic roadblock stop them. They spent two years raising funds and, in 1913, traveled to Lambarene in the French Congo to open their first clinic in a chicken coop. Eventually the operation grew, and today thousands are treated there every year.

My point in recounting this is: Even Albert Schweitzer had to start somewhere. Even he had problems--critics who detracted him, bureaucrats who sought to undermine him. Indeed, at one point, he and his wife were solely reliant on the goodwill of friends.

But the spirit to endure, and to serve, kept him going. And ours is a better world today because people like Albert Schweitzer, and Mother Teresa, rolled up their sleeves, and lent a caring hand to those in need.

When I was privileged to serve as President, we had a program based on a concept I called being One of a Thousand Points of Light. Simply put, Points of Light are people who get involved in their communities and help to make them better places to live.

We named 1020 Daily Points of Light while I was in Office, including several groups and individuals here in Baltimore.

One of them was the Volunteers for Medical Engineering, started by Westinghouse engineer John Stachlin in 1981. We recognized them as our 136th Daily Point of Light in May of 1990 for their work to utilize the creative expertise of engineers to help disabled citizens lead more comfortable and productive lives. I'm told that Johns Hopkins has a good association with this program.

The more stories you hear about VME and the like, the more you realize there isn't a problem we face in America that isn't being solved by caring citizens somewhere.

And just as we tried to promote this kind of selfless and uplifting work in America--the kind of work Albert Schweitzer made his life calling--so too has the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation worked to encourage humanitarian endeavors of all kinds--from the environment to the scientific to the literary.

As many of you know, the Foundation was founded by German grain merchant Alfred Toepfer--and given John Hopkins' ties to Germany, the German-American connection is on full display this evening.

Just last week, I was in Germany for the seventh anniversary of German unification. I was honored to go there--to Stuttgardt and Berlin--and to stand with my good friend Helmut Kohl to celebrate that special occasion, the German Day of Unity.

And while I was there, I was struck by how far we've come in just a short period of time. It was but a decade ago that the Berlin Wall, an obscene monument to the failure of totalitarianism, ran through the middle of Berlin-- holding a people hostage, separating brother from brother.

Then seven years ago the world watched, transfixed, as before our eyes hope and liberty at long last triumphed over tyranny. We watched as the barriers that had long divided us were breached not by the forces of war, but by the force of ideas.

When I assumed Office in 1989, it was impossible to foresee that a year later I would be standing with the German Chancellor at Camp David--telling the world that our countries shared bright hopes for a new, united Germany. No one knew that within a year, Germany would be one.

During my years as Vice President and President--when the Solidarity movement in Poland and, later, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia were gaining strength--it became clear that the tide was turning against totalitarianism, that the embers of freedom were catching fire.

Indeed, one of the indelible memories from that time is the candlelight protests in Wenceslas Square, 1989. There they were: Hundreds of thousands of people, joined by their common will to be free, peacefully expressing their views, yet unrelenting in their demand to be heard.

The impact of these images, seen nightly on television screens around the world, was profound.

I was President by that time, and anxious to do what we could to help events continue moving in the right direction.

But the truth is: By this time, the course of history was not being changed in Washington, or Bonn, or Prague. Rather it was being changed by the people themselves, who had tired of a failed economic system and a political system that denied them their freedom.

In the end, it was the people throughout Central and Eastern Europe--not foreign governments--who stood up and collectively said "enough." But it had to come from the people. It had to come up from the grassroots.

If the West had tried to impose its will on the Warsaw Pact, the result would have probably been a military conflict of some kind--and that was unthinkable.

I am not suggesting that the United States or our Allies were passive observers, however. Far from it.

From the start we had been working quietly, behind the scenes, to encourage the reformers. I worked hard to convince Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Poles too, that they had nothing to fear from a united Germany in NATO. I also spent a good deal of time on the phone with the British and French, who likewise had reservations.

And the irony is: Once events started moving in our direction, our work to large degree became more difficult--in direct proportion to the volatility and sensitivity of the situation.

For example, I'll never forget meeting with the press after the Wall had come down. I had given a statement, calmly expressing our determination to move the process of reforms forward. When I was done, Leslie Stahl of CBS News asked me why I wasn't showing more emotion.

Of course, I felt a tremendous surge of emotion when the news came through. The Wall's fall was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. But this wasn't a time to gloat. Hard-liners in the Soviet Union had just suffered an embarrassing set-back, and I didn't want to do or say anything that might provoke a drastic retaliation in Germany--or to jeopardize Gorbachev's shaky position as the force for reform in the USSR.

That's why I also didn't heed the advice of Congressional leaders, some of whom suggested I go to Berlin and dance on the Wall with the students. That would have been a foolish thing to do, tantamount to sticking a finger in the eyes of the Red Army.

In my view, it was time to get to work. And working with Chancellor Kohl our other allies, we were able to avoid a number of treacherous pitfalls along the path to unification--and move the process to fruition.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not note the pivotal role Mikhail Gorbachev played throughout. Today Gorbachev is reviled in his country, but history will surely note the courage he demonstrated in pursuing his perestroika and glastnost reforms despite the powerful and often uncontrollable events they unleashed.

Today, a united Germany sits in NATO; the Warsaw Pact disbanded; free elections all across Europe. Remarkable! And on October 3rd, 1.5 million Germans in Berlin and 500,000 in Stuttgardt celebrated their nation's Day of Unity.

We've come a long way from the days of guard dogs and barbed wire. We've come a long way since our world was divided by ideology--one side hostile to liberty and democracy. And yes, we've come a long way since the whole world worried about the imminent threat of nuclear war.

Maybe that explains why I am an optimist about the future in general. The prospects for all of us to secure a brighter future is well within our grasp.

For Barbara and me, life after the White House has been filled with countless blessings, foremost among them is the time that we spend with our five children and our 14 grandchildren. Nothing gives us greater pleasure.

We're still trying to do our part, trying to be Points of Light in our own way. To be sure, we've tried to live up to the honor the American people bestowed upon us as President and First Lady. I will say this: We got some things right--and there were others we could have done better--but my team and I always tried to conduct ourselves with honor and integrity.

With privilege comes responsibility, whether its the Presidency of the United States or being the recipient of the Albert Schweitzer Gold Medal of Humanitarianism.

That said, I will do my best to live up to the spirit of the Schweitzer Gold Medal. Thank you very much for this honor I will always treasure.

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