My Farewell to Public Service


For those who were unable to attend my retirement/flag ceremony August 24, 2012, at the State Department Treaty Room; it was an impressive and moving ceremony.  Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Director General of the Foreign Service presided, and I must say, I was moved almost to tears by her words.  It was also nice to see so many friends there from State, Defense, and other places.  A truly nice end to a fifty-year public service career, and a day I will not soon forget.

(Beginning of Speech)

“I’ve never been one to try to be profound, but I felt that I should say something meaningful on my last ‘official’ day as a public servant.  My final words were addressed to those who still serve:

“What does one say to mark the end of half a century of service?  I’ve been wrestling with that problem for the past few weeks, and for a Texas to be at a loss for words is something particularly noteworthy.  I mean, after all, Texans are to talking what macaroni is to cheese, right?

Seriously, though, it has been a task trying to decide just what to say to mark this occasion.  There are a few times in a person’s life that are memorable and worthy of celebration; birth, marriage, death come to mind – but, the culmination of fifty  years of service to your country must, I think, also be included on that list.  In fact, regardless of the number of years; when a person retires after serving the nation, the occasion should be celebrated.

Of course, that still hasn’t helped me determine what to say.  Do I bore you with stories of all that I’ve seen and done during that time?  I could, and it might not bore all of you – since I first took the oath of enlistment back in July 1962, many things have happened here in our beloved country, and abroad, and I have the fortune, or sometimes the misfortune; like the character in Forest Gump; to be in the vicinity of what was happening.

I could tell you that it has been, not only rewarding professionally, but a heck of a lot of fun.  That would be true, but I doubt if it’s what you want to hear.

You see, that’s the pressure of having served for so long; people expect you to make some momentous and profound statement about it.

Well, I don’t have a reputation of being profound particularly – nor momentous for that matter.  I have for fifty years been the type who calls ‘em like I sees ‘em and tells it like it is.  With me, what you see is what you get.

And, despite the fact that the years went by, seemingly at the speed of light, I did in fact enjoy every one of them.  If I had to sum them up in a phrase, I think I’d have to say, “out of control.”  Now, for those of you wondering at that statement, I’m assured by a young colleague that for some age groups and in some regions of the country, that means, outside the box, unorthodox, unique, which can be negative or positive depending upon how you feel about it – and I always believe in thinking positively – and I can positively say that most of my career was ‘out of control.”

I also think that along the way I did some little good for others. As those of you who have served as diplomats abroad know, people sometimes seem to forget those who help them in time of need.  So be it:  as Mahatma Gandhi said, “That service is the noblest which is rendered for its own sake.”  So, we, and here I include the newest junior officers as well as the old grey beards like me, have come forward to serve the interests of this great country of ours – many of our fellow countrymen will not know, and some will not care what we have done, but we know and that’s what counts.  Be grateful that you have been given the chance to serve, and endeavor to always give the best of yourself to that service.  Public service can improve things for other people; it can create a better environment for all; but the greatest reward is the new meaning and enrichment it gives to our lives – we who serve.

So, after a long conversation with myself, I said, “Self, you should talk about the importance of service, and the importance of giving our all in everything that we do.”   Well, self, of course, agreed.  Now, I’m not talking here to the oldsters in the audience; we old people never listen, and can’t hear all that well anyway.  No, in keeping with Secretary Clinton’s emphasis on youth and their leadership potential.  Of course, young people don’t listen either, but the can, at least, hear.  I’m proof positive of that; I thought I was ignoring my grandmother all those years she was raising me, and trying to fill my head with wisdom.  I had reached 50 before I realized that not only had I been hearing what she was saying, but I’d filed it away, and was using her words of wisdom to guide me successfully through two careers.

So, my advice to you, as I prepare like Douglas MacArthur to ‘fade away,’ is to never lose sight of why we enter this profession in the first place.  We do it because of a desire to make the world a better, one small piece at a time; and to make life better for people, one person at a time.  My favorite boxer, Muhammad Ali, known for a lightning fast jab, and an even faster mouth in the ring, said it best – “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

Young people, look to those who have gone before you.  Emulate the good, correct the mistakes, and avoid the bad.  Don’t be satisfied with doing a job that is just ‘good enough.’  Strive to be better than the best; better than the rest.  Don’t worry about making mistakes, or be obsessed with success. Success is nothing but a string of failures you survive and learn from.  Thomas Edison had hundreds of failures before he made the first working light bulb, and Abraham Lincoln had nearly two decades of one failure after another before becoming one of our most famous presidents.

Don’t be satisfied with following the trail others have followed; blaze your own trail, and scale heights your forebears couldn’t even imagine.  While you’re doing all this, keep hold of your humanity.  Don’t be seduced into believing that you deserve being called ‘excellency’ or ‘honorable.’  Never lose the common touch.

I’d like to leave you with a poem, one of the first poems I remember learning from grade school.  In fact, I had to memorize it and recite it before the whole school.  “If,” the name of the poem, is by British poet Rudyard Kipling, who according to historical records was imperialistic, sexist, and probably a little bit racist.  The poem is considered doggerel by many critics, but I think they miss the point.  It has a lot of wisdom if you close a critical eye and listen.

IF

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master,

If you can think – and not   make thoughts your aim,

If you can meet with Triumph and disaster

And treat these two imposters just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them, ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk crowds and keep your virtue,

‘Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

It truly is just that simple.  I stand before you as living proof.  This is how I have worked and lived for more than the fifty years I have served in government.

I’d like to close by thanking all those who have helped me along the way; sometimes knowingly, sometimes unwittingly.

First my family; my wife Myung, who sometimes hasn’t had a clue about what I’m doing or why; my children, who had to grow up with a father who couldn’t always be around, or who was always dragging them off to some place with a name they couldn’t pronounce.  Then there’s my extended family, some of whom are here today.  They have always been supportive, helpful, loving, and understanding; always there when I needed them.

Outside my family there have been others who have been as close as family.  The late Mary Ryan, long-time Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs.  Always there when I need her professional advice, or just someone to talk to.  Career Ambassador Ruth David, a mentor and advisor, who, by the way, talked me into taking one last assignment, as ambassador to Zimbabwe back in 2009 instead of retiring.  Colleagues from throughout the State Department, who have learned to tolerate my eccentricities, and mitigate their often disruptive impact, and still remain cordial.  My colleagues and friends from the Department of Defense, especially the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, who continue to serve the country and American people in a largely unsung role of bringing closure to families who have lost loved ones, and honor to those who paid the supreme sacrifice for this country.

I could go on, but since I’m not feeding you, I have to let you out of here for lunch.

Thank you all for your professional assistance. Thank you for your friendship.  Most of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve.  I wish upon each of you, longevity, wisdom, beauty, happiness, wealth, and strength.”

(End of Speech)

As I said, not particularly profound, but those words came from my heart.  It has been a wonderful fifty years, and I leave public service with some really fond memories.