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George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service (College Station, TX)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, College Station, TX, Friday, October 26, 2007

Howdy! I love saying that. I tried saying it yesterday morning at the NATO defense ministers meeting in the Netherlands. It didn’t get quite the same response (LAUGHTER). Mr. President, Mrs. Bush, ladies and gentlemen, Aggies, I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be back in Aggieland. Mr. President, I am deeply moved and honored by this award, especially because it bears your name – one of the most distinguished public servants in American history (APPLAUSE).
 
One of the great privileges of my life was to be at this president’s side as he provided inspired leadership to a world that in a span of less than 36 months, experienced the liberation of Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany and NATO, the victory of the West in the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the first Gulf War. As I wrote in my book over 10 years ago: “The imagination reels at the thought of a less experienced and skilled president trying to exploit the liberation of Eastern Europe or dealing with the final crisis and death throes of the Russian and Soviet empire …. As the communist bloc was disintegrating, it was George H.W. Bush’s skilled, yet quiet, statecraft that made a revolutionary time seem so much less dangerous than it actually was.”
 
Ten years after I wrote those words, I would add that I am confident that someday the world will recognize the boundless debt it owes this President Bush for his leadership during a time when, without precedent in modern history, a great and powerfully armed empire came to an end without a war. I am humbled to be his friend and to be honored by him (APPLAUSE).
 
Now, working for President Bush – the 41st president, now known simply as “41” – was not all drama.  He is, for example, the creator of another prestigious award: the Scowcroft Award, named for his national security advisor, Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft. This award was created by the President in 1989 to honor the American official who most ostentatiously fell asleep in a meeting with the President (LAUGHTER).  This was not frivolous.  Candidates were evaluated on three criteria: First, duration – how long did they sleep; second, the depth of the sleep – snoring always got you extra points; and third was quality of recovery – did one simply quietly open one’s eyes and return to the meeting or jolt awake, possibly spilling something hot? (LAUGHTER)  General Scowcroft was, of course, the first awardee, and I might also add won many oak leaf clusters (LAUGHTER).
 
Some of you might remember that the cartoonist Garry Trudeau made quite a good living at the President’s expense in his cartoon strip Doonesbury. The strip often featured 41’s invisible other self – “President Skippy” – as an asterisk.  One morning when the President stepped out of the Oval Office during a briefing, we had a photographer come in and take a picture of Scowcroft, Chief of Staff John Sununu, and me all talking and gesturing vehemently at an empty chair.  We later presented a large, framed copy of the photograph to him, inscribed, “To President Skippy, from the gang that knows you best.”
 
He loved it, and promptly jumped up out of his chair and said, “The press has to know about this.”  He then walked to the press room without any forewarning, and there was nearly a press riot. He showed them the picture, said there was clearly a plot against him inside the administration, and then attributed the whole idea to his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater – a completely innocent and unwitting bystander (LAUGHTER).
 
I owe much to both former President Bush and to General Scowcroft, but I will never be able to repay what I owe them for introducing me to Texas A&M.  Of course, the method they used, as befits a former president and head of CIA, and a national security advisor to two presidents, involved more than a little deception.  I was told that being interim dean of the Bush School would be largely “honorific,” a day or two a month for nine months – just until a permanent dean was found.  It was a classic bait and switch con (LAUGHTER). Two weeks a month commuting from Seattle, and two years later, they finally hired a permanent dean, Lieutenant General Dick Chilcoat.  
 
I fell in love with Texas A&M, soon after I arrived in August of 1999, but in the summer of 2001, I was headed home to the Northwest – and to my family.  A&M President Ray Bowen had announced his retirement plans and several people asked me if I would be a candidate to succeed him.  I asked one if he had gotten hold of a bad drug.  I repeatedly said no, and went home.
 
Six weeks later, 19 jihadist terrorists changed all of our lives forever. Two and a half months after 9/11, on December 1, 2001, the former chairman of the A&M Board of Regents, Don Powell, made a final stab at asking me to be a candidate for President of A&M.  I talked to Becky and told her that after 9/11 I felt compelled to do one more public service.  I told her I never wanted to return to Washington, D.C., (LAUGHTER) and so I felt I had to agree to be a candidate to lead A&M.  And you know the rest of the story.  And so, on August 1, 2002, after a retirement that lasted almost nine and a half years – including two years at that “honorific” job at the Bush School – I returned to public service as President of Texas A&M.
 
The world turned upside down again for me almost exactly a year ago when duty – and another President Bush – called me away from here and to a different kind of public service.  Just over 40 years after I took my oath and joined CIA, I was on my way back to Washington and government service.
 
