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Award Ceremony with Secretary Cohen and Steven Spielberg

Presenter: Secretary Cohen Awards Steven Spielberg
August 11, 1999

Secretary Cohen: Thank you very much. Steven, who is going to see Senator Thurmond, who was here earlier today, and pay a special tribute to Strom, who in fact dropped into Normandy so many years ago. Deputy Secretary Hamre, General Shelton and Mrs. Shelton, Admiral Johnson and Mrs. Johnson, officers of the armed forces, Janet and ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to begin with a quote from Euripides, one of the great Greek tragedians. He asked in one of his plays, he said: How do I praise thee and not over praise, yet mar their grace by stint thereof? It's a challenge to praise a man who has won nearly as many awards as we have forces deployed. [Laughter.]

Secretary Cohen: Well, at least as [many] peacekeepers as we have in Sinai and in Haiti.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who was the father of one of our greatest Supreme Court justices, wrote that the first thing naturally when one enters a scholar's study or library is to look at his books. One gets a notion very speedily of his tastes and the range of his pursuits by a glance at his bookshelves. Well, if we substitute the words "films made" for "books read," then we take the mark of Steven Spielberg rather quickly.

He has the wonderful, multicolored imagination of a child, where fancy can take futuristic flight on gossamer wings, as it did in E.T., or descend into the terrifying phobias of Poltergeist or Jaws or Jurassic Park. But, for me at least, what displays the range of his mind is his fascination not only with where we can go, rocketing into the future, but where we've been in canvassing our painful past. And here we point to Amistad, The Color Purple, Schindler's List. And it's his respect for our history, the articulate, audible and visual voice that he gives to our experience at a time when so much of its substance is being erased by the PC's delete key that illuminates his soul.

He is determined, through his art and through his philanthropic works, to help America avoid the fate of Robert Frost's Hired Man, who had nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope, which brings me to the reason why we're all here today. And that is to express the Defense Department's gratitude for what this visionary liberal/conservative I could say compassionate conservative, but that would be wrong--[Laughter.] [We are here for] what he has done for the men and women who have worn our Nation's uniform and who wear it today, who were and are prepared to rappel into the hell of war and, for so many, into annihilation itself, for a cause greater than self.

It was just about a year ago today that Jack Valenti, a decorated World War II veteran, who had 51 flights--who, along with Strom Thurmond, who is a member of Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation--that Jack invited Janet and me to a private screening of Saving Private Ryan. And when the last of the credits rolled and the lights came up, almost everybody in the theater that evening had tears in their eyes. Others were so stunned they could not speak. Most wouldn't make eye contact with one another. All we could hear were the sounds of silence. Everyone simply wanted to leave the theater so we could go home and reflect on the meaning and on the power of that film.

And then, some weeks later, when the Army paid tribute to Steven, the eloquence of his words there only added to the force of his message. And he spoke very movingly about how he wanted to make this movie as a way of saying thank you, thank you to his father, who had served aboard a B-25 during World War II, and thank you to his father's generation for their service and sacrifice during that war.

Well, we are here today, in turn, to say thank you for what you have given all of us. I think one of the most remarkable results of that film was not only that it prompted us to go back into the past, but that it prompted so many of the veterans to come forward. Because, for decades, many of the veterans struggled to find the right words or the right way to share with family and friends what they had suffered through during that war. But, over the past year, we have heard so many stories of veterans who, after seeing this film, finally venturing forth to tell a son, a daughter or a grandchild of their experience.

And so this film has not only provided an emotional catharsis for yesterday's veterans, but a reminder to today's soldiers that the gift outright was many deeds of war, that blood and bone and soul were sacrificed so that a mechanized evil in Europe would not triumph and stamp out the fires of freedom.

