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Secretary Antony J. Blinken At a Room Rededication Ceremony for Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell

Secretary Antony J. Blinken At a Room Rededication Ceremony for Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell



MS GEORGE:  Welcome to the State Department.  Thank you all for joining us today to dedicate this Treaty Room to Secretary Powell and the Secretary’s Conference Room to Secretary Albright.  It’s an immense privilege to mark this special and, for me, personally very meaningful occasion with so many cherished family members, friends, colleagues of both secretaries.  And I am very grateful to Secretary Blinken for honoring both of these important secretaries’ legacies.

Although Secretary Albright and Secretary Powell went on to have a long, deep, and treasured friendship, they initially had their challenges.  (Laughter.)  As Secretary Albright put it, “She wore a pin, and he wore a lot of medals.”  (Laughter.)  They at times disagreed vigorously on matters of policy.  Secretary Powell later said one of these debates almost gave him an aneurysm.  (Laughter.)

And yet, even in those times, they respected one another, and the friendship they developed was rooted in that respect as well as shared values and experiences.  Both approached being Secretary of State with tenacity, with honor, and with decency.  Both understood the immense responsibility entrusted in them.  Both were trailblazers.  Secretary Albright the first female Secretary of State, Secretary Powell the first black secretary.  And importantly, both understood and grappled with the unique challenge of being both deeply dedicated to leading our nation’s diplomacy and deeply dedicated to their loved ones.

In my time working with Secretary Albright, whom, as you know, I adored, I had the privilege of getting to know and love her wonderful family – her sister Kathy, her brother John, her grandchildren, and especially her daughters Katie, Anne, and Alice.  All three of the girls have had and continue to have extraordinary careers in public service, just like their mom.  Alice currently serves as the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation and is hitting it out of the park there.  We are so grateful to have Alice with us today to speak on behalf of the Albright family.  (Applause.)

MS ALBRIGHT:  Thank you, Suzy.  Greetings, Secretary Blinken, Powell family, friends, and my family.  I’m Alice, one of Madeleine’s three daughters, and I’m joined here today by many members of our family.  On behalf of all of us, I’d like to thank everyone who’s worked so hard to make this dedication a reality.  Mom would have been so humbled by having the Secretary’s Conference Room dedicated to her and her service as the U.S. Government’s 64th Secretary of State.

But even more so knowing that the Treaty Room is being dedicated to her dear friend, Secretary Powell.  Mom cherished her friendship with Secretary Powell.  I’ll never forget the night before his funeral service when mom called me, asking that I listen to her practice her eulogy just a few more times because, as she said, it had to be perfect.

It is a deep honor to be here with you, Powell family, as we celebrate both Secretary Powell’s and mom’s service and contributions.  Mom and Secretary Powell were colleagues who in their later years became the closest of friends, traveling together to give speeches, calling each other to gossip or vent about their successors – (laughter) – not you; I’m sure you weren’t on that list – (laughter) – and having lunch to celebrate their respective birthdays.  I’m even thinking that right now Secretary Powell and mom are up in heaven, right now, debating the world’s challenges.

When I think about mom’s portrait and I think about her life, I am struck by both how likely and at the same time how unlikely it would have been that her portrait would be hanging just there so elegantly framing the Secretary’s Conference Room.  Likely in that she was trained early on through lived experience in the hard lessons of why democracy, free speech, enduring alliances, and strong U.S. leadership mattered.  But at the same time, so very unlikely that a young immigrant girl from a faraway place who had to escape from years of war and upheaval would be appointed to be this nation’s first female Secretary of State only some 50 years after she arrived onto U.S. shores.  But having survived the war years, Mom embraced the U.S. completely and went on to shatter the thickest of glass ceilings to become the then-highest ranking woman in U.S. history.

Once here, she worked tirelessly and relentlessly with many people here to make enduring contributions that resonate today in the Balkans, with NATO, integrating women’s rights into U.S. foreign policy, and fighting for democracy.  Her story is one of advancing U.S. leadership from the very beginning, being a consummate public servant, an incredible diplomat, and above all, a fighter.

The room is such a tribute fitting to Mom, and our family is deeply honored and grateful to you, Secretary Blinken, and our dear Suzy, who is basically our sister because she was Mom’s fourth daughter – (laughter) – and all involved at the State Department to now have it dedicated to her and her service.  I have no doubt that the room will become an inspiration to women, immigrants, and refugees around the world, carrying the message that you too can rise to the highest levels of leadership internationally.

