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Center for National Policy, Receipt of the Edmund S. Muskie Distinguished Public Service Award
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Ronald Reagan Building, Washington, DC, Wednesday, November 01, 2000

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Congressman [Jack Murtha] and Joyce [Murtha]. Jack, thank you for your very gracious words. Lloyd [Hand], how could you possibly stand up here and quote a poet and not make it Longfellow? [Laughter.]

But I want to thank you, Lloyd, for the friend that you've been to Janet [Langhart Cohen] and me, and the friend you've been throughout my career. I've known you since I came to Washington, and I agree with what Maureen [Steinbruner; President, Center for National Policy] has said about you -- you indeed not only represent your client, but you represent this country wherever you go. So I'm proud to call you a friend.

Leon [Panetta; Chair, Center for National Policy], I was really proud to serve with you in the House when I was there, and then when I went to the Senate -- or "the other body" – when you took over in the Budget Committee, then to see you as OMB [Office of Management and Budget] Director, then [White House] Chief of Staff. You truly have been a credit not only to the party but the country, and I want to thank you for seeing to it that I got this invitation and this award this evening, because I am truly honored by it.

As I listened to your introductions and your comments about me, I thought of the story about when President Carter was presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Ed Muskie. If Jane [Muskie] were here, she might recall exactly what happened. President Carter read his citation. He said, "As Senator, Secretary of State, candidate and citizen, Ed Muskie has captured a place in the public's eye and the public's heart. Devoted to his nation and to our ideals, he has performed heroically and with great fortitude in a time of great challenge." To which Ed Muskie then responded, "You forgot to say I served as Governor." [Laughter.]

He took great pride in having served as Governor of Maine. Congressman Murtha, although I was once the Mayor of Bangor, the third largest city in Maine, you left out very little in your introduction, and I thank you. [Laughter.]

Members of Congress who are here, present and past; [Congressman] John Baldacci did depart. He promised he was going to introduce me to [the author] David Baldacci if I could pronounce the name Baldacci correctly when I met David. [Laughter.] We also have here, I'm told, Congressman Jim Moran, Congressman [Silvestre] Reyes, and I think I saw [former Senator] Dan Coates over here, with whom I've served in the past. But there are so many who are here this evening, I could take the rest of the night just to acknowledge all of you. But let me simply say to my former colleagues how much I enjoyed my 24 years on Capitol Hill.

We have Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon. Rudy, you took over following in the wake of John Hamre. You have filled his shoes admirably, and they're very big shoes, as anyone who knows John knows. [Laughter.] He has done a magnificent job while serving [as Staff Director for the Committee on Armed Services] and then over in the Pentagon. You have just done a magnificent job, and I want to publicly acknowledge what a great servant you have been to this country. [Applause.]

I also want to acknowledge just a couple of other people who are here. One is my dear friend Buzz Fitzgerald and his wife Sue. They have come down all the way from Bath, Maine. Buzz was formerly the CEO of Bath Ironworks, one of the great shipbuilding companies in this country. Buzz, I know it took a lot for you to get down here, and I just want you to know how much Janet and I have treasured your friendship. Perhaps you and Sue could stand up so we could pay tribute to another great man from Maine. [Applause.]

There's another person in the audience that rarely gets acknowledged. In fact, I am quite derelict in this even though he has been with me for 25 years. He is my Chief of Staff, Bob Tyrer. Those of you who have had occasion to deal with me or my office understand [applause] that Bob came with me right out of high school. He has been the best friend and the best counsel and man at the door to have that you can possibly ask for. He's been a terrific friend, and he does a great job as Chief of Staff. I know that many of the people who are here tonight know you personally, Bob, if not through your professional exploits, then certainly on the golf course where you are second only to Tiger Woods in terms of your capability. [Laughter.]

Ladies and gentlemen, as we saw this parade of distinguished people here starting with Lloyd, Maureen, Leon and finally with Jack Murtha, I was thinking of a movie we saw a week or so ago. We paid tribute to a man of honor, and it was a movie called "Men of Honor" about the life story of Navy diver Carl Brashear. It was an inspirational movie about an inspirational man.

