Our friend Sen. Tom Cotton had the honor of delivering the Barbara Olson memorial lecture at this year’s Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention. Barbara Olson is the distinguished the lawyer, author, and commentator who was killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Here is the text of Senator Cotton’s address:
Thank you very much for the kind introduction, and the warm welcome. It’s always an honor to speak to the Federalist Society. Back when I was a student and a lawyer, I belonged to the Federalist Society because I believed in individual freedom, constitutional government, the rule of law, and the free-enterprise system. I hold to those beliefs firmly still today, even as a recovering lawyer.
But I also have a less abstract, more personal affinity for you now: I met my wife at a Federalist Society lunch. Shortly after being sworn-in to the House of Representatives, I spoke to the local lawyers’ chapter. My wife, Anna, attended that day, as she’s here with us today. If she could recount our meeting, it would have a long backstory, with lots of explanation about mutual interests and mutual friends who encouraged her to attend and so on and so forth. But since I have the privilege of wielding the microphone, I will tell my shorter, yet 100% true version: I gave a speech and a pretty girl gave me her phone number afterward.
It’s particularly humbling to speak to you again on this occasion, the 15th Annual Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture. I am grateful for the honor. And, Ted, thank you for being here today.
I didn’t know Barbara personally. Of course, I knew of Barbara from her frequent television appearances and her writing in the 1990s. She was a fierce advocate for limited government and individual liberty. Barbara also worked tirelessly to expose the Clinton machine’s corruption and abuse of power. It was a target-rich environment back then, as it is now, and Barbara had excellent aim.
I did meet Barbara once, at the annual summer barbeque she and Ted hosted for Federalist Society students at their home. Many of you probably attended a similar party in those days. And you probably recall Barbara’s warmth, her passion, her zest for life. However vivacious, thoughtful, and graceful she may have seemed on television, the screen still didn’t do her justice. She made a big impression on me, as she did on so many others.
I was therefore deeply saddened when she died a few weeks later, one of the nearly 3,000 Americans killed on September 11, 2001. Right away, though, I learned, to no one’s surprise, that Barbara didn’t sit quietly by as Flight 77 was hijacked and hurtled toward the Pentagon. In those most fearful and chaotic moments, Barbara had the courage and the presence of mind to call her husband, Ted—not only as a husband, but also as a high-ranking official at the Department of Justice who could alert the authorities. When the call dropped, she called back.
Ted explained back then that Barbara was “enormously, remarkably, incredibly calm. But she was calculating … she was wondering, What can I do to help solve this problem?” Barbara wasn’t cowered by those terrorists. She refused to meekly surrender. As they say in the Army, she went out with her boots on.
That made an even bigger impression on me. To the best of my knowledge, Barbara was the only person whom I knew killed in the 9/11 attacks, though I’ve known too many killed because of those attacks. Barbara’s actions, that day and in all the days prior—and the character displayed by her actions—set a high example for us all, though she would not live to know it.
That’s the thing about character: it echoes through the ages, far beyond one’s own earshot. It’s impossible to know how many lives Barbara touched, but it must’ve been a lot.
I can share one story I do know, a story about a young woman called Susan Grant. Barbara and Susan had a lot in common.
Both grew up in middle America, Barbara in Texas and Susan in Nebraska. Both were Catholics of German descent.
Both loved and lived the arts. Barbara was a ballerina, performing in San Francisco and New York. Susan was also a dancer, as well as a singer and an actress. In fact, Susan moved to Hollywood at the tender age of 17 to perform and study at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. Somewhat surprisingly—for Susan was a political conservative, like Barbara—she joined a union, just as Ronald Reagan had during his acting career.
Barbara had made her own unlikely sojourn to Hollywood, hoping to earn the money needed to pursue her dream of going to law school, which she did.
And here’s where the story moves from coincidence to influence and inspiration. Barbara went to Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University in New York, something of a peculiar choice for a Catholic girl from Texas. Ted says that people told her that she wouldn’t fit in and would be miserable. Far from it. Barbara thrived, becoming immensely popular and founding the Cardozo Federalist Society chapter.
Years later, with Hollywood behind her, Susan came to the exact same crossroads, looking at law schools in New York. Admitted to Cardozo and intrigued by it, she nonetheless wondered if a Catholic girl from Nebraska could ever fit in there. Then, in the school’s promotional material, she read a profile of Barbara, who had died a few months earlier. Susan had never met Barbara, but recognized and admired her from television appearances and from her writing. Susan took the plunge and followed Barbara’s path to Cardozo.