Let me close by thanking all of Mom’s work family.  There is no way to thank all of you for the support and camaraderie you have provided her during her time in the seventh floor and since.  Over the years, you all kept her safe, you traveled with her, you advised her, you wrote her speeches for her, and you became her work family, and you protected her when we could not be there.  So to all gathered here who were part of her work family, we thank you, and thank you all so much for being the village that it took to make all of this happen.

So thank you.  We will remember this forever and are immensely grateful to all of you for remembering our mom.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BITTER:  Hi, good afternoon.  My name is Rena Bitter.  I am so honored to be here today, particularly to warmly welcome the Powell family back to the State Department, and also just to take a few moments to share some recollections from my time working for Secretary Powell – of course caveated, because my time was totally the worm’s eye view as a green but super enthusiastic special assistant during Secretary Powell’s first year here in the department.  But those experiences were absolutely formative, and in many ways my career and the career of my entire generation of Foreign Service officers were shaped by Secretary Powell’s tenure and his contributions to the department.

I want to mention one of those contributions, because to my mind, it was by far the most consequential change to this institution in my 30 years here, and that was requiring mandatory leadership training for all department personnel.  So I’m part of the first cohort of Foreign Service officers to have had that training at every level of my career.  It was a huge change and a heavy lift to implement, but what it did was it set the expectation that Foreign Service officers could not simply be practitioners.  We had to be more than people who formulated policy.  We had to lead at every level.  We had to be responsible to and for the people around us.

We still so often fall short, but we continue to strive, because we understand what Secretary Powell wanted for us and expected from us.  And on top of that, he was just an awesome guy.  He was charismatic, he had a great sense of humor, he had a remarkable ability to connect with people.  He respected them.  He understood and saw the value in their contributions regardless of where they sat in the department hierarchy.  It is well known and 100 percent true that he delighted in evading his DS detail – (laughter) – and wandering around the building, popping into people’s offices, their staff meetings, the cafeteria, playing the role that I think he liked best, which was basically being the mayor of the State Department.  (Laughter.)

On a personal note, I am more than just honored, actually, to be here.  I am profoundly grateful.  I, again from the peanut gallery, had the distinct honor of working both for Secretary Albright and Secretary Powell as a member of the executive secretariat staff.  I was incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from both of these giants at such a formative time in my career.  In fact, I was detailed to work on Secretary Powell’s transition team, so part of the group that welcomed him and Grant Green on that very first day.  We were so nervous, right?  Like, it was a short – it was the election and it was a short transition, and Colin Powell is an American hero.  And I’m pretty sure I remember on that day that as he entered the department garage, we may have raised the barrier before his car had completely cleared – (laughter) – the entryway, damaging the underside of his (inaudible).  (Laughter.)  So, Powell family, let me apologize on behalf of the State Department.  I’m not sure that we paid for the damages.  (Laughter.)  But just know that all these years later, we remember and we’re sorry.  (Laughter.)

And just finally, even from my vantage point, it was plain that Colin Powell’s real life was centered around his family, and that is where he was the truest Colin Powell.  He was really, really proud of you guys.

So thank you to the Powell family.  We are profoundly grateful to him for his many contributions to the department and to you for sharing him with us.

And now I have the very great honor to welcome Michael Powell to speak on behalf of the Powell family.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

MR POWELL:  Well, I’ll have you know we just sold that car for charity.  (Laughter.)  And just among us, we did not disclose any potential undercarriage damage.  (Laughter.)  So what a great story.  I do remember that.  And Secretary Blinken, I can’t think of a greater, more memorable moment than the one you’ve provided us today, so thank you.

The Secretary of State is the custodian of the Great Seal of the United States.  This seal is affixed to the commission of individuals confirmed to serve as officers of the United States.  When I was appointed chairman of the FCC, my father was Secretary of State.  That meant, along with the president, he would sign my commission.  I was so excited when I received it, expecting to see my own dad’s signature right there.  And when I unfolded the parchment, I saw something unexpected:  To the right of his signature, he had seen fit to draw in a small smiley face.  (Laughter.)  True story.

I think this story exemplifies more than anything the wonderful nature of Colin Powell.  While bearing the heavy responsibilities of his office, he always maintained a light, loving, and playful joy.  He could work in this town, with all its cynicism, and maintain his humanity and his commitment to others.

