2011 Awards Dinner: You Had to Be There

Atlantic Council awards dinners are filled with speeches from world leaders about weighty topics of global import. But what makes them so special is the personal interactions and the lighter moments, touching stories, and shared connections.

A Great Victory
Two nights before the event, President Obama announced to the world that the American military had taken out Osama bin Laden. Vice President Joe Biden, the evening’s keynote speaker, declared, “As vice president of the United States, as an American, I was in absolute awe – awe – of the capacity and dedication of the entire team, both the intelligence community, the CIA, the SEALs; it just was extraordinary.”

Referring to two of the night’s awardees, Biden joked, “Placido Domingo is probably the only man who could appropriately sing their praises. And Muhtar Kent said he’s sending them a lifetime supply of Coca-Cola.”

And he made a little news as well: “And what was even more extraordinary was – and I’m sure former administration officials will appreciate this more than anyone – there was such an absolute, overwhelming desire to accomplish this mission that although for over several months we were in the process of planning it, and there were as many as 16 members of Congress who were briefed on it, not a single, solitary thing leaked. I find that absolutely amazing.”

Tributes to Ron Asmus
The German Marshall Fund’s Ronald Asmus, a longtime friend of the transatlantic relationship and many in the room, had died over the weekend at the heartbreakingly young age of 53, a fact that had only been widely known since that morning.  

Biden paid tribute to him early in his remarks: “I hope it’s appropriate to also acknowledge one dear friend of all of ours who is not here tonight, Ron Asmus, who passed away this last weekend. He passed away after a very – he was a young man; it was a very long fight with cancer. As everyone knows here, Ron made extraordinary contributions to the trans-Atlantic relationship. And he will be sorely missed.”

Atlantic Council president and CEO Frederick Kempe reflected on his friend’s passing as well: “I want to echo one comment Vice President Biden made, and it was his salute to Ron Asmus, who died over the weekend at age 53. His death was a big loss to the German Marshall Fund. It was a huge loss to the trans-Atlantic community. He was a friend of mine for 30 years, an inspiration to me so often, an architect of NATO enlargement and a friend of so many in this audience. He would not tolerate a moment of silence, but he would appreciate a round of applause.”

Fred’s Book Party
Kempe has spent the last six years researching and writing Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, which will be released May 10. The book jacket contains praise from Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Walkter Isaacson, Brent Scowcroft, Chuck Hagel, and Strobe Talbot—many of whom were in attendance.

Plugs for the book became a running joke of the evening, which Hagel started early: “Fred, incidentally, is about to become a much-acclaimed author of a wonderful book.  And just a moment of crass mercantilism – I know none of you are familiar with that  – but let me plug his book, which will come out here in a week.” Mika Brzezinski used her plug of the book to plug her own book, Knowing Your Value: Women, Money and Getting What You’re Worth (about which she quipped, “Ladies, read it; men, be afraid. Be very afraid.”) and Poorer Richard’s America by Atlantic Council board member Tom Blair.

Not missing a beat, Kempe joked, “I’m just delighted this many people showed up for our book party.”

Later, he quipped, “Sitting next to me is Charlie Rose and my publisher is so thrilled that Charlie Rose is interviewing me next year for my book.  His show has a greater percentage of viewers who are actually book-buyers than anything on television, perhaps.  And he leaned over to me and he said, you know, I think you’re getting a little too overexposed for my show.”

It Takes A Big Man to Run NATO
After General James L. Jones, former Atlantic Council chairman, National Security Advisor, Supreme Allied Commander, and Marine Commandant  announced Admiral Jim Stavridis, the honoree for Distinguished Military Leadership joked about his introducer’s height advantage: “General Jones of course was SACEUR number 14.  I am SACEUR number 16, and I would say between us, you have the long and the short of it.  In fact, you know, I would suspect some would say, as I de-elevated this microphone, that we were seeing metaphorically the decline of the alliance – from this enormous point of stature to today’s world.  But I’m going to try and look a little taller for all of you.”

