|AMERICA'S MOST HONORED|
July 12 , 2000
GWEN IFILL: Father Theodore Hesburgh has said, "hard work doesn't kill anybody." He should know. At the age of 83, and after a lifetime of accomplishments and activism, father Hesburgh will be at the nation's capital tomorrow to receive the congressional gold medal. Father Hesburgh was president of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, for 35 years. He's held more than a dozen presidential appointments, received a record 144 honorary degrees, and in 1964, was awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon Johnson. Father Hesburgh, welcome.
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH, President Emeritus, Notre Dame: Thank you very much, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: After all the honors that you have received, what does receiving this congressional gold medal mean to you?
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH, President Emeritus, Notre Dame: Well it's got to mean something as an American citizen, to get the medal which is the top medal for civilians in the Congress. And of course, I'm very grateful for that. Although I'm a great believer of what Adlai Stevenson once said, "it's okay to hear a lot of nice things said about yourself, as long as you don't inhale them." I think it maybe keeps you a little bit sane.
GWEN IFILL: And probably a little bit sane, sober and reticent. In a recent commencement speech- - I think it was for your 143rd honorary degree-- you spoke about the need in public American life for competence, compassion and commitment-- the three "c's". Can you tell me a little bit more about what you meant by that?
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH: Well, I think first of all, you give kids a commencement address they don't understand or don't, you know, work their way through everything you're saying, they've got 1,000 things on their mind. And I always thought, make it simple, stupid-- I'm talking to myself, of course. So competence is easy to remember. You're a competent lady, and if you weren't, you wouldn't be sitting there. I'm reasonably competent at what I do, or I probably wouldn't have been at it so long.
So that's a given. You've got to do that. And that's done by hard work. Nobody laid it on you some morning. You've got to work day and night at it for years. What's the second thing? Well, to be committed is pretty important, because if you're not, not much is going to get done in your life. But the thing we all talk about a lot, compassion, of itself doesn't get you anywhere. I mean, I can be compassionate every time I pick up the newspaper and see the AIDS in Africa, or I see something else somewhere else, and I can bleed for it, but it doesn't really get anything done. The famous story of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus says that the priest of Levi walked by and left the poor, wounded guy dying in the roadside. The poor, old Samaritan, he was the forgotten fellow in this time. But he saw it and he was moved by compassion. What was that? Well, the others were compassionate, they can't look at this poor, dying man without being compassionate, but they didn't do anything about it.
He went over-- and he was probably a wine and oil salesmen-- he did the two things that he had something to help with. He put wine on to cauterize the wounds, and then he put oil on to soothe them. Then he put some clothes on the guy who had been stripped naked and beaten to the point of death, put him on his own donkey-- and he had to walk-- and took him in to where he could get further continued help, and paid for it. Now that's not just him feeling sorry like the first two guys, he did something about it. And I have felt that the world is full of people who are compassionate, they're not monsters. They read about kids dying or they read about women suffering throughout the world in many, many ways...
GWEN IFILL: But they don't do anything.
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH: ..But they don't do anything about it. Now I have felt that for your life to be meaningful, it's okay to be compassionate, and you* better darn well be competent. All the poor people don't need is a bunch of incompetent hacks running around acting busy. When you've got those three things as a graduate of any university, it's going to make a change in your life -- because to be competent, you've got to keep up everyday. It isn't a gift -- done, finished.
GWEN IFILL: One of the things you've been committed to over the years has been the middle east peace process. You must be watching what's going on in Camp David this week with some interest.
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH: Well, I actually, I offered Mass for it, with a successful outcome this morning at Notre Dame. And I'm watching very closely what's happening, because I've been involved more or less in this for about 35, 40 years.
GWEN IFILL: And you were in the middle east, what, three times last year?
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH: Yes, just last year. I'm trying to get the Israelis and the Palestinians not to incite each other.
GWEN IFILL: But that's really a big issue, how you get them not to incite each other -- how you get them together, when they are so entrenched in...
