A responsibility to act

Do something, engage, commit to the responsibility of keeping America vibrant and strong, says former secretary of defense Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63 in his 2013 Santa Clara commencement address. Read an article on Panetta in the Winter 2012 Santa Clara Magazine.

First of all, my deepest congratulations to all of you, the graduates of 2013. You made it! And to the families, the spouses, and relatives—all of whom at this moment are saying, “Thank God, they made it.”

I am truly honored to be with you today, first of all, because I’m proud to be a Bronco. A graduate of both undergrad and law school, I needed all of the Jesuit grace and blessing I could get in order to survive in Washington—and a hell of a lot of Hail Marys.

I wanted to tell you that Steve Schott, who was in the same class that I was in here at Santa Clara, [and I] came here at, I think, what could fairly be called a different era. It was an all men’s school. This was still pretty much a walled campus. There were no dogs, but there really were a lot of Jesuits around to make sure that we behaved. Pizza and beer was the favorite pastime. Paul Locatelli, the outstanding former president and a very good friend and classmate, was here. Together, Paul and I helped establish the Italian Club.

Now, I should admit that the Italian Club that we established was not so much involved in the study of Italian culture or history; it was more about the Italian joys of life. I remember when I got elected to Congress, a Congressman by the name of Frank Annunzio from Chicago came up to me on the floor of the House and he said, “Panetta, that’s Italian.”

I said, “Yes, it is.” I wasn’t going to say no to an Italian from Chicago.

He said, “That’s good. We don’t do much on issues, but we eat good.” And that was true. It was true for the Italian Club.

We also had something in those days called mixers. We would, of course, invite all of the Catholic women schools to our events. As a matter of fact, it was at an open house here at Santa Clara that I met my wife, Sylvia, who then was going to Dominican. And I want to thank you for honoring her. She is my love, my partner, and my friend. We will celebrate 51 years of marriage in July. Mixers were our version of computer dating.

I’m also honored to be here because I am very proud of the Santa Clara University of today. You’re a 21st-century campus, men and women reflecting the great diversity of our society, open to all faiths and beliefs, a broad curriculum that reflects our times, and committed to the creed of building citizens and leaders of competence, conscience, and compassion.

And I’m particularly honored to address this Class of 2013. This is a critical year, a year that will test not just whether or not you can be good citizens, but whether, in the words of your creed, you can be good leaders. In a few moments, you will receive your degrees, completing what is a very important chapter in your education. From here, you will take the steps necessary to advance your professional careers in your chosen field, and a lot will depend on your personal initiative and your willingness to work hard.

But a lot will depend on factors that, at this point in time, you may believe are beyond your ability to influence. What I want to tell you today is that you’re wrong. Take it from me; you really can make a difference. Your career depends on opportunity. Opportunity depends on the state of our economy, the health of our society. Our economy and our society depends on the state of the nation, and the state of the nation, whether you like the idea or not, will largely depend on you.

You are not just our hope for a better future. You are our future and the key to whether we remain a government of, by, and for all people.

I do not say that lightly. Over 50 years ago, I sat where you’re at, the son of Italian immigrants, the first in my family, along with my brother, to get a college education. I had no idea that I could impact the policy of this country or people’s lives, but I did and so can you.

You can make a difference. Why do I say that? Because in this year of 2013, the year of your graduation, America, our great democracy, is at a critical crossroads. We have come through over a decade of war. We have witnessed the terrible devastation of a brutal attack on America on 9/11. We have seen a remarkable operation to go after the person who was responsible for 9/11, and we made clear to the world that nobody attacks the United States and gets away with it.

We’ve had over 6,000 men and women in uniform who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for this country, 50,000 of them wounded. The rest of the nation, because only 2 percent of the country served in those wars, was not called upon to sacrifice in order to pay for those wars. We incurred huge debts. We suffered through a serious and devastating recession. We saw the fall of the Iron Curtain that has left us with a more uncertain and unstable world—that has to confront terrorism, rogue regimes, the potential of a cyber war. We have a political system that is in partisan gridlock, and there are real questions about whether you will be able to achieve the American dream, the dream that brought my immigrant parents to America, the dream that we all have of a better life for our children.

We, you and I, now have a choice. We can either have an America in renaissance or an America in decline. We can have an America on the cusp of what could be a very strong economic recovery, building on a tremendous creativity and innovation that we see here in Silicon Valley, strengthening an educated and skilled workforce, giving them the clean energy and the resources necessary to grow our economy, advancing our opportunity, improving our quality of life, investing in a leaner and more agile defense force that still can remain the strongest and most powerful in the world, that can sustain America’s leadership and values in a very troubled world. Or we could have an America in decline, following in the historic steps of other failed empires, an America in constant crisis, politically dysfunctional, unable to govern effectively to build a strong future, to protect our most basic freedoms, our economy, or our national defense.

The point is, we have a choice. The good news is that we still have time to do what is right. The bad news is that we have seen events move very rapidly in this technological age of the 21st century, and they can consume us very quickly if we fail to act.

