Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi

Pelosi: Address to the Commonwealth Club of California

November 9, 2002



Thank You! I am pleased and honored to receive the Distinguished Citizen Award from the Commonwealth Club of California. Obviously, I am pleased on a personal and official basis to be recognized by such a prestigious organization. I am delighted to receive the award from Ed Asner.

The Commonwealth Club is prestigious, because for most of the 20th Century and now in the new millennium, the Commonwealth Club has stood for the relevance and power of ideas. It has stood for the power of ideas, in an inclusive context of local, state, national, and international concerns. In a very important way, the Commonwealth Club represents one of the significant ways our society has of thinking things through: of applying reason and intellect to the frequently intractable problems of our times - and doing this in the belief that, first, ideas are important, and second, in today's world, the global is the local, the local is the global, and both are regional, and the regional, in turn, can only be understood as part of a national and international matrix of ideas and forces.

Given the special perspective of the Commonwealth Club, I am especially honored by this award because for some time now I have become more convinced than ever of the power and relevance of reasoned inquiry, and the construction, through reasoned inquiry, of policies that can serve our society. I think Edward Adams, the San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer who founded the Commonwealth Club in 1903, had it right when he said, "We only propose to find truth and turn it loose in the world."

We need ideas in our society - fresh ideas, relevant ideas, ideas for new times, old ideas made relevant through new application. Look throughout our society. Look at society's achievements first, for I remain forever an optimist. But look at its pain and confusion as well. Look at the growing dysfunctionalism we see in increasing sectors of our society. Look at the dangerously widening disparities of wealth.

Look at the almost complete lack of consistent and comprehensive health care. Anxieties regarding health care, in fact are no longer confined to our senior citizen population. Anxieties over health care now constitute a pervasive condition for vast sectors of the population, in all age groups, in all ethnicities, in all geographical regions.

Look at the housing crisis - not just among the homeless on the streets of this city - but the housing crisis being faced by middle-income Californians who are being priced out of their own lives by the cost of a basic necessity, shelter.

The minute we contemplate such problems, however, we also - because we are an optimistic people -contemplate as well the possibilities of a society that can correct such problems. Let us envision, just for a moment, a society in which the young are educated for productive lives; a society in which comprehensive health care programs have taken away the gnawing fear that now afflicts millions of Americans regarding their health care needs; a society in which decent affordable housing is available for working and middle-income people; a society in which the mentally and emotionally afflicted can find adequate guidance and care; a society in which the long lines at St. Anthony's Dining Room stop growing longer and longer.

What is the bridge between our discernment of problems and the correction of these problems? How do we bridge the gap? How does our society analyze, then agree upon, the policies and programs that will move us in the right direction? How do we maintain civil debate in an adverse political climate?

The answers to such questions lie partly in the moral realm. As a society, we must, first and foremost, want to do the right thing precisely because it is the right thing to do. That is the moral premise that our founding Fathers and Mothers wove into the very fabric of our constitution.

To do the good, then, is to make a moral choice. But to discern the good, the common good, is - as philosophy tells us - an intellectual act as well. Merely wanting to do the right thing is not enough. Good intentions can falter when ideas are unclear or wrongheaded. That's why the Commonwealth Club is important to all of us, whether in public or private life. It represents a forum for the presentation and analysis of ideas. And since the Commonwealth Club is noted for its capacity to listen as well as its intellectual acuity and open-mindedness, let me share with you a few broad-based ideas that I have been having lately.

I've always wanted to speak to a crowd like this at the Commonwealth Club. The great literary critic and philosopher Samuel Johnson of late 18th century London once noted that, in dealing with ideas, it is not necessary to be original. It is only necessary to be correct.

The first idea - simply, time-tested, and correct - that has been on my mind lately is that we must struggle to regain a proper regard for the interaction and mutual dependency of the public and the private sector. No one here would ever quarrel with the significance of the private sector in the life of our nation. From private enterprise comes the creation of wealth and jobs. And from this creation of wealth and jobs the public treasury is achieved. And because the public treasury is achieved, we Americans have the capacity for public action.

A dysfunctional society, however, cripples the private sector. The private sector cannot function when there are not enough well-trained workers available, when millions of American lives are wasted in substance abuse when de facto poverty becomes the life condition of more than 20 percent of the population. Nor can the private sector deal with such problems - at least on the scale that is necessary. Thus when the public sector - properly and efficiently - addresses certain challenges in our society through appropriate public initiatives, it is basically seeking to secure an environment in which the private sector can continue to flourish.

I see the need for a brand new dialogue between the public and the private sector. We ill serve our society when we bash - indeed, demonize! - either the public or the private sector, as has been too often the case in recent decades. Those of us active in the public sphere must renew our conviction that government is not an end in itself. Government is a means to an end - the health of the total society.

On the other hand, the public sector has a special responsibility to protect the unprotected, to re-orient the dysfunctional, to care for those who cannot care for themselves, and to ensure the efficiency of the economy through the education and training of a productive workforce.

Ever since the reforms of the Progressive era early in the 20th century, Californians have by and large respected and creatively employed the public and the private sectors to the benefit of the larger society. When the public sector in California did its work properly - building and staffing schools, envisioning and implementing California as an educational utopia through its master plan for higher education of 1960, building bridges and freeways, creating a statewide water system that is among the engineering marvels of the world - it performed tasks that the private sector could not perform: accomplishments, however, that left the private sector in infinitely better shape, hence able to generate sufficient funds for the public treasury to carry on all necessary public business.

Today we must carry on this public/private dialogue and interaction in an increasingly global context. Reviewing the programs of the Commonwealth Club, I note that this distinguished organization pays attention to local, regional, national and international events with equal care, in the knowledge that, today, just as the public and private sectors cannot be detached from each other, so too are local issues and international issues coming increasingly into dialogue as well. Just look at the population of California today. Its sheer diversity has been stimulated, among other things, by international crises that have in turn provoked international migration that has in turn internationalized California.

In this complexity, I see a special relationship between California and the nation as a whole. What is best about California is exactly what is best about the United States, and what is best about the United States is what is best about California. The late great writer Wallace Stegner (a frequent speaker at Commonwealth Club events) once remarked that California is like the rest of the United States, only more so. Let us, then, renew the dialogue between the public and the private sector here in California, and let us achieve successful programs calling upon the best capacities of each sector, so that California can continue to be a model for the rest of the United States.

For me it is a special need to renew this dialogue. For the country it is critical that we do. Thank you to the Commonwealth Club for leading the way. And for this award, I thank the Commonwealth Club from the bottom of my heart. Speaking of heart, I am reminded tonight because I saw friends from ACT here in the audience, and a couple of years ago I was honored by ACT along with David Henry Hwang, who wrote the play M. Butterfly. That night he was asked what it was like to be successful as a playwright, Mr. Hwang said that you learn from your success as well as your failure. He said failure is quiet, very, very, very quiet. Nobody calls; nobody seeks you out. It's a dud.

Success, on the other hand, is very noisy. Your phone rings constantly, everyone wants your attention; you're in great demand. Success can be extremely loud. What he told us, though, is that the danger is that sometimes with all of that noise, that you cannot hear what is in your heart, which is what got you where you are in the first place. Your passion for your choices in life is a part of who you are. We must live our lives listening to our hearts and not being distracted by the noises of success.

Next week I will have my name placed in nomination for Democratic Leader. With the support I have received from my colleagues, I fully intend to win and become the first Californian and first woman to serve as Democratic Leader. Every day I serve I will have this award displayed with great pride in my office as a constant reminder of the prestige of the Commonwealth Club and the confidence you have given to me this evening. Thank you.



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