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH: Well, they told us point blank at our first meeting, after we were together several hours. They said, you guys are trying to keep us from hating each other. And I said, "you're exactly right, because if you go on hating each other, you're going to wind up killing each other, and then we won't have a problem, but it will be a rather miserable solution to what's now a problem."
GWEN IFILL: America is now enjoying prosperous times-- people are kind of fat and happy. Is it more difficult for you to preach the gospel of activism at a time when everyone's feeling so comfortable?
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH: It's a little harder, but the wonderful thing about young people-- and I spent my whole life with young people at the university, and I still do. I have students in and out every day at my office-- but the one great thing to me is students listen. And students can be inspired, and students can be moved a lot better than some of their parents. And when you are with young kids, and they see that your life has been giving over to a kind of commitment to different causes like civil rights or other things, well you don't have to give a big sermon, you've just got to say, hey, you've got some ability there, why don't you put to work on this problem.
GWEN IFILL: So all this talk about young people and apathy, you think that's overrated?
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH: Oh. Let me tell you, at the University of Notre Dame, we have 80% of our students, without any push from us, out there working in the local community or around the country in all kinds of different action. And then when they graduate, 10% of them every year say, I'll commit for one to two years if I go overseas. And, you know, that's a wonderful thing to see. They're never going to be fatheaded the rest of their life. They're going to be committed people.
GWEN IFILL: You describe yourself as an old-fashioned liberal, probably it's safe to say. On the one hand, you've said that the society seems to be growing more conservative. On the other hand, we seem to be more indulgent of what you describe as "public depravity." Can you explain that to me?
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH: Well, some of the things that go on are just absolutely awful. And we shouldn't and couldn't -- can't really put up with them-- or shouldn't put up with them. And why people can be kind of genial generally and we're not going around waving ball bats at each other. And the place is fairly civilized, you've got to say that, this part of the world we live in. On the other hand, people have been so hardened by some horrible things that have happened, like school kids killing each other, you know, or older people picking on little people. Gee, it makes me want to vomit -- or people abusing women just because they're women. I mean, these are things that we should never, I don't think, lose our ability to get outraged about something. And when we become so passionless, this stuff happens, and we say, well tough. That won't do it. Tough doesn't help anything.
GWEN IFILL: Is there a role then for religion in civic life at a time where we talking more and more about the separation, the rigid separation of church and state?
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH: I think so, because all my life I've been a priest now, this is 57 years. I never thought I was a priest just to give sermons and work in church, and hear confessions and marry people, bury people and so forth. I felt I'm part of a big life out there, and I've got to contribute to that, one way or the other, I hope for the good. And this old Terence the Roman poet says (speaking Latin) "nothing human is alien to me." I've tried to live my life that way. I suppose I've spent more time on human rights, for example, not only in this country, but in the world. And I've seen the results, and it's marvelous what people will do given a little bit of creative literature. And around the world, we still have enormous problems, but we're working on them, and we're making some progress. I mean, peace, well, the President of the United States is up there in the woods, and he could be doing a lot more pleasant things, but he's up there for peace. And the other two fellows, they're putting the heads on the guillotine when they stretch them out for peace.
GWEN IFILL: You just mentioned creative leadership. Tomorrow you'll be on Capitol Hill. The Congress will be there, the president will be there. What is your vision for what their leadership should be?
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH: I think like all of us, for the good of America, and the good of the world, we can no longer live in a little corner of the world, fat cats and to heck with everybody else. I think first to make America a humane; caring; competent, certainly; but also compassionate with a committed kind of way, kind of place. And the world, I would hope as time goes on, we can just say this one thing, it's a little bit better because we've passed through. Now we all have to judge ourselves on that, but I say that the happiest times of my life have not been recreating; they have been seeing something get done for people who needed something to get done to have a decent life.
GWEN IFILL: Father Ted Hesburgh, thank you very much.
REV. THEODORE HESBURGH: Thank you. It's wonderful to be with you.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|