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Stimson Center Tribute

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, National Press Club, Washington D.C., Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thank you very much.  Thank you very much.  And thank you, Ellen, for that kind introduction.  And I can’t tell you how humbled I am by the award that is being presented to me by the Stimson Center.  This is truly humbling and I really appreciate the award and appreciate the work that the Stimson Center does to try to help public policy here in Washington.

I’m also very grateful for the presence of a number of friends here.  In 40 years that I’ve been in and out of Washington, I really treasure the friendships that I’ve made throughout those years.  And many of them have always been there and have always been good supporters no matter what endeavor I’ve been involved with.  And I want to thank all of them – my friends, my colleagues on the Hill, the people that I’ve worked with in government, all of you have been tremendously important to me in my ability to be able to take on the challenges that have been there.

And I particularly want to thank those that gave their presentations this evening, Mike Rogers, who missed his calling.  You thought you should have been an FBI agent.  And he really wanted to be in the CIA.  But he really belongs on stage. 

Bill Perry who I’ve worked with for a long time as chief of staff and as director of OMB and in the Clinton administration had the opportunity to work with him.  And always tremendously respect his leadership.  He’s a straight shooter and he’s one of those rare individuals that always tells you exactly what needs to be done regardless of political affiliation, regardless of partisanship.  He is somebody who speaks substance.  And that’s sometimes a rare thing. 

Pete Peterson, who has long fought the battle on the budget and deficits, and I really respect the long battles he’s conducted.  I don’t know why the hell is his message is not being heard.  But at some point I think the country will wake up and understand what it has to do in this area.  But part of it will be due to your constant pushing to wake up this country with regards to that issue.

Clint, who is somebody that I first knew as mayor of Carmel, when I was member of Congress and have developed a close relationship with him and have told him if he ever wanted to do my movie, he’s got to use Al Pacino to play my role. 

I should – I want to acknowledge because he made a comment about a bottle of wine.  And this evening I’ve got two friends, Ted and Wilma Balestreri who are here from Monterey.  We also have some other members of our Panetta Institute board.  I think Kathy is here and Rhonda Fleming.  Thank you for coming all the way from Monterey. 

But Ted has become famous, or infamous, of late because at a New Year’s Eve party last year, he was bragging about his collection of wines at the Sardine Factory.  For those of you that haven’t had a chance to go to Monterey, Sardine Factory is one of the fine restaurants there that he developed, he’s owned and he and Bert Cutino have really done a tremendous job there. 

Anyway, they had this very famous wine cellar.  And he was bragging about the wines during this New Year’s Eve dinner.  And he looked over – he said, as a matter of fact, I have a bottle of wine that’s this 1870 Lafite and indicated the price tag on it, which wasn’t cheap.  And he says, as a matter of fact, I’ll tell you what.  When Leon gets bin Laden, I’ll open that bottle.  By that time, I had had some indication that we were at least – we might be on the right trail.  And I said, you know what, you’re on, Ted.  And when the president made the announcement about the raid, I called Sylvia and I said, Sylvia, I want you to call Ted and just tell him, watch television because he owes me a bottle of wine.  And he was true to his word.  And, thank you, Ted, for doing that.  I’m sorry that you’re now on al Qaeda’s top list.  But don’t worry about it.  I have better weapons in this job than I did in the last job.  I’ll protect you. 

And I really want to express my deepest thanks to all of you for coming out and paying tribute.  These are always tough for me.  I mean, I’m reminded of the story of the Irish wake where each of the speakers got up and were giving these glowing eulogies about how great the deceased had been, what great accomplishments he had accomplished, what a great person he was, how generous, giving, a leader in the community.  And finally the widow got up from her chair and walked over to the casket and said, I’ve got to make sure that damn husband is really dead because of all the glowing eulogies that she was hearing.  And I feel a little bit like that. 

