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Secretary Cohen's Remarks-BENS Awards Dinner - Presentation of Eisenhower Award

Presenter: Defense Secretary William S. Cohen
May 05, 1998

SECRETARY COHEN: Sid [Harman], thank you very much. I think it was Dr. Johnson who said, "In lapidary inscriptions men are not under oath." That happens to be true of the introductions that you've just given. But I thank you for your kind words. And let me say my thanks also to Senator McCain, Senator Kerry, Admiral Larson, Tom McInerney and, of course, Stan Weiss. Without you, Stan, we would not be here this evening and I really think that you need a great deal of thanks expressed by this group for your ingenuity and creativity.

There are very few heroes who have graced our pages in history and even fewer who happen to be among us today. I must tell you that this has been a rather extraordinary period for me this past week because I've had occasion to pay tribute to two heroes who are still with us today.

Last week at Fort Myer I had the privilege of honoring Bob Dole with the Department's highest civilian award. And tonight I am equally honored to pay tribute to another former colleague, another dear friend, another American hero, John McCain.

But before I do I would like to take this opportunity to thank BENS. I want to thank each and every person who is in this room for the kind of support that you have given to the men and women who are serving in our military and to the country at large for your help at the last moment with the Chemical Weapons Convention. Without your last minute push that might not have passed. Thank you for everything you do to help the men and women who are serving us. You bring an invaluable voice of experience and expertise and we thank you for all of your work. On behalf of the men and women in the military, for the Department of Defense, and for the taxpayers of this country, you have done an extraordinary job and I hope we can continue to work together in the future as we have in the past.

As some of you may know, I have a longstanding friendship with John McCain. I had occasion to be the best man at his wedding. Carl Smith who is here tonight, another naval aviator, might recall that as a rather memorable event. I won't get into what took place but it was a replication of what Admiral Larson was talking about going back into the past.

But what you may not know is that I wouldn't be standing here tonight were it not for John McCain. And as Stan -- as you and I were talking just a moment ago -- not any one of us knows, ever knows, how much of our lives are determined by chance, or choice, or the hand of providence. But in 1978 I travelled to China with Senators Sam Nunn, John Glenn and Gary Hart and, as chance would have it, the Navy Liaison Office to the Senate and the escort officer on that trip was none other than John McCain.

As we made our way across the Pacific John was insistent, he was persistent, he said you must serve on the Armed Services Committee. You owe this duty to your country. And I had only met him for about a couple of hours and I didn't know really what to make of him but he was so persistent, he was so persuasive he actually tried to take my right arm and turn it into a pretzel. But it was an extraordinary effort on his part. And frankly, had he not made that case to me as to why I should serve on the Armed Services Committee I wouldn't be here tonight because I then proceeded to serve on the committee and spend 18 years working with a number of colleagues, including Chuck Robb who is here this evening, and so many others. And as a result of that experience at least it put me in the position to be called upon to serve in this extraordinary capacity that I serve in today.

So in many ways I've always believed that life is mostly molecular motion, that we bounce around almost indiscriminately not knowing quite where we're going, and somehow if you look back upon your life and your lives, you will come to understand the wisdom that was contained in Kirkegaard's observation that "life must be lived forward but it can only be understood backwards."

And I think that's probably true not only for myself but virtually everyone in this room. That is true for John McCain as well. I must say, Sid [Harman], that you mentioned the poetry, and I wasn't planning on quoting any poetry tonight but something came to mind as you were talking, something I wrote in a very whimsical mood many years ago when I was overwhelmed by something that was taking place in the Senate, perhaps what John Kerry was talking about in terms of the paralysis and the inability to get things done in the Senate.

But I sat down and I scribbled out a whimsical note and it went, "Man stands tense to step among the stars whose jargon brimming with non-declining quasars and soon he'll tell it till the life exists on Mars. Now the thought of being laminated to a ray of light is heavy seed indeed, but if the choice were mine to make, knowing life to be at stake, I would choose to know the secret of the oak tree, carrying out of ancestry, carrying on for history, satisfied it seems to be."

