Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel offered a certain confession about the military last night.
“I have Sergeant Major Battaglia sitting here in front of me, and he and other sergeants major still scare the hell out of me,” the former Army sergeant told an audience. “Generals bother me, but sergeant majors scare me.”
Hagel received the Atlantic Council’s Distinguished Leader Award at a black-tie dinner at a Ritz Carlton in Washington.
He praised the organization’s history of fostering dialogues and peace.
“If there is ever a time in history where we have the tools, where we have the capacity, where we have the institutions to engage and fix the problems, it is now,” Hagel said. “Never in the history of man has there been so many resources and so many institutions and structures to allow us to accomplish that.”
The council’s chairman, Jon Huntsman Jr., has played many roles of late: Utah governor, U.S. ambassador to China and 2012 Republican presidential candidate. Last night was a milestone: hosting a gala, his first, since taking the reins in January.
“The transatlantic relationship will be about problem solving,” Huntsman said between greeting guests like Marillyn Hewson, the chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin (LMT) Corp.
Before the dinner, former Secretary of State Colin Powell chatted with Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor.
The whole conversation couldn’t be heard, but “Syria” seemed to come up a lot.
At last night’s Refugees International Dinner, Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican and the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, had the biggest applause line when he said: “I’ve gone on the record to the Budget Committee questioning cuts to accounts that are vital for our refugees around the world.”
That was no small feat considering he shared the stage with actors Forest Whitaker, Matt Dillon and Sam Waterston.
Royce and Whitaker were honored for their human rights advocacy by the organization, which celebrated its 35th anniversary in Washington’s Mellon Auditorium.
“When situations on the ground get dangerous, governments pull out,” explained Royce, who has visited war-torn areas around the world. “That’s where Refugees International fills that gap. Your volunteers go in when few dare to do so. From Sudan to Syria, we are faced with depressingly high levels of refugees. They didn’t choose to be there. They are tragic and collateral victims of a conflict they are not a party to.”
Waterston, of television’s “Law and Order” fame as well as film roles, is vice chairman of Refugees International and its longest-serving board member.
Before presenting Whitaker with his award, Waterston praised his performance in last year’s hit, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” the film about a White House butler which, to the surprise of some, received no Oscar nomination for Whitaker from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“He accomplished something only a few great actors can: by giving a performance that changes the way we see the world, while not being noticed by the Academy at all,” Waterston said of Whitaker. “Sneaking in under the radar takes magic.”
Whitaker, professorial in eyeglasses, suit and sweater vest, in a voice barely above a whisper, hailed the work young people are doing for his Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative to prevent “seeds of resentment and violence” from creeping into “the next generation.”
Between courses, Dillon, a refugees advocate since his friendship with the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, seemed to be most dazzled by MSNBC news-talk show anchor Chris Matthews.
Does Dillon watch “Hardball”?
“Oh, all the time,” he said, snapping a smartphone photograph of the host. “He’s a funny guy.”
Dillon shared a train ride from New York with chef Jose Andres, saluted by Refugees International for his work in international food policy,
“Please open a restaurant in New York,” Dillon pleaded.
The evening raised over $760,000, making it the most successful in the event’s 10-year history.
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