I think of that tonight because as I look around this room I see so many people that I've had the privilege of serving with for more than 28 years now. And to see this honor guard come up here and stand before you, and to see these flags that are surrounding us tonight, [I want] to tell you how proud I am to be in the position that I am, to have had not only those 24 years on Capitol Hill, but to have had the last four years to serve you, our country, but especially the men and women who are serving us.

Janet and I have had the experience of a lifetime. When people say, "You're doing a great job," I say, "No. It's not a job. It's been a great opportunity." There has been nothing in our lifetime's experience that has been as demanding, as exhausting, but as exhilarating as being in a position to represent the men and women who are serving us today in uniform.

So I wanted to come tonight to talk a little bit about them, but before I do I want to say a word about brevity, because Janet reminded me as I mounted the platform that I'm the fourth or fifth speaker this evening. Then Lloyd said, "Do you think we should have an intermission before you get up?" [Laughter.]

But I think of Robert Frost who's work, of course, always focused on New England. Following dinner a woman approached him and said, "Isn't that a beautiful sunset?" To which Frost replied, "I never talk business after dinner." [Laughter.] I would like to talk just a little bit of business after this great dinner tonight and to talk about an event that has really galvanized the American spirit and focus.

Before I get to that, I should say that in six days we're going to have an election and the race, I'm told, is too close to call. We have people who are finally getting out of the undecided column. We have parties who are fighting to get out the vote. We have policy advisors on both sides of the aisle that are getting out their resumes. [Laughter.] And I thought it was only appropriate that as a Republican in this Democratic administration, that there would be no safer place to be than at a Muskie dinner in the Reagan Center. [Laughter and applause.]

To top it all off, I was introduced by Jack Murtha. He was kidding you when he said that when I came in I went over to him. In fact, he grabbed me as I came through the door and had a collar lock on me and didn't let me go. [Laughter.]

But Jack, I want to say that the ancient Greeks used to have a word that I think typifies and characterizes you. It's called arete, and it meant nobility; not nobility of blood, but nobility of purpose. I want to say that in the years that I have known you and served with you, you have had this nobility of purpose, of really being concerned about the welfare of this country, of being concerned about the people who wear the uniform, because you were once one of them, because of the courage you showed in Vietnam and the medals that you won and the Purple Hearts that were awarded to you. I want you to know how much we look to you and have looked to you for leadership on defense issues, but also in supporting our policies across the board regardless of party affiliation.

So for me, it was a great thrill to know I would be getting this award, but also to know that you were going to be introducing me. It was somewhat of a joke when I came in, but you got down on bended knee, and I was hoping a photographer might catch that image [laughter] because it's totally unrealistic in the way things work in this city. Usually I have to go up on bended knee before Jack and his subcommittee -- it's called The Crucible. [Laughter.] He puts me through my paces, but I'm always looking forward to working with him.

Jack, you remind me of [former Senator Henry ] "Scoop" Jackson. I remember that when they accused him of being a defense hawk, Scoop would say, "I'm not a hawk. I'm not a dove. I just don't want America to become a pigeon." [Laughter.] I think all of us feel exactly that way. So Jack, let me again thank you for your kind comments.

Secretary [of the Army, Louis] Caldera, thank you for being here tonight. And let me thank all who are in the audience who are truly bipartisan this evening. I could not believe the composition of the group that's here, because I think there are probably just as many Republicans as there are Democrats, and that's the way it should be. That's the way it should be.

I'd like to talk about an event that took place a few weeks ago when the USS Cole was hit. It tore a hole into the side of a magnificent ship, but it also tore a hole in our hearts. It's a wound that I don't think we will ever recover from. I know the parents of those who were lost will never recover from it.

Janet and I had the unique experience of going down to Norfolk with the President to spend a couple of hours with the families, the 17 who had lost their son or daughter, and many of the wounded. Some 45 were in fact wounded during that attack.

