To all the judges and clergy who are here, thank you so much for coming. It’s an honor to have so many of you here. Bill [Haddad] and I talked a lot about our opportunity to participate in this 20th anniversary of this very distinguished group and I told him that I wanted to do it. I’m delighted to be here. And I know, as a politician, that it’s not a good idea to get between you and your meal so I’m not going to go on and on.
But I want to make a couple of very important points tonight, to tell you how proud I am to be an Arab American, and to tell you why I’m proud to be an Arab American.
In 1895, my grandmother and grandfather came to this country from what was then Syria, which is now Lebanon. Like so many other immigrants, they never spoke a word of English. They came here with the idea that they could find a better future for themselves. They came here with the idea that, if they worked hard and played by the rules, they would be successful. I don’t know that they said that. But I know that’s how they felt.
I knew my grandparents when I grew up in Peoria. People wonder why my grandparents came to Peoria. The only thing that we can figure out is that, when they came through Ellis Island, they didn’t particularly like New York. And the train stopped in Peoria. I mean, we can’t think of any other reason. Can you?
Now, in Peoria, we have a very large Lebanese population. We have our own Maronite Church, which we’re very proud of. We’re a very proud people.
We have our own Itoo Society. It’s named for Itoo, a very small village, which I have visited on a couple of occasions. It only has 200 inhabitants now. They have a beautiful church there. And when we visit, we always go to church – and people from many other villages come. A few little pieces of rubble are still there where my grandparents lived. It took them a long time to get to America. As I said, we’re very proud of that.
So, as we were growing up in Peoria, we were a very close knit family, like all of your families. What I’m talking about is also your story. It’s not just my story. It’s a story that any one of you could tell.
My father and mother and all of our families would get together on Sundays. We had some great Lebanese food. We would see all of our cousins. And we knew all of our own aunts and uncles. They were like our own parents.
And our grandparents – when our grandparents got sick, they moved in with us, they lived with us, they died in our home. We were the caregivers for our grandparents. We lived that great family value of taking care of one another.
Now, this is a story that any of you could be telling. But if you can imagine my grandparents coming back to America today and seeing their grandson as someone who started out as a teacher, which means I got a college degree, who went on to teach school, who then went on to be a U.S. Congressman, then went on to be a cabinet member in this administration – that would have been unheard of in their time. And what we’ve all done – what each of you has done – is we have stood on the shoulders of those who came before.
So our message is this: The success that we’ve had, we’ve only had it because of our grandparents and parents, who taught us about the importance of family, of family values, the importance of education, and the importance of playing by the rules.
They weren’t complicated people. They didn’t lead complicated lives. They believed in God. They believed in family. They believed in playing by the rules. That’s your story and that’s my story.
My father never graduated high school. After two years of high school, he took over my grandfather’s restaurant and bar, which I worked in when I was growing up in Peoria. But he knew the value of education. He knew the value of playing by the rules. And he knew the value of family. That’s what I learned from my parents and my grandparents, just as you learned from yours.
So, as we look around America – and I travel around America a lot; in this job, I have been to 100 cities and 40 states – Arab Americans are proud of Ray LaHood. But I wouldn’t be what I am today without the community that I grew up in – without the values that I learned from my parents and grandparents.
So, all of you, I guarantee you this: Your parents and grandparents, who came here, you stand on their shoulders. You learned from them the value of work, playing by the rules, faith in God.
And so as you continue to be mentors for your own children and your own families – as you continue to encourage people in the profession of law, or engineering, or business – what you’re doing is building on the foundation of those who came before, of those who made America great.
Arab Americans have made America a great country. You should never run away from that. You should never be ashamed of it. We should be proud of it.
Now, I was in Congress for fourteen years. I went to Lebanon every year for fourteen years because I’m a proud Lebanese. And I wanted the people of Lebanon to know there was someone in Washington looking out after their interests.
I’ve been in this job for two years. Last year, the president asked me to go and represent his administration as the elections were going on – the fairest elections that I’ve ever seen in the country.
I love Lebanon. It’s the hospitality capital of the world, bar none. It is. And, by the way, they have very good food there too. It is the hospitality capital of the world.
So when I was in Congress, I looked out for Lebanon and I went there every year. This year I went and delivered the commencement address at Holy Spirit University Kaslik. You know how proud those people were to have someone like Ray LaHood come in as their commencement speaker – and how proud I was to go back where my grandparents came from, being able to give a commencement address about the value of education, the value of family, and the value of playing by the rules.
That’s what I talked about. That’s what I believe in. That’s why I believe we’ve been successful. And that’s why I believe we have made America the great country that it is, which we’re all very proud of.