What is this strange phenomenon called public service?  Certainly many have considered it an onerous burden.  Edwin Stanton, President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, wrote: “There could be no greater madness than for a man to encounter what I do for anything less than motives that overleap time and look forward to eternity.”  Lord Cornwallis complained, “I have been obliged to say yes and exchange a life of ease and content, to encounter all the plagues and miseries of command and public station.”
 
My favorite whine, though, came from no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin, who wrote the following to a friend who was assuming a public office: “The public is often stingy, even of its thanks, while you are sure of being censured by malevolent critics and bug-writers, who will abuse you while you are serving them, and wound your character in nameless pamphlets, thereby resembling those little dirty insects that attack us only in the dark, disturb our repose, molesting and wounding us while our sweat and blood are contributing to their subsistence.”   
 
And yet, they served.
 
Tonight, nearly 200,000 American men and women in uniform serve in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Every single one is a volunteer.  Each has chosen to be there in the belief that they are protecting America and bringing a better life to millions long oppressed.  As of yesterday, 3,385 of their comrades have died in action, in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan – and 30,044 have been wounded in action.
 
And yet they serve.
 
Millions of other Americans have chosen careers in public service, electing to serve their fellow citizens in the belief they can help make this country and the world a better place.  More than two million men and women in the active and reserve armed forces; policemen and firemen; teachers; nurses; elected and appointed officials – local, state, and national; and countless more.  All too often, the pay and working conditions are challenging.  All operate in the public spotlight and often find public criticism to be the reward of their labors.  Many could live better pursuing other careers.
 
And yet they serve.
 
A life in public service can be challenging.  But I think the challenge has less to do with often inadequate compensation and working conditions than it does with the public climate in America today.  Politics was always a rough business at the top in America.  After all, don’t forget that Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, and name-calling before, during, and after presidential elections has afflicted every president since George Washington – and even he suffered calumny.  But the harsh and unforgiving environment has spread far beyond presidential politics.  Even local service – on school boards, municipal councils, and the like – can expose one to ugly attacks and venomous criticism.
 
Any human weakness or error is pounced upon and often leads to instant ridicule in the national media or, worse, personal ruin.  And, today, not only is an official subject to such scrutiny, so, too, are his or her family members, business or professional partners, and even friends.  Assuming public office places at risk all one cares about most in life.  A reputation established over the course of decades can be destroyed in an instant. And if later found blameless, an official can only ask – as did an accused and later exonerated member of President Reagan’s cabinet – “Where do I go to get my reputation back?”  In Washington, in today’s polarized environment, it is no longer enough to defeat someone; personal ruin too often becomes the goal.  The situation has become so serious that leaders in both parties worry about how to attract high quality people to government service.
 
And yet they serve.
 
Nor should we forget the contributions and the families of those who serve. The spouses of our men and women in uniform who remain behind and keep the home functioning by getting the children to school and to little league. Who must shoulder unbearable burdens when a husband or wife is killed or badly wounded. And think about the children of those in uniform who must deal with the loss of a parent or, far more commonly, must often move away from friends and familiar schools, who must deal with the absence of a deployed mom or dad not just on special occasions, but every day. 
           
And while the families of our servicemen and women pay the highest price, the families of others in public service often must deal with the challenges imposed by absences, long hours, and the strains of service. As her husband took on one great responsibility after another, Barbara Bush symbolizes the spouse who kept her family together even while making her own remarkable contributions to society. My wife Becky is another role model in this regard, responding time and again when I have been asked to serve both here and in Washington. She has always said, “We have to do what you have to do.” The families of those in public service all “do what they have to do” and pay their own high price.
           
And yet they too serve.
 
Why?
 
Each one in public service has his or her own story – and motives.  But I believe, if you scratch deeply enough, you will find that those who serve – no matter how outwardly tough or jaded or egotistical – are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists.  And optimists.  We actually believe we can make a difference, that we can make the lives of others better, that we can make a positive difference in the life of the greatest country in the history of the world – in President Lincoln’s words, “the last, best, hope of earth.”
 
Public servants are people willing to make sacrifices in the present for the future good, people who believe, to paraphrase Walter Lippmann, that we must plant trees we may never get to sit under.  They include those of my generation, who heard President Kennedy challenge us nearly 47 years ago, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  And people of a later generation heard this president, George H. W. Bush, affirm that “Public service is a noble calling.”
 
