Secretary of Defense Speech

Remarks Honoring Senator Carl Levin and Senator John Warner


Good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you so much for being here and…to join me in what is a great privilege – and that is to honor Senators Carl Levin and John Warner today.  And also, I want to welcome Carl’s wife Barbara, his brother Congressman Sandy – where is…where’d Sandy go?  Ah, thank you, I know you have to leave early and tend to business on the Hill.  Budget business, I assume – budget business is good.  John’s wife Jeanne – Jeanne, thank you for being here.  John’s son John, his aptly named daughter Virginia, and his brother Charles – all to the Pentagon, thank you.  And I’m very glad to be joined by Jim Clapper, DoD leaders and Congressional leaders past and present, and so many long-time friends of all of us.

We’re here today to honor two extraordinary senators and statesmen.  Now, Carl himself has called these two friends an “odd couple,” but what makes Carl and John different pales in comparison to all they share, including their uncompromising dedication to our nation’s defense and our men and women in uniform. 

For that commitment, for their leadership on the Senate Armed Service Committee, and for their continued support for DoD, we’re dedicating today the Levin-Warner Legislative Affairs Suite to them. 

And we’re also giving John our highest award, the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service.  Now, I’d liked to have awarded Carl that as well at the same time, but he’s so deserving he received that award a few years ago.  But John, as worthy as you and your service are, I was surprised you haven’t received it yet, but now, I’m honored to give you something that you so richly deserve.

Now, it might seem odd to some of you that a Secretary of Defense would choose to honor two former members of Congress in this way.  But it shouldn’t seem strange – it shouldn’t seem strange.  And that’s because our defense is so vital that we must shepherd it from strategic era to strategic era, from administration to administration, from congress to congress, across parties, and across our government. 

And we have to do that together – following the example set by John and Carl.  They’re a model for bipartisan leadership on national defense and for partnership between branches of government.  They demonstrate an unwavering dedication to our personnel in uniform, on the battlefield and here at home.  And they are examples of civility in public debate and discourse.

That last one is particularly important.  That’s because our troops need to be able to look up to their leaders here in Washington and see strength and consistency and respect, as well as a loyalty to – and caring for – them and our country’s future.  And they could always look up and see the two of you.

The American people also need to be able to look to Congress and the Pentagon and be confident in the institutions dedicated to our national security.  And our friends and allies around the world need to see in Washington a commitment to the strength and to the principles that the United States has long represented.  And our foes need to see power and determination.

Through their example and their leadership, Carl and John ushered us out of the Cold War and helped us address the opportunities and challenges of the post-9/11 world.  They also ably represented their states’ needs while considering the broader interests of our nation and our military. 

And that’s not always easy, but they took the long view when ensuring our nation’s defense.  And they appreciated how today’s challenges fall into the long arc of our nation’s history, and that there’s much to be gained by considering history’s lessons when developing today’s policies…and planning for our future.

Their example is important today as the Defense Department today, right now, right here faces a new strategic era with no fewer than five major, immediate, and evolving challenges: countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe; managing historic change in the vital Asia-Pacific region; strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations; checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf; and accelerating the certain defeat of ISIL in its parent tumor in Iraq and Syria and everywhere it might metastasize around the world.

As we confront these five challenges, I’m grateful – and we should all be grateful – that ours is the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  There’s no one stronger, there’s no one more capable…because our military edge is second-to-none.  That’s a fact that every American ought to be proud of, and a fact that every American should thank statesmen like Carl and John for.  In their years on the Senate Armed Services Committee, they sharpened our military edge and helped us stay ahead of our adversaries – ensuring that we were not only ready to address current threats and challenges, but also poised for future success. 

They did so because they wanted the best for our men and women in uniform.  They did so because they believed in our mission.  And they did so because they understood that no – no matter what tomorrow brings, the world will require sustained American leadership. And while we don’t get to choose the challenges we face today, we can prepare for tomorrow by setting a strategic course, establishing defense priorities, and making the right investments.

Doing so requires cooperation and coordination across the government, but in particular, it requires a partnership between Congress and the DoD – and strong partnerships within Congress itself.  

Time and again, Carl and John were those kinds of partners, on smart and collaborative reform, with their measured and responsible oversight, and on the NDAA, which they helped pass on a bipartisan basis for over three decades and were matched – which were matched by corresponding appropriations.  As partners, as SASC chairmen, and as individual senators they helped make our department a better department and our military stronger.

For his part, Carl was called “Mr. Integrity” when he was in the Senate.  Over his 36 years in the Capitol, he made a mark on domestic and foreign policy, but he’s best known in this building for his years on the Senate Armed Services Committee.  One Senator said of his leadership there, “Why can’t the rest of the Senate work the way the Armed Services Committee works?” He answered, the Senate – …that individual answered his own question and said that the Senate doesn’t have “enough Carl Levins.” 