It was a remarkable experience. It was a remarkable scene. But then to see all of those sailors who had wrapped their arms around the families, and the sailors up on the [USS] Eisenhower and the other ships that were in port. They formed this white line of integrity, telling the world that we were still proud, that we were going to be secure, and that we were going to take care of these families. It was an inspiring moment at a time when our hearts were breaking.

It also served, I think, to remind the world exactly what the men and women who are serving us face every single day. We tend to take their service for granted. We don't see them in our midst as we used to. We don't always have family members or people in our families who have had this experience of being in the military. So we have a smaller presence in our own country, and they are more widely dispersed than ever before. And it takes, unfortunately, a moment as we had a few weeks ago to galvanize the American people's attention and to force them to look into the daily lives of our men and women who are out there.

Janet and I have tried to wage a campaign of reconnecting America to its military, to remind them just how gifted these young people are, how dedicated, patriotic, how educated, how selfless, and how courageous they are. They're out there every day facing the same kind of terrorist threat that those on the USS Cole faced. And we need to do all we can to support them. Certainly spiritually, morally, but also financially, in every way that we can.

I know it's been a matter of some debate during the course of the election that's taking place right now, but the fact is that we can always do more [to support our men and women in uniform]. Both candidates have pledged to do more, so it's not a partisan issue.

But I want you to know that when we look at our military, I will tell you, there isn't a military force in the world today that even compares. This is the finest force we've ever had. They're better educated, they're better trained and better led. They are the best fighting force in the world. We want to make sure that we keep them that way. We want to make sure that we do even more in the future.

Look back at what they've been able to accomplish, and what they accomplish even today. Look at the Kosovo campaign—a 78-day air campaign that many had doubts as to whether we could possibly win. There were 38,000 sorties that were flown by the NATO forces, and we were the ones who were carrying the load up front with all of our stealth capabilities and electronic jamming and precision-guided munitions. There were 38,000 sorties flown. We lost two aircraft and no pilots. That tells you something about our readiness. It tells you something about our capability. So the American people ought to understand that when it comes to those front line forces, they are as ready as any force in the world and more so than any force in the world. We want to keep them that way and even do better.

There is another aspect to the USS Cole that I'd like to talk about tonight. Half a world away the crew of the Cole was undergoing one of the most extraordinary experiences of their lives.

As you know, there was a hole that was blasted through that magnificent ship that was some 40 feet wide and deep at the water line. What most people are unaware of, even as the [memorial] ceremony was taking place, they were fighting over there to save the ship. They were without power. The temperatures were over 90 degrees. They had lost electricity. One of the seals around the second shaft had broken. Water was coming in at a rate of ten gallons a minute. They had no pumps. They were bailing it out bucket by bucket.

That was an extraordinary thing amidst the fumes, the smoke, the live wires, the bodies [of their shipmates who] had died, and the wounded who were crying for help. All of that was taking place and they managed to save that ship. And had they not been the professionals that they are, that ship could have been lost and that would, of course, have been a terrible blow to the Navy, to the country, and to the cause of world peace. [So, I want to use] this evening to talk about them and how much praise they deserve and how proud every one of you should be of the people who are serving us. [Applause.]

I will tell you that there is an e-mail that's making its way around the Pentagon and I want to quote from it because it's from a helicopter pilot who flew over the Cole. He said, "I wish I had the power to relay to you all that I have seen but words just won't do it. I do want to tell you the first thing that jumped out at me. Amid all the debris, the disarray, the ship listing, the hole in her side, there were the Stars and Stripes flying, and I have never been so proud of what I do or the men and women that I serve with, than I am today."

That's the way each and every one of us should feel every day, and that's why when we see the people who are wearing that uniform we ought to go up and say, " Thank you. Thank you for what you do on our behalf in making sure that we sleep under this blanket of freedom." Because unless we have people who are willing to bear this burden, then we're going to see the kinds of things that take place in other countries come to our own shores.

I have traveled the world over, and it's always the same. If I go out to the deserts as Jack was talking about, in Saudi Arabia where Janet and I have been, or Kuwait, or the DMZ, or Jakarta recently when I was visiting Indonesia. Wherever we go our forces that are forward deployed are making an impression upon people in the most positive of ways.