My dad came to the State Department with a soldier’s ethic.  He believed, as he had in the Army, that the needs of the troops should always come first, that a leader’s job was to care for, empower, and trust his subordinates.  Dad always seemed most animated when talking about things he was doing for the men and women of this department.  It is fair to say his relationship with the people of the State was the thing he most enjoyed when he served here.

Colin Powell also believed that character mattered, that a leader should have a set of uncompromising principles, a moral compass to guide his actions.  I actually think this shared belief is a big part of what connected him to Secretary Albright.  They had a surprising but wonderful friendship.  It may not have been as unusual as Justice Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg – (laughter) – but the dynamic was similar, and despite different perspectives, they admired each other’s intellect and moral character, and they genuinely became close friends.

So it’s only fitting, to my mind, that these rooms bear their names, and one hopes their individual and collective wisdom will shine a light that illuminates the path for future leaders to follow in the best interests of our country.

Secretary Blinken, again, thank you for honoring my father and Secretary Albright in this manner.  I am confident that of the many spaces that bear my dad’s name, this one will be among the most cherished.  And I’m pretty sure if he were here, I think he might walk across the hall and draw a little smiley face – (laughter) – next to his name on the plaque.

So thank you very much for having us.  (Applause.)

I’m supposed to introduce him, so I’m going to do it.  (Laughter.)  Our chief diplomat, the great Secretary of State of the United States of America, Secretary Blinken.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you, Michael.  (Applause.)  Thank you, thank you.  Thank you.  Good afternoon, everyone.This is genuinely a special moment, one I was looking forward to and one I so deeply appreciate because, first of all, it sure beats working on the Middle East.  (Laughter.)  Second, I see so many extraordinary people here – the families, colleagues from the past as well as the present.  But it’s also an incredible opportunity to reflect on this institution, the people who’ve led it in such extraordinary ways, and two in particular in Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell.

Now, you will understand that in this moment I empathize deeply, deeply with Allen and Rossi.  And for those of you who don’t remember Allen and Rossi, that’s just the point:  They were the act that followed the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.  (Laughter.)  So every day I go to work knowing that I was following Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell – not an easy to task – not to mention a few others, like Jim Baker and George Shultz.

But today let me say this:  We have the immense and I have the immense honor of being able to dedicate two of our most important spaces to two of our most extraordinary and most beloved leaders.

We’re taking these steps not only to recognize Secretary Powell and Secretary Albright’s extraordinary service to the institution, not only to recognize their service to the American people.

We’re doing it so that everyone who gathers here, who comes to these rooms, will be reminded of the way that they led, and ask a question that I have to ask myself often in this job:  What would Madeleine do, what would Colin do, faced with the challenges of this moment?

I’ve learned a lot of lessons from both of them, both from knowing them – knowing Madeleine better, because to me she was an extraordinary mentor, a friend, a supporter.  I got to watch her in action during the Clinton administration when I first came to government, and she was someone who played an instrumental role in my life and bringing me to this point from that moment on, including so many gatherings in that living room in Georgetown over the years.  She played an extraordinary role in keeping the community of people together, and that made a profound difference.

Secretary Powell I got to know a little bit later, but the generosity that he showed me was truly extraordinary.  When I had the privilege of serving here following the great Bill Burns as deputy secretary, one of the first things that I did coming to the building was to go visit with your dad and just to ask him what should I focus on.  And I thought he’d say, well, North Korea or Iran – the people.  That was exactly what you said, exactly what he told me:  Come here and remember this institution is first and foremost its people.  And we try to live up to that as best we can every day.

Because we’re joined by the families and so many close friends of both secretaries, let me just take the liberty of first of all referring to our honorees as – simply as Madeleine and Colin.  But let me also try to impart a few thoughts, maybe a few lessons, that at least I take from them.

And one of those lessons is – and I think all of you here will appreciate it – get the right people around the table.

The conference room next door – now the Albright Room – is where some of the most consequential debates about U.S. foreign policy are going to be hashed out and have been hashed out.  And it’s a table – some of you – many of you know it well, but for those of you who don’t, take a look after we finish here.  Maybe we get a dozen or so people around that table.

When Colin and Madeleine held weighty discussions around the table, they didn’t pick the people who sat there based on hierarchy.  They didn’t pick them based on title.

Instead, they actually sought out the people who knew something about something – (laughter) – people who had actually worked the issues up close and could really bring that value and perspective to the table.

