Eulogy for John Whitehead
February 17, 2015
The ultimate challenge of a society is to bridge the gap between where it is and where it has never been. To travel that road requires, above all, character and courage: character, because the decisions marking the journey are always close; and courage, because the initial stages are always lonesome. Hence the Spanish proverb: “Traveler, there are no roads. Roads are made by walking.”
America was fortunate that John Whitehead walked so many roads for us.
In view of the vastness of John’s interests and the scope of his accomplishments, one is tempted to think of a flamboyant individual operating by eloquence and force of will. The opposite would be true. For John, the call to serve was paired with a reluctance to impose.
Characteristic of John’s self-effacement, he declined when asked to lead the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation after September 11 charged with coordinating the rebuilding effort downtown, citing his age and the long time horizon of the project. But news of his appointment had already leaked. When well-wishers began to inquire about it, John concluded that he had no right to imply that a call to duty could be refused. In that modesty resides perhaps John’s greatest significance for his society.
John was driven not by the desire to be, but by the commitment to do. He judged actions by their nobility, not their utility. In a world of growing fragmentation, he exuded universal principles. He led by example rather than slogan. Where others practiced career advancement, he exemplified the priority of ethics and integrity. There was about John, above all, an air of serenity and gentleness that elevated those around him by making great achievement seem the norm.
Not that John would have ever claimed such a role for himself. He began his career at Goldman Sachs as a junior statistician with an annual salary of $3,600. He told the story of his first paycheck, which encouraged him to buy a yellow seersucker suit that he proudly donned to go to the office. On the elevator, he encountered Mr. Sachs, who looked him up and down. As Sachs got to his floor, he turned to John and said, “Young man, if you work here, go home and get out of your pajamas and come back in a suit.”
John became one of the seminal statesmen of our society, always thinking beyond the moment. Old school, patriotic, conceiving free enterprise as an aspect of democratic freedom, John found ultimate purpose in moral rather than purely operational categories.
It was one of the great honors of my life to be admitted to John’s friendship. I met John when, in the last days of the Ford administration, he tried to convince me to join Goldman Sachs as a partner. I told him that I did not know enough about investment banking. Persuaded of my incapacity to value opportunity, John settled on friendship.
John and I made an initial bargain that he would teach me economics, and I would instruct him in diplomacy. This arrangement stood up until John became Deputy Secretary of State under President Reagan—a job which he interpreted as an opportunity to fulfill his lifetime commitment to the cause of freedom. John would make speeches about the imminent liberation of the satellite orbit, especially of Hungary—a prospect which conventional wisdom of the time considered premature, to say the least. But prophets are occasionally recognized in their lifetime. Eastern Europe became free in the timetable of John’s vision, not the analysis of traditional experts.
Being near John was not without its humbling experiences, such as being invited to dinner for five with John and finding myself as the only non-Eagle Scout guest. Ever gracious, John postponed until after dinner to draw my attention to this anomaly.
My last meeting with John was at his home a week before his death. He was impeccably dressed and unmarked by illness. He said the doctors had told him he had cancer and perhaps a short time to live. This was nonsense, he insisted. He had been told the same thing twice before. We would still talk about it two years from now. He was, in fact, looking forward to the political campaigns about to begin. He had in the last few days made a new choice for a candidate, he said, pledging me to secrecy until he announced it.
I know what John would have said to that candidate, as to others. I heard it a few months ago. At an annual dinner of a group concerned with public policy, much of the discussion bemoaned the perilous state of world affairs. John interrupted: “Let us stop this discussion here. There is a moment to define the problems so that we understand them. But now is a moment when it is important to help in solving them. So let us turn to that.” Characteristically, he later wrote to apologize for what he described as his bluntness.
John Whitehead now joins the ranks of legends. Our lives will be far less full without him. But as we mourn, his legacy will turn into a sentinel for the evocation of public trust and the cause of freedom.