News from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Wednesday, Sept. 9
Remarks by President Obama at service for Walter Cronkite

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you very much.

To Chip, Kathy, and Nancy, who graciously shared your father with a nation that loved him; to Walter’s friends, colleagues, protégés, and all who considered him a hero; to the men of the Intrepid; to all of you who are gathered here today; I am honored to be here to pay tribute to the life and times of the man who chronicled our time.

I did not know Mr. Cronkite personally. And my regret is made more acute by the stories that have been shared here today. Nor, for that matter, did I know him any better than the tens of millions who turned to him each night in search of the answer to a simple question: “What happened today?” But like them and like all of you, I have benefited as a citizen from his dogged pursuit of the truth, his passionate defense of objective reporting, and his view that journalism is more than just a profession; it is a public good vital to our democracy.

Even in his early career, Walter Cronkite resisted the temptation to get the story first in favor of getting it right. He wanted to get it first, but he understood the importance of getting it right. During one of his first jobs in Kansas City, Walter’s program manager urged him to go on the air reporting a massive blaze — and we just heard how much he loved fires — a massive blaze at city hall that had already claimed lives. When Walter reached for the telephone, his boss asked, “What are you doing; get on the air!” Walter replied that he was calling the fire department to confirm the story. “You don’t need to confirm it,” the manager shouted, “my wife is watching the whole thing!”

Needless to say, Walter made the call, and even as the program manager took to the air himself to broadcast the unfolding tragedy, Walter discovered that it had been nothing more than a small fire that hadn’t resulted in any injuries. He lost his job — but he got the story right.

Walter wasn’t afraid to rattle the high and the mighty, either; but he never dared to compromise his integrity. He got along with elected officials, even if they were wary of one another’s motives. One politician once remarked, “Walter, my friend, you’ve got to believe me, fully 85 percent of everything I told you today is the absolute truth.” (Laughter.)

He shared a complicated relationship with Presidents of both parties, who wanted him on their side even as they were convinced that he wasn’t. President Johnson called Walter after the evening news from time to time to voice his displeasure over a certain story. But Walter knew that if he was receiving vociferous complaints from both sides, he must be doing his job.

His endless inquisitiveness about our world, I can imagine, came from a mother who sold encyclopedias for a living. As a boy, Walter spent countless hours getting lost within their pages, endlessly sidetracked by new and interesting entries that branched off from one another, fascinated by the world around us and how it worked.

And that’s the way he lived his life — with curiosity, exploring our planet, seeking to make sense of it and explaining it to others. He went everywhere and he did everything. He raced cars and boats; he traveled everywhere from the Amazon to the Arctic; he plunged 8,000 feet below the sea, trekked 18,000 feet up into the Himalayas, and experienced weightlessness in the upper reaches of our atmosphere — all with one mission: to make it come alive for the rest of us.

And as our world began to change, he helped us understand those changes. He was forever there, reporting through world war and cold war; marches and milestones; scandal and success; calmly and authoritatively telling us what we needed to know. He was a voice of certainty in a world that was growing more and more uncertain. And through it all, he never lost the integrity or the plainspoken speaking style that he gained growing up in the heartland. He was a familiar and welcome voice that spoke to each and every one of us personally.

So it may have seemed inevitable that he was named the most trusted man in America. But here’s the thing: That title wasn’t bestowed on him by a network. We weren’t told to believe it by some advertising campaign. It was earned. It was earned by year after year and decade after decade of painstaking effort; a commitment to fundamental values; his belief that the American people were hungry for the truth, unvarnished and unaccompanied by theatre or spectacle. He didn’t believe in dumbing down. He trusted us.

When he was told of this extraordinary honor that he was the most trusted man in America, he naturally downplayed it by saying the people had not polled his wife. (Laughter.) When people of both political parties actually tried to recruit him to run for office, without even asking for his stances on the issues, he said no — to the relief of all potential opponents. And when, even a decade and a half after his retirement, he still ranked first in seven of eight categories for television journalists, he was disbelieving that he hadn’t won the eighth category, “attractiveness.” (Laughter.)

Through all the events that came to define the 20th century, through all our moments of deepest hurt and brightest hope, Walter Cronkite was there, telling the story of the American age.

And this is how we remember him today. But we also remember and celebrate the journalism that Walter practiced — a standard of honesty and integrity and responsibility to which so many of you have committed your careers. It’s a standard that’s a little bit harder to find today. We know that this is a difficult time for journalism. Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line.

And too often, we fill that void with instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter disdained, rather than the hard news and investigative journalism he championed. “What happened today?” is replaced with “Who won today?” The public debate cheapens. The public trust falters. We fail to understand our world or one another as well as we should –- and that has real consequences in our own lives and in the life of our nation. We seem stuck with a choice between what cuts to our bottom line and what harms us as a society. Which price is higher to pay? Which cost is harder to bear?

“This democracy,” Walter said, “cannot function without a reasonably well-informed electorate.” That’s why the honest, objective, meticulous reporting that so many of you pursue with the same zeal that Walter did is so vital to our democracy and our society: Our future depends on it.