And they both made a point of seeking out a diversity of views, expertise, backgrounds.

They valued this inclusivity in no part – in no small part because each of them had, at times, been excluded from rooms like these rooms, discussions like the ones we have here, or paths, simply because of who they were.

In the ’50s, Colin drove home to New York City from ROTC training in the South.  He went through town after town after town where he had to use different services, simply because he was black.  He could die in a trench next to a white serviceman in the U.S. Army, but in many places, he couldn’t eat next to a white customer in a restaurant or stay next to a white family in a motel.

A few years after he made that trip, Madeleine moved to Chicago with her husband.  Both set about looking for jobs at newspapers.  Her husband found one quickly.  Madeleine – who had edited her college newspaper at Wellesley and later worked for a paper in Missouri – was passed over time and again, often for men who were less qualified.

When she told one editor that she was looking for a job, he asked her, “Why would you want to compete with your husband?”  (Laughter.)  So by the way, if someone said that to my wife – (laughter).

So this feeling that is imposed on you that maybe somehow you don’t belong, that can be something that’s incredibly hard to shake.

Madeleine remembered walking down Mahogany Row – just along here, the corridor that runs the length of this floor – on the day that she was sworn in.  And she said, “I had to pass by paintings of all those men with whiskers and suits, and I was worried that someone was going to call Diplomatic Security and have me escorted out.”  (Laughter.)

Both Madeleine and Colin knew that stronger teams come when people from all walks of life are made to feel that they belong.

And that’s why, in their tenures as Secretary, both worked relentlessly to bring in the most talented people, the most talented public servants from all across the country, particularly from communities that had long been underrepresented in our government and in this department.  And that’s a lesson that I will also try to follow through on.  And it’s not only because it’s the right thing to do, and it is; it’s because it’s the smart and necessary thing to do for our country and for our foreign policy.

We’re operating in an extraordinarily diverse world.  The greatest strength we bring to that mission is our own diversity: to be able to bring to bear different backgrounds, different perspectives, different experiences, different ideas.  If we don’t do that, if we deny ourselves that full participation, we’re simply shortchanging our foreign policy, shortchanging our country.  And Colin and Madeleine knew this intimately, almost inherently, from their own experience.

Madeleine was the first Secretary to extend equal benefits to same-sex partners of department employees – so that they were treated like everyone else.

When she saw how inaccessible many of our embassies were to people with disabilities, she directed the department to fix the problem.  She declared publicly: anyone – anyone – leading a project for a new State Department facility who failed to make it fully accessible would have to answer directly to her.  That’s something you didn’t want to do if you were on the wrong side of an issue.  (Laughter.)

Colin launched the Rangel Fellowship Program to help diverse college graduates pay for their graduate studies, get internships, in exchange for doing a stint in the Foreign Service.  In the 20-plus years since, around 550 people have taken part in the program.  Over 480 of those folks are still with the department today.

If you look at the Rangel that Colin started, the Pickering Fellowships, this has been an incredibly source of strength for this department.  Right now, one out of every nine Foreign Service officers is a graduate of one of those programs.  That’s an extraordinary legacy to this department.  (Applause.)

Simply put, those reforms have made our institution, they’ve made our foreign policy better, smarter, more creative.

Now, the job is far from finished, but today’s State Department looks a little bit more like the nation we serve, thanks to Madeleine and thanks to Colin.

Lesson number two:  The way you lead tough discussions matters.

Both secretaries not only welcomed disagreement; they expected it.  Colin once said that he viewed dissent as a form of loyalty.

Both Secretaries built teams filled with people who were unafraid to poke holes in their arguments, to question assumptions, to see around the corners.

They expected the same thing from their families, too.  A few years ago, an interviewer asked Colin, “Who’s the greatest person that you’ve ever known?  Who is your compass?”

And he didn’t skip a beat.  “Alma Powell,” he said.

He said, “She was always there for me… and she’d always tell me, ‘That’s not a good idea.’”  (Laughter.)  “And she was usually right.”  I’ve had a little bit of an opportunity in recent years to spend a little bit of time with your mom, and I have a pretty good idea.  (Laughter.)

Now, I so wish she was with us today – I know you do too – to mark the celebration.  But today, we also honor her as well as all the family members who loved, who nurtured, who supported Colin and Madeleine, as they served our nation.  You all serve too, and we’re so grateful for it.

