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Cheryl Pellerin American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 30, 2011 National security, and even democracy itself, depends on leaders who can demonstrate statesmanship by making tough choices that will see the country through the current economic crisis, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said tonight.
The secretary spoke here during an annual event hosted by the nonprofit Stimson Center, which honors a notable leader each year whose career embodies pragmatism and idealism.
“I’ve often said … that we govern our democracy either through leadership or crisis, and if leadership is not there, then we let crisis drive policy in this country,” Panetta said. “Today I worry that in many ways we have lost the trust of the American people in our system of government, because they are not seeing the dedication, the hard work, the sense of sacrifice that is important to our democracy.”
Honoring Panetta tonight were an array of statesmen and celebrities.
Former President Bill Clinton, for whom Panetta served for three years as White House chief of staff, appeared in a video message. He thanked Panetta “for always being honest and straightforward with me … and for always being there for America and for all of us.”
Another video message featured actor and director Clint Eastwood, a neighbor of Panetta’s in Carmel, Calif., who was mayor of Carmel when Panetta was a member of Congress.
Speaking in person to laud the defense secretary were Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; William Perry, defense secretary for three years during the Clinton administration; and several others.
Accepting the honors, Panetta offered a tribute of his own.
“I could not do any of the jobs that I’ve been involved with in this town without the support of my family, and so let me pay tribute to them -- in particular, Sylvia,” the secretary said.
Next year Panetta and his wife will celebrate 50 years of marriage, and he called their proudest achievement their three sons and six grandchildren.
“All of us have a responsibility to help govern this country,” Panetta said.
That is what America’s forefathers intended when they established the country and the remarkable system of three separate but equal branches of government, each a check and balance on the other, he added.
“It is a wonderful formula for ensuring that power is never centralized in any one branch of government, but it also happens to be a perfect formula for gridlock,” the secretary said.
The key to breaking that gridlock rests with people who are willing to exercise leadership, find compromises and make sacrifices to find answers, Panetta said.
“That is at the very core of what our democracy is all about, and that is what is missing right now -- that need to work together to be able to make those sacrifices, to find those compromises, to take the risks that are inherent in leadership,” he added.
In the absence of leadership, Panetta said, the nation is governed by crisis, burdening citizens with bad government and bad policy.
The secretary said he’s been railing against the threat of budget sequestration because something is wrong when a country has to fall back on that sort of meat-ax mechanism of fiscal management.
Next week, Panetta said, the nation will mark the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a young boy in Monterey, Calif., during the war years, the secretary recalled, he felt the fear and uncertainty of those times.
“One of the great leaders of that era was Henry Stimson,” Panetta said, “ … and his words, I think, are always worth recalling: ‘The man who tries to work for the good, believing in its eventual victory, while he may suffer setback and even disaster, will never know defeat. The only deadly sin I know is cynicism.’”
It is a profound honor, the secretary said, to now be associated with that legacy.
“From this evening, I draw even more determination to fight against that kind of cynical view that somehow America is in decline and that we can’t overcome the crises that confront us.”
Panetta said he wishes American leaders today would take to heart “the inspiration of the men and women who put their lives on the line every day in battle for this country.”
Earlier today, he said, he visited wounded service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., as he often does. Their attitude, he told the audience, belies their war injuries.
“You talk to these kids and they have great spirit, they have great hope, they’re proud of the service that they gave this country, and they really believe that life is there and that they’re going to make the most of it,” he said.
“Now, dammit, if there are men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to be able to defend this country, then surely there have to be elected leaders who are willing to make the tough choices that are important to solving the problems in this country,” Panetta added, to applause from the audience.
The fundamental strength of the United States “lies in the spirit of the American people, in the spirit of those [wounded warriors],” he said.
“If we can draw on that spirit, then I think the leadership of this country can ultimately make that American dream that my immigrant parents were all about -- that dream of giving our children a better life, much better,” the secretary said. “That’s what all of us have to be about.”