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Public Statements

Farewell to the Senate

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

FAREWELL TO THE SENATE -- (Senate - October 02, 2008)

Mr. HAGEL. On January 7, 1997, I took an oath of office in the Senate, an oath to the Constitution, and I became the 1,841st person who has ever served in the Senate. That number struck me that day because I recognized, once again--and soon to come to truly appreciate over a 12-year period in this body--how few people have had the opportunity, the privilege, the honor to serve in the Senate.

Less than 2,000 Americans in the history of our country have served in the Senate. That does not make us better. That does not mean we are smarter or in any way more privileged. But it does reflect upon the kind of responsibility that we have in this body and the expectations that are placed on each of us, as should be the case, for our service.

I first thank the people of Nebraska for the privilege I have been given to serve in this body for 12 years. I thank my staff not for their service to me but for their service to this country. I thank my colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, from whom I have learned so much over these 12 years--in particular, Senators Lugar and Biden, from whom I have learned much in serving with them on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the last 12 years, who have been patient with me, have helped me, as well as their staffs.

The two leaders of this body--Senators Reid and McConnell--I wish to thank. I have had privileged relationships with each. Senator McConnell and I have grown to have a very close relationship, friendship, and I very much value that relationship. I thank Senator McConnell for his many courtesies over the years, as I do Senator Reid. These two men are charged with great responsibilities, and especially over the last 2 years during as difficult a Congress certainly that I have served in, and I suspect most of my colleagues have served in. They have done a remarkably good and effective job.

Certainly, I thank my family for this privilege and their support and their guidance. They, too, have been privileged and enriched and enhanced by being part of this experience over the last 12 years.

These last 12 years have been years of global reorientation and historic events. As I have represented Nebraskans during these turbulent times, I have formed judgments and drawn conclusions about America's future.

The strength of any country is its people. Constitutions, governments, public and private institutions are important, for they form the structure of a society, the boundaries of social behavior. But it is the people, the individuals, who make the difference in life and in the world.

Americans possess a generous spirit and uncommon decency predicated on faith and family, hard work, fair play, and belief in a better tomorrow.

The challenges that face America today and in the future are not just American challenges but global challenges. Everything we do or don't do has global implications, just as everything that happens around the world has implications for us here in our country.

The Senate is a unique institution. It is unique among all governing bodies of the world. It is imperfect. It is slow. It is tedious. Sometimes it is maddening, certainly frustrating. But the brilliance of our forefathers understood completely and carefully--how, I don't know--that the world would at some point come together with a great confluence of complications. The need to have a body whose main responsibility would be to take the longer view--the longer view of legislation, the longer view of actions, the longer view of alliances, of relationships, of all our policies--was its primary focus. Tough questions--questions about consequences of actions, consequences of inaction--that is the essence of the Senate.

The many lessons I have learned in the 12 years I have been here reinforced my belief in our country but also reinforced my belief in these institutions and, in particular, the Congress of the United States, for the essence of public confidence is transparency and accountability. That is our institutional responsibility. It is our individual responsibility. And a free people know the facts. If free people are living in a world where there is transparency, where there is accountability, that society will prosper. It will fix its problems, and it will deal with its injustices. Oversight--which we hear much about these days, especially in light of the financial crisis we are in today--oversight and accountability are critical components of our responsibilities.

Article I of the Constitution is about the Congress. We are a coequal branch of Government. If there is anything I have learned in the 12 years I have been here, it is the importance of sharing, participating in the governance of our country, being part of that governance, helping to make decisions with the President and the executive. If one of those articles of the Constitution--and there are three that set up the coequal branches of government: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial--but anytime there becomes an imbalance in governance in a republic and one of those three becomes too powerful and the other too weak or one too weak, there will be a consequence, there will be a reaction, and it will not tilt in favor of an accountable, transparent, open, effective government. So it is like all things in life: We strive for balance. We strive for balance of governance. And the Founders of the Constitution of this great Republic have that as much the central focus as any one part of our Government.

I believe this institution of Congress will be tested more over the next few years. We need a strong President. We need a strong executive. For it is the President and the executive that we charge to carry out the policies that are made and shaped on behalf of the American people in the Congress of the United States. They must have the flexibility, they must have the authority to carry those out but not without the active participation and partnership of the Congress of the United States. In my opinion, over the last few years, we have allowed that to drift, and I believe it has cost our country dearly.

I have also learned this lesson: Bipartisan consensus is the only way a democracy will work. No party has a corner on all the virtues, nor all the answers. A country of 300 million free people, who have every right to express themselves, question their leaders, question their Government, at the end of the day must somehow find some accommodation, some consensus to govern and thereby address the issues and challenges and problems that face our country. Without that bipartisan consensus, we end up in the underbrush of political paralysis. Much of what we have seen in the last 2 years has been, unfortunately, political paralysis. We all have to take some responsibility for that. Bipartisan consensus--that has to be the focus of leadership in any institution.

