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Sept. 12, 1989: Bush address to students

Full transcript of President George H.W. Bush’s Sept. 12, 1989, televised address to students on drug abuse from the library of the White House.
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Following is the transcript of President George H.W. Bush’s Sept. 12, 1989, televised address to students on drug abuse from the library of the White House. Source: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library.

THE PRESIDENT. You know, somehow the fall always feels like a time to start over, a time full of possibility, and everyone gets a new chance. Now, I know there are Americans of every age watching. And to those at home or at work, I ask you to talk with your families and coworkers about drug abuse. But Presidents don’t often get the chance to talk directly to students. And so today, for each of you sitting in a classroom or assembly hall, this message goes straight to you.

When I was thinking about what I wanted to say to you today about drugs, I tried to put myself in your place, to look at it from your perspective. But, you know, the harder I tried, the harder it got. It may seem to you that your parents and your teachers grew up in simpler times, but most of them lived through the civil rights struggles. Some of your fathers fought in Vietnam. And for many of you, your parents and teachers were among the first to face drugs. If you care enough to talk to them, you might be surprised at how much they do understand.

I used to play baseball. Knew I’d never make the big leagues, but I made a lot of friends — friends I learned to count on, both on and off the field. And we trusted each other to come through, no matter how tough it got. And I learned from that. I learned that the kind of people you make your friends can either give you strength, or take it away. I’m not sure why it is, but some people just make you find the best in yourself. They can help you become a better person, help you discover more of who you are. There are others who may seem like friends, but they’re not — and they prove it every time they offer you drugs.

Every day, with a thousand small decisions, you’re shaping your future. It’s a future that ought to be bright with potential. And most of you are doing the right thing, but for those who let drugs make their decisions for them, you can almost hear the doors slamming shut. It isn’t worth it. We know that now. Attitudes that once encouraged or excused drug use have changed. Among high school seniors cocaine use has dropped by about a fifth, and overall drug use is at the lowest levels in 10 years.

But even if you don’t use drugs, you ought to be angry about them because you’re being cheated by those who do. Add it all up: Drug and alcohol abuse costs this country billions of dollars a year, and I don’t know how to quantify the human suffering drugs cause, but I do know we’re all paying for it. We’re all feeling it — every day. Every time someone does drugs, or sells drugs, or even just looks the other way, they’re supporting an industry that costs more than money — it costs lives.

Each of you has a decision to make and dozens of chances to make it: at a party, on the street, in the school parking lot. And parents, teachers, coaches, politicians, Presidents — no one else can make that decision for you. But if you talk to someone you trust, they may remind you of what’s at stake. Yes, it’s your decision. I can’t tell you how to make it, but I will tell you what it means. You all watch TV. You see the news — the crime, the devastation.

Every dollar that goes to drugs fuels the killing. As long as there are Americans willing to buy drugs, there will be people willing to sell drugs, and people willing to kill as a cost of doing business. There’s a connection between the suppliers and even occasional or weekend users that can never be forgotten. Casual drug use is responsible for the casualties of the drug war. From the city streets of America to the street bombings of Colombia, even dabblers in drugs bear responsibility for the blood being spilled. And unlike those of you in school this fall, those killed by the drug trade never do get a second chance. Drugs are rightly called an equal opportunity destroyer. They have no conscience. They don’t care where the money comes from. They just murder people. Young and old, good and bad, innocent and guilty — it doesn’t matter. For too many, drugs mean death.

I keep this badge — I keep this badge in my desk to remind me of that. It was worn by a young rookie cop named Eddie Byrne. Twenty-two years old, not much older than some of you. He was out trying to stop the drug trade, protecting a witness so that a dealer could be brought to justice. Eddie Byrne had three brothers, a girlfriend he’d known for 4 years. He loved fishing and football, was a running back at Plainedge High School in New York. And he had a lot of friends in his neighborhood. And Eddie Byrne had dreams. But in the early hours of a cold February morning, sitting in a police cruiser, Eddie was blown away at pointblank range, killed on the orders of a drug kingpin — cold and calculated.

