BY ELIZABETH WONG
Though he came to Franciscan University on April 17 to speak about crucial threats to America’s freedom, leading foreign policy advisor Richard Allen also focused on the strong lessons learned from being a lifelong “public policy junkie”. Speaking as the final installation of the Distinguished Speakers Series for spring 2012, Allen gave his presentation in the Gentile Gallery of the J.C. Williams Center at 7:30 p.m.
“My awakening came when I was literally five years old,” Allen recalled. “I remember exactly where I was standing when World War II broke out. It was December 7, 1941-[an] extraordinary event which is indelible in my mind. I was standing in the house in which we lived in a town called Merchantville, in New Jersey.” He had been interested in public affairs from a very young age.
When Allen was nine years old, he had another intense run-in with matters of public policy. His father, who worked in Washington, knew someone who knew the secretary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This was how Allen and his older brother came to visit the White House.
The valet, a “kindly old gentleman”, was dressed in a tuxedo. “I was very impressed-I think it was the first tux I had ever seen,” recalled Allen. The valet asked him if he wanted to sit in the president’s chair. “And my brother was allowed to sit in the president’s chair, twirl it around, open the desk drawer and take out a pencil,” Allen said. “And so was I. I was a Roosevelt fan for the rest of my life-I thought. Six days later, he died.”
Though he was unable to stay a Roosevelt fan for the rest of his life, he never stopped an association with presidents. When he grew up, he was appointed Chief Coordinator of Foreign Policy by President Richard Nixon, and was later appointed Nixon’s principal of the National Security Council staff. Several years later he was appointed National Security Advisor by President-elect Ronald Reagan, and was senior policy advisor for the election campaigns of George Herbert Walker Bush, George W. Bush and John McCain.
“I became more and more interested in shaping policy, but you had to go through this nasty political process,” said Allen. “Once you make the fateful decision that you want to determine policy, make a contribution to your country, to your community-you know that you’re going to be put through the wringer.”
Allen emphasized that in public policy, it is important to remember your original goal of what you set out to do. “You have to deal with crocodiles,” he said. “But your first objective is to drain the swamp.”
He also said that some of the most important lessons to remember in this field are extremely basic. “Do what is right,” he said. “That lesson came home to me when President Reagan entered the White House.”
Allen said that when Reagan met with the senior staff of the White House, he told them, “I know that I am called ‘president’, but I want you people to understand that we are here for precisely four years. I don’t want anybody to talk to me about re-election, or why I should make a decision that is going to affect my future career. I want every decision made here to be for the good of the American people.”
Allen spoke of a plaque that hung in Reagan’s office during his presidency, which read, “There is no limit to what a man can achieve, or how far he can go, so long as he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” Allen explained that those were not Reagan’s words, but that he had gotten them from someplace else.
“Ronald Reagan collected things that influenced him over many, many years,” said Allen. “He wrote them down on cards and he kept a shoebox full of them.”
He said that while many people are interested in politics, they should always remember to focus on making contributions in his or her own society first, whether it be his or her community or family life.
“Making a contribution to preserve what we believe that we have today, or have inherited from our forefathers, is extremely important,” encouraged Allen. “That kind of contribution allows one to (handle) crises with a certain amount of aplomb and confidence.”