Thank you, Barb [McQuade]. I appreciate your kind words, and I want to thank you for welcoming me to your hometown.
This afternoon, I’ll have the honor of witnessing the swearing in of Barb as the first female United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Already, she’s assumed this role with the same energy, integrity and dedication that distinguished her career as a federal prosecutor. I am certain that she will be a strong addition to the U.S. Attorney community and to this region as well. And, with her leadership, I have every confidence that a great office will become even better.
Today, it’s also my pleasure to join you in recognizing Kathleen Straus and in celebrating the example of public service reflected in Wade McCree’s life and career. I’m especially pleased that several members of Judge McCree’s family are here with us. You are, and always will be, a part of the Justice Department family.
I joined the Department just months before Wade McCree began his term as our nation’s Solicitor General. I now have the pleasure of working with his grandson, Aaron, who serves as a counsel in my office. I’m grateful for the McCree family’s ongoing commitment to the Justice Department, and I want to thank you for including me in this wonderful annual tradition. And I want to thank you for Aaron- he’s already a great lawyer and will, in the tradition of his family, be a real leader in the legal community and in our nation.
Each year, this luncheon provides an important opportunity for Detroit’s civic, academic and legal communities to reflect on the power and importance of public service, and to remember the work that distinguished Wade McCree’s career and defined his life. His example reminds us that the contributions of a single person can make a difference in lives across an entire nation.
In the history of this city, as well as the history of our nation’s Justice Department, Wade McCree’s leadership stands out. In 1948, he arrived in Detroit with a Bronze Star from World War II, a law degree from Harvard, and a dream to use his skills and training to right the inequities and injustices of his day. It didn’t take long for his abilities to catch the attention of Governor G. Mennen Williams and, a few years later, President John Kennedy.
Wade McCree spent nearly a decade in Michigan government, more than 15 years as a federal judge, a term as United States Solicitor General, and the rest of his life as a professor of law at the University of Michigan. He was known for his sharp legal mind, his sound judgment, and his inspired use of language. In fact, his talent for composing limericks from the bench earned him the nickname, “Poet Laureate of the Sixth Circuit.” Although he could be playful with his words at times, he always approached his responsibilities, arguments, judgments and lessons with a solemnity of duty and a clear sense of purpose.
Years ago, I had the good fortune to witness this firsthand. In 1977, when President Carter appointed Wade McCree to the post of Solicitor General, I was working as a federal prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section. I was fresh out of law school – a young and idealistic attorney – and Wade McCree embodied the qualities that I, as a young African American, hoped to emulate as a lawyer.
The years in which he served as Solicitor General were difficult ones, both for the Department and for our Nation. Then, as now, the Office of the Solicitor General had to deal with the most novel, and often the most complex, legal issues of the day. In just four years, Wade McCree argued 25 cases before the United States Supreme Court, including Bakke and the Nixon tapes case. Under his leadership, the office of the Solicitor General thrived. It continues to do so today, under the leadership of Elena Kagan, whose own career and commitment to service mirrors, and was inspired by, Judge McCree’s.
Judge McCree once described the thrill of working in the Justice Department this way: He said, “we have the excitement of being in the eye of the hurricane."
I assure you that, in today’s Department, these words remain true. And while many of the legal storms that the Justice Department once weathered have passed, new ones have emerged. We face new legal challenges, new missions and new threats to our nation’s safety.
In the face of these challenges, we have an opportunity, an obligation, to choose collaboration and civic engagement over cynicism and criticism. We have the chance to serve and to empower others, and to advance the cause of justice. Here in Detroit, in this very difficult time, you have an opportunity to seize this moment and to show how much can be accomplished when we work together, when we demand more of ourselves and of our leaders, when we think first about our communities and not ourselves.
Let us not forget that our country has grown stronger only because previous generations of Americans embraced the notions of service and sacrifice that were so needed in other times of crisis. Wade McCree did.
We are part of a society that is in recovery, a recovery that requires the steadfast involvement of the American people. Our greatness as a nation is defined by, and dependent on, the work of our citizens. Time and time again, our nation has been elevated by those who sacrificed and who answered the call to public service. In his time Wade McCree answered this call. Kathleen Straus, like so many others here today, has as well. We must continue these efforts and that work. We must recognize new challenges and meet them. We must ask hard questions of ourselves and be prepared to face difficult truths. We must have faith that, one day, working together, our nation’s reality can match our hopes and our dreams. And we must believe that the participation of committed individuals – like Kathleen Strauss – has the power to make the promise of justice a reality and our nation a better place.
I know that true progress will not come quickly or easily to this city or to this nation. And I’m certain that we will not – and cannot – move forward if we do not seek out new, more creative and more cooperative ways to work with one another and to serve others.
In every generation, people of principle – armed with little more than their convictions, their sense of purpose, and their spirit of hope – have triumphed over the evils and iniquities of their age to help create a better America. Each of us has walked through a doorway of possibility that these leaders pried open. I have walked through doors opened by Judge McCree and stand on his shoulders. We have a responsibility to ensure that this progress continues, and we must work to safeguard and to expand the hard-won advances that our country has made. There is, at this time, simply too much at stake. Nothing less than our security, our prosperity, and the needs of our most vulnerable citizens hang in the balance.
The type of public service exemplified by the efforts of Wade McCree and Kathleen Strauss is not often the easy path. But in my experience, the benefits are well worth the challenges, because that service provides something very rare: the chance to contribute to a higher purpose and to advance the pursuit of justice.
There is no more important, or more fulfilling, work than this. It is the work chosen by Wade McCree and Kathleen Strauss.
Public service allows one to give meaning to the ideals that animate our laws and call our nation to aim higher, become better and do more for those who have been left out and overlooked.
During a career mostly spent in public service, these are the opportunities I have found. And they are the same opportunities that Wade McCree seized.
But we must move beyond commemorating past achievements. We must also chart our course for the days ahead.
Together, we stand at the beginning of a new decade and the start of a new chapter in our nation’s history. This is a moment of great possibility. Despite the enormous and unprecedented challenges we face, I am hopeful. And occasions like this, among people who are committed to the public good and our ongoing pursuit of social justice, make me especially optimistic.
Thank you, again, for inviting me to share in this moment. I look forward to the work we will continue, the future we will build, and the nation we will surely become.