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Robert S. Mueller III 2016 Thayer Award Recipient Speech

West Point, NY, October 6, 2016

Good evening. Thank you, General Caslen, for that kind introduction.  And, General Jordan, I am very grateful to you and to the West Point Association of Graduates for selecting me to receive the Thayer Award. I generally like short introductions. But there have been occasions when those short introductions have not gone particularly well.  I am fond of telling the story of one such introduction, an introduction of a luncheon speaker at a FBI leadership conference in Washington. The speaker was Colin Powell, a person not unknown to this audience. He is a previous recipient of the Thayer Award.  I was fortunate to convince Colin Powell to come be the speaker for this particular luncheon.  And so we finished the morning session and Colin comes in through a door in the back of the room. Agents see him and start clapping wildly, and give him a standing ovation.  As well they should. Colin comes down to the podium where I am standing, and I give my introduction which went something along these lines.  Ladies and Gentlemen: Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State, and the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an individual who needs no further introduction.  Again he is given a standing ovation.  I step to the side, and Colin steps to the podium, and he starts off as follows:  Well, Bob, just because I do not need an introduction does not mean I did not want an introduction.  In any event, General Caslen and General Jordan, thank you for your kind introductions. I am deeply honored to be here today. 

My thanks to: General Caslen, and the staff and faculty of the United States Military Academy; General Jordan, Colonel Browne and the Association of Graduates—the Long Gray Line; Other Distinguished Guests, and, of course, The United States Corps of Cadets.

Trooping the line on the Plain this afternoon was an experience I will always remember.  The Corps looked terrific.  Thank you for that honor and for that memory. I would also like to thank my family:  my wife, Ann, who is here with me today as well as my daughters, Cynthia and Melissa, who are also with us today. And I want to acknowledge at the outset all the men and women in uniform—those who have come before us, and particularly those who have fallen. I also want to acknowledge those who make a quiet and often overlooked sacrifice – and that is the families who are left behind when we deploy.  My first daughter was born while I was in Vietnam. She was four months old before I first saw her.  My wife and I know firsthand the sacrifices made by service members deployed overseas, and their families here at home.  And our thoughts and our prayers are with all service members and their families today.

Seeing so many of you in uniform reminds me it has been nearly 50 years since I had the thrill of putting on my Marine Corps uniform for the first time. As you have heard, today is not my first exposure to the Army. Almost 50 years ago after graduating from Marine Corps Officer Basic School, I was sent to Army Ranger School followed by Airborne school. In those days those schools were not the most sought after assignments for a Marine. Vietnam was raging; almost all Marine Corps Second Lieutenants were sent immediately to Vietnam. And if you had Ranger training you went to a Marine Corps Recon Unit where the casualty rate was amongst the highest in country. There was an alternative, however; Army Language School in Monterey, California. I was newly married; thought learning a new language would be beneficial. I worked hard to be near the top of the class to be eligible for that billet, and did well, perhaps too well. 

I do vividly remember being in a large room with my class. Names and assignments being read aloud in alphabetical order. I heard my name and expected them to say Army Language School, only to hear them next say: Army Ranger School.  So instead of being in Monterrey, California, I ended up on the slide for life at Fort Benning, in the mountains of Dahlonega, Georgia and finally the swamps of Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.  The military institutions with which I have been associated share common traditions.  For West Point, those traditions are summarized by Duty, Honor, Country.  For the Marine Corps those values are embedded in the motto Semper Fi – Always Faithful.  While the phraseology is somewhat different, the concepts are the same. We wear different uniforms, we attend different schools, and we have slightly different missions.  But underneath all that, we all share the same values. It was the Marine Corps – and the Army – that taught me the value of service, sacrifice, and discipline.  The value of leadership, teamwork, and integrity – lessons I have tried to carry with me throughout my life.  I often tell people that I have been blessed with three families – my family – my wife and our two daughters; my Marine Corps family; and, for 12 years, my FBI family. From all three families, I have learned a number of life’s lessons.  

Today, I want to touch on several such lessons learned through these relationships. These lessons relate to service, integrity, patience and humility. Perhaps my experiences – and in some cases, my mistakes – will strike a chord with you.  Let me turn to the importance of service over self. There is not much that I need to say to this group about public service, or service over self.  As cadets, you have embraced public service, you are studying and training for it, and you are already living it every day. I can say for myself that I did not really choose public service.  I more or less fell into it early on, perhaps not fully appreciating the challenges of such service. One can come to understand the importance of service over self in myriad of ways – through volunteerism, through commitment to a particular cause, or as what happened in my case, by example. 

While at Princeton, I had one of the finest role models I could have asked for in an upperclassman by the name of David Hackett.  I played lacrosse with David.  He was not necessarily the best on the team, but he was a determined and a natural leader.  He graduated in the spring of 1965.  And a year later – as we were graduating – we faced the decision of how to respond to the war in Vietnam.  We knew that David was in Vietnam serving as a platoon commander in the Marine Corps.  In the spring of 1967, he volunteered for a second tour of duty.  But on April 29th, as he led his men against a North Vietnamese Army contingent, David was killed by a sniper’s bullet just south of the DMZ.  One would have thought that the life of a Marine, and David’s death in Vietnam, would argue strongly against following in his footsteps.  But many of us saw in him the person we wanted to be, even before his untimely death.  He was a leader and a role model on the fields of Princeton.  He was a leader and a role model on the fields of battle as well.  And a number of his friends and teammates joined the Marine Corps because of him, as did I. 

