The former Secretary of Defense and CIA director addresses the SCU Law Class of 2017. Highlights: Respect the rule of law. And the truth.
Here is a transcript of Leon Panetta’s Commencement Address delivered at Santa Clara University School of Law on May 20, 2017.
Thank you very much, Dean Lisa Kloppenberg and faculty and staff and families and friends of the graduates. Thank you for inviting Sylvia and me to participate in this great, great ceremony that takes place in this wonderful location at Santa Clara University. And in particular, I am pleased to be here with the graduates of the year 2017 from the law school. You made it—and I’m sure your family members are saying, “Thank God you made it!”
I’m honored for several reasons to have this opportunity. One is because I’m an alumnus of the law school and graduated back in the class of 1963. That was a time when Bergin Hall was the law school. That was it. All of our classes and all of our work was done at Bergin Hall. And we were the first class of women students at the time. One of those, I would like to acknowledge, Mary Emery, who graduated in my class, served with distinction at the law school, and we miss her greatly.
Secondly, I’m honored because the law has played a very important role in the Panetta family. My brother Joe was a graduate in 1958, and he still continues to practice. Our youngest son, Jimmy, was also a 1996 graduate of Santa Clara Law School and just got elected to my old seat in the Congress, representing the Central Coast. Our oldest son, Chris, is a graduate of UCLA Law School, but is a partner in Fenton & Keller in Monterey. And our daughter-in-law, Carrie Panetta, married to Jimmy, is a graduate of University of Virginia Law School and is a Superior Court judge in Monterey County. Our second son became a cardiologist, I think to take care of the rest of us.
So, the law has served the Panetta family well.
Thirdly, I’m honored because the Panetta Institute, as mentioned, does host the fellows program, in which we have law students from Santa Clara come to our institute, learn about the legislative process, learn about issues, and more importantly, learn about what it takes to find consensus on issues, which is the heart and soul of the legislative process—and frankly has become a lost art in Washington. And I’m also honored because of all of you—particularly the graduates receiving your law degree. You are in many ways fulfilling the American dream, the dream of achieving a better life. I know about that dream because I’ve had the privilege to live the American dream. I’m the son of Italian immigrants. Like millions of others, they came to America, early ’30s, few skills, no language ability, little money in their pocket. My father was the 13th in his family. He had several brothers who’d come to America before him. His oldest brother settled in Sheridan, Wyoming, and the other brother came here to California. As was the tradition in Italian families, when you come to this country, you visit your older brother first. So they did—and went to see my uncle Bruno, in Sheridan, Wyoming. They spent one winter in Wyoming.
My mother said it’s time to see the other brother in California.
Which they did—made it to Monterey, California. My dad opened a restaurant downtown Monterey. They worked hard. My mother handled the cash register and my father cooked. My brother and I worked in the back. My earliest recollections about that was standing on a chair in the back of that restaurant, washing glasses. (My parents believed that child labor was a requirement in my family!) My father sold the restaurant after the war and then bought some land in Carmel Valley, planted a walnut orchard. Again, we worked hard, moving irrigation pipes, doing all the work you do on a farm. And as those trees grew older, my father used to go around in those days with a pole and hook and shake each of the branches, and my brother and I used to be underneath collecting the walnuts. When I got elected to Congress, my father said, “You know, you’ve been well trained to go to Washington because you’ve been dodging nuts all your life.”
There’s some truth to that. The American dream is something I think a lot about, because I used to ask my father, “Why would you come all that distance to come to a strange land, leaving your family, leaving the comfort of those that you were raised with. Why would you suddenly travel thousands of miles to a strange land?” And I never forgot my father’s comment, which was, “Your mother and I believed we could give our children a better life in this country.” And that is the American dream—the dream of giving our children a better life. But they also made clear that dreams are just dreams unless you’re willing to work hard, to take risks, to sacrifice, to fight, and to never stop fighting until you achieve your dream.
There was a Jesuit here at Santa Clara when I went here who once said to me—I’ve never forgotten this: “Leon, God gives you life, but it is up to you to determine whether you have a life.” And he backed it up with a story that I often tell, because it makes a wonderful point, of the rabbi and the priest who decided they would get to know each other a little better. They decided to go to events and use those events to talk to each other, to learn about each other’s faith. One night, they went to a boxing match and just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross. The rabbi nudged the priest and said, “What does that mean?” The priest said, “It doesn’t mean a damn thing if you can’t fight.”
