I especially want to welcome Tessie Lambourne, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Immigration of the Republic of Kiribati. And I think we should give Tessie and her husband David a round of applause. They traveled three days to get here for this wonderful event. (Applause.)
And of course, as Kurt said, we have worked very hard the last three years to intensify our engagement with our friends in the Pacific Island nations. And this is just one more example of that close partnership that we are developing between and among us. I’m also pleased to welcome my friend and colleague, the Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Ray has been an absolutely extraordinary Secretary of Transportation. I’m delighted you could join us today. Thank you so much, Ray. (Applause.)
I also want to acknowledge Ric Gillespie of the International Group for Historical Aircraft Recovery; Dr. Robert Ballard, a distinguished scientist and oceanographer; members of the diplomatic community, including ambassadors from several of the Pacific Island states; members of the United States Armed Forces, including a number of active duty female aviators. And I would like all of the active duty female aviators to stand. (Applause.) This is a great way to continue our celebration of Women’s History Month. And I have to thank Assistant Secretary Campbell, who really has imagined what we could do more effectively to enhance and deepen our presence as a Pacific power, and has brought us all along for the ride. So Kurt, thank you.
Now some of you may know that when I was a little girl growing up in Illinois, I was interested in all kinds of stories about women. And my mother, as Kurt was just referencing, was a real fan of Amelia Earhart’s, and actually told me about Amelia Earhart. And then when we decided, under President Kennedy’s leadership, that our nation was going to go to the moon and we were going to have an astronaut program, I wanted to be an astronaut. So when I was about 13, I wrote to NASA and asked what I needed to do to try to be an astronaut. And of course, there weren’t any women astronauts, and NASA wrote me back and said there would not be any women astronauts. And I was just crestfallen. But then I realized I couldn’t see very well, and I wasn’t all that athletic, so probably – (laughter) -- I wouldn’t be the first woman astronaut anyway.
But I knew that there were women, like the ones we just recognized, who, if given the chance, would certainly be able to live up to their own God-given potential and lead the way for others. And in part, that was because there was this woman, Amelia Earhart, who, when it was really hard, decided she was going to break all kinds of limits – social limits, gravity limits, distance limits. NASA may have said I couldn’t go into space, but nobody was there to tell Amelia Earhart she couldn’t do what she chose to do.
Now it has been 75 years since she set out in that twin-engine Lockheed Electra to be the first pilot, man or woman, to fly around the world along the longest equatorial route. Her legacy resonates today for anyone, girls and boys, who dreams of the stars. And I do think it’s important as Americans, thinking about Ben Franklin up there, who is not only a founder of the country but our first great scientist and inventor, to keep our eyes on the stars and to keep our minds set on what we are able to do that keeps pushing the boundaries of human experience.
Think for a minute about the world Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan were circumnavigating. America in 1937 was still in the grips of the Great Depression; millions were out of work, millions more were struggling. Around the world, authoritarianism was on the march. War loomed, people wondered openly about the future of our country. They asked if democracy, if free market capitalism, America itself could survive.
Our nation has always risen to the challenges that we have faced, but every so often, we need to be reminded that as Americans, a lot is expected of us. And therefore, we have to keep showing and giving what we are capable of. There’s no challenge too big, no problem too great, and we’ve always been blessed with a land of courageous pioneers and fearless optimists.
Now Amelia Earhart may have been an unlikely heroine for a nation down on its luck, but she embodied the spirit of an America coming of age and increasingly confident, ready to lead in a quite uncertain and dangerous world. She gave people hope and she inspired them to dream bigger and bolder. When she took off on that historic journey, she carried the aspirations of our entire country with her.
Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my favorite Americans, had hope that Amelia would one day teach her to fly. Now Mrs. Roosevelt used to drive around in her car and she would take Amelia for rides, and I think there’s a story that Amelia said, “It’s more dangerous driving with you than flying.” (Laughter.) And she wrote, “All day, I have been thinking of Amelia Earhart somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean...She’s one of the most fascinating people I know... She never seems to think that any of the things she does require courage...[but] the point of all these flights is to make people realize what can be done...”
So today, we meet at a time when the challenges are not so dire despite what you might hear on cable television or talk radio. But these are still difficult days for many Americans. After a long decade of war, terrorism, and recession, there are some who are asking whether we still have what it takes to lead. And like that earlier generation, we too could use some of Amelia’s spirit, that sense that anything is possible if we just roll up our sleeves and get to work together. And there is a lot of hard work ahead of us, but I have no doubt that this generation of Americans, like generations before, have the talent, the ingenuity, the grace, and the grit to emerge greater than ever and to take themselves and our nation to even new and higher heights.
So here we are to mark a time that is particularly rich in symbolism and opportunity. We can be as optimistic and even audacious as Amelia Earhart. We can be defined not by the limits that hold us down, but by the opportunities that are ahead. So I’m thrilled to invite to this room today scientists and engineers, our aviators and our salvagers and everyone who still knows how important it is to dream and to seek, because even if you do not find what you seek, there is great honor and possibility in the search itself.
So like our lost heroine, you will all carry our hopes with us into whatever field of endeavor you go, and in particular, those whom we recognize today, we are excited and looking forward to hear about your own great adventure. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)