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Comments of James A. Leach, NEH Chairman, Upon Receipt of the Woodrow Wilson Medal

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Princeton University Princeton, NJ
United States

February 20, 2010

President Tilghman, General Patraeus, Chairman Oxman, friends of the university:

On alumni day, we return to Princeton pulled almost gravitationally to rebuild the memories we have etched in our minds – thoughts of great friends and challenging mentors who together helped instill ideals and invigorate our hopes and dreams.  We have all taken different life paths but this surprisingly small university in this modestly sized town has made a mark on each of us and the world at large. 

In this context, I would like briefly to comment on public service.   I would begin by suggesting that it is a misunderstood concept.  The great freedom that is seldom thought about today is the freedom to seek a variety of occupations in a variety of places in a variety of ways. It is this freedom in the most extensive job-changing culture in history that is so uplifting and also so discombobulating about our times. 

One occupational option is the public arena.   But the motto “Princeton in the nation’s service” should not be limited to receipt of a government pay check.  After all, who is the greater public servant:  a Senator or the discoverer of a cure for a disease; an ambassador or an entrepreneur who creates jobs; a Cabinet member or designer of a new generation of computers; a governmental policy maker or the scholar, journalist, novelist, or creative artist who advances understanding of the human condition; today’s political activist or the educator who works to prepare tomorrow’s?

Over the past century America has led the world in almost every field of endeavor, from the arts to education to business to government.  But if we are frank with each other, we must acknowledge that our leadership is being challenged in all fields today, most particularly in politics, where our political parties and political institutions demand greater citizen attention. That doesn’t mean that everyone should suddenly gravitate to public office.  America is indeed stronger if many of the most able devote themselves to other occupations. 

The classic example is a Princeton one.  In the early 1950s, Abba Eban, then the Israeli ambassador to the United States, visited a Princeton resident and, on instructions from his government, offered him the Presidency of the fledgling state of Israel.  Albert Einstein promptly declined, noting in an understatement that he knew little about nature, and a fib that he knew nothing of human nature.  What he understood was that his contribution to society was more valuable in other pursuits. 

For Einstein, active political engagement would have been time mis-spent.  History would have been disserved.

On the other hand, there are aspects of governance where the best and brightest have never been more needed.  In a world where civilization is jeopardized by weapons of mass destruction, where terrorism for the first time has become globalized and the power of small acts found to have Hobbesian consequences, where politicians appear to have a co-partisan incapacity to come close to matching spending with income, the national interest requires enormous attention be given to upgrading the quality of public officials.

Attention to cross-generational and cross-experiential input is particularly important.   

A new generation of public-sector leaders requires a blend of youthful vim and the wisdom and perspective that only experience can provide. Accordingly, I would urge those of you who may be reaching a traditional retirement age or, if possible earlier, to consider becoming a Peace Corps volunteer or ambassador, a bank regulator or governor, a Cabinet official or legislator.    

There are inspiring models of such leadership that this institution has given the country – from John Witherspoon to Woodrow Wilson to George Kennan to Paul Volcker – individuals who made seminal social contributions untied to a single occupational thread.     

Now, at a time of war and recession, a time when the public sector has made misjudgments and the private sector has suffered an ethical lapse, social splintering is on the rise.  American unity is in question.  The national cry is for a leadership committed to rising above partisan self-interest, for a willingness to pull together for the common good. 

Around the world people are asking whether America has peaked, whether we are on the precipice of social decay or the edge of renewed greatness.  That question can only be answered by our actions.

Everyone is responsible.  All are called upon.  Especially those who have had the privilege to attend this wondrous university.

Thank you.