I’ve heard some say if you do drugs now and then, why, you’re not hurting anybody. It’s no big deal. Well, the next time you think about using drugs, I want you to think of Eddie Byrne, and I want you to think about the family that lost him. To me this badge is a constant reminder that Eddie Byrne’s life was not given in vain. This is a promise: The killing must and will stop. Where you’re sitting right now, where you’re sitting there in school — I know you’ve got your dreams, everyone does. But out on the streets, a nightmare for America is happening every day, every night.

Somewhere a teenage girl who ought to be in school is giving birth to a baby already addicted to cocaine. And that baby is coming into this world shaking and twitching from withdrawal, so sensitive to the touch that it can’t be held or fed properly. How can drugs cause so much pain? How can they lead brothers to kill brothers and mothers to abandon children? And behind all of the senseless violence, the needless tragedy, what haunts me is the question: Why?

I have one answer. Drugs are still a problem because too many of us are still looking the other way. And that’s why I wanted to talk to you today. I’m asking you not to look the other way. Maybe you’re in trouble, or on the edge of trouble. Maybe you know someone who is. Maybe you’ve got younger brothers or sisters — you know they’re looking up to you. Don’t risk your life, or theirs. And if you’re struggling with the kind of problem that can truly be the toughest, if you have parents who have problems with drugs or alcohol, find someone you can trust. Talk to them about it. You know — all of you in a classroom know — who’s got a problem. Today I’m not just asking you to get help. I’m asking you to find someone who needs you, and offer to help. I’ll say it again: If you’re not in trouble, help someone who is.

We all want to succeed. And I’ll let you in on a secret: We all can succeed. If you don’t use drugs, you can be anything you want to be. Maybe you’ve heard Michael Jordan say, “You’ve got at least three-quarters of your life to go. That’s three more lifetimes to you. So don’t blow it.” Saying no won’t make you a nerd. It won’t make you a loser. In fact, it will make you more friends than drugs ever will — real friends.

But if that’s not enough reason, there’s another side: Using illegal drugs is against the law. And if you break the law, you pay the price. Because the rules have changed. If you do drugs you will be caught, and when you’re caught you will be punished. You might lose your driver’s license — some States have started revoking users’ driving privileges. Or you might lose the college loan you wanted — because we’re not helping those who break the law. These are privileges, not rights. And if you risk doing drugs, you risk everything, even your freedom. Because you will be punished.

Now, I can imagine a few whispers out there: Maybe you think we’ll never get drugs under control, that it’s too easy for the dealers to get back on the street. Well, those days are over, too. The revolving door just jammed. Some think there won’t be room for them in jail. We’ll make room. We’re almost doubling prison space. Some think there aren’t enough prosecutors. We’ll hire them, with the largest increase in Federal prosecutors in history. The day of the dealer is drawing to a close.

No matter who you are or how strong you are, drugs take control of your life. Though without drugs, you’re in control. You can determine your future, and that means staying in school. If you’re thinking about dropping out, think it through. Maybe you know somebody who wants to quit school. Talk to them about it. And if you have friends who have already dropped out, talk to them, too. Find a way to bring them back.

Today, I’ve asked you to think about the terrible cost drugs are making us all pay every day. But even more important, I’m asking you to think about what you can do to make a difference for someone else. Last winter, after I was sworn in as President, I said that from now on in America, any definition of a successful life must include serving others, helping others. And I hope you all believe that.

There’s a story about a young boy and an old man who were walking along a beach. And as they walked, the boy picked up each starfish he passed and threw it into the sea. The old man asked him why.

“If I left them here,” the boy said, “they would dry up in the sun and die. I’m saving their lives.” “But the beach goes on for miles and there are millions of starfish,” the old man said. “How can what you’re doing make any difference at all?” And the boy looked at the starfish in his hand, threw it out into the ocean and answered, “It makes a difference to this one.”

You’re here to make a difference, for yourself and those around you. So learn to count on each other. Take care of each other. Give someone else another chance. And make the days mean something. Have a good year, and God bless you.