So, that’s my message tonight. I wanted to just say a couple of other things. I’m sure you’re wondering how a Republican from Peoria could be in a Democratic administration. I want to tell you this story because it’s a story about President Obama.
When President Obama ran for the United States Senate and got elected, I had never met him, believe it or not. But a few days after he got elected, my cell phone rang in Peoria. “Ray,” he said, “this is Barack Obama.” I said “Congratulations. I’m sorry we never got together during the campaign.”
He said, “I’m coming to Peoria – and I’d like to sit down and walk with you about how we can work together for Illinois.” He came to Peoria. We met at the Congressional office. We met together for 90 minutes and we talked about how we could work together. And for two years, while he was a Senator and I was a Congressman, we worked together for Illinois – a Democrat and a Republican.
I tell you this story because this idea of bipartisanship and reaching out, on the part of the president, to try and get things done – it was not a political slogan. Otherwise, I don’t think he wouldn’t have reached out to me, a Republican congressman, if he didn’t believe in this idea of bipartisanship – that the way we solve our problems is when parties work together, when people work together.
I think it’s in the president’s DNA this bipartisanship. I’ve seen him, over these last twenty-some months of this administration, continue to reach out to Republicans, and I think he’ll do it again in order to solve our country’s problems.
So, I had announced my retirement from Congress after serving for fourteen years and decided to do something else – I wasn’t sure – and I ran into Senator Obama when he was running for president and stopped by the Capitol.
He said to me, “What are you going to do in retirement?” I said “I don’t know.” He said, “You know, if this whole presidential thing works out for me, we’re going to be looking for some republicans.”
Well, a few days after President Obama was elected, Rahm Emanuel, who’s also a friend of mine, called me and said “I’m going to become chief of staff and we’re going to be looking for Republicans. Are you interested?”
Now, I love public service. I’ve been doing it for thirty years. I believe in bipartisanship. When I went to Congress, I co-hosted four bipartisan retreats. I believe the only way we can solve our problems is when people of different parties come together because, you know what, that’s what the people want. People who serve on church boards and town boards and library boards, they look at Congress and say “Why can’t these people get along? We do.” They say “In America – in Chicago, in Peoria, everywhere else – we work together.”
And so, I went for an interview on a very cold day in December. It was just President-Elect Obama and me. I didn’t know if there would be six people in the room or sixty, but I showed up at the Kluczynski Building, we had a one hour meeting, and we talked about me serving in his cabinet. There was nothing phony about it. There was nothing political about it. The conversation was about a straightforward question: “How do we get good people to work in government to solve problems?”
The president, about a week later, offered me this job and I couldn’t pass it up. I served in Congress for fourteen years. I was a Congressional staffer for seventeen. I really wanted to do something else, but passing up the opportunity to have a front row seat on watching history? As someone who had been in public service for thirty years, I couldn’t pass it up. I have a front row seat on watching history. And I have a front row seat on maybe making a little history too.
What I tell people is: I’m very proud to be a Republican in President Obama’s administration. But I’m even prouder to be the only Lebanese – the only Arab American – in the president’s cabinet. And that speaks well for the president too. I don’t shy away from it. I talk about it. I think it’s important because I can become a mentor for others.
We’ve had a wonderful twenty-plus months with President Obama. We’ve worked hard. Transportation is very bipartisan. I tell people, there are no Democratic or Republican roads or bridges. Everybody’s for them. Everyone wants good roads and good bridges.
So, as I said, we’ve traveled the country. We’ve worked with Republicans and Democrats – members of Congress, mayors. I’m going to meet with Mayor Daley next Monday to announce some very significant opportunities at O’Hare. We don’t look at party labels. We look at trying to get something down for our country – for the community.
That’s what I was taught. That’s what I learned, growing up in Peoria, from my grandparents and my parents: Hard work. Play by the rules. Faith in God.
It’s not complicated. That’s what you all do every day. That’s why this organization has survived 20 years. That’s why it’s grown – because you believe in one another.
You’re very professional about it. You go about your business. And you contribute. You contribute to the community, to the churches that you go to, to the synagogues that you go to, to the mosques that you go to, and you make a difference.
I could not be anyplace tonight except for here to say congratulations to all of you for what you do for this great city, for what you’ve done with this organization, but – most importantly – for what you’ve done to continue the legacy that our parents and grandparents taught.
You do it so that your children can stand on your shoulders and be proud of what you do, as you have been proud of what your parents and grandparents have done.
Don’t shy away from it. Stand up for it. We’re strong. Arab Americans are strong. And we’ll continue to be strong if we stand up for the values that our parents and grandparents taught us: Work hard. Play by the rules. Have faith in God. It’s not complicated. I’m delighted to be with you all. Thank you very much.