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John Podesta Receives Drinan Award

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SOURCE: Center for American Progress

John Podesta is President and CEO of the Center for American Progress.

Good afternoon, it’s a pleasure to be here and an honor to accept an award named for a man who was my dear friend and who, as a priest and an activist, an elected official and a law school professor, embodied the spirit of public service and inspired so many to embrace it. I am so much in awe of Father Drinan that I thought the only way I could fairly be compared to him was in our skeletal physiques.

Most of you know that I worked for Presidents Clinton and Obama but the truth is that I have had the honor to work closely with three great presidents in my career. And it’s a pleasure to thank one of them, President DeGioia, for an invitation to be here and a kind introduction. It’s also great to be up here with two of the most dedicated educators I have ever worked with, Dean Aleinikoff and Dean Epstein. With so many faculty and staff in the audience, it is difficult to recognize all those who have helped me along the way, but I do want to do a shout out to Diane Hedgecock, who has helped me so much since I returned to GULC in 1995. And let me echo Dean Aleinikoff’s sincere thanks to April McClain-Delany and John Delany for their wonderful gift.

It seems as though I can’t stay away from the Georgetown University Law Center—I’ve been here as a student and a professor, as an outside speaker and a White House insider, and now as an honoree. And though each appearance has a different purpose for those forced to sit through my ramblings, they all have a similar effect on me: they remind me how—as Dean Epstein noted—a Georgetown legal education is “different.” At Georgetown, we not only work hard to master the nuances of the law, we study how to use law to reach the higher goal of justice.

In search of that goal, we embrace a unique relationship between centuries of legal tradition and centuries of the Jesuitical search for higher truths and true service. And whenever I am here I encounter people who, like Fr. Drinan, continue to study not only the law, but our world and how to make it more just, more fair, and more peaceful.

When I was a student here I met Victor Kramer, who left a lucrative career at a major firm to found the Center for Law and Social Policy and to become the first director of the Institute for Public Representation. Victor and Dick Wolfe and Chuck Hill and the institute’s fellows were my mentors. Many of them went on to run their own NGOs. They believed that the law was not just a career path, but an instrument for just change. From Victor’s days busting trusts for the Justice Department, to his efforts to shape a Freedom of Information Act that would shine a light in our government’s darker corners, to his years defending the rights of low-income clients, Victor reflected Georgetown’s ideals. Back then it was called the Institute for Public Interest Representation, or INSPIRE for short. Well, it did inspire me and it was a great honor when Judy Areen let me come back to Georgetown and teach with Angela Campbell and Hope Babcock in the institute.

The Law Center also gave me an opportunity to forge one of my life’s stranger partnerships, and I’m not talking about my wife, who I will get to later. I currently teach a course on Congressional investigations with Judge Richard Leon.

I first met Dick when he was the House Republican chief counsel deposing me in the original Whitewater investigation. Not an auspicious beginning to a relationship. But we hit it off and found that we both had a respect for the law and the institutions of government. It also didn’t hurt that we both have peculiar senses of humor.

He usually begins our class by noting that I’m something of an expert on investigations, since I hold the faculty record for the most grand jury appearances—not as a prosecutor. I usually begin by noting that he was Dick Cheney’s counsel on the Iran-Contra investigation and did too good of a job teaching the vice president something about detention policies in Iran. Seriously, Judge Leon has been an important voice on the court, particularly for reestablishing the rule of law for Guantanamo detainees. His career reminds me that public service is an honor, and even in this time of bitter partisanship that honorable people can disagree as long as they share respect for one another and for the country they serve.

As I alluded to, Georgetown was also where I met my wife, Mary. I started law school on the buddy system, with my brother, Tony, but I ended with a different buddy—Mary. All three of us ’76 grads. Mary went on to have her own distinguished career in the public and private sectors. People sometimes ask me what it takes to speak truth to power. I answer make sure you have a spouse that works. At least someone will be able to buy dinner for the kids.

And of course, it was the Law Center that I had the privilege of working with Fr. Drinan himself, of whom a student wrote in memoriam, with poetic brevity: “Father Drinan didn’t teach ethics through a textbook; he taught it through life.” I think it’s worth pausing to remember that there are over 2,000 graduates of the Georgetown Law School who learned ethics from Fr. Drinan—who, with his help, became powerful forces for both a legal system and a larger society that serves each of us equally, without deference for privilege or disdain for the poor.

People like these great professors and jurists—and too many more for me to name—define this institution and, at every step, reinforce the same drive for selfless service that brought so much energy to Fr. Drinan.

At one level, Fr. Drinan seemed like a simple man. He embodied the wonderful Jesuit motto—a motto that has helped me define my own career—“men for others.”

That phrase, “men for others,” was coined by Superior General Pedro Arrupe, in an argument for justice based on three interrelated moral positions: respecting everyone equally and treating no one as an instrument of personal gain; never allowing ourselves to profit from a position of privilege; and not only denouncing injustice but working actively to dismantle it.

