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On Being a Spokesman and Public Affairs Officer

Gregory L. Garland, Chief, Press and Public Affairs, Bureau of African Affairs
Panel Remarks, Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute Future Leaders' Conference
Miami Dade College-Wolfson Campus, Miami, FL
April 4, 2008

Good morning. I’m going to talk to you today about being a Public Affairs Officer, and a spokesman for the Department of State, something I do for a living. It’s a specific career path in the Foreign Service, and one that’s a bit different from others. So, I’m going to take a different approach.

How many of you got up this morning and watched, read or heard the news? Alright, tell about what’s in the news today. (Answer #1: President Bush attends NATO Summit). Anyone else? (Answer #2: the bad economy). Any other stories? (Answer #3: Anti-Chinese demonstrations).

I agree – these are big stories today. But there are two other stories you haven’t mentioned. One has been in the news, in the headlines now for five years – Iraq. It may be that the drumbeat of Iraq is so numbing that we, like many Americans, simply ignore it when it doesn’t affect us personally. But I can assure you that this story is known throughout the world, and those images of uniformed, armed Americans in Iraq are beamed to every corner of the globe.

There’s another story that’s special today. I guarantee that you will see it, hear it, or read about it later today: It’s the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. Now, we all celebrate his birthday as a national holiday in January. This time around, we commemorate his murder.

It’s a big story, as the visit of two of the three major presidential candidates to Memphis, site of the murder, testifies.

King’s murder is another story that is being beamed around the world. It’s not a pleasant tale. Here’s the story of how the man who led the non-violent crusade to end legalized racial discrimination, the winner of the most prestigious award on earth – the Nobel Peace Prize -- was killed by his own countrymen in cold blood.

These are the two stories that will dominate in the world beyond our border today – the story of Dr. King’s murder and images of Americans at war.

As a spokesman for a U.S. Embassy anywhere in the world, I can expect to be asked about these stories. I could be asked on camera to explain why it is that America is so violent and kills off its own peacemakers.

Now, I don’t even deal with Iraq as part of my job right now as spokesman for the Bureau of African Affairs. But trust me, it’s always there. It’s as much there as images of Rambo and John Wayne.

Those same questions, those same assumptions are what you will face as soon as you leave this country. For the image I have drawn is of an entire country, of all Americans, as violent, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or race. We are all spokesmen for our country in this day and age. I simply do it for a living.

Let me tell what my response to the question is. It’s that we celebrate Dr. King because he represented the best that our country offers. He looked America squarely in the face and challenged it to live up to its own ideals, to the Declaration of Independence that declares to the world that “all men are created equal,” and the federal Constitution, that lays down the ideal of justice for all.

His life [and] his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement demonstrated that an imperfect America can face its flaws and overcome them peacefully through the political system. It was his leadership that spoke to the heart of white America and changed those hearts, despite the violent attempts of some to stop him. His movement shattered Jim Crow -- [a U.S. system of ] legalized racial segregation [laws]. His movement made it possible for all Americans to live the American dream, not just some who happened have light skin or happened to be born into an English-speaking household. One man took his life with a bullet, and that is a tragedy; but the hearts he changed revolutionized America without firing a shot.

I came here today to talk about what I do as a spokesman and Public Affairs Officer. Rather than talk at you about taking tests and getting degrees and certain kinds of jobs, I’m asking you to consider who your are, and who we are as a people. That is why I chose to speak of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A spokesman who knows his own country well, and knows himself well, is the best spokesman. He speaks with credibility and authenticity, knowing himself and his country, and with the confidence and humility that flow from self-knowledge. Oh, by the way, it helps a have a sense of humor, too.

You in this room share a wonderful gift, that of bilingualism. We desperately need good people who speak Spanish and other languages well. I’m from Central Florida, and grew up monolingual. I learned Spanish as a second language in school and with great effort. Fortunately, I married a Peruvian and we are raising my daughter to be bilingual. You are her role models for tomorrow.

Thank you for this honor, the chance to meet you, to return to the city and country that my grandmother served for three decades as a teacher and counselor. I look forward to your questions and comments.

Released on May 13, 2008

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