Now ladies and gentlemen, we bless ourselves with the hope that everything’s gonna be great in America—but frankly, it doesn’t mean a damn thing unless we’re willing to fight for it. In 2017, this nation is very much at a crossroads. By virtue of the decision you’ve made on the career that you’re about to embark on, and the law degree that you received—you are very much a part of the fight in our democracy. Because in a very real way, the future of our democracy will be determined by whether or not we are a nation of laws, whether or not we respect the institutions and the traditions that support our democracy.
I said we’re at a crossroads, and I think this country can go in one of two directions. One, and I believe this, we could be an America in renaissance in the 21st century, an America that has a strong economy and strong growth, an America that builds on this tremendous creativity and innovation that is part of Silicon Valley and part of our country: tremendous advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, unmanned vehicles, information technology, studies into the human genome. We could have young people trained in the skills of the 21st century. We could be a country that can govern itself, that can make decisions on behalf of the American people. And yes, we could have a leaner, but a more agile defense force that remains the strongest on the face of the earth, supporting a world leadership that deals with a very dangerous world.
We could have that kind of America—or we could be an America in decline, an America in crisis after crisis, unable to govern itself, caught in political gridlock, divided by our fears and our hatreds and our prejudices, political attacks that undermine trust in our leadership, our institutions, our freedoms, our laws, unable to protect those freedoms, unable to protect our economy, unable to protect our national security. The kind of downward spiral that is the story of every failed empire in the course of history. What path we take will be determined not just by the quality of our political leadership, but very frankly determined by all of you.
I often say at our institute, talking about public policy to the students, that in democracy we govern either by leadership or by crisis. If leadership is there and willing to take the risks associated with leadership—and make no mistake about it, if you are a leader, you have to take risks—if you’re willing to take those risks, we can avoid crisis. But if leadership is not there, then we will inevitably govern by crisis. But if you govern by crisis, there is a price to be paid. And the price is: You lose the trust of the American people in our system of government. And very frankly, the story of the last election was the story of lost trust, of angry and frustrated voters who felt that no one in Washington, no political party, was working to deal with the problems they were facing in their jobs or lack of jobs, in their families, in their ability to survive. And so they desperately wanted change, even with someone that they knew they did not agree with, but it could produce some kind of change, even if the price was political turmoil.
Unfortunately, that anger and frustration is still there, and it affects every generation. The Panetta Institute just took a nationwide survey of college students to determine their attitudes on a number of issues. In the history of our poll, I’ve never seen the level of dissatisfaction. In the poll, trust in the quality of political leadership had plummeted from 48 percent in the survey last year to 29 percent. Three out of five students, over 61 percent, say the country is on the wrong track. That’s the lowest we’ve ever seen. The good news is that students, at the same time, recognize that political decisions are relevant to their lives—and by close to 70 percent, they recognize that if they are involved in our political system, they can make a difference. And that participation, that involvement in our democracy, goes to the heart and soul of what our system of government is all about.
You are the stewards of the rule of law
We are nation that was born in the middle of the Enlightenment. Philosophers like Kant and Hobbes and others, for the first time, were debating the role of people in government, the fact that we could self govern ourselves, and our forefathers took note of that. They realized they didn’t want a centralized power in any one branch of government. They didn’t want a king. They didn’t want a king/parliament. They didn’t want a Star Chamber court. In their genius, they created a system of three separate but equal branches of government, each a check and balance on the other. It is a unique system to limit power, but it can also produce gridlock. But the key to breaking that gridlock was the fact that they placed ultimate power in the people, in the people of our country and they framed that in the preamble to our Constitution: We the people of the United States are responsible for a more perfect union, are responsible to establish justice, are responsible to provide a common defense to promote our general welfare and to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and for our children. We the people are the stewards of our democracy and you, future lawyers of America, are the stewards of the rule of law.
