Spirit of the City


phoenix 2Here are my remarks from the ceremony this evening at St. John’s where I was given the Spirit of the City award:

It’s a great honor to be able to speak tonight at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine’s wonderful fund-raising ceremony to honor Xu Bing, the Chinese artist whose creations have been installed inside the cathedral as a testimony to the human spirit’s resilience and its potential for rebirth.

All of us here can only be awed and inspired by our magnificent surroundings. They are symbols of humanity’s potential goodness and greatness. And the same is true of the bold vision and the optimistic creation of our honoree: Xu Bing. His phoenix, pictured here, is a symbol that we can rise up to achieve things no one would have dreamt were possible until now.

Today, we find ourselves in an era when we welcome all the encouragement and inspiration we can get. I’m sure you all know the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. Well, welcome to those times. Yet I prefer not to think of it as a curse. Our karma, our destiny, is to live in exciting but challenging times. We all know the issues. The list is long.  The world around us is so complex. It seems that the consequences of inaction, or wrong choices, are so crucial. But our resolve can overcome so much if we are committed to what’s good.

That means we recognize the “others”, the ones who are usually overlooked, and how they matter in our lives. It means our base instincts of “me first”, of sheer greed and narcissism—can be controlled.  That our engagement with good deeds on behalf of the common good—and our common sense—can win the day.

Tonight we are in this splendid house of worship open to anyone who wishes to come here for hope. It joins all the world’s major faiths—in a commitment to the good. They know their mission, and they act with the strength of purpose. All worthy religions, at their core, advocate the golden rule of love and compassion. These are the pillars of a joyous, fulfilling and meaningful human journey on earth.

This Cathedral and its leadership walk the talk. They tend to the congregation’s spiritual needs–and they also reach out to those “others”, the less fortunate, and the ones who are left out of our society’s mainstream. Every Sunday, this church reaches out to the poor, the hungry, who come here to be nourished—literally to be fed. By the end of a year, 25,000 meals and take home baskets of food will reach thousands of people in need.

And the same sense of purpose is why Frank Bennack has done so many incredible good deeds for this city. Now as Chairman of the Board of New York Presbyterian Hospital, Frank labors to enhance the capability of this hospital to be among the very best in the world and serve the rich and the poor among us with equal care, love and compassion. In our company tonight are the leadership team of New York Presbyterian Hospital led by the brilliant and inspirational leader Dr. Steve Corwin.

I am privileged to assist Frank, Steve, Bob, Herb and their colleagues in this ministry. And I salute tonight’s dinner Co-Chairs Sarah Nash, Michael Sylvester and Mary Jane Brock–for their selfless and caring service. I see in this audience another leader, a strong supporter of the Episcopal faith and of this Cathedral.  I single out Keith Reinhard who spends so much of his life committed to diversity, fairness and the power of our creative potential.

My wonderful, supportive life partner Barbara, and I, are privileged to share our meal tonight with our long time friend and my Princeton classmate Frank Wisner.  This extraordinary man chose to spend the majority of his adult life as an underpaid public servant (suffice it to say he worked for the State Department,) defending and protecting all of our lives and our precious country. He has served seven Presidents as an Ambassador, undersecretary of Defense and special envoy in vital diplomatic missions to enhance our vital interests—and to support causes for peace and justice.

 So tonight is indeed a special night. We are here celebrating the people who do good. I am simply a witness to what all of you here are doing to make this city and this world a better place for all of us, and most importantly for what our children and grandchildren will inherit.

So yes, I am inspired by our surroundings, by Xu Bing’s magnificent portrayal of hope and promise and by you, among the very good people of this earth willing to be here tonight in order to support what this church does.

 Let me conclude with a brief quote from another wonderfully humane and good person—Mark Twain. “The two most important days in your life are first the day you are born, and then the day you find out why.”