In Jakarta I saw a news headline that said, "Marines Land at East Timor" and the implication was there was some kind of an invasion underway. Well, the Marines were invading. They were invading to build houses for people who had no shelter. And that's the kind of capability we have -- not only to be great warriors, but also to be great diplomats and humanitarians and peacekeepers. That's what our military is doing for us today. That's why we are in fact the most respected military in the world today.

But what I'd also like to say to you tonight is that this is not necessarily the way things are going to be for the future. If we look back at our success during Desert Storm, it was a remarkable success. If we look at our success in Kosovo, again a remarkable success. Both campaigns were undertaken in unusual circumstances. One out virtually in the desert, the other in fairly rural territory although mountainous and dangerous. But I would say that this is not going to be the battlefront of the future.

Think about the demographics of today. By the year 2020, just 19 short years away, between 60 and 70 percent of the world's population will live in urban centers, and seven out of ten of those urban centers will be on the coast lines. So we're going to have to think about threats and how we face those threats in far different ways than we do today.

That's precisely what we're doing in the military. The Navy is looking at designing and developing ships that are far more lethal and stealthy than they are today with less manpower required. The Air Force is developing their expeditionary force. The Marines are training in urban warfare. The Army is becoming lighter, more rapidly deployable, and more lethal. All of that is underway today, and we have to face the changes that are facing us. But we have to do so with a military capability that will continue to be superior to any that exists in the world.

I wanted to say just a word about the Muskie Award, because Ed Muskie and I were very close friends. I grew up as a young man in Bangor, and Ed at that point was a young legislator in the [Maine] House of Representatives. By the time I got to vote in college he had gone from being Governor into the United States Senate. And by the time I arrived in Congress in 1972, of course, he was world renowned for his efforts in trying to preserve and improve the environment, and then he became known not only as Mr. Clean, but later as Mr. Budget.

I even had aspirations at one time of running against Ed Muskie back in 1976. I thought about it long and hard. The polls showed that I had a pretty good chance of winning, but I knew in my heart that something was wrong. I thought sure, I think I can beat Ed Muskie on a good day, but it wouldn't be really good for the country. I was in danger of letting ambition outrun ability, because I knew in my heart of hearts that he was better for the state of Maine and for the country at that point in his career and certainly in my career.

But I didn't come to that realization until a very quiet moment of solitude up on Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine. I took a book with me called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I see you down here now Don Larrabee, a great journalist from the state of Maine who was so closely associated with Ed Muskie. I'm really pleased to see you here tonight, Don.

But I went up to Sugarloaf Mountain. Robert Pirsig was the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He said something about ambition that really struck home. He said that whenever you look at the ambitious person, he's always just sort of one step out of kilter, always trying to get to the next spot, never realizing the joy and the satisfaction of being where he is. And he said, life is really not on top of the mountain, life is on the sides of the mountain.

And reading those words, it brought home to me that there I was as a young person, a young man who had these aspirations thinking I could take on Ed Muskie and defeat him, but I knew after just spending those moments of solitude that the nation would have been much more deficient and suffered more in the process of my election.

So I want to say that to Jane tonight. She's not here, but perhaps she'll watch on C-Span, which is covering this event. I had Ed Muskie as a friend. I had him as a mentor. I hold him, and still to this day, as the ultimate public servant. And this evening when someone— I think it was Ed Weidenfeld—said, "I hope you're going to quote from your hero, Joshua Chamberlain," I said maybe. But maybe instead I'll quote from another veteran of the Civil War and that's one of my favorites, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

I remember this about Holmes from his writings. He said, "I've always believed that it's not place or power or popularity that brings one the satisfaction that one desires, but the trembling hope that one has come near to an ideal. And the only thing that prevents us from believing that we're living in a fool's paradise is the voice of a few masters, and I feel it so much I don't want to talk about it."

I think of those words when I think of Ed Muskie. I think not about place or power or popularity, but the trembling hope that he held that he would come near to the ideal of a public servant. And tonight I feel it so much, that I really don't want to talk about it any more. Thank you very much for the honor. [Applause.]