And at that particular moment I said wouldn't it be great just to stand as tall and serene as these magnificent oak trees. But of course I came quickly to the conclusion that we are not meant simply to be, but to do; and that is, our mission in life is not simply to sit back and watch events unfold on CNN or any other network but really to become engaged in the action and passion of our lives.

And that's how I think of John McCain in terms of action and passion. There is very little that's unusual about -- or usual about John McCain, I should say. If you shine a light on his record and reputation, a greater light shines back. Emerson said that, "a hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he's braver five minutes longer." As you heard from Admiral Larson and Senator Kerry, John McCain was braver five and a half years longer and that makes him very special.

Some years ago there was another Vietnam veteran who was named Steve Mason. And he described his comrades in Southeast Asia in the words that I think reflect the spirit of John. He said, "This man was the best of his generation. He fought very hard in war to be sure but most of all he fought even harder for peace. Truly he was a man who believed in mankind."

And I must tell you, after all of the years that I've known John McCain, I still wonder how after all of the torture that he endured, after all the loss that he has suffered, after surviving over those more than five years, long years, in a concrete slab in that unbelievable hellhole called the Hanoi Hilton where he was a prisoner in body but never in spirit, how after all of that he can still hold the belief in mankind and still be so strong.

He not only endured the trauma, he emerged triumphant. He's a living testament to the American courage and compassion and a vibrant symbol of the sacrifices made by America's men and women in uniform, especially our POWs and MIAs. Today, ironically enough, there is a high rise that stands on the ruins of the Hanoi Hilton. But the memory of those who suffered there, indeed all of those who ever suffered on cold slabs and dark cells of inhumanity, live on in the words and deeds of John McCain.

John, I think, is a classic example of what John Gardner said we need more of in America. He said some years ago, "the trouble in this country is that our institutions have become caught in a savage crossfire between unloving critics and uncritical lovers." And what he was suggesting at the time was that at one end of the extreme we have the unloving critics, people who see absolutely no good in our current institutions, no benefit to be derived from them and are simply intent on tearing them down. At the other end of the spectrum are the so-called uncritical lovers, people who are so enamored with the status quo that they will do everything in their power to blunt and nullify and stultify any hope for change. And what Gardner was saying is that we need loving critics, and I think that's precisely what John McCain is. He's a loving critic who does not reject our institutions or our ingrained attitudes without care or compassion; he neither blindly embraces them without question. But what he embraces change when change is necessary.

So it's a source of immense pride for me that there was a time in my life when I was able to call John my distinguished colleague. You know, sometimes that's not always a compliment in the Senate. It's sometimes a prelude to a great insult. If you've watched CSPAN you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. But let me say he was my distinguished colleague.

In mythology and legend, a hero is a man often of divine ancestry who is endowed with great courage and strength and he is celebrated for his bold exploits and favored by the gods. John's ancestry might not be divine but it certainly has been noble as we all know. And no one can question that he's endowed with great courage and strength. But he has been, and is tonight, celebrated for his bold exploits. And I pass quickly over those that were identified by Admiral Larson during his years at the academy. And if you pass quickly also over that extraordinarily harrowing and painful experience at the hands of the North Vietnamese we can also conclude that partially at least the gods have favored John McCain. Having survived not only Vietnam but what I would charitably call a hard landing in an ultra-light aircraft back in 1980 only to be struck by a reckless motorist two weeks later as he sat in his car at an intersection at a stoplight. We honor John's fiery and unquenchable spirit, and his unrelenting commitment to serve the people of our country.

Dwight Eisenhower, the namesake of tonight's award could well have been describing our honoree when he wrote that, "A great man must have vision, integrity, courage and profundity of character." So, too, with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. when he said, "Man is born a predestined idealist because he's born to act. To act is to affirm the worth of an end, and to persist in affirming the worth of an end is to make an ideal. The stern experience of your youth helped to accomplish the destiny of fate. It left you feeling that the root of duty is to put out all of one's powers towards some great end."

John McCain, the stern experience of your youth placed in you the deepest sense of duty, and in your persistence and passion towards the greater end of a greater America you have affirmed the worth of service to our nation. We stand in awe and with gratitude to your enduring commitment to public service and to the people of this country.

So on behalf of BENS it is my pleasure to present you now with the 1998 Eisenhower Award to an American hero of the highest order, Senator John McCain.