Ambassador Hans Klemm Reflections on Presidents’ Day

– As prepared for delivery –

Bună ziua tuturor. Domnule rector Pop, domnule profesor, stimaţi profesori şi studenţi ai Universităţii Babes-Bolyai, vă mulţumesc pentru disponibilitatea de a mă primi. Sunt foarte bucuros să mă aflu aici pentru a discuta despre viaţa a doi preşedinţi americani.

And now, if you do not mind I will continue in English.

Last Monday, February 15th, in the United States we celebrated Presidents’ Day. Originally, this holiday was known as Washington’s Birthday and was a day to honor our nation’s first President, George Washington. And then we had another holiday the same month…Presidents’ Day, so that both of these great Americans could be honored.

What is most important to keep in mind is that these distinguished Americans, came from very divergent backgrounds, but saw themselves as humble public servants with a solemn obligation to their country. George Washington was born to the aristocracy in colonial Virginia. From his father he inherited his stately plantation, Mount Vernon. He served in the British colonial army, fought in the French and Indian War, and when the United States decided to break away from Great Britain, he was made Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. He was victorious, and under his leadership we defeated the mighty British Empire.

He resigned his military commission and then was called back into service by being elected unanimously, the only time this has happened in our history, to the office of the President of the United States.

During his tenure, he set many precedents, such as the Inaugural address, the rejection of noble titles, preferring instead to simply be called Mr. President, and the creation of a Cabinet. Although the American people and politicians called on him to continue governing, he voluntarily served only two-terms in office, a limit which would later be made into law.

President Washington understood the responsibilities of his position and the need to be an example for future occupiers of that office. He presided over a crucial time in America as everything was being newly created, the capital, the currency, the bank, the government, foreign relations, the direction of the economy. It is also very important to note that these were the first years of the newly written Constitution. Would the envisioned separation of powers, legislative, judicial, executive be successful? Would the checks and balances work?

Would the guaranteed rights of the individual remain? The nation began with 13 different colonies, having been founded separately. They united in battle against the British, but would they remain so in peace?

Washington established the working government that remains today. He served his nation in wartime and in peace and then in 1797, he announced his retirement from public life. He returned to his beloved Mount Vernon and sadly passed away two years later. He was known as the Father of the Country and when he died in 1799, he was eulogized by fellow Virginian, Henry Lee, with these words, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Unlike George Washington, Abraham Lincoln was born to a poor family in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky.

He was an avid reader and was mostly self-taught with very little formal education. He did go on to law school and eventually became a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and would later run for the Senate. He lost that election and returned to practicing law in Springfield.

In 1860, he was elected the 16th President, being known for his anti-slavery views. Soon after, several Southern States seceded and the worst crisis in American history began, the Civil War. In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln said “we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them.” But sadly that is what happened.

There were many issues leading to this conflict, such as states’ rights, the power of the federal government, and the huge economic gaps between the industrialized North and the agricultural South that depended on the barbarous institution of slavery. Lincoln reflected heavily on the Founding Fathers’ vision for America. He realized that as a nation we were not living up to the very principles on which our republic was established, namely, that all were created equal.

On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation effectively ending the practice of slavery in the rebelling states. He would go on to win a second term in office in 1864. The war lasted from 1861-1865. His entire time as President, the nation was at war; he knew no peace. Yet when he stood before the nation to give his Second Inaugural address, he pleaded “With malice toward none, with charity for all, … let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” A little more than one month later, the man who urged reconciliation was dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet.

These two giants in American history offer such powerful examples as stewards of the people. One refused to accept more authority being offered to him and the other held the nation together against all odds. Presidents’ Day is primarily a time to reflect on these two heroic Americans, but it is also an opportunity to reflect on leadership in general.

American author John Steinbeck once said, “Power does not corrupt, fear corrupts…perhaps the fear of a loss of power.” In a democracy, such as our two nations, elected officials are chosen by the people to serve the people. They are responsible for the riches and resources, the public health, security, and societal well-being. These are enormous duties. The authority to handle these responsibilities can be an intoxicating cocktail. Once tasted, the fear of losing that authority can be shattering. Many people sadly will do anything to avoid that from happening and become corrupt. Corruption is a poison to any democracy. Whether it be in the United States or Romania, corruption must be eliminated at all levels in order for the nation to prosper both politically and economically.

Last year, I witnessed something quite remarkable. Tens of thousands came together throughout the country in peaceful solidarity to demand change.

I noted the signs reading “Corruption Kills” and I was especially impressed by the passion of the youth, many I believe are here today, who seek a brighter future, one where rule of law prevails and anti-corruption is the norm. I hope those same protesters and more will march again to the ballot boxes when it is time to use their ultimate power, their vote, to put in place individuals who will serve as responsible leaders of this nation and stewards for its people.

You are the new generation of this country. You are the stewards of this beautiful place, we know as Romania. So I ask you, what are you going to do with it? Are you going to make it into the place you want, free of corruption and guided by the rule of law? Are you going to answer the call of service when your country needs you to set it on the path towards a bright future, politically, economically, and socially?

Will you be a part of this year’s elections, ensuring that the right candidates, who will represent the people, will run and get elected? Will you one day be among those seeking office, as a way to serve your country?

Our 6th President, John Quincy Adams, once said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” This room is full of such leaders only awaiting their chance. The Romania you envision, that you demonstrated for in November needs you. Take up the call, stand firm, and never ever compromise on your principles.

Thank you very much and now I would be happy to take questions and comments.