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DoD News Briefing: SECRETARY COHEN

Presenter: SECRETARY COHEN
November 19, 1997 8:45 PM EDT

SECRETARY COHEN: Jim, thank you very much. I believe it was Dr. Johnson who said that, in lapidary inscriptions, men are not under oath. The same is true for introductions at banquets such as this. You will perhaps go to heaven for your generosity, perhaps in the other direction for your exaggeration. But I'm glad you've taken the risk.

To you, Dimitri Simes, I can only claim that I am not a son of a bitch, but one of a baker. My dad was a baker in Bangor, Maine, and I had the pleasure of eating his rolls and rye bread for much of my life. And so I have been introduced when filling in for Jim Baker as a son of a baker.

And so I'm pleased to do that here this evening. I would like, before I begin, to have General Shelton please stand up and also General Jones, who is my senior military assistant. Will the two of you, please stand up here, please.

I want you all to know this really is my definition of civilian control of the military.

And Carol, his lovely wife Carol, General Shelton's wife who has joined us in Washington now. And I want to say what an outstanding job he has done. He's only been on the job for about a month and a half perhaps, but he had mastered the ways of the Pentagon very quickly. And he, you will see, will be a truly outstanding Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

And I am blessed to have Jim Jones, who has been my friend for more than 20 years, and a loyal friend and colleague. One could not ask for more. And he has been a mutual friend to John McCain and myself for all of those years, and I appreciate having his counsel on a day-to-day basis, which is very helpful to me.

It's not an exaggeration for me to say that I am honored to be here tonight to pay tribute to the two outstanding leaders in the Senate and to also express my gratitude to the Nixon Center for the great service you perform. I can't think of a more dedicated group of people who are dedicated to a nobler cause that to help build and sustain a bipartisan coalition for a sound and responsible foreign policy.

I think of what's happened with John McCain and also Joe Lieberman and I look at myself and I don't know how any one of us can know for certain how much of our lives are governed by choice, or chance, or providence, just how each one of us managed to arrive at our respective positions, be it in politics or law or in business or academia.

I must tell you a year ago I had planned to retire my pin-striped toga and to step into the world of at least semi-anonymity and hopefully into privately generated wealth.

And then President Clinton called and he asked me to help build a bipartisan national security policy, and it was one of those offers I really couldn't refuse. Don Corleone couldn't have made a stronger pitch.

But for me to have the chance to represent the men and women in uniform who, day in and day out, perform such an outstanding service in defending this country's interest across the globe in a world that's filled with great instability and danger, to stay -- if I could borrow Teddy Roosevelt's phrase and Richard Nixon's philosophy, to stay in the arena was simply something I couldn't pass up.

I am fond of quoting from -- I shouldn't say this perhaps -- but Warren G. Harding. I'm always hesitant to pluck his name out of the pages of yesteryear, but Harding once said that, "Government is, after all, a very simple thing." And some years later one of our great Supreme Court justices Felix Frankfurter said, "There never was a more pathetic misapprehension of responsibility than in Harding's superficial conclusion because we all know that government isn't a very simple thing. It's a pretty complex thing and it requires the dedication and devotion and idealism of our most gifted men and women."

And I think that if any definition is really necessary, that Ronald Reagan when he was Governor Reagan had it best. He said that, "Government is, after all, like a baby's alimentary canal. It has a healthy appetite at one end and little sense of responsibility at the other."

And he was speaking, of course, about the government's enthusiasm for spending other people's money. But I think that absence of responsibility really applies to foreign affairs, as well. Admiral Stockdale, you recall, when he was asked to serve as Ross Perot's vice president, he got up on the stage and he asked to very important questions: He said, "Who am I and why am I here?"

And there was a lot of laughter that rippled out from those questions, but they were important questions to him to define himself. Many people didn't know that he, too, was a war hero. Many people didn't know how well he had served his nation. But now he was stepping into a different arena and had to define himself. So he says, "Who am I and why am I here?" I think that we have to ask the same question as a nation. Who are we? These existential questions: Why are we here, or there, or anywhere?

And I say it's important to ask these questions because I read in the October 10th issue of The New York Times, there was a poll, the headline, Steve Erlinger's piece, foreign policy is of little interest to the American people, even if it is to so-called opinion leaders. If Richard Nixon had taken such a poll, he never would have opened the door to China more than 20 years ago.

But we know that the road to political popularity or success isn't paved with the public declarations of the importance of foreign policy. And there was some people in our country who feel that we can simply take care of America's problem by zipping ourselves into what I would call a continental cocoon and watch the world unfold on CNN. If there's one lesson that we've learned in the 20th century, it's that we can't walk away from the world because the world won't walk away from us.

