Center for National Policy Edmund S. Muskie Distinguished Public Service Award

By:  Leon Panetta
Date: June 21, 2012
Location: Washington, DC

Well, thank you very, very much for this honor -- for those kinds words and for this honor. And please, I'm Italian, so I'm used to talking to people while they eat, so please enjoy your dessert.

I'm really honored to be here, and I feel like obviously I'm among friends, having worked with the center, but it's particularly nice to see former colleagues of mine, Dan Glickman, Ike Skelton. We were in the same class together in the Congress, 1976. And that class had people like Dick Gephardt, Barbara Mikulski, Al Gore, Dan Quayle, a few people that went to prison. It was a good class. It represented America.

Dan and Ike and I were on the Ag Committee going into the Congress and served together. And we've been friends throughout these years, and it's great to see you here. Mike Barnes, another colleague from the Congress, good to see you, Mike. And obviously, good to see Wolf and Walter Pincus and so many other friends that are here this evening.

I'm humbled by this award, and I'm humbled by the presentations. Certainly hearing Bill Clinton -- nobody does it better than Bill Clinton. He is somebody who, you know, I really -- serving as chief of staff for President Clinton, learned a great deal about people and learned a great deal about politics from somebody who just really understood a lot of those elements. So I'm particularly grateful for his recognition as well.

I'm especially grateful because this is an organization, as I said, that I played a role in and had a great opportunity to work with the center, and want to commend it on the important role that it plays in fostering innovative, long-term partisan solutions to the challenges that face this country. It was a great privilege for me to serve as chairman of the board and then to continue as national advisory board chair until I re-entered government in 2009.

Finally, I'm particularly honored to be receiving an award that's named after Ed Muskie, whose vision still helps guide the CNP. In many of the stages of my public service career, I had the opportunity, like Mike, to work with Ed Muskie. And whether I was a legislative assistant or as congressman involved as a member of the Budget Committee working on budgets with Ed, and then later as chief of staff, I really had the opportunity to work with him very closely and to really see him as someone who believed deeply in what this country was all about. He was one of the great public servants of the 20th century.

And he also, for those of us that knew him, had that kind of wry New England sense of humor that I also admire. There's a great story he used to tell at the beginning of most of his speeches. It's about a little grandchild who comes over to his grandfather and says: Grandpa, can I climb up on your lap? And the grandfather says, yes, of course you can.

The boy climbs up and says: Grandfather, can you make a noise like a frog? And the grandfather says, well, I suppose I can, but why would you want me to do that? And the little boy says: Well, Mama says that when you finally croak, we'll all go to Hawaii.

That's Maine humor.

But for those of us that are getting a little older, it's not funny anymore.

Ed had that sense of humor, but the one thing I always learned from Ed is that he always had a sense of fighting for what he believed in. And I'm often reminded of his legacy of fighting for positive change, including during my recent trip to Asia.

I had a chance, as many of you may know, to visit Vietnam, and I was the first secretary of defense to visit Cam Ranh Bay since the war, and it was a very moving experience for me personally to be there.

After that visit, I was reminded of Ed's work as former secretary of state but also as chairman of CNP, pushing for the United States to re-establish diplomatic ties with Vietnam in the 1990s. The growing defense partnership that we now have with Vietnam would have been unimaginable two decades ago, and the fact that this transformation has taken place is truly a tribute to the vision of Ed Muskie and the work of the Center for National Policy.

When I learned that I would be receiving this honor, I reflected on why Ed Muskie's life story resonated so strongly with the American people. And it's because he lived the American dream.

And I'm fortunate, in the course of my own life, to have been able to live that dream as well. Like Ed, I am the son of European immigrants. Ed's parents came to America from Poland, and mine came from Italy. And along with millions of others, they came to this country with few skills, little money in their pocket and very little language ability in English. But they understood the dream that is America.

I've often said that I would ask my father, why would you travel all of that distance to come to a strange country, thousands of miles, not knowing exactly where you were going -- leaving, obviously, a poor area of Italy, but they had the comfort of family. Why would you suddenly pick up and go all of that distance to this country?

And my father would say that the reason we did that is because your mother and I believed that we could give our children a better life.