Now, both secretaries didn’t just want people to admire the complexity of problems – or point out everything that couldn’t or wouldn’t work.  What they wanted, what they demanded, was people who would put forward ideas of what could work.

Too much planning can be paralyzing.  Too much strategizing can veer into procrastination.  Eventually, you’ve got to pick a path, you’ve got to walk the path.

Colin had a great phrase for this:  He said that he brought to his tenure as secretary “a bias for action.”

Madeleine put it this way:  “Let us remember,” she said, “that there is not a page of American history of which we are proud that was written by a chronic complainer or [a] prophet of despair.”  (Laughter.)  “We are doers.”

Both secretaries surrounded themselves with doers, and I see a number of them here in this room today and right here alongside me.  By people who actually ran toward the hard problems, not away from them.

And that brings me finally to lesson number three.  What I took away from my own experience with both Colin and Madeleine, and what I hear from so many people who worked with them or for them, is that inherently both of them were optimists.

Optimists about our country – about its unique capacity to lead in the world.  Optimists about our nation’s enduring struggle to live up to our core principles – of freedom, of democracy, of justice, equality, of the innate dignity of every human being.

It doesn’t mean that they saw the world or our country through rose-tinted glasses.  As Madeleine liked to say, she was an optimist who worried a lot.  (Laughter.)

But for Colin and Madeleine, they knew that our nation’s challenges and imperfections were real; they knew that as well as anyone.  But they also knew that we live in a world that has – and we see it every single day – a staggering capacity for cruelty, for violence, for dehumanization.

As a child, Madeleine’s family was driven from their home not once but twice – first by the Nazis, then by the communists.  As a four-year-old in London, she’d hidden under a table in her kitchen as the Luftwaffe dropped bombs overhead.

Colin had lived it as a young captain in Vietnam – a war that cut short the lives of several of his closest friends, and nearly ended his own.

And yet, ultimately, these experiences only fueled their commitment to building a more secure, a more just, a more peaceful world.

Neither Colin nor Madeleine ever lost faith in America.  And just being around them, you felt that.  That’s what they exuded.  That’s what they imparted.  And because they believed, others believed too.  That was truly the power of the unique leadership that they both showed.

Colin kept a plaque on his desk that said simply:  “It can be done.”

Both believed “it can be done,” but that it can be done – above all – because of the people that they worked with: public servants like the ones who are here with us today, and those who aspire to follow in their footsteps.

It’s the reason why, after their storied careers in government and the military, neither of them stopped.  Madeleine and Colin never stopped teaching, they never stopped mentoring young Americans.

In 2002, then-Secretary Powell was speaking at a ceremony naming the department’s newly renovated Foreign Service Institute for a predecessor: the great George Shultz.

And Colin closed his remarks by speaking to George’s grandkids.  And he said, “If I know your grandfather – and I think I do – the place [that] he[‘s] already… secured in history is not as important to him as the contributions he will continue to make in the future… George’s living legacy.”

And the same was true for both Colin and Madeleine.  As you look around this room, there’s a living legacy right here, and it’s here in my two extraordinary colleagues; it’s here in this audience today; it’s all around us and it’s on every floor of the State Department; and it’s here with the families.

We see it in the myriad ways that their kids, their grandkids continue to serve.  Here at the State Department, at the U.S. military, on the Hill and in our nation’s courts, in public universities and public policy.

And we see it in so many leaders who learned the ropes working for Madeleine and Colin – people like Suzy and Rena, so many other remarkable public servants.  People whose judgment and dedication we at the department – and, I believe, the American people – benefit from every single day.

I’m confident that if they were here today, Colin and Madeleine would remind each of us of our responsibility – our responsibility to stay at it, to carry that legacy – their legacy – forward.

Because in the end, that’s really how we honor them most: by trying to serve as they did.  By creating spaces and institutions where everyone feels that they belong, that they can contribute.  By asking the hard questions.  By being the doers.  And by holding firm to our own optimism – even in the most challenging times – because our answer to every challenge we face is right here.

It can be done, because of all of you and the generations that will follow all of us.

Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

Thanks, everyone.  Now, are we going to get a chance to look around?

MS GEORGE:  Yes, please.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  All right.  (Laughter.)

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-a-room-rededication-ceremony-for-secretary-of-state-madeleine-k-albright-and-secretary-of-state-colin-l-powell/

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