Like Barbara before her, Susan thrived there. Before her third year, pursuing her interest in constitutional law, she interned in the Solicitor General’s office, much as Barbara had interned at the Office of Legal Counsel. Returning for her final year at Cardozo, Susan earned the Barbara Olson Scholarship, which is awarded to female students at Cardozo who exemplify Barbara’s ideals and values.
What Barbara had founded, Susan took over, becoming the president of the Cardozo Federalist Society chapter. While there probably weren’t many more conservatives there in Susan’s time than in Barbara’s, the chapter was equally active.
Neither Barbara nor Susan took the typical path to a big New York law firm. Barbara went to Washington, where she moved successfully from private practice to the U.S. Attorney’s office to Capitol Hill. Susan moved to Montana, where she clerked for the supreme court and then, like Barbara, became a federal prosecutor.
Susan left her dream job to move to Wyoming, where her parents had retired and her father had fallen ill. She went into private practice as she helped care for her father, who thankfully recovered. Then, like Barbara, Susan ultimately made her way to Washington, going to work for the CIA and devoting herself to keeping our country safe. In matters known and as yet unknown to all but a handful of Americans, Susan is entrusted with our country’s most sensitive secrets.
Today, Susan is also the most trusted confidante of a United States Senator. Most important of all, she is the new mother of a baby boy, Gabriel. My son, Gabriel Cotton, because Susan Grant was my wife Anna’s stage name during her time in Hollywood.
I tell this improbable story to demonstrate my larger point: the character we display and the example it sets extend far beyond our ability to comprehend. Barbara never met my wife, and she could not have known that her example would inspire Anna at critical moments in life.
How does one develop such character? The word itself comes from a Greek word that means to etch or engrave. That suggests that a lot of work must be done, and once done it will be lasting.
Aristotle, the first great teacher of character, wrote a lot about this. The only way to develop character is the hard way, the way of making each choice each day for a thousand days and then another thousand, the way of listening to one’s conscience when pleasure beckons or pain repels, of developing one’s judgment to see the good both in the circumstances immediately present and in the eternal truths. Aristotle teaches that true virtue isn’t merely knowing the good, but also doing it. Aristotle says, “We are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good, for otherwise there would be no profit in it.”
The key to character development for Aristotle is practical wisdom, the ability to observe circumstances combined with knowledge of right principles to reach sound judgments in moral matters. It’s the habitual exercise of practical wisdom in every situation that leads to virtue. But Aristotle observes, “to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.” In the virtuous soul, the desires and the judgment cooperate in this fashion to produce good action reliably and persistently—despite danger, despite weariness, despite temptation. The man or woman of good character can be depended upon.
Moreover, this kind of practical wisdom and virtue—this kind of character—isn’t only a good in itself, though it is that. It also influences and inspires others by its example. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, for instance, he explains that one of the most powerful kinds of argument is the example, which moves from particular case to particular case by induction. Aristotle ties argument by example to ethos, the influence of character and credibility on speech and persuasion.
The point is that the development of sound character doesn’t end with one’s own excellence, but also has a practical effect on how others act and are influenced. Good character not only inspires; it makes a kind of argument that has a persuasive and compelling effect on others, whether individually or as a people—it has an effect on what they believe and how they will act. Put simply, in his words, “the soul never thinks without an image of another.”
Probably the simplest, most memorable statement about this power of good character and its ability to inspire and to influence comes from Jesus, as is often the case. In the Sermon on the Mount, he preached,
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Truly, a city upon a hill cannot hide; it is there for all to see, good or bad. The city can be brilliantly lit, shining a beacon of hope, or it can be dark and foreboding. The same is true for each of us. We cannot hide our character; it’s there for all to see. What we can do is build our character, to light our candle, so others may see our flame, and walk in its path.
Not only do individuals have character, though; nations have a character, too, and none more so than America. After all, the metaphor of the city upon a hill is used more often in connection with our national character than our personal virtue. Most people associate the metaphor with Ronald Reagan. Yet the image of America as the city upon a hill goes all the way back to 1630, when John Winthrop preached to his fellow pilgrims aboard their ship, Arbella, waiting to disembark in what became New England.
Winthrop did not mean this in a prideful or boastful way. On the contrary, he exhorted his fellow pilgrims to walk in the path of the Lord and act honestly by Him and by each other. Winthrop knew America would be an example to the world; he wanted to be sure it was a good example.
