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Remarks at Public Service Awards Dinner

Kennedy School of Government

I want to join in the celebration of those we honor tonight. When you honor people, you are of course giving a form of recognition to the people being honored. But, in a very real sense, it is the rest of us who are being honored by their presence and by their participation. And it is surely that way with the five people we honor tonight.

It is also true that honors and awards like these not only recognize individual excellence, and surely we do that tonight, but recognize the examples set by the people being honored here in the value we attach to the activity of public service. And I know I speak for all who are honored tonight in saying that as we celebrate their public service, we celebrate the public service of the millions of people who are proud to be able to say that they work for the government of the United States of America, or for the government of one of its several states.

We all know that the success of our country as a nation in the world depends in part on those who get their pictures taken. But it depends equally on those who clean their offices. It depends on those who give speeches about health care, and it also depends on those who give blood in VA hospitals. It depends on those who think about and conceptualize the contours of relations between nations, but it depends equally or more on those who fight for our country.

And so what we are celebrating tonight is the service of five extraordinary individuals, but even more we are celebrating the activity of public service. Now when Joe Nye planned this event, we could have expected that we would speak much about the importance of public service, that we would speak of how the nation needed to attract the most capable and able people into public service. We would speak of the large number of retirements that the federal government and many state and local governments can expect in the next decade or two. We would speak about the importance of the tasks before the public sector, whether in keeping the peace or advancing science or helping the weakest in our society. And all of that is true and right.

But all of that has now been magnified and, I believe, altered by the events of September 11th, and by the struggle in which our country is now engaged. It seems to me that those events have the prospect of being transforming in many ways, good and bad, for our lives.

One way is in the approach we as a people take towards our government and to the issue of public service. Let me talk about three aspects of this. The first is the question of the relationship between citizen and society in our country. It has always troubled me that in a generation, we went from a country where politicians proclaimed, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” to one characterized by heated competition among people as to how we can have a better middle class bill of rights, how we can have things that would be done not by the people of our country, but for the people of our country.

It is not my point tonight to disparage any of the particular policy proposals that went under that banner. But I was always profoundly troubled by that slogan “middle class bill of rights” because of what it implied about the obligations of society to citizens, and the lack of obligations of citizens to society.

I think the events of September 11th remind us that there are issues larger and more transcendent than the issues we thought they were before September 11th. Things we took for granted before September 11th — the idea of progress and prosperity, the sense of our security — are now very much at risk. And as they come to be very much at risk, the imperative of service to society becomes all the more important.

As I said here several weeks ago, the people whose job it was to run up the stairs in the World Trade Center on September 11th were public employees, paid for by — yes, let me say it — paid for by taxes. People who wouldn’t be there without a government, without the recognition of the importance of public service. And I think that sense of being part of a larger whole is now more present in our country than it was before September 11th, and I think there is that prospect for the next generation.

The second respect in which I believe our response to the events of September 11th can help us strengthen our country is by leading to a rebirth of a national sense of community. And even a sense — and I’m using a word that I’m firmly convinced is used too infrequently in communities such as this university community — a greatly increased sense of patriotism.

There was a time in our country when if you turned on the news and American troops were engaged in battle, Walter Cronkite said, “Our soldiers prevailed today.” Or, “Our soldiers struggled today.” It was a very significant thing for our country, I believe, when that pronoun “our” ceased to be part of the description of what the American military did. It was a very significant thing for our country when the tragic events of the Vietnam War period led to disaffection, which in many ways lives with us today, toward people who wear uniforms.

There are still many people who, when they think of police, think too quickly of Chicago in 1968, and too slowly of the people who risk their lives every day to keep streets safe in America’s major cities. It is all too common for us to underestimate the importance of clearly expressing our respect and support for the military and individuals who choose to serve in the armed forces of the United States. Speech should be free and policy differences should be debated, but respect for all, including those who wear military uniforms, must be a basic value in our community.

Joe, I hope that when you have this award next year, among those who will be recognized will be those who have served our country in uniform. Because I think we need to remember that of all the kinds of public service, there is a special nobility, a special grace, to those who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for our country. And if these terrible events and the struggle that we are now engaged in once again re-ignite our sense of patriotism — re-ignite our respect for those who wear uniforms and bring us together as a country in that way — it will be no small thing.

There is a third respect in which I believe the events of September 11th are profoundly important, as we seek to prevail in the struggle before us. We will prevail because we will have better security in American airports and on American planes and on American soil. We will prevail because we will retaliate effectively, and we will strike at the places from which this threat comes. But we will prevail most profoundly because, I believe, we will come to see this struggle not as a clash between terror and the rule of law, not as some kind of religious clash of civilizations — but ultimately as a clash between the forces of nihilism and destruction, and the forces of hope, optimism, and the construction of a better world. Because those are the two sides that are pitted against each other in this struggle.

And I say to you that it is the work of public employees — it is the work of those who work in the public sector — to hope, to be optimistic, and to build a better, safer, fairer, more just society. And that task, whether it is fighting terror or doing medical research, whether it is working in the Defense Department or being concerned with global environmental challenges, whether it is working to protect the transportation system or working to eradicate poverty in the United States — those challenges, and our ability to carry on our work and continue to demonstrate how the world can be better, are the most important way in which we will prevail in this struggle.

There is here, in the wake of this horror, a historic opportunity, I believe, to awaken a next generation of Americans to asking what they can do for their country and for their world. To awaken them to the ultimate satisfaction not in being well off, but in being part of something larger than themselves, to the joy of making a real contribution that leaves behind a better world than you found it. That’s why these issues of public service take on such a special importance right now.

You know, it has been said that you cannot love your country and hate your government. I would suggest equally that you cannot respect your country’s government and fail to admire and cherish those who work for it — those who serve the public. I have been proud to be part of a number of institutions, and I am enormously proud to be part of Harvard University. But I would say to you that the group of women and men that I had a chance to work with during my eight years in the government of the United States of America, in the Treasury Department, were as remarkable, capable, honest a group of people as I have ever had, and I suspect will ever have, the opportunity to work with in my lifetime.

In this awards dinner, we celebrate our honorees. We celebrate the importance of public service. But above all, we challenge all of ourselves to do everything we can to support that objective for the next generation of Americans. That’s what the Kennedy School is all about. That is why it is such an important part of this university. And that’s why we are so grateful for all of your support. Thank you very much.