I think Jim Schlesinger would have put it a different way. I think he once wrote that if our policy is to defend America only, we will find that America will be the last left to defend.

And the Nixon Center, I think, understands this, the need for us to be globally engaged, diplomatically, militarily, and it honors the opinion leaders who understand history's hard lessons. And so with the leaves of summitry still swirling in the air, I thought it appropriate tonight that I might quote from Confucius. He said, the way of the superior man is three-fold. Virtuous, he is free from anxieties. Wise, he is free from perplexities. And bold, he is free from fear.

The three qualities sum up our two honorees this evening. In my quarter of a century on the Hill, I can recall few members who have had such a dramatic impact on public policy and upon the Congress itself than John McCain and Joe Lieberman.

With respect to Joe Lieberman, I might say he is living proof that Abraham Lincoln was wrong. You can fool most of the people in Connecticut most of the time.

But he discovered the principle that Archimedes discovered, as he said, give me a place to stand and I will move the world. Well, in the first years in the Senate, he found a device that I used to use and he has followed my example. He is given five minutes to ask questions. And he usually takes exactly five minutes to ask every question and then imposes upon the witness 10 minutes to have an answer. It has served him extraordinarily well.

But in his first years in the Senate, I would say that without a firm place to stand, he didn't have a committee chairmanship. He was a junior member of the Senate. But I would say that he, by virtue of his obvious intellectual gravatus, his sincerity, his respect that he enjoys by all members in the Senate because of that sincerity, because of that dedication to the sense of honor and higher purpose, he has been able to move the Senate in ways that other people have not.

On issue from issue, the Middle East, to Europe, to China, he's been a voice of reason and great common sense. And it has been my privilege to have served with him in the United States Senate and my apprehension to appear before him whenever I have to testify as Secretary of Defense.

Now, on John McCain, talk about heroes. I think it was Emerson who said that, a hero is no braver than the ordinary man, he's braver five minutes longer. With respect to John McCain he's been braver six years longer than the ordinary man. Some years ago there was a Vietnam veteran named Steve Mason who described his comrades in Southeast Asia and his words still speak to us today, and I would include in that, General Chuck Boyd.

He wrote that 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, that truly he was a man who believed in mankind. John McCain fought very hard in war. He has fought harder for peace, and he truly believes in mankind.

And I must tell you, I have a longstanding friendship with John that goes back and I would not be where I am today -- if you want to talk about the molecular motion of our careers -- I would not be standing up here today, towering over General Shelton and General Jones if it were not for John McCain because, as happenstance had it, he was then serving as a Navy liaison officer to the Senate and I happened to be on a trip heading for China in 1978. And on that trip was Senator Gary Hart, Senator Nunn, and Senator Glenn. And it was John McCain, who, as the escort officer at that time, said, "You must serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee. You owe this obligation to this country."

And as a result of that recommendation -- actually he practically broke my arm -- I joined the Armed Services Committee. It has been -- had been the best experience of my life and I would not be here today had I not had that experience. And I owe that in this very unusual fashion to Senator John McCain.

I must tell you that after all the years I have known him, still wonder how he can hold his belief in mankind and still be so strong, after all the beatings he had endured, the torture he suffered, the loss, having spent six long years in that hotel called the Hanoi Hilton, a prisoner in body but never in spirit. And somehow he has emerged as a living testament to American courage and compassion and a very vibrant symbol of the sacrifices made by the men and women in uniform, especially the POWs and the MIAs. And I think it's his generosity of spirit and his refusal to feed fat old animosities or grievances that mark him as an extraordinary human being.

Let me conclude with a wonderful quote from Churchill that I read in a book written by Stewart Alsop called The Stay of Execution. Alsop was a great American journalist, and he had the occasion to meet with Churchill. And they had dinner together and they were sitting down, and they had gone through several bottles of wine. They had gone through at least, I think, a bottle of brandy, and then were tasting some champagne. Churchill was unfazed by all of this, of course. And he looked over at Alsop and he said, "America, America. It's a great and strong country, like a work horse pulling the rest of the world up out of the slough of despond and despair." And he looked accusingly at Alsop and he said, "But will America stay the course?" Will America stay the course?

And I think history has answered him. For the past 50 years, we know that America has stayed the course because that was our duty. And as long as we continue to produce Americans like John McCain and Joe Lieberman, we'll stay the course for more than another 50 years. It's my pleasure to be here to pay tribute to two outstanding senators, thank you.