Ryan, I must be quick to point out, is not a recruitment promotional for the Pentagon. It speaks to us, however, about the importance of values, of discipline, of determination, and of sacrifice, and forces us to confront those unsettling existential questions that go to the very marrow of what it means to be an American: Is our generation worthy of the sacrifices of our forefathers? Are we upholding their legacy? What is the price of freedom? Are we willing to pay the price? And, if so, how high?

Well, there was a book I read some years ago, which remains one of my favorites. It was written by Alistair Cooke, who wrote a book called America. And in one of his chapters, he made the inevitable comparison between America and Rome. And he suggested that we, like Rome, were in danger of losing that which we profess to cherish most, that liberty is the luxury of self-discipline, and that those nations who have failed to impose discipline upon themselves, have had it imposed upon them by others. And then he said: America is a country in which I see the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism--the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism. And the race is on between its vitality and its decadence. And then he went on to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, and he said: We have a great country, and we can keep it, but only if we care to keep it.

Ladies and gentlemen, as you look out into the faces in this audience, as you look at the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Shelton, as you look at Admiral Johnson, you look at the faces of the men and women who are serving in our military today, and the 23,000 who come to work here every day and the 1.2 million-plus who wear the uniform every day of the year. Then you know that the race is being won by our vitality and not our decadence.

And it's because of people like Steven Spielberg, who remind us of the duty that we have to carry forward, who reminds us that we have a great country and that we can keep it, but only if we care to keep it. And so for that, Steven, I want to say thank you on behalf of all of us who care so much about this country and want to see that the legacy that we have inherited is passed on to those who will follow us, and that the fires of freedom will continue to burn, and that the people who we represent will carry forth the same pride, the same commitment, with the same sacrifice of our forefathers. And now, if you will please read the citation.[Applause]

Voice: Ladies and gentlemen, please remain seated during the presentation of this award. Thank you.

To Mr. Steven Spielberg, for exceptionally distinguished public service as Director of the movie Saving Private Ryan and the significant contributions to the Nation and the Department of Defense. Through his masterpiece, Mr. Spielberg poignantly captured the stirring sacrifices of America's World War II heroes and paid moving tribute to their indomitable fighting spirit. In so doing, he made an historic contribution to the national consciousness, reminding all Americans that the legacy of freedom enjoyed today endears in great measure because of their selfless and courageous actions. Moreover, Mr. Spielberg helped to reconnect the American public with its military men and women, while rekindling a deep sense of gratitude for the daily sacrifices they make on the front lines of our Nation's defense. The distinctive accomplishments of Mr. Spielberg reflect great credit upon himself, the Department of Defense, and the Nation. It gives me great pleasure to present Steven Spielberg the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service. Signed, William S. Cohen, Secretary of Defense. [Applause.]

Mr. Spielberg: Thank you. Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, Mr. Chairman. I'm in the Army now. [Laughter.]

I think that if every American could renew their vows with America, as I've had, through the working privilege of making Saving Private Ryan, they could feel a pride in their country that right now fills my heart and soul and makes me humble and I think will make my words short. It doesn't happen very often when a filmmaker achieves his goals. My goal was to remember--unsparingly--the sacrifices of my father's generation, and to try to get my children's generation to honor the past and to understand the importance of what World War II did for all of us and did for the world.

I feel that, in my experience as a filmmaker, lightning has only struck twice in a way that has filled me up with such pride. One of those times was Schindler's List and the other time was Saving Private Ryan. And I think that what I have devoted myself to over the last several years is just the act of remembrance and the act of trying to lead others to remember back along with me. It's very easy, as we move into the next 1,000 years, to forget the last thousand. It's very easy to forget the last 10. And I think that today's youth have a tendency to live in the present and work for the future, but to totally be ignorant of the past. And I just hope that, through films and through literature and through television and through people who are conscious of our vanishing history, that we will all do more to point people backwards so we can take that giant leap forward.

Thank you very much.[Applause.]

Voice: Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes our ceremony. Please remain standing for the departure of the official party.

Thank you.

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