And I think that it is that dream of a better life for our children that is truly the American dream, the dream that all of have for our children and that hopefully they will have for their children. That's what Ed Muskie's parents wanted for him, and it's what he wanted for his children. And fulfilling the promise of the American dream for future generations is what his life in public service was all about.

There is, perhaps, no greater example of the kind of positive impact that public service can have for the quality of life in this country than the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, which Ed Muskie fought to pass in the Congress. He was a man of extraordinary personal integrity and, as a senator, a true master of the legislative process. As I said, I had the opportunity, as a young legislative assistant, to witness him in action on the floor of the Senate. I was then an aide for Tom Kuchel, senator from California, in the 1960s.

For those of you that don't remember that era, there were people in the -- in the United States Senate like Everett Dirksen, Jacob Javits, Clifford Case, Hugh Scott, Tom Kuchel, George Aiken, Mark Hatfield and, on the Democratic side, Mike Mansfield, Dick Russell, Warren Magnuson, Henry Jackson, Sam Ervin, William Fulbright and others.

These were giants. They were statesmen and they were leaders. Yes, they argued politics and they had their political differences, but when issues of national interest came to play, they were willing to resolve those issues in the national interest. They were able to come together across party lines and find good compromises to the problems facing this country.

Today we still benefit from that legislative legacy of civil rights and equal rights, of education and environmental landmark bills, of transportation and foreign policy accomplishments. Today more than ever -- today more than ever, our country needs to come together in that same spirit.

As secretary of defense, my job is to protect the country's national security in the face of threats and challenges that span the globe. I can't do it without the partnership of Congress. I can't do it without Republicans and Democrats who are willing to work with me to protect our national security.

One of my greatest concerns as secretary today is the partisan dysfunction that we see in Washington. It threatens our national and economic security and it raises questions about the capacity of our democracy to respond to crisis.

For the past year Congress has been grappling with how to confront record deficits and a record debt. It's a problem that must be solved in order to ensure our long-term security and our long-term prosperity. But unfortunately, rather than enacting the kind of comprehensive plan that is essential to addressing this size debt -- and I say that as someone who in the past was part of most budget summits that were held during the '90s -- the '80s and '90s. Republican presidents working with Democratic Congresses, Democratic presidents working with Republican Congresses were able to arrive at the kind of agreements that were effective in reducing the deficit and ultimately producing a balanced budget.

This is a moment when Congress has to pay attention to that history and to find compromise. The result we are seeing now is partisan gridlock. And the result is that the Department of Defense is facing a crisis at our doorstep with a round of automatic deep spending cuts that will take effect in January.

Now, we have responded -- Department of Defense -- to directions from the Congress to reduce the defense budget over 10 years by $487 billion, almost a half-a-trillion dollars. And we approached that carefully. I felt, as someone who worked with budgets, that Defense had a role to play. And so the result was we came together because it was important that we establish a strategy for what our national defense should be, not just now but in the future. And working with the service chiefs, working with the undersecretaries, we went through the Defense budget.

And what we developed was a defense strategy that consisted of five key elements. We know we're going to be smaller and leaner. That's a reality. But at the same time, we can be agile, we can be flexible, we can be quickly deployable, and we can be on the front edge of technology.

Secondly, that we had to refocus and rebalance our forces to the Pacific -- the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, because those are the areas where we confront the biggest problems.

Thirdly, that it was essential that we also have a presence elsewhere in the world. And so we developed an innovative rotational presence where we would have our troops be able to go in, to do exercises, to provide training, to build partnerships, to build alliances -- Latin America, Africa, Europe -- and be able to develop the capabilities of other countries to secure and defend themselves.

Fourthly, that we had to be strong enough to defeat more than one enemy at a time and have that capability. And lastly that we had to invest. This is -- this can't be -- this can't be just about cutting. It had to be about investing in cyber, investing in unmanned systems, investing in space, investing in special forces, investing in the ability to mobilize quickly if we confronted crisis.

Those are the key elements of that strategy and we built a budget that reflected that strategy and have submitted that budget, with president's support, to the Congress. I know we're going to be in for battles up there. I'm -- you know, I understand the process up there. But we have a strategy, we've put it in place, and it can be effective at helping to reduce the deficit.

