Secretary of Defense
John Glenn College of Public Affairs - The Ohio State University (2017 Excellence in Public Service Award)
National Press Club, Washington, D.C.
Just think what happens to you when you say the words “John Glenn.” Just think of what comes to mind when you hear those words, a gentleman whose name alone was his passport to the trust of the American people.
Let me just say that here in D.C., I was talking to some of the young students earlier and a town that sometimes has a wonderfully rambunctious partisan air, but Republican or Democrat it would make no difference when you say those two words, “John Glenn.”
The trust is there, and we look upon someone like that with such awe today. But we never thought, even when we were around him, to take him for granted because it was just a power to John Glenn and what he represented. I will tell you right up front, ladies and gentlemen -- I do not have the words to fully express my admiration and respect for Lyn's father, for Annie's husband, for a man who did what he did.
You know, we all need role models in this world. We all need them because they inspire us to listen to our better angels. They remind us, if we look at someone like this, that we can always be better the next day.
And the role models we choose to remind us of what we can be in this country that gives us so many beautiful opportunities, among mine as I look at the world that I was so fortunate to live in, John Glenn shone very brightly. And for you students here tonight, you're going to have to look long and hard to find a more decent role model, one who lived by virtue, a word that is often not used in today's America. But in fact, if you go back to McGuffey's Reader, or if you go back to the 1800's, if you go back to Abraham Lincoln, you find that much more common as we look at how do we evaluate not others, but ourselves -- how you evaluate yourself.
And I remember a Marine barracks parade one night, Lyn, with your father -- I was the hosting officer there. And as it gets toward evening, everybody goes and sits in the bleachers. The Marines are lined up in the dark.
And there I was with Senator Glenn, standing there together in the shadows waiting to go out front and act important. And as we stood there, John Glenn was reminiscing -- Dean, it won't surprise you -- he was looking back on his time as a Marine. He said, "You know Jim, I was a Marine for 23 years. Wasn't nearly long enough."
Interesting comment for a man who rose to the heights he did in the space program, in the Senate, and certainly in the hearts of us all. And you think of a man who fought in World War II, became an ace during Korea, the first man to orbit the Earth, his time in the Senate for a quarter of a century, and he exemplified I think the expression, which is so dear to the American Marines of Semper Fi. Semper Fidelis, "always faithful," because he was always faithful to his country, to his Marines, and certainly to his family, and to his childhood sweetheart, Annie.
I got to know him and Annie, thanks to my former boss Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy deLeon, who joins us here this evening. I was Rudy's senior military assistant, and he was quite aware that I swore I would never set foot in the Pentagon again when I left your duty. Be very careful what you proclaim to yourself or the world, I will warn you.
He was also spent many years with Senator Glenn on the Hill, and is a noted public servant in his own right. And I would tell you, too, that he taught me a bit about Senator Glenn, and then I was, of course, exposed to the senator. And I would get him talking on many occasions, on the phone or in person. And when you think of a man born in 1921, and human-kind had barely really gotten its aviator wings in the air at that time. And eventually, he would actually take us into outer space.
And I think that he always excelled. He didn't just dabble in things. For you young folks, again, to pick out something that you really love, that you really want to throw yourself into and excel, is a part of having meaning in life. So pick wisely and work hard.
He was always faithful to his fellow Marines. And in that war in Korea, a Marine reservist who was making a lot of money, the finest baseball player of his era, one of the finest-ever, Ted Williams, came back on active duty when his country called. He didn't try to get out of it. Came back on active duty, and guess who his wing-man was? None other than John Glenn. What an all-American story that is when you think of these two fly-boys up there together.
He was granted in his later years some of Ted Williams's language that was somewhat uncouth, but Annie could walk into his house with the senator, and as soon as she heard the first bad word, she's say, "Now, Theodore, stop that." And the finest baseball player in the world immediately kowtowed to Miss Annie, and carried on listening to his better angels.
One time Ted Williams was hit by enemy fire, and his plane was on fire. You know, he's coming in, and everyone is telling him to punch out. And of course, in those days, the way you punched out was very injurious. He knew he'd probably never play baseball again if he survived. So he rode the plane in. And all the way in, it was John Glenn coaching him to land a plane on fire without its wheels down. And you can imagine that that's just one more time that Cool Hand John Glenn was able to be there always faithful alongside others. And you'll notice a theme here… that he sticks with you. The tough times to him are just times to get tougher. You don't fade away.