Reagan may have resurrected this particular metaphor, but Americans have always seen our country as an example for the world. Not surprisingly, The Federalist Papers begins with this point in its very first paragraph:
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. … and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
Our founders didn’t think this important question was settled by any means. The long, sorrowful litany of failed republics, ancient and modern, cataloged elsewhere in The Federalist Papers demonstrates just how hard it is to establish and preserve free government.
America was richly blessed from our earliest days: a new world, a free people, plentiful land and natural resources, the protection of oceans. If the American experiment failed despite all these blessings, how could the people of the old world, crowded and cramped, riven with ethnic and religious animosities, burdened with historical injustices, ever hope to live in freedom? While the whole world might not live in freedom if America succeeded, surely no one would if America failed. It would indeed be the general misfortune of mankind.
Facing the very real risk of such failure, Abraham Lincoln, in his address at Gettysburg, cast the Civil War in the same universal terms:
our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
The familiarity of these words can obscure the deep truths they contain about America and our national character. The Civil War, in Lincoln’s eyes, wasn’t simply an American war, but a war for human freedom for all the ages.
Why would that be so? Most civil wars, terrible though they are, merely exchange one set of strongmen for another. But America isn’t like most countries. America was born so that we might rule ourselves. America had fathers, fathers who brought forth a new nation. That in itself is remarkable. Most nations aren’t new and they don’t have birthdays, at least not old and great nations. The old nations of Europe have existed in one form or another across centuries, the moment of their beginnings lost in the mists of time.
But we Americans know our birthday—July 4, 1776—and we know our fathers; there are monuments to them down the street. We also know the circumstances of our conception—in liberty, dedicated to the natural equality of all mankind and self-government based on reflection and choice, the only government worthy of a free people. This is what Margaret Thatcher meant when she said, “Europe will never be like America. Europe is a product of history. America is a product of philosophy.”
Yet we also know the circumstances of our conception were imperfect, and it took a great civil war to preserve the nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. America had its “new birth of freedom.” Our nation was born again in the blood of our countrymen in a war whose dead nearly outnumber those killed in all our other wars combined. To paraphrase the fifth stanza of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in its original form, as He died to make men holy, they died to make men free.
Without their sacrifice, America would have failed and it would have suggested that no free nation can long endure. But we didn’t fail; we fought for an abstract principle of justice. We showed the world that such a nation can endure, and that it’s worth fighting for. That’s one reason why the Founding and the Civil War are so important, and why they belong not only to us Americans, but to all mankind for all the ages.
That’s why America has been a beacon of hope and aspiration throughout the world. Look at everything that’s resulted from the simple, brilliant light of human equality put upon a hill. From an uncertain birth, our Constitution is now the oldest written governing charter in the world. We govern ourselves as free men and women, from the Congress to the school board. Despite all our sharp political differences, we transfer power peacefully between parties and people. . . .
America based our politics on the natural rights of mankind—and so we got our politics right. And many material blessings flowed from that. America went from global backwater to the greatest superpower in history in just 170 years. We have the world’s biggest, most diversified, and most advanced economy, which provides the highest standard of living ever known to the working man, with unlimited opportunity for advancement and success.
In America, in other words, equality is not just an abstract ideal. In practice, it means we champion self-reliance and individualism. Any one who works hard and plays by the rules warrants equal dignity and respect. He’s entitled to the fruits of his own labors, and he rightly chafes against undue infringements and meddling in his affairs. We respect success in America; class envy and resentment have always been much weaker political forces here than abroad. In America, as the saying goes, a father and his son see a Rolls Royce on the street and the father says, “one day, son, we’ll get you into that car.” In too many countries, the father says, “one day, son, we’ll get him out of that car.”
Our national character—free, equal, independent—is attractive to people around the world. As Aristotle said of individual character, it inspires them and it influences them, which is why they emulate it and celebrate it. When the oppressed Chinese people rose up against their communist government in Tiananmen Square, they constructed a model of the Statue of Liberty—not Big Ben, not the Eiffel Tower, and certainly not the Kremlin. Poland and Romania erected statues of Ronald Reagan. Georgia named a street after George W. Bush and Albania erected a statue in his honor. Kosovo honored Bill Clinton with both a street and a statue.