But on top of that, Congress also developed this crazy mechanism called sequester. I mean, our -- I'm always asked in the Congress, well, have you looked at sequester and tried to plan for it? I said, I can't plan for something that was designed to be crazy. (Laughter.) I mean, sequester was designed to be nuts so that it would force the Congress to ultimately act to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, the supercommittee didn't do that, and so the potential for a sequester taking place is real, in January of 2013. It will pose, if it happens -- and I've made this clear -- an unacceptable risk to our ability to defend this country. Make no mistake, it will hollow out our force. It will weaken us at the very moment when the United States needs to remain the strongest military power on earth. It would virtually double the cuts in the defense area. And worse, it does it by cutting everything across the board, basically hollowing out the entire structure of our national defense.

Both sides in the Congress recognize that we must stop sequester. There isn't a Republican or Democrat I've talked to that says he's for sequester. It's also clear that the only way that that can be dealt with is if everything is put on the table and both sides are willing to compromise and sacrifice in order to enact a comprehensive solution to detrigger sequester and to ultimately deal with our long-term debt and deficit problems.

What I fear, and I think this is a real fear, is that there is a danger that both Republicans and Democrats alike will simply kick the can down the road; that what they will do now, as you know, is move everything to past the election. What we are facing at that point is a perfect storm of issues coming together that, again, raise serious concerns for the health of this country.

We're facing sequester. We're facing a debt ceiling problem. We're facing the tax bill that would come due and taxes would increase across the board. And we're facing the debt ceiling -- or, not the debt ceiling, but the whole issue of appropriations and a CR -- all of that coming due.

And so the approach now is to roll that past the election and hope that after the election, members will come back in a lame duck and confront all of those issues. You know what the problem is in discussions that I've had on the Hill, when I've said, deal with this issue now; don't wait till after the election or, in the very least, lay the groundwork for dealing with this issue. But what members have admitted to me is that there's a strong likelihood that when they come back after the election in the lame duck, they will simply postpone everything and move it down the road.

Delay is failure. And the price for delay, the price for delay creates further doubt and further instability and a long shadow of concern that the fundamental problems that we face in this country will not be resolved. I think that's a failure of leadership, and that's a failure to govern.

At the same time that that's happening, many Democrats and Republicans, to their credit, also have tremendous respect and admiration for the men and women who serve this nation in uniform, that put their lives on the line every day in the battle to protect this country. They are fighting and they are dying so that we can enjoy the freedom essential to governing our democracy. Surely, surely 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 there certainly should be elected leaders who are willing to make the tough decisions necessary to solve the problems this country's facing.

More than -- more than 50 years ago, Ed Muskie joined his colleagues on the Senate floor and took part in the tradition of reading aloud George Washington's farewell address. In that address, Washington called on his fellow citizens to put aside differences and instead concentrate on our common interests as Americans. At the time, Muskie wrote, and I quote, "It is obvious that we have not followed Washington's advice to the letter. But it is also clear that tremendous moral force which enabled him to lead our country through its perilous labor pains of birth lives with us still as a peaceful example," unquote.

More than 50 years later, that example still lives with us, and it still is at the heart of what this great democracy is all about. Putting the common interest first, bridging our differences, making the sacrifices that are necessary are still the only way to govern and to fulfill the American dream. So, tonight, let us honor Ed Muskie's legacy by reaffirming our commitment to doing whatever is necessary to fulfill that dream that his parents and my parents and your parents have for this country, that of giving our children a better life.

At the end of the movie "Saving Private Ryan," the dying lieutenant leans over to Private Ryan and whispers in his ear: "Earn this, earn it," meaning that all of the sacrifice of those who died trying to save Private Ryan, that all of that sacrifice was not a gift; it's something that has to be earned by living a good life.

I think the same thing is true for our democracy and all of those who have served and who have died fighting for that democracy. That is not a gift. That is not a gift. We have to earn it by governing and by doing what is right.

Ed Muskie earned it. So must we all.

Thank you again for this award. God bless you, and God bless America.

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