The fact is that in all the jobs that I’ve had in this town, I have done those jobs not because somebody told me to do those jobs.  I did those jobs because I believed in the importance of giving something back to this country and in serving your fellow human being.  That – in the end, that’s – there is no – you don’t get paid enough to do these jobs.  The only pay that you really get is the satisfaction of knowing that you can help your fellow human beings and that you can make their life better.  And that for me has always been the greatest satisfaction is the ability to do a service to this country that in some way helps people’s lives be better. 

I could not do any of the jobs that I’ve been involved with in this town without the support of my family.  And so let me pay tribute to them, in particular Sylvia.  She has been a partner.  Next year we will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.  And it is – in everything that I have done throughout my life, we’ve been really partners, partners in family, partners in work, partners in love.  And I could not do any of these jobs without her support.  She is – has mentioned now, she heads the Panetta Institute, which we established out there, and she sends her regards to all of you because she’s now involved – this is a busy week for students at the Panetta Institute.  But she wanted me to send all of you her regards. 

And I also want to acknowledge the presence of Carmelo and Liz.   We have three sons.  Where are you?  Right there.  We have three sons, Christopher, Carmelo, and Jimmy, two lawyers and a doctor.  This is the doctor in the family.  And he’s married to another doctor, Liz, two cardiologists.  And when you reach 73, you want to make sure that they’re close to you wherever the hell you are.  And I also want to acknowledge six wonderful grandchildren that we have as a result of that. 

In the end, our greatest achievement is our sons and their wives and our families.  I mean, you can do a lot in these jobs, but, frankly, if your sons turn out right, if your kids turn out right, that’s the greatest achievement of all.  And we’re proud to be able to claim that all of our sons have turned out wonderfully.  So good to have you here.

It was mentioned – and it’s something that’s been important to me because I am the son of immigrants – and the values that you have, the beliefs that you have in many ways stem from who you are and what your parents were all about.  And my parents came here, as many of you know, like millions of other immigrants, with very little money in their pocket and very few skills, very little language ability.  But they believed deeply in this country. 

And I often used to ask my father, why would you travel all that distance to come to a strange country?  My father would say, because your mother and I believed we could give our children a better life. 

And I think that’s the American dream and that’s what we want.  That’s what we want for our children and hopefully what our children want for their children.  It’s the fundamental bond that all of us share – that we have to through hard work, through sacrifice, through dedication of everything that we have and we can be, to try to make sure that we are making the lives of our children better for the future.  That is what drives our democracy, it’s what makes our country great. 

Today, there is no doubt that we are in need of that kind of shared sacrifice and that kind of hard work and that dedication to making the lives of our children better.  This really is a time when all Americans have to come together and make the sacrifices to ensure that our children can enjoy the dream that brought our parents here and that this country is all about. 

All of us – all of us – have a responsibility to help govern this country.  That’s what our forefathers intended when they established this great country.  They made this remarkable system of three separate but equal branches of government, each branch has a check and balance on the other.  It is a wonderful formula for ensuring that power is never centralized in any one branch of government.  But it also happens to be a perfect formula for gridlock.  And the key to breaking that gridlock has to rest with people that are willing to exercise leadership, to find compromises, to make sacrifices in order to find answers. 

That is at the very core of what our democracy is all about and should be all about.  And that is what is missing right now is that need to work together, to be able to make those sacrifices, to be able to find those compromises, to be able to take the risks that are involved, that are inherent in leadership. 

I’ve often said – I used to say to the students at the Panetta Institute – that we govern our democracy either through leadership or crisis.  And if leadership is not there, then we let crisis drive policy in this country.  And you can do it that way.  You can do it that way.  You can allow crisis basically to drive the issues and when crisis gets so bad, you try to respond to the crisis.  It’s a good way not to have to make tough decisions and you can basically blame the crisis for having to do what you have to do.  

But there is a price to be paid for that.  And the price is that you ultimately lose the trust of the American people in our system of government.  And today I worry that in many ways we have lost the trust of the American people in that system of government because they are not seeing that dedication, that hard work, that sense of sacrifice that is important to our democracy. 

