In Minnesota, now, there is a handicapped boy who wants to be able to walk 100 yards unassisted, and last night a congressional and business leaders' dinner saluted his motivation.
"Those of us in my generation who fought in World War II can remember scores who didn't realize their potential," said Rep. Robert Michel (R-Ill.), explaining the spirit behind the Congressional Award program. From the stage of the Shoreham Hotel, Michel urged his 1,000 listeners to provide for today's youth "opportunities for excellence in a peaceful world."
The program was inspired by financier W. Clement Stone and shaped into legislation by Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) and Rep. James Howard (D-N.J.) and is to be supported by private sector funds, such as those raised last night. "We can't call this a program; it's a way of thinking," said Dinah Shore, the entertainer for the evening. Shore added to much laughter, "Congress does not grant funds for the award , but what are they giving money to these days?"
The $1,000-a-plate dinner was a salute to the congressional leadership: House Speaker Thomas O'Neill (D-Mass.); Michel, House minority leader; Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), Senate majority leader; and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Senate minority leader, a combination that the evening's emcee, Art Buchwald, called a "bargain." With stories about their personal success coming from Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown and Canteen Corporation chairman Patrick O'Malley, the evening's mood was more a celebration of inspiration. Most of the political conversation was left to the satire of Buchwald and a sharp barb from Shore. Shore mentioned the reported "tablecloth crisis" at the White House and suggested to O'Neill that he get his Irish constituents to donate "lace curtains."
However, at the pre-dinner reception, Secretary of Health and Human Services Richard Schweiker and Baker talked about the increased security prompted by the White House reports of assassination plots by Libyan operatives. "So far, I am not on the hit list," said an obviously relieved Schweiker. Saying he didn't know any of the details of the beefed-up security, Schweiker added, "My department is not in the inner circle." Baker, who also functioned as the dinner's official photographer, said that President Reagan had scheduled a briefing on the Libyan matter with congressional leaders "in a day or two." Added Baker, "All congressional leaders have added protection, but it's part of the general beefing up."
Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has seen the White House's evidence of the plot, said, "I think basically the administration has reason to be concerned."
Over the four-course dinner, the responsibility of the private sector to programs such as the Congressional Award was discussed. "The private sector can do what the government can't do. It takes action," said Stone, slapping his hands together. It was hoped that last night's dinner would raise $1 million for the competitive project that encourages youth, ages 14 to 23, to compete for medals through voluntary community service or personal development activities. Minnesota, the site of the pilot project, has in addition to the handicapped youngster and one other participant a young man learning taxidermy "so he can teach others," according to David Koch, a Minneapolis businessman.
The critical purpose of the dinner competed strongly with the coincidence of O'Neill's birthday. When the audience was asked to sing "Happy Birthday," the song got an inaudible and awkward start. Then Michel led the audience in his strong baritone. Quickly lopping 30 years off his age, O'Neill said, "A person is only as old as they feel in their hearts. I feel 39."
But at the end, O'Neill had a four-star concert. The speaker himself joined Shore in a rendition of "If You're Irish Come Into My Parlor," Michel sang "If Ever I Would Leave You," and Byrd played the fiddle and sang "There's More Than One Pretty Girl in Every Town." And Baker kept snapping pictures.