And after serving in Korea, becoming a Navy test pilot, he got interested in space, and you all know what happened. He excelled once again, strapping himself to the nose-cone of what was then an intercontinental ballistic missile that could launch him into outer space. And some ladies with slide rules had figured out, "Yeah, we think we can bring you back, too, if you do this and that."
And wouldn't you know? Something went wrong. And for those of you who've been to the third floor there and looked at that little handle, like something out of a 1970s video game or something, you know. And to think he was able to bring her home like that, and a 14-year-old Lyn watched her father, probably holding her breath, for somewhere around several hours, hoping that dad would get home.
So he comes out of NASA. He becomes this celebrated leader on the Senate floor. When John Glenn spoke, he was listened to. It was not just the gravitas. It was an actual mastery again of what he was doing, and a deep and abiding love for the people he represented and for the Senate itself -- something to remember when we're in a town that sometimes takes cheap shots at an organization that so much is riding on.
So you have to say, to The Ohio State University, to Glenn College faculty, to the Buckeye community… I will just tell you right up front I am humbled by this award. And you can understand why when I think of standing here and being recognized by the words of the dean and the words of Lyn, Senator Glenn’s beloved daughter.
I would just tell you that it's about public service. It's not about me. And I'm not being falsely modest here. It's about public service. We're trying to build a country here, and its noble work. And the work is never done.
About an hour's drive northwest of here there's a battlefield cemetery at a place called Antietam. And there's a statue of a Union soldier up on a pillar there overlooking his comrades. That pillar is inscribed with the words, "Not for themselves, but for their country."
And you think of that long-held tradition and how simply it was portrayed by the man we call Senator John Glenn -- not for himself, but for his country. It was not even a burden for him. It was truly a pleasure when you met with him and talked with him.
But I would tell you, too, that as we build this country in John Glenn's image, ladies and gentlemen, it's good to remember it doesn't matter where you do it, where your family, your parish, or school district, your county, your state, your country, the military, civil service, the intelligence agencies do it. Wherever it is, it is a noble mission.
And you have to remember that, especially when the going gets rough. And it has gotten a little rough here in our beautiful country.
I would just tell you, too, that we give an awful lot of authority to young officers. For example, in the military, we don't always give them enough authority. And we do that on purpose, to remind them when we give them the responsibility and not enough authority, it's going to be your teamwork. It's working with each other in public service. It means putting aside petty grievances. It means accepting the humanity of the people standing and working next to you and not characterizing them by a certain political stripe or another, rather by their humanity, by their being the mother of a girl trying to get into college or the father of a son with M.S.
It's by remembering we're more connected than we are separated by those issues that have to do with our vision for this country as we all work together to turn it over in as good of shape or better than we received it. That's our obligation to the next generation.
And I think, too, that when you look at John Glenn's friendship with those of us that he impacted, it always amazed me that he drew no distinction between those of high rank or low. We were sitting in New York's best deli, and a young girl came up to us. She's knee-high to a duck, and she's got her napkin and she puts it up and asks, "John Glenn, can I have your autograph?" And of course, guess what happened then. The line formed and more are coming up.
Well, we had the Deputy Secretary of Defense. So, at one point, I asked the senator, "If you want, we can have the bodyguards take care of this." He said, "No, no." He said, "These people all paid my paycheck for my entire life. The least I can do is sign a napkin or two."
Modest… humble… everybody counts, doesn't matter where they're from, doesn't matter a bit. They're human beings. They have a divine spark, and he's going to connect.
And that has got to inspire us to be better ourselves each day and for the rest of our lives. And so, please make sure, as you work and sometimes you get frustrated because our country is imperfect -- thank God, she's imperfect. Gives us all something to roll up our sleeves and do.
But as you get sometimes worn out a little bit by it all, just remember, John Glenn didn't get worn out by it. He kept at it… he kept at it… and he kept at it. He held the line on his honor. He held the line on treating others with a sense of decency.
I'm sure he was as tempted as anyone with the frustrations of the day. As you go on through your life, as you go on through your career, just remember something that Joshua Chamberlin, a man who had fought in the Civil War, said that “in great deeds, something abides.”
And I bring that up because there's greatness in every life. It's just a matter of you giving it that sort of attention -- the sort of attention that comes from putting others first.
# # #