Memorial Remarks for Pete Peterson
Pete and I met half a century ago in the Nixon White House. I was National Security Advisor. Pete had been recruited as Assistant to the President for International Economic Affairs. We were both considered to be promising young men. Some commentators predicted a grim bureaucratic struggle. Pete would have none of it. Having been one of the youngest CEO’s in America, he had come to Washington not to manipulate the status quo, but to transform it.
Pete’s first move was to seize both the bureaucratic and substantive battlefields. He and his extraordinary analytical staff began by preparing briefing charts on some eighty-five countries, which displayed the impact of key economic data on pending political decisions. Pete compressed this effort into a two-hour formal presentation for President Nixon, proving his persuasive skill by testing its various options on my staff.
For Pete, policymaking was about enhancing the national purpose. His ebullient commitment to those close to him was legendary, but so was the proviso that they not take themselves too seriously. If eminence was claimed too insistently, Pete would find a way to restore perspective by warning about the nuance separating the extraordinary from the absurd.
With these convictions, Pete played a significant role in the 1971 decision which established the flexible exchange system that is still at the heart of international financial markets. He was similarly involved in developing the economic dimension of the political dialogue when the confrontational aspect of the Cold War began to subside. The national agenda needed to develop new economic and social components to vindicate America’s indispensable contribution to international order.
Pete’s impact then, and on later decades, derived from his relentless quest to extract from his environment answers to three questions: Where are we? Where should we be heading? How can we do so as a united people?
National service remained Pete’s vocation after he left government. Over the decades, he wrote six books calling for far greater national discipline and national purpose. He transformed the Council on Foreign Relations, as its Chairman for two decades, into a major public forum of ideas while retaining its elite quality. No one has warned more insistently that America’s profligacy threatens to bankrupt its future. Pete financed the Institute for International Economics, which would come to be renamed the “Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics.” It has been rated consistently among the top international economic research institutes in the world.
Pete was, on the one hand, an epitome of the national establishment. At the same time, he was conscious of being a first-generation American and proud of his Greek heritage. Pete’s life was on one level a process of self-discovery in a society defining opportunity as its attribute and freedom as its birthright. It provided the incentive for extraordinary philanthropy as a way of linking his origin to America’s future.
We go through life, it has been said, looking for hidden treasures, only to find that there are no hidden treasures and that, in the end, friendship is the most important treasure left to us. Pete’s memory serves as such a treasure for us. He fought for our future with fortitude and courage. We will remember him and his contributions to the quality of our lives and the elevation of our world.