Remarks at a Memorial Service for Les Aspin
I would like to begin by thanking all the people who have spoken before. Each of them has given us a little slice of the incredible, complex, rich person that Les was. I think he would have liked this service. I think somewhere he's saying, "Gee, I guess I did all right."
I always identified with Les Aspin. We were policy wonks. We sometimes worried more about our workload than our waistlines. And on occasion, we forgot that in this complicated world, how things appear are sometimes almost as important as how things are. But I will never forget that the essence of him was truly extraordinary. And I am in great debt to the contribution he made to my life and to the work of this administration.
One of my favorite pictures that has been in the press since I've been in office is one of Les and I walking across the White House lawn. I had my arm around him, and we looked like we were deep in thought. You know, what I was really telling him is, "You have to stop working so hard, lose some weight, loosen up." [Laughter] If the Presidency is preeminently a place of the power of persuasion, I failed on that occasion. [Laughter]
A friend once described Les' idea of a vacation as thinking about defense in a different setting. [Laughter] Once when he did take a few days off, he sent a postcard home to his staff. On the front, there was a picture of a beach; on the back he had scribbled, "Why are you wasting time reading postcards?"
Those of us who had the privilege of being close to Les Aspin know that he was not only exceptionally brilliant, he was iconoclastic in the best sense. That was a great benefit now as we go through this period of transition from the cold war into a new and exciting but still troubling world.
He was always questioning the conventional wisdom and always refusing to be bound by it. He was a good teacher. I learned a lot from him. I remember the first time I came to see him, I was the Governor of my home State and not a candidate for President, a curious person. And when I left his office after our first talk, I was utterly exhausted. I thought I had finally found somebody with 4 times the energy I have. Through the years, I sought him out more and more. And in 1992, he, more than any other person, was responsible for the fact that in our campaign we determined that both parties would be strong on defense.
Les Aspin did a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. He showed sophistication, and then he showed the lack of it. But, as has been said in different ways today, everyone who really knew him never doubted one thing, that his first and foremost concern was to do whatever would make this country stronger and safer and better. That is what he cared about above all else.
As the cold war wound down, he played a critical role as chairman of the Armed Services Committee. But as my Secretary of Defense, he was finally able to put his remarkable knowledge and passion and vision for defense policy at work to reshape our forces to the demands of the 21st century. The blueprint he took the lead in drafting will guide us into that new world. It will guide us for decades to come. And all of us will be in his debt.
After he left the Defense Department, we continued to talk, and I continued to be amazed by his incredible openness to service, by his incredible passion for the issues with which we were all called upon to deal. And he answered the call to serve again as the head of our Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a post that is not much known outside of Washington but is of profound importance to the future of this country. Then he agreed to serve on the Armed Services Commission on Roles and Missions. He did all these things no matter what else was going on in his life, no matter what had happened to him, with incredible good humor and grace and passionate devotion.
It has been said that true patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion but the steady dedication of a lifetime. By that standard, Les Aspin was a true and remarkable patriot who made a dramatic positive difference to the United States and all the people who live there.
We will miss him terribly, but as you heard today, his legacy remains all around us in the streets of Beloit, Racine, Kenosha, throughout southeast Wisconsin—how he loves that place.
It will be seen in the students and the graduates of Marquette University, in the men and women who wear our uniform around the world and do more good in conditions that are more safe and secure because of his labor.
It also lives on, as we heard today so movingly, in the memories of those of us who were lucky enough to have known and loved him. He left each of us our own stock of Les Aspin stories, guaranteed to bring a smile to our faces and warmth to our hearts as long as we remain on this Earth.
Well, Les is God's servant now. And finally, finally, he is with someone with sufficient energy to keep up. [Laughter]
NOTE: The President spoke at 3:18 p.m. at St. John's Church.
William J. Clinton, Remarks at a Memorial Service for Les Aspin Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/221103