Explaining why – on Carl’s retirement in 2014 – the SASC never let disagreements stop it from doing its business, current Chairman John McCain said simply, “Carl won’t let us.”  Indeed, every day he served, he always put our country – and our troops – first…right up until his last day in office.  He was even late to his own retirement party – I understand – because he was busy managing the NDAA on the Senate floor.

A few years ago, Carl told some public policy students back home in his beloved state Michigan, that even “if issues change,” he said, “principles do not.”  Time and again, when the nation and DoD faced a new challenge, Carl was there…doing his homework, getting ground truth from war zones, providing the patience and persistence needed for principled oversight. 

As threats changed, Carl became a leading voice on counterterrorism.  As our missions changed and as technology, industry, and innovation evolved, Carl advocated for acquisition reform that benefited both our warfighters and our taxpayers.  And as times and the fights changed, Carl was always a tireless guardian for our troops and veterans, supporting their needs on and off the battlefield – repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” passing the Wounded Warrior Act, and getting body armor to troops in Iraq.

Carl, for all this, your SASC leadership, your dogged work for our people, and your personal friendship, we honor you, and we thank you. 

And you had a good partner in John Warner.  As a member of the Greatest Generation and a native of Virginia, a state that has given our nation so many great leaders, Senator John Warner knows what it means to be a public servant: he served his country – in uniform, at the Pentagon, or on Capitol Hill – through every single conflict since World War II.

During World War II, he enlisted as young sailor.  When the war in Korea broke out, he left law school to fight bravely as a Marine Corps officer.  During the Vietnam War, he led the Department of the Navy – first as an Undersecretary and later as Secretary. 

And from the Cold War to the first Gulf War to the Balkans and on to Iraq and Afghanistan, John served as a leading member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including several years as chairman.  

On his time as chairman, John said, he saw his first responsibility as “towards my nation, not politics and particularly [to] the men and women of the armed forces and their families.”  That was clear in all he helped get done for our people and for our great institution. 

Thanks to his leadership, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines – and their families – can rely on TRICARE, the Goldwater-Nichols Act helped reform how our organization works, and the GI Bill was enhanced.  And he was an earlier – early champion for nuclear stability and safety, including the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, as the Cold War was coming to an end.

Now, John may not remember this, but he and some of his colleagues invited me, who was a relative nobody in nuclear physics at that time, to a trip with them related to their work.  It was a fascinating time in history, but what I remember most in those years – many years ago now – is how John treated me and everyone around him. 

He was encouraging and respectful to me, a complete novice, and he was as respectful of me as he was of some of the national and international leaders with whom we met.   

That meant a great deal to one young person who was interested in public service, but it’s also a lesson that’s stayed with me throughout my career.  Some of the most important and profound connections we make in these positions happen far from the committee rooms and the Sunday shows, the bilateral meetings and the public eye.  Those moments of inspiration, John, usually only occur when one person is paying attention.

John, as one person you inspired long ago and on behalf of the many others whom you have inspired then and inspire today, it’s my great honor to present the Distinguished Public Service Award to you today, which we’ll do in just a moment.  On behalf of the men and women of the Department of Defense, and on behalf of a grateful nation, thank you, John.  Both in and out of uniform, you’ve dedicated your career – and your life – to serving this great nation.

Now, in addition to honoring John and Carl’s remarkable careers, we’re also honoring the enduring friendship and partnership of these two men.  They traveled together, they talked together, and they passed the gavel to one another.  As they did so, they developed the trust and respect necessary to put the nation’s defense and our servicemembers’ welfare ahead of, as John has said, “all other considerations.”

That’s why we’re naming the Pentagon’s legislative affairs suite after both of you and your partnership – a fitting tribute to two individuals who are examples for how we must work together – not only across the aisle but across the river to ensure the Defense Department and America’s military edge are not only ready to address current threats and challenges, but also positioned for success in the future. 

That’s what John and Carl did, regardless of the strategic era, regardless of the party in the majority, regardless of the politics of the day.  You can see that in footage from hearing after hearing, you can see that in all the miles they traveled together, and you can see that in the pages and pages of law these two have authored and passed.

And you can also see that in a simple, yet powerful press conference just 15 years ago – almost to the day.  On September 11th, 2001 – a tragic day for sure in our nation’s history, and a particularly dark hour in the history of this very building and this department – they came here to the Pentagon.  They toured the damage, they comforted many, and they met with leaders here.  And they stood with Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and Chairman Hugh Shelton in a Pentagon press conference to reassure the American people. And in that press conference Carl said, and I quote, “Our institutions are strong, and our unity is palpable.”  

John and Carl were two reasons why that was true on 9/11 and in the years since.  And with their names on the door – and their example front of mind – DoD’s legislative affairs team and senior leaders for years to come will work with our partners in Congress to ensure it remains true – and our military edge remains honed – in all the years ahead for this proud nation.

Now we went by the newly named suite just a few moments ago – and I encourage you all to go there and look at some of the wonderful photographs now on display.  For now, though, we’re going to unveil a photo of the suite – right here – honoring these two distinguished servants.

Once again, thank you, and congratulations, guys.