Without the rule of law, there would be no democracy. Today, the institutions of our democracy are being seriously tested. In the law, you cannot be a good lawyer if you do not respect the law and the institutions that are responsible for carrying out the law. In the courtroom, you have to be someone who respects the process that you’re involved with and frankly, you cannot be a good leader or a good citizen if you do not respect our Constitution and the institutions responsible for enforcing the requirements of that sacred document.
For 200 years, we have survived as a nation because there are fundamental principles that have always guided our struggles to meet the challenges we faced. In the courtroom, you’re gonna fight for your clients. You’re gonna fight for their interests, but you have to do it pursuant to the rules and the traditions and the laws that guide the pursuit of justice, the pursuit of truth. There are the judges and the courts, the rules of evidence and the precedents and the procedures. Yes, you’ll fight like hell and you may not like the decisions, but you’ll respect the process. The same is true for public service.
Democracy is best served when it is a cauldron of competing ideas and beliefs, fought out pursuant to the rules and the traditions and the laws that guide the development of public policy. None of this works—none of this works—if we do not respect the fundamental principles that underpin our democracy: respect for our system of checks and balances, for the Congress and its legislative role, for the executive and the powers that are provided under Article II, and for the courts to determine whether the actions of the Congress and the president meet the requirements of our Constitution. No president can govern by edict—or by executive order, for that matter. If you want to change law, you go to the Congress, but you have to deal with it within the limits of power established by our Constitution. We have to respect our cherished freedoms, of free speech and of the press, and of religion.
“We are a nation that builds bridges, not walls.”
There are dangers out there, dangers on campuses that seek to restrict the ability of free speech to take place. We can’t be afraid to hear the views of those we disagree with. That’s part of our democracy. We cannot stand by while a free press is intimidated because it reports the facts, and we have to recognize that religions need to be free to express their beliefs—and that we should protect the separation of church and state in that process. We have to respect the diversity of this country, the fact that we are a nation that has welcomed immigrants and refugees from every corner of the world. We are a nation that builds bridges, not walls.
And most of all, we have to respect the truth—respect the truth—the honesty to state the truth about both our successes and our failures. When I first went back to Washington after I got out of the Army, I went to work as a legislative assistant to then Senator Thomas Kuchel. He was a Republican from California, a progressive Republican in the mold of Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren. He was a Republican whip under minority leader Everett Dirksen. He brought us into his office at the U.S. Capitol. There were two legislative assistants and he said to us, “Look, you’re gonna be tempted in this town. People are gonna try to tempt you to get me to vote a certain way, but I want you to remember one thing. We are here to represent the interests of the American people and the interests of the people of California.”
And then he said something I’ll never forget. He said, “When you get up in the morning, you have to look at yourself in the mirror.” Which basically meant you have to respect yourself and protect your integrity, and no amount of money can buy that.
I believe in American leadership. I’ve served over 50 years in public life. I believe in American leadership, make no mistake about that. We are a country that has faced crisis throughout our history. We faced a civil war, world wars, a recession, a depression, natural disasters, but we have always risen to the occasion—and we will again, because the fundamental strength of our country resides in the people of this country, in our spirit, in our resilience, in our common sense, and in our respect for our founding principles and the will to fight.
As secretary, I saw those values in the men and women that serve this country in uniform, men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line to fight and die for this country—fight and die for this country. And sure, if there are those young men and women who are willing to fight and die for this country, is it too much to ask our elected leadership to find a little bit of that courage in order to govern and protect our own country?
“Here I am, Lord. Send me.”
When I was director of the CIA, there was a terrible tragedy that occurred. We lost seven CIA officers to a suicide bomber who proved to be a double agent at a place called Khost, Afghanistan. I received all of those officers when they came back to this country and greeted each of their families, and I gave each of their families a plaque that had a verse from the Old Testament from the prophet Isaiah, chapter six, verse eight: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me, send me, send me.’”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the sound of the trumpet that must summon all of us to action, young and old, soldier and citizen, member of Congress, president of the United States, and yes, you, the graduates of the Santa Clara University Law School. Your duty is to the law, but it is also to the nation, the duty to fight and never give up fighting until we have an American renaissance, until the dream of my parents for a better life for all of our children is fulfilled, and until we have a government of, by, and for all of the people. And frankly, it doesn’t mean a damn thing unless you’re willing to fight for it.
Congratulations, God bless you, and God bless our country.