As a priest, Fr. Drinan worked to dismantle South African apartheid, Russian anti-Semitism, and Darfurian genocide. As a politician, he fought against the war in Vietnam, and as a celibate priest, committed himself to women’s rights. And, as a professor, he lit thousands of fires in the hearts and minds of students who today attack injustice here in American and all around the world.

I first ran into Fr. Drinan in Newton, Massachusetts, where I was working in a mayoral campaign. He was dean of the Boston College Law School and already prominent in antiwar circles. His advisors were eager for him to take on a long-time incumbent and become “our father who art in Congress.” Ultimately, they were more politically successful than I was, and Fr. Drinan was soon bringing his unique mix of moral clarity and practical skills to the Judiciary Committee and the floor of the U.S. Congress.

For all the straightforward passion he brought to the House and to everything else, the way he left office revealed a more complex and less visible side. Fr. Drinan was an iconoclast, a groundbreaker, and a man who challenged authority every day. But, in the end, he was also obedient to authority. He understood that there were things bigger than himself—the causes he believed in and the church to whom he had pledged his life.

In fact, Fr. Drinan seemed to thrive on the apparent contradictions in his intellect and his personality, drawing ideas and energy from their existence and from finding ways to reconcile them.

I would not generally describe the Catholic Church I grew up in as a feminist organization, yet he became a champion of women’s rights and equality.

He was a gruff man whom I used to sneak past in the hallway for fear of being handed one of his “assignment sheets” detailing issues I was expected to raise at my other job at the White House, or else be subject to a disapproving glare the next time we met. And yet he often soothed colleagues with soft words and real kindness when circumstances demanded.

He was a scholar and an intellectual, but he seemed more at home with the poor and the uneducated than with people boasting letters after their names.

He was a priest whose commitment to human rights, the dignity of every person, and solidarity with the poor, while grounded in Catholic social doctrine, were expressed in his deeds and actions every day of his working life.

Today, when those of us committed to public service confront a world defined by differences and contradictions, it is important that his ability to reconcile competing demands and move towards a higher goal—to move beyond reaching judgments and toward making justice—illuminate our actions as well.

America today is a nation of contradictions, one of great hope and extraordinary cynicism, where too often public service degrades into partisan rancor, and differences that are small or often unimportant diminish the opportunity for progress.

In my work, I find that too often, blind faith in the private sector has engendered a disdain for public service, where the term “community organizer” is flung about as a term of scorn. In the other corner, however, activists, secure in their righteousness and outrage, dismiss opponents as shallow figures defined only by greed and irresponsibility. Some see government as the only answer; others see it as the biggest problem. And lines are drawn and defended without regard to the larger issues our nation confronts or the moral demands that our founders and our faiths impose. I think Fr. Drinan would have looked beyond these dichotomies.

I like to think that the Law Center gave me a bit of that wisdom that Fr. Drinan embodied.

It certainly gave me the spring board to serve our country, first as a trial lawyer in the Department of Justice; then as counsel to one of GULC’s outstanding alumni, my friend and mentor, Pat Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who is as rock-solid as the granite in his state; then to serve two great presidents; then to found what I like to think has become the leading progressive think tank in America.

Perhaps the greatest privilege was to serve our country as White House chief of staff. When President Clinton began his run for office in 1991, he went back to his alma mater, Georgetown University, and promised a new covenant to give the government back to the ordinary people of our country. I was proud to serve him as he put that new covenant to work and as a result our country experienced unparalleled economic prosperity, security, and respect around the world and restored a sense of community at home.

Last week, I had the pleasure of being back with President Clinton when President Obama, whose transition to government I had the honor of steering, addressed the Clinton Global Initiative, which raises funds— over $50 billion and counting—and creates partnerships to tackle the most vexing issues facing humanity: poverty, disease, conflict, and climate change.

“My mother,” said President Obama, “understood that whether you live in the foothills of Java or the skyscrapers of Manhattan we all share common principles: justice and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings … I saw this spirit again when I moved to Chicago, working as a community organizer on some of the poorest streets in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States. …That’s when I learned that real progress does not just come from the top down, not just from government; it comes from the bottom up—from the people. If you want to bring about change in the world, you can’t just be an advocate of somebody else doing it. You can’t just preach lofty goals and wait for somebody else to act. You have to step up. You have to serve.”

I am here today to receive a great honor, but we are really here to honor Fr. Drinan because Fr. Drinan stepped up. Because Fr. Drinan served. Because Fr. Drinan wove the differing demands of his life and his ideas and his calling together in a way that still teaches us the importance and the value and the possibility of true service to our world.

I believe that he would have found a path through this moment of cynicism and hope, helped us throw off the blinders and cast aside the ego that hobbles our efforts and understand competing claims and challenges as opportunities to learn and to become “men and women for others.”

Robert Kennedy once said that “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” I hope that all of us will continue to seize that chance, and to recall the work of a man who truly did succeed in bending the arc of history, as Martin Luther King described, toward justice.

Thank you.

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