But it’s not only or primarily our presidents whom the world finds so appealing. Hundreds of millions of people around the world want to watch our movies, listen to our music, dress in our fashions, use our technology, and travel to our country to study, to work, and to live. While illegal immigration is a grave problem, to be sure, perhaps we should take some pride that we live in a country that people are willing to die to reach, rather than a country that people are willing to die to escape.
Unfortunately but inevitably, our national character supplies an example not only to our friends, but also to our foes. We were targeted on 9/11 not for what we did, but for who we are. America is freedom’s home and freedom’s exemplar, so we’re also hated by freedom’s enemies. As President Bush said just nine days after those attacks, “They hate our freedom: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
In this regard, they weren’t much different from the totalitarian ideologies that we defeated in the twentieth century, Nazism and communism. Whether marching under the banner of the swastika, the sickle, or the sword, these fanatics knew that their maniacal ambition for world domination could not succeed as long as America lived.
That’s why Hitler declared war on the U.S., even though it was a terrible strategic mistake. That’s why Soviet apparatchiks called the U.S. “the Main Enemy”—as Russia’s KGB state does again today. That’s why Iran’s ayatollahs still chant “Death to America.”
In their hatred, though, they often miscalculate about American willingness and ability to fight the enemies of freedom, much as Hitler did. Most famously, Osama bin Laden called the United States a weak horse, saying that people would root instead for the strong horse of Islamic radicalism. Indeed, in his 1996 fatwa against the United States, bin Laden taunted us for cowardice, not for aggression and arrogance. He mocked American retreats from Lebanon, Yemen, and Somalia, calling us a paper tiger. He believed America would retreat further, or even surrender, if attacked directly and on our own soil.
Although bin Laden learned about American resolve the hard way, as did Hitler and the Politburo, as did the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, our enemies still question our commitment. The Islamic State caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, reportedly told Americans when he was released from detention during the Iraq War, “I’ll see you guys in New York.” Such contempt for American power from our enemies suggests that we haven’t yet broken their will, that we haven’t yet fully convinced them of the righteousness and the sturdiness of our character, and that we may never finally and completely convince them.
Here, then, I want to return to the city upon a hill. The city is on a hill—not an island or a fortress. It must interact with the outside world. When they watch the city, some foreigners will grow jealous and resentful, coveting its prime territory and its riches. And they will come to take those things.
Furthermore, the citizens must leave the city and descend into the valley to draw their water and into the fields to grow their crops and cultivate their herds. They must traverse roads and build ports to cross the seas to exchange their goods for those they lack.
And they will travel not only as merchants and traders, but also as tourists, for beautiful though the city may be, its citizens will want to discover the world. Inevitably, too, they will become missionaries for their faith and incur the anger of the priests in the valley.
In short, the city upon a hill will not live in splendid isolation, nor can it adopt a pacifist creed and survive. Walls will be needed, as will guards to protect those walls. An Army and a Navy must be raised to defend the borderlands, guard the valleys and the fields, secure the ports and open the sea lanes, and to protect its citizens around the world.
Nor can the city easily do these things alone, so it must make alliances with other cities, concerning itself with their affairs and their security. With those alliances will come new, unanticipated conflicts with still other cities.
None of this is to say the city must lose its luster. On the contrary, the city can shine even brighter as an example for the world. The city will represent not merely an abstract ideal of justice, but also the very real commitment to defend it. The city, if it holds fast to its principles and is willing to fight for them, will inspire the just and terrify the wicked.
And here I’ll come back to Barbara, and the union of our national and individual character. For the character of our city depends on the character of our citizens. The moral character esteemed by Aristotle is not spontaneous or natural; it must be taught and it must be practiced. So it is with our national character. As Lincoln said, the devotion to our founding principles must
be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs—let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation.
Our political religion—the natural equality of mankind and self-government founded upon the natural rights of mankind—is an invaluable, yet fragile thing. We must recommit in each generation not only to our faith, but also to our willingness to fight for that faith. In doing so, we inspire and influence each other, and we remain the shining example for the world.
Barbara knew these things. She dedicated her life to them, and ultimately gave her life for them. She knew that if there’s nothing worth killing for or nothing worth dying for, then there’s nothing worth living for. Our memorial today pays tribute to her life, but the best tribute of all is to follow her example every day, as individuals and as a country.
Thank you, God bless you, God bless America, and God bless the memory of Barbara Olson.
SCOTT adds: Below is the video of Senator Cotton’s outstanding lecture.