I’ve been railing about the threat of budget sequestration.  I know the challenges of the budget.  I’ve worked with the budget.  I know what budgets are all about.  But when there’s a mechanism like sequestration, which is this kind of blind meat-axe approach to putting that in place if you don’t do the right thing, there’s something wrong.  There’s something wrong if you have to fall back on that kind of mechanism.  And I’ve said that if it happens, it could do lasting damage, obviously, to defense policy in this country.  And it will. 

But I also have to tell you that sequester is not a good thing for the domestic side of the budget either.  I mean, the fact is, if you want to be secure in this country, it isn’t just about national defense.  It isn’t just about weapons.  It’s also about the quality of life that you have in this country.  And if we are not investing in that quality of life, ultimately that impacts on our ability to have strong national security. 

So the failure of the super committee to come together and to make the decisions that should have been made is a failure that can result in damaging this country and damaging that dream that all of us have for a better life for our children. 

Having worked on confronting these budget challenges for much of my life, there is no question we have to confront the deficit.  There is no question that we have to provide the kind of compromises that will result in dealing with reducing the deficit and trying to ensure that we have the resources we need in order to invest in the areas that count for the future.  This is a time really for statesmanship and it’s a time not for partisanship, but for statesmanship.  It’s a time for real dedication to what this country needs to do and not just sound bites and politics.  This is a time for very tough choices. 

And I guess one thing that I wish people would understand and take to heart is that they ought to at least pay attention to the inspiration of the men and women who put their lives on the line every day in battle for this country. 

Today, I had the chance, as I do often, to go to Bethesda and visit with those who have been wounded in battle.  And, as you know, the wounds they suffer from these terrible IEDs are some of the most grievous wounds I’ve ever seen.  And, yet, you talk to these kids and they have great spirit.  They have great hope.  They’re proud of the service that they gave this country.  And they really believe that life is there and that they’re going to make the most of it. 

Now, damn it, if there are men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to be able to defend this country, then surely there have to be elected leaders who are willing to make the tough choices that are important to solving the problems in this country. 

Next week I understand we’ll be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  And it brought back a lot of memories when somebody mentioned that because I was a very young boy at that time during the war years in Monterey.  And I can remember, you know, the concern about – even though I was young, I could feel the fear and uncertainty of the moment.  We had blackout shades that we had to put down.  We had – my grandfather, my Italian grandfather who came to visit my mother, we had to move him inland because he was an alien.  And so I remember the feeling of missing my grandfather. 

And I also – my parents, who did have a restaurant in Monterey at the time, would oftentimes, we had troops coming through Fort Ord and they would go to my father’s restaurant kind of a last touch of civilization before they would go to war.  And my parents often would invite them home.  And I remember these kids, you know, kids from Brooklyn and Italian kids usually who were there and they would be there having a good time, but thinking that they’re going to war. 

So it reminded me at the time, with all that fear and uncertainty, that we had the very strong leadership of a president and a Congress and a military that never lost sight of the mission, of the trust, and of the unity of effort that eventually brought victory. 

One of the great leaders of that era was Henry Stimson, whose steady hand as secretary of war helped bring this country together.  This is a very distinguished fellow.  And his words I think are always worth recalling.  And I quote Henry Stimson: “The man who tries to work for the good believing in its eventual victory, while he may suffer setback and even disaster, will never know defeat.  The only deadly sin I know is cynicism,” unquote.

It is a profound honor to now be associated with that legacy.  And from this evening I draw even more determination to fight against that kind of cynical view that somehow America is in decline and that we can’t overcome the crises that confront us. 

The fundamental strength of this country lies in the spirit of the American people, lies in the spirit of those men and women that I was talking about.  If we can draw on that spirit, then I think the leadership of this country can ultimately make that American dream that my immigrant parents were all about, that dream of giving our children a better life much better.  That’s what all of us have to be about.

And, again, I thank you for this honor and thank you for the opportunity to be able to serve my country.

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