Walter was no naive idealist. He understood the challenges and the pressures and the temptations facing journalism in this new era. He believed that a media company has an obligation to pursue a profit, but also an obligation to invest a good chunk of that profit back into news and public affairs. He was excited about all the stories that a high-tech world of journalism would be able to tell, and all the newly-emerging means with which to tell it.

Naturally, we find ourselves wondering how he would have covered the monumental stories of our time. In an era where the news that city hall is on fire can sweep around the world at the speed of the Internet, would he still have called to double-check? Would he have been able to cut through the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites to shine the bright light on substance? Would he still offer the perspective that we value? Would he have been able to remain a singular figure in an age of dwindling attention spans and omnipresent media?

And somehow, we know that the answer is yes. The simple values Walter Cronkite set out in pursuit of — to seek the truth, to keep us honest, to explore our world the best he could — they are as vital today as they ever were.

Our American story continues. It needs to be told. And if we choose to live up to Walter’s example, if we realize that the kind of journalism he embodied will not simply rekindle itself as part of a natural cycle, but will come alive only if we stand up and demand it and resolve to value it once again, then I’m convinced that the choice between profit and progress is a false one — and that the golden days of journalism still lie ahead.

Walter Cronkite invited a nation to believe in him — and he never betrayed that trust. That’s why so many of you entered the profession in the first place. That’s why the standards he set for journalists still stand. And that’s why he loved and valued all of you, but we loved and valued Walter not only as the rarest of men, but as an indispensable pillar of our society.

He’s reunited with his beloved Betsy now, watching the stories of this century unfold with boundless optimism — every so often punctuating the air with a gleeful “oh, boy!” (Laughter.) We are grateful to him for altering and illuminating our time, and for the opportunity he gave to us to say that, yes, we, too, were there.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

 

 

Vice President Biden holds Middle Class Task Force meeting on college access and affordability

SYRACUSE, NY – The White House Task Force on Middle Class Families, chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, held a meeting at Syracuse University in New York to discuss ways to help families save and pay for college. The meeting, “Making College More Accessible and Affordable for Middle Class Families,” also highlighted specific improvements the Administration is making to the overall process of paying for college. The Vice President was joined today by Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor, State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and other higher education experts.

“I know how challenging it is for parents and students who are trying to save or pay for college,” said Vice President Biden. “We should be making this process easier, not more difficult, and we’re starting by tearing down barriers so that middle class families have the means to send their kids to college.”

Earlier this year, the Task Force held its first college affordability discussion in St. Louis, Missouri. At this meeting, the Vice President asked the Treasury Department to look into 529 plans and find ways to make them more effective and reliable for middle class families. A 529 plan, offered by states, provides a convenient, tax-preferred way for families to save for college, and works much like ROTH IRAs, wherein contributions are made with after-tax income, returns accumulate tax free and distributions can be for qualified educational expenses without taxes. Based on a study of best plan management practices, the Treasury Department today provided recommendations that can be implemented now to make 529 plans more accessible, effective and reliable for the middle class. To view the full study and recommendations, please go to: http://www.treas.gov/press/releases/docs/529.pdf.

“Today, we have identified several ways to make these plans more effective and reliable for middle class families,” said Secretary of Treasury Geithner. “By encouraging all states to offer low-fee, age-based index funds and by encouraging greater competition among state plans, we can help make the dream of a college education a reality for millions of middle class families.”

“We have to educate our way to a better economy. That’s why we have an agenda to make college affordable and accessible to everyone – recent high school graduates, adults wanting to improve their careers, laid-off workers needing new job skills,” said Secretary of Education Duncan. “As the President told high school students yesterday, if you drop out of school, you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country. We also want to send the message that we’re not quitting on you. We’re providing the resources you need to go to college and succeed there.”

The complicated and intrusive Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) creates an obstacle to college affordability. By asking 153 questions, many of which have little or no impact on student aid eligibility, FAFSA imposes an unnecessary ordeal on 16 million students and parents every year, and more than a million students who are eligible for student aid fail to fill out the form. While the Administration is currently seeking legislation removing 29 of the most difficult questions from the form, it is also streamlining the form by tailoring it to individual students, skipping unnecessary questions, and allowing many students to electronically retrieve their tax information from the IRS and enter it into the online FAFSA. Two key members of the Task Force, the National Economic Council (NEC) and the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA), today released a report discussing the need to simplify the process of applying for federal student aid, describing President Obama’s plan for simplification and analyzing the potential impact of such improvements on Pell Grant recipients. To view the NEC/CEA report, please go to: http://www.whitehouse.gov/assets/documents/FAFSA_Report.pdf.

Today, the Task Force also released a full staff report diagnosing the existing barriers to higher education in America and highlighting ways for middle class families to better access higher education.