I often tell students at the Panetta Institute that we govern in this country either by leadership or by crisis. If leadership is there and willing to take the needed risks, we can avoid crisis. But if leadership is not there, we will inevitably govern by crisis.

Today, unfortunately, we largely govern by crisis. We can do that. Politicians can somehow survive in office. The public, particularly young people like yourselves, can dismiss Washington as somehow not relevant to your lives. We can govern this way or, more correctly stated, fail to govern. But there is a price to be paid, and that price is the loss of trust of the American people in our system of governing, and every scandal only reinforces that distrust.

During my 50 years of public service, I have seen Washington at its best, and I have seen it at its worst. I believe in American leadership. I’ve seen America face all kinds of crises, from economic recessions to war to natural disasters to scandals that have gone to the core of leadership in Washington. But somehow, throughout all of that frustration and anger and gridlock, America has always risen to the challenge, and I believe it will again, perhaps not from a top-down approach, through some sudden conversion or awakening in the halls of power, but from the bottom up, from the wellspring that leadership has always drawn its strength from in this country, the fundamental spirit and common sense and values of the American people, the belief that braced our forefathers in the responsibility to act and, yes, to fight for what is right.

Teddy Roosevelt, who understood what it meant to fight, said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing you can do is the wrong thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”

I am pleading with you not to do nothing, but to do something: to engage; to get involved; to hold our elected officials accountable; to make them understand there is a price to be paid for doing nothing; to demand action, not sound bites; demand consensus, not gridlock; demand leadership, not crisis.

Let me give you an example of how Washington did nothing recently. It’s called sequester. Most of you probably have no idea what the hell sequester is. Webster defines “sequester” as “to confiscate, to seize, to draw back, to take leave.” Congress clearly took leave of their senses when they designed sequester. They deliberately designed a budget mechanism that was so goofy and so mindless in the way it slashed federal spending that the threat of it occurring was supposed to force them to do the right thing. It was designed to do as much damage as possible in order to force action, and guess what? They did nothing, and it took effect.

Leaders who are elected to protect people did nothing. They didn’t even take up a bill to prevent sequester from happening. And the result is that it is harming our economy through lost jobs and pay, harming the most vulnerable in our society, and harming our national defense by hollowing out our forces and undermining our readiness. And the shame of it is that it was all avoidable, but only avoidable if our elected leaders are willing to take the risks necessary to protect the country.

As a young graduating student here at Santa Clara, I was inspired to public service by my parents, who urged me to give something back to this country, by my two years in the military serving this country in uniform, and by a young president who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for this country.”

My generation was inspired, and it helped change America on civil rights, on women’s rights, on the environment, and on issues of war and peace. Now your generation needs to answer the same call, “Ask not why nothing is getting done. Ask what you can do.”

I realize that there is a rising tide of distrust and of cynicism, that many in your generation are so individualistic that you lack any understanding of what it takes to work together for a common goal, but caring for others, working together for others, is the essence of what our democracy is all about. Your generation has already changed attitudes in America. You’ve made clear that we should respect every human being on earth and give them a chance to succeed.

There is more to be done. There’s more to be done on immigration reform, on protecting our climate, on strengthening the middle class, on balancing our budget, on finding the right balance between our securities and our freedoms, on educating our young, on protecting our nation, on taking the risks necessary to govern. We just celebrated Memorial Day. I ask all of you to remember the example of our men and women in uniform who are willing to put their lives on the line to fight and, yes, to die in order to protect America.

Let me close by telling you about one family that was willing to do just that. It was on January 15th, 2012, in Baghlan Province, Afghanistan. Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Wise, who was 34, an Army Ranger on his fourth overseas deployment, was struck by enemy fire, and he died several days later in an American hospital in Germany. He left behind a wife and two young sons, and, as was my practice as secretary of defense, I wrote a handwritten note to his parents to console them on this hero’s death.

But what made this case different was that it was the second time I had written to the Wise family. As director of the CIA, Ben’s brother, Jeremy, was one of the CIA security officers who died in a suicide bombing that took place at Khost, Afghanistan, in December 2009.

These are the families that are sacrificing for our country. A few months after the Khost attack, I visited that remote base in Afghanistan, and on the wall was a large plaque with a verse from the Old Testament from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 6, verse 8: “And then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And then I said, ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me.’”

That is the sound of the trumpet that must summon all of us to action. If our men and women in uniform can respond to that call with incredible bravery and courage, then surely our political leaders can muster just a little of that courage to take the risks necessary to govern. None of this will happen without you. As citizens of our democracy, the trumpet sounds for you. You can make a difference. In the words of Adlai Stevenson, “You are the rulers and the ruled, the lawgivers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end.”

You are not just our hope for a better future. You are our future and the key to whether we remain a government of, by, and for all people. Congratulations. Welcome to the flight. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

This transcript has been edited for readability.

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