As we all know, service to country goes beyond the initial act of volunteering.  It requires self-sacrifice and can leave lasting impressions – both of triumph and of struggle.  I do consider myself fortunate to have survived my tour in Vietnam.  There were many – men such as David Hackett – who did not.  And perhaps because of that, I have always felt compelled to try to give back in some way. And I have been fortunate to spend the better part of my professional life in public service, in the Marine Corps, at the Department of Justice and the FBI, and to benefit from the intangible rewards that come from such service. As you move through your lives there are many ways to maintain your commitment to service. The way in which you choose to serve does not matter – only that you work to better your country and your community.  Each of you must determine in what way you can best serve others throughout your life a way that will leave you believing that your time has been time well spent.

Moving to the second lesson --- integrity. When given the opportunity to address young leaders, I always mention integrity because it is so essential to who and what you ultimately will become.  Many of you have a career path in mind.  But many of you may be surprised by where life takes you.  I certainly have been. In the end, it is not only what we do, but how we do it.  Whatever we do, we must act with honesty and with integrity.  Regardless of the path you choose, you are only as good as your word.  You can be smart, aggressive, articulate, and indeed persuasive.  But if you are not honest, your reputation, and your career, will suffer. And once lost, a good reputation can never, ever be fully regained.  As the saying goes, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters.  And if you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”  The FBI’s motto is Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity.  For the men and women of the Bureau, uncompromising integrity – both personal and institutional – is the core value.  That same integrity has been championed by leaders who have walked the halls of this great institution.  A recipient of the Thayer Award, General Douglas MacArthur, once said:  “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others.  He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.” There will come a time when you will be tested.  You may find yourself standing alone, against those you thought were trusted colleagues.  You may stand to lose what you have worked for.  And the decision will not be an easy call. West Point has prepared you for just such a test.  The leadership skills that you have cultivated here are unparalleled and the traditions to which you have become accustomed are rich with virtue and honor.  You will be charged with upholding West Point’s legacy of honor and integrity. Like my friend David Hackett, people will look to you for leadership in light of the values that they know you to possess, and I challenge you to hold to them closely and lead with courage.

Turning to lessons on patience and the ability to listen, which is also essential. For those of us who are not inherently patient – including myself – it is an acquired skill. And believe me, it is hard earned  and I think my wife will say that I am still learning. It is also fair to say that true patience is required at precisely the moment you least have time for it. In one of my first positions with the Department of Justice, more than 30 years ago, I found myself head of the Criminal Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston. I soon realized that lawyers would come to my office for one of two reasons: either to “see or be seen” on the one hand, or --- on the other hand, to obtain a decision on some aspect of their work. I quickly fell into the habit of asking one question whenever someone came to the door, and that question was: “What is the issue?” If there was an issue we handled it, if not we moved on. A word of caution: This question – “What is the issue?” -- is not necessarily conducive to married life. One evening I came home to my wife who had had a long day teaching and then spending time with our two young daughters and she began to describe her day to me. After just a few moments, I interrupted, and rather peremptorily asked, “Darling, what is the issue?” The response, as I should have anticipated, was immediate. She was incensed. “I am your wife,” she said. “I am not one of your attorneys. Do not ever ask me, ‘What is the issue?’ You will sit there and you will listen until I am finished.” And, of course, I did just that. That night, I had the opportunity to learn the importance of listening to those around you – truly listening – before making a judgment, before taking action. I also learned to use that question sparingly, and never, ever again with my wife.

Lastly, humility. There are those who are naturally humble. But for others, humility may come from life experience; it is the result of facing challenges, making mistakes, and overcoming obstacles. A good friend of mine – Lee Rawls -- was naturally humble. He was always the smartest person in the room, and the last one who would ever tout it.  Lee and I were college classmates, and we served together at the Justice Department. When I became Director of the FBI, I asked him to join me as a close advisor and Chief of Staff and remarkably, he agreed.  Lee knew how to cut through the nonsense and get to the heart of the matter better than anyone. He also knew how to put me in my place. During one particularly heated meeting, everyone was frustrated – mostly with me – and I myself may well have been a wee bit impatient and ill tempered. Lee sat silently, then interrupted and posed the following question out of the blue: “What is the difference between the Director of the FBI and a four-year-old child?” The room grew hushed. Finally, he said, “Height.” Adroitly pointing out, to my embarrassment, that the Director of the FBI was acting like a four-year-old child, and perhaps should start acting like an adult. On those days when we were under attack by the news media and being clobbered by Congress, when the Attorney General was not at all happy with us, I would walk down to Lee’s office, hoping for a sympathetic ear and ask him, “How are we doing?” Lee would shake his head and say, “You’re toast. You’re dead meat. You’re history.”  He would continue by saying, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, because no one else around here does.”  It was his innate sense of humility – the idea that the world does not revolve around you – that was central to Lee’s character. He never sought to elevate his own status; to the contrary, he sought to elevate those around him – the hallmark of the truly humble. 

Service – Integrity – Patience and Humility - These lessons provide insights into who we are and who we continually aspire to be. They are also the foundations of what it means to be a public servant – an honor that I have experienced both in the Marine Corps and as a civilian.  ---- My hope for you cadets, is that you never lose sight of these principles. 

On my resume I have always included the fact that I am a Ranger. In the Marine Corps, we eschew badges and flashes, and therefore I have never been allowed to wear the Ranger tab. But I keep that on my resume even though most people who see it may wonder why it is there. It may not be meaningful to them, but it is meaningful to me. I confess I am here today because of that Ranger School training. The training I received in Ranger School saved my life in Vietnam on a number occasions.  So, as I reflect on receiving the Thayer Award at this great Army institution, I have a sense of return to the Army -- where my life of service began in earnest.

General Caslen, to you, your staff, and the Corps of Cadets, thank you for the courtesies you have extended to me and to my family. To the West Point Association of Graduates, thank you, again, for honoring me with the Thayer Award, and for associating me with the United States Military Academy. But, most of all, thanks to each and every one of you cadets for your service to our country.
    God Bless you.