Those who serve I think also feel the call of duty.  Theodore Roosevelt wrote: “The trumpet call is the most inspiring of all sounds, because it summons men to spurn ease and self-indulgence and timidity, and bids them forth to the field where they must dare and do and die at need.”  Whatever range of motives causes our young men and women to volunteer for the armed forces, they all hear the call of the trumpet – the call of duty to our country.  And because, in doing their duty, they risk all, they are the most noble of all. 
 
But the trumpet summons all of us.
 
Texas A&M University does much to inculcate a sense of the importance of public service and duty to one’s fellow citizens.  No institution besides our service academies has consistently commissioned more officers into the military. Texas A&M for years has been a leading source of CIA officers – and that was even before I got here.
 
Volunteerism is huge here.  In the Big Event, Texas A&M sponsors the largest student-run community service project in the nation.  In the March to the Brazos, A&M has the largest college fundraiser in the nation for the March of Dimes.  In the first year of the Aggie Relay for Life in 2006, Texas A&M held the largest first-time collegiate American Cancer Society event in the nation.  There are countless other service projects and ongoing community service efforts.  A&M’s incredible response to both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was unforgettable, thousands of students, faculty, and staff volunteers turning large parts of this campus into evacuee centers, hospitals, and a place of refuge.
 
Washington Monthly magazine three years ago started an annual ranking of schools based on their contribution to the nation and the public good – with criteria such as the percentage of students from lower-income families, percentage of graduates who enter public service and the military, and so on.  This year the magazine ranked Texas A&M first in the nation in serving the public good.  No one familiar with this unique American institution could have been surprised. Pleased, yes. Surprised?  No.
 
Both here, and on other campuses around the nation, we see evidence every day that young Americans are as decent, generous, and compassionate as we have ever seen in this country.  Millions of students all across the country donate countless hours to volunteer organizations, community service, and public-spirited foundations such as the Points of Light Foundation, created by the Bushes.
 
But I worry – and I worry greatly – that too many young Americans, so public-minded in campus and community affairs, turn aside when it comes to our political process and to careers in public service.
 
Seventy percent of eligible voters in this country cast a ballot in the election of 1964. The voting age was then 21.  During the year I graduated from college, 1965, the first major American combat units arrived in Vietnam and with them, many 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds.  And In recognition of that disparity, later the voting age was lowered to 18.
 
Sad to say, that precious franchise, purchased and preserved by the blood of hundreds of thousands of college-age Americans – and younger – from 1776 to now, has not been adequately appreciated or exercised by today’s young people.  In 2004, with the nation embroiled in two difficult and controversial wars abroad, the voting percentage was only 42 percent for those aged 18 to 24.
 
Too many young people disdain to participate because they believe it won’t matter or because they think the system is corrupt or because they think it a waste of time or beneath them.  Winston Churchill called those who feign contempt for public affairs “flaccid sea anemones of virtue who can hardly wobble an antenna in the waters of negativity.”  They don’t talk like that anymore (LAUGHTER). You must rise above that and participate, or else the decisions that affect your life and the future of our country will be made for you – and without you.  So, as we approach the 2008 campaign, get involved, and vote.
 
But to the students in the audience, also consider something else. Consider devoting at least a part of your life to public service.
 
I have spoken about some of the challenges of public service.  As President Bush and I can attest, they are manageable.  But the virtue of public service, the benefit, is found not in the size of your house but in the size of your heart.  It has always been so.  Listen to the words of Abigail Adams, the wife of our second president. She wrote him: “You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator . . . We have too many high-sounding words and too few actions that correspond with them.” Or her letter to her son John Quincy Adams: “These are the times in which a genius would wish to live.  It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed.  The habits of a vigorous mind are found in contending with difficulties.  Great necessities call out great virtues.”
 
We live in a time of “great necessities.” Our country faces many challenges at home and abroad. It is precisely during these times that America needs its best and brightest, from all walks of life, to step forward and commit to public service.  If, in the 21st century, America is to be a force for good in the world – for freedom, social justice, the rule of law, and the inherent value of each person; if America is to be a beacon for all who are oppressed; if America is to exercise global leadership consistent with our better angels, then the most able and idealistic of today’s young people must step forward and accept the burden and the duty of public service.  You will also find joy and fulfillment – and the ultimate satisfaction that you made a difference.
 
I quoted earlier from Abigail Adams.  I will close with a quote from a letter John Adams sent to their son, Thomas Boylston Adams.  He wrote: “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody.  It will be done by somebody or another.  If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.”
 
Will the wise and honest among you come help the American people?
 
Thank you (APPLAUSE).