I have learned also that a free press is indispensable to a free people. As frustrating as we all know, in this business, the press can be--sometimes we believe we are treated unfairly, and maybe sometimes we are--there is no substitute in a democracy for a free press. A free press is the indispensable element for a free people.

I have learned too that power corrupts. Lord Acton had it right: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. That doesn't mean we are a nation or a body or an institution of corrupt people or bad people, but the more authority that is concentrated in too small a space is going to end up with not an effect that is in the best interests of a free people. Concentrations of power in the hands of a few is dangerous to a democracy. We all who exercise some power as national leaders must be mindful of this reality and stay vigilant to this reality.

The next President, who will assume as big an inventory of challenges and problems as any President, in my opinion, since Franklin Roosevelt on March 4, 1933, must immediately reach to the Congress to make the Congress a partner, and regardless of who the new President is, he must also reach to the American people and begin building a consensus of governance in this country. There will be differences. There will be strong debates. There must be and should be. But in the end, we must reach some objective, some end point, and that is to fix a problem.

We did that last night on the floor of the Senate--not that what we passed in this Economic Stabilization Act will fix all the problems; it won't. But it is important that America, our markets, the world bring back some confidence in our governance, in our systems, thereby bringing all that does flow from that confidence in a market system, the elements of commerce and trade and the possibilities to build a better life.

This next President will be faced with those challenges. So will this next Congress. I believe that will occur, not just because the American people expect it and demand it, but they deserve it. I don't think the next President or the next Congress will fail. There is no perfect solution, no easy answer, but that is why we have leaders. That is why we have governments.

I wish to go back to accountability for a moment because that is such an elemental part of anyone's life. We are all accountable in life. In our personal lives, private lives, public lives, we are all accountable to someone.

I would like to read a very short statement. As a matter of fact, I had this hanging in my reception room in my office. This was a handwritten statement that was found in the coat pocket of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was found at the cleaners. This was a note he wrote in his hand on June 6, 1944, the beginning of the Normandy invasion, the invasion of Europe. We all recall that was D-day. This is what then-General Eisenhower, who was the commanding general, wrote in the event that D-day was a failure:

Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.

Now, that is accountability. That is accountability. This one simple, honest, handwritten statement should be as much a guiding point for all of us in public office as any one thing.

I have also learned over the last 12 years that democracy actually does work. As raw as it is, it works. We in politics, we in government, government itself, the institution of government only reflects society. Politics reflects society. We respond. We react in a democracy. But the countervailing pressures, the countervailing dynamics, the countervailing debates and philosophies and opinions and positions balance the wheel in a remarkable way. I am not near wise enough to understand it all. I have observed it. I have participated in it up close for 12 years. It works. It works. That is why transparency is so important, so the American people can see it and feel it and understand it and be part of it.

We live in an imperfect world. There are no perfect solutions. We are all imperfect people. But institutions are important because within the imperfect world and in the process of trying to make a better world--maybe someday a perfect world--the process is important because it gets us to where we want to be. It is a highway. It is a process. We do that well here, as well as anywhere in the world. We are always striving to make it better.

I occasionally think about this great Republic, how it was formed, when it was formed. A couple of fairly recent things come to mind. When we think of less than 100 years ago, women in America could not vote. Less than 100 years ago, women did not have the right to vote. But we addressed that. We fixed that. We fixed it through amendment XIX in our Constitution.

Up until the mid-1960s, did anyone really believe that an African American had any hope or possibility to be a nominee for President of the United States, maybe even be President some day?

The Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of the midsixties changed that. We know the system can work.

These are defining times. We are living through a global reorientation. One of the great responsibilities this body will have, the next President will have, we all will have, is to reintroduce America to the world. The world does not know who we are. Part of that is our fault. Part of that is not our fault. There are 6.5 billion people, and 40 percent of those 6.5 billion are under the age of 19 years old. Most people alive today were not alive at the end of World War II. This can be done. It must be done. America is a great country because we are a good people.

I wish to take my last minute in my comments today to read from a poem I have distributed to friends and staff for 30 years. I do not know the author of this poem, and I never have. I never found out who the author of this poem is. I have put it on a piece of glass and have distributed hundreds and hundreds of copies to people I have worked with over the years in different things I have done.

I end my remarks, Mr. President, this way this afternoon, by reciting this poem entitled ``The Man in the Glass'' because it reflects on each of us but, most poignantly, it reflects on each of us who has responsibility to serve the public and be accountable and honest:

When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day,
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.

For it isn't your father or mother or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass.
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.

You may be like Jack Horner and chisel a plum
And think you're a wonderful guy.
But the man in the glass says you're only a bum
If you can't look him straight in the eye.

He's the fellow to please--never mind all the rest,
For he's with you clear to the end.
And you've passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the man in the glass is your friend.

You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass.
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you've cheated the man in the glass.

Mr. President, I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.


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