Bipartisanship Isn’t Dead
The Atlantic Council is a bipartisan organization, where people agree on very little but the need for the West to work together for good. That was on display when Council chairman Chuck Hagel, a former Republican member of the United States Senate, introduced his former colleague, Joe Biden.  After joking, “His only shortcoming, as far as I can determine, his speeches are always far too short,” he switched to a more poignant tone: “When Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina died – the longest-serving senator in the history of the U.S. Senate – he left instructions that he wanted no memorial services and only a funeral with one individual giving the eulogy, his Democratic Senate colleague from Delaware, Joe Biden.  Like the reason for Strom Thurmond’s last wish – whether you agree or disagree with Joe Biden – his colleagues respect him.  Respect, like trust, is earned and is the currency that allows leaders to make important and lasting contributions to their country and the world.”

He added, “He’s one of the few people who has spent most of his life at the center of power in Washington D.C. and still has his soul.”

As noted previously, Biden naturally paid tribute to the military and intelligence professionals who had finally tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden two days prior. And he emphasized that this was an American achievement, not that of one president or party: “When the United States decides from one administration to the next that we will, in fact, reach a goal, meet the goal, we are determined and we will relentlessly, without any hesitation, follow on that commitment – Democrat, Republican, it doesn’t matter.”

Neither is NATO
Biden earned appreciative laughs when he observed, “God knows we’ve all attended those interminable conferences about “whither NATO.”  He continued, “God knows we’ve been declared dead so many times by the chattering class. We obviously don’t agree on everything, even to this day, but we agree on this:  We need each other; we’re stronger with each other; and we can do more for the world with each other.”

Stavridis reminded us that, “in the midst of all our appropriate concern about the economic crises we face, let us not forget that this alliance, this NATO alliance, represents half of the global gross domestic product of the world, $32 trillion in GDP represented by the NATO alliance. Seven million men and women who are under arms, either active or reserve, tens of thousands of aircraft, hundreds and hundreds of oceangoing warships. This is a very robust and successful alliance.”

Brent Scowcroft, a former Atlantic Council chairman and National Security Advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, added, “In this kind of a world, it’s more important, more essential than ever that we take care of this, our closest and most important relationship and community of common values.We, after all, are the people who have a common view of man and his relationship to society and government.”

Three Guys Walk into an Awards Dinner . . .
Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, the honoree for Distinguished Business Leader, joked about the pairing of himself with Stavridis and Domingo as awardees: “A four-star Admiral – you heard him; a three-tenor – you’ll hear him; and a Coke guy.  Between three of us, maybe we can keep the world safe and in perfect harmony.”

Washington Egos
In their opening banter, the emcees for the evening, “Morning Joe” hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, made light of the importance of those gathered. Brzezinski quipped, “There’s so many big egos in the room, I just feel very comfortable here.” To which Scarborough retorted, “You’re talking about your father, right, not me?”

The Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security
Jones paid tribute to his longtime friend and mentor, Brent Scowcroft, in whose name the Atlantic Council is re-doubling its signature work on International Security, saying, “The world today and the world of the future needs a Brent Scowcroft.  And we are creating this center to embody the values and approach that have defined this remarkable American’s peerless career, earned him the respect of Republicans and Democrats in America and statesmen all over the world and made him the point of reference for national security advisors, not just in the United States but in a growing number of countries that seek to build a national security process in the mold created by Brent Scowcroft.”

George Lund, who will serve as Jones’ vice chairman, celebrated the many facets of the Center’s namesake: “the soldier, the statesman, the mentor, the leader and the gentleman, a man that so many of us in this room and around the world cherish and love.”

Scowcroft himself characteristically seemed embarrassed by the praise, deflecting it to others and to his beloved Atlantic Council: “It is a special honor for me to have my name associated with the Atlantic Council’s work on international security.  Those of you who know me realize I try to avoid this sort of thing, so I hope it tells you all how enthusiastic I am about the Atlantic Council at this point of history.”

The Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East
The launching of the Council’s other bold new initiative was more bittersweet, in that its illustrious namesake is no longer with us. His son, Bahaa Hariri, paid him tribute: “Ladies and gentlemen, my late father, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, believed in peace, harmony and tolerance, and he gave his life promoting the cause of peace in the region. The setting up of the center is a tribute to his efforts, and I am proud to be part of this very important initiative.”

Kempe added, “I think those of us who have met your father, and I did as a Wall Street Journal correspondent when he was a business leader, know what a tragedy it was for the region, his death, but we also know what you’ve entrusted to the Atlantic Council, and we know how to value that.”

Keep Your Day Job
Introducing Jones, Kempe renewed a running gag at these dinners noting that Jones was “the recipient of the Atlantic Council’s Distinguished Military Leadership award at our 2007 awards dinner, where – for those who were there, it was quite a moment in history – he sang Édith Piaf in his fluent French. I only mention that because General Jones made me promise that I would not.” After appreciative laughter, he added, “So please salute our dear friend, a fair singer, and a great American, General Jim Jones.”

Jones took the stage and promised, “And, no, Fred, for the thousandth time, I’m not going to be singing tonight – you’re very fortunate. And, actually, I’m surprised that anybody who was there that night came back to this gala.”

Later, Stavridis added, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing tonight, but I do want to reveal that I have been quietly taking some opera lessons on the side, and I hope to come back here in a couple of years and live up to the standards of Edith Piaf – of Placido Domingo and do “la donna è mobile” right here on this stage in a couple of years.”

Happy Birthday 
Certainly the most unusual awardee-introducer combination was tenor-humanitarian Placido Domingo and soldier-statesman Colin Powell. But, as the night’s most amusing anecdotes demonstrated, the connection was a natural.

POWELL: I want to tell you a story.  A few years ago, I came home from the office, and as I walked into my home, I noticed that on our private telephone line, the voice mail thing was blinking.  It was my birthday, so I assumed one of my children had called and left a message because I wasn’t there.  So I hit the button, picked it up, and the voice said:  Colin, this is Placido.  Happy birthday to you.  (Laughter.) Alma has warned me that I shouldn’t sing the whole thing.  (Laughter.)

But Placido, my heavens, Placido Domingo singing happy birthday to me.  And it was one of those cassette recorders.  I could have it forever.  (Laughter.)  It was a collectible.  It might even someday be eBayable.  (Laughter.)  I just couldn’t tell. So I got in my car, I ran around the corner to a drugstore, and I bought a replacement cassette.  I ran back to the house, I wanted to hear it again, and it had been erased.  (Laughter.)  I don’t know who did it.  It was somebody who lives with me – (laughter) – and has lived with me a long time.  (Laughter.)  But it was gone, and I was devastated.

The next year, April 5th, the phone rings.  This time I’m home.  Colin, this is Placido.  Happy birthday to you. And he did it again.  And he’s done it every single year when he is within striking distance of me.

But it’s not just me.  I don’t know how many people he does it for.  And I wish he could do it for all of you, but that would be quite impossible.  But he does it for me.  And it is that kind of man that I have come to know, love and admire as a dear friend.  A thoughtful man, a generous man, a man who loves people, and is loved in return.  And he is loved not just for his art, but for his heart.

DOMINGO: And yes indeed, this 5th of April I was flying from Mexico to Tokyo.  And when I arrived to Tokyo, of course it was p.m. on the 6th.  And I realized, oh, it was Colin’s birthday yesterday.  So this year, I didn’t have the happy birthday that I always send him.

But he did something very special to me also.  When I was, a few years back, when I was – yes, I think it was something like my 60th birthday, yes – he returned to me and he came to the party that the Washington National Opera was giving to me, so all the members of the board – and he sang happy birthday for me.  (Laughter.)  And he did it well, and I don’t tell him to do only the few bars, you know?

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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