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'A time worthy of a great nation': In first talk of Creighton 140 Presidential Lecture Series, Hagel urges hope, action in face of world crises

Former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel addresses an audience of more than 350, April 3, 2018, as the first speaker in the Creighton 140 Presidential Lecture Series.Like it did 70 years ago in the wake of World War II, like it did 50 years ago in the midst of the chaos of war and assassination, the United States finds itself at a defining moment in history.

That was the message Tuesday evening, April 3, as former two-term U.S. senator from Nebraska and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel addressed a crowd of more than 350 people at Creighton University’s Hixson-Lied Auditorium for the inaugural talk in the Creighton 140 Presidential Lecture Series.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Hagel opened his prepared remarks with a look back at 1968, a time when he and his younger brother, Tom, were fighting with an infantry unit in Vietnam.

“I didn’t recognize that as a valuable shaping lesson of public service then,” Hagel said. “I had other thoughts. But certainly over the years, I’ve looked back on that time and, reviewing the last 50 years, it was a defining time for me. It was 1968 and that year was one of the worst years in American history. We had two assassinations, Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy. The Vietnam War was raging, tearing our country apart. Our cities were literally burning.”

But out of that ugliness and strife, Hagel said, something better started to take shape, something only visible through the long lens of history. And that, he said, is encouraging, given a similar situation taking root in America today.

“I do believe we are living, again, at such a defining time as 1968 was,” Hagel said.

Hagel was introduced by friend and Creighton Board of Trustees Chairman Mike McCarthy, who said Hagel’s public service ranks him as uniquely qualified to discuss the fraying edges of the nation today.

“He was the first patriot I ever knew,” McCarthy said of Hagel. “He truly felt and feels his country is more important than he is. It got him in a lot of trouble, which he never minded and still doesn’t.”

In about 40 minutes of prepared remarks and another 40 minutes in conversation with Creighton alumna and award-winning New Jersey public television anchor Mary Alice Williams, BA’71, Hagel talked about the establishment of the post-World War II order, marked by American power and largesse, its subsequent challenges and occasional letdowns. The nation, as well as the world, he said, is now experiencing a crisis of confidence in leadership and the establishment that helped build and maintain that order. As global citizens, he said, we must work to restore that confidence and be agile in our ability to adapt.

“Today, I believe we are seeing the end of that global order,” he said. “There has been a global breakdown in trust and confidence in its leaders and institutions. World orders change, the world changes. That’s not new; that’s not historic. A 70-year world order, that’s a pretty good run. But as individuals, as countries, we must adapt to changes or we lose, fall behind. We make the world more dangerous.”

As the world prepares to welcome an estimated 2 billion more people by 2050, Hagel said a precious natural resource going forward is something welling within each of us.

“How do you put all this in some perspective to find some way out of this for the world?” he said. “We see in many ways a fractured world just as we see a politically divided world, resulting in dysfunction in all our governments and, hence, the lack of trust in our institutions. A fractured world is a dangerous world, a world without hope. When men and women don’t have hope, they don’t have anything and they will do things unimaginable. Hope is the most important dimension of leadership, of equality and the future of a society. Are we going to have enough hope to go around?”

The remark echoed Creighton President the Rev. Daniel Hendrickson, SJ, who introduced both Hagel and McCarthy and spoke of Creighton’s place in doing social justice in the world.

“From the beginning, the humanities have always been paramount at this Catholic, Jesuit university,” Fr. Hendrickson said. “The humanities show us existential questions in the lives of students and lead them to demand robust answers and bring them to self-awareness, as well as to the awareness of others.”

Hagel said the crises facing the world today are not the kinds of problems the U.S. or any other nation can fix with the tools of an earlier era. Hope must be the central component of the solution.

Military solutions, he said, have gotten us deeper into the morass that is the social and economic problem that is the Middle East. The solutions, he said, come from somewhere deeper.

The rise of populist and autocratic systems around the world must be met with renewed efforts at modernizing and humanizing institutions that have long provided a framework for promoting human dignity and improvement, Hagel said. America, as with the rest of the world, must look beyond a shortsighted desire for populism, protectionism and militarism.

“We must find a new global center of political gravity,” Hagel said. “Today, the centrifugal forces of disorder are at play like never before and those forces must be reversed. America is off-balance and when America is off-balance, the world is more dangerous and drifts from a centerpiece of wise and steady leadership. The problems of the world cannot be fixed or differences resolved through military conflict.”

In speaking with Williams, who intoned that recent movements centered on women getting involved on many fronts, Hagel said he is encouraged by the activism, especially of youth, who seek a better world.

Hagel and Williams, who also spent time reporting and in the anchor’s chairs at CNN and NBC, met and joined conversations with Creighton students during their campus visit.

“You’re seeing something happen out there,” Hagel said. “God was so smart in so many ways. He gave young people idealism and every one of us should say to young people, ‘Hang on, baby. Do not lose that idealism.’ I know there’s reality, but idealism drives us, and I don’t know a country more idealistic than us. Yes, you have to leaven the loaf with practicality, but idealism is the engine.”

With faith in the self-correcting nature of the nation, Hagel said while the old order may be passing from the scene, the underpinnings of every good institution call upon the better angels of our nature.

“The spirituality of a society is directly proportional to a society’s goodness,” he said. “Prosperity without goodness and power without purpose are hollow vessels. America, its people, its institutions, are so much better than what we’re living today, and I think most Americans understand that. It is the responsibility of all of us to help shape a new and a better world for all people. It’s a time worthy of a great nation. A defining time.”

To watch Hagel’s remarks and his conversation with Williams, click here.

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