The staff report examines factors that limit students’ access to higher education, including income inequality, mobility, cost of college, and debt load. The report reiterates the Administration’s belief that a student’s merit should be the determining factor in getting into, and graduating from, a good school, because a clear pathway to a college education is a clear pathway into the middle class. President Obama has set a goal that by 2020, America should once again lead the world in the proportion of adults with a college degree. A central goal of the Middle Class Task Force is to ensure that public policy is helping middle class families to realize their aspirations. The President, the Vice President and the Middle Class Task Force are committed to making sure that every student has the opportunity to earn a postsecondary credential or degree.

The full staff report is attached, or go to: http://www.whitehouse.gov/assets/documents/MCTF_staff_report_barriers_to_college_FINAL.pdf.

 

 

Press gaggle by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs

MR. GIBBS: What’s going on, guys?

Q Good morning.

Q Didn’t expect to you see until the second leg.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I was told by popular demand I should come back on the front leg.

Q Robert, can you tell us a little bit about today? Was the President invited to go to this memorial?

MR. GIBBS: We were invited by CBS to speak at Mr. Cronkite’s memorial service, and the President, understanding the role that Mr. Cronkite played in our country and in journalism, was happy to accept.

Q Switching to a foreign policy question, Iran is scheduled to turn in a package of proposals today to world powers on its nuclear program and other challenges. Do you have any comments or thoughts about that?

MR. GIBBS: Not on the front end. Let me see when that happens and what response we’ll have for you guys on that.

Q Is there anything specific that you would like to say that you need to see from Iran in that proposal?

MR. GIBBS: I think Iran has to live up to its responsibilities and end its illicit nuclear program. That’s not just the opinion of one country; that’s the opinion of the world. I think — let’s hope we see progress on them doing that.

Q Is tonight’s speech finished? Is he still working on it?

MR. GIBBS: He’s still working on it.

Q What’s the process there? Is it bouncing off ideas off other aides? Who is kind of involved in the drafting?

MR. GIBBS: — a dart board and — no, he came back from Camp David Monday with many handwritten pages of notes that he gave to the speechwriters. He got another draft incorporating more edits last night, and worked on it with the speechwriters before he left this morning. So my sense is he’ll be tinkering with this some this afternoon, but my sense is this thing will be locked sometime this afternoon.

Q And is it still about 35 minutes, half an hour?

MR. GIBBS: I need to check on that. (Laughter.)

Q Do you anticipate a embargoed copy at a certain time or —

MR. GIBBS: That’s certainly our hope, yes. I think we will be able to get you guys something obviously before the speech starts.

Q Robert, is the White House watching the OPEC meeting today?

MR. GIBBS: I’m sure somebody is. (Laughter.) I have to admit I haven’t — I’ve been worried about health care today.

Q Is there anything that we didn’t know yesterday that you can tell us about — (laughter) — about tonight’s speech? Has anything changed substantively overnight? And do you have any update for us once the speech is done on vote schedules, now that Baucus is going to have something out?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let me — look, in terms of vote schedules, obviously, I mean, the President continues to talk with Democrats and Republicans; talked with Senator Baucus yesterday and hopes that the Finance Committee can get something done in a bipartisan way. I think Senator Baucus has been working with this group of senators for almost a year on getting something out of the committee. Not long after the election, the committee put out its policy white paper on health care reform last November. So obviously we’re hopeful that something can get done in that committee. That would obviously be an important milestone in this reform.

The President, I think, has a few main goals tonight: to speak clearly to the American people about what’s in health care reform; for those that are fortunate to have insurance, to demonstrate for them that his plan will bring them security and stability; and for those that don’t have health insurance, that we’ll provide an affordable way for them to get accessible insurance.

Q Will he use the word, “trigger,” and does he think that that’s a good compromise?

MR. GIBBS: Well, the President will talk tonight about the public option and about the necessity for choice and competition, but I don’t want to make all his news now. Then what will we do later tonight?

Q Do it all over again. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: But he’s looking forward to it and I think it’s a good opportunity to once again talk directly to the American people about how important health care reform is and why we have to get it done this year.

Q Anyone interesting flying back with you or flying out with you today?

MR. GIBBS: Marvin Nicholson is here —

Q And you.

MR. GIBBS: — Reggie Love — no, no — Ben Finkenbinder is here. No, this is a — it’s kind of a scaled-down crew today. It’s a scaled-down group.

Q A question about Friday and the 9/11 anniversary. You said yesterday that the President was going to have meetings at the Pentagon. Is that the sum total of what the administration is going to do to mark the anniversary?

MR. GIBBS: No, no, no. He will — as we said several days ago in the morning gaggle in my office, that he’ll go to the Pentagon, visit with families of loved ones that were lost there, visit the memorial, and speak about what the day means and the sacrifices of thousands, not just at the Pentagon, but in Pennsylvania and certainly and most obviously in New York.

Q Robert, I have one last follow-up. Yesterday I asked about the President’s reaction to the WTO ruling on Airbus and Boeing. Have you had a chance to get the —

MR. GIBBS: I thought somebody got back to you on that, but let me check on that. I thought Ben LaBolt did, but I will — or he had some stuff on that, so let me check on that.

Q Will you tell us on the way back in case anything happens between now and then?

MR. GIBBS: I will be happy to.

Thanks, guys.

 
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