Remarks Prepared for Delivery by U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao For Secretary of Labor Portrait Unveiling Ceremony

December 11, 2008

Thank you, Howard. And thank you to the Color Guard, the National Guard Band, Kenny [Ray Horton, Musician First Class, U.S. Navy Band], Jedd [Medefind, Acting Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the White House who previously served as the Director of the Department’s Faith-Based Office] and Mike [Connors, Presidential Rank Award recipient from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration who led the Pledge of Allegiance].

There are so many special guests here today, that it is difficult to know where to begin!

First, let me introduce my husband, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the United States Senate. Mitch is the love of my life. More about him later.

I’d like to thank Senator Hatch for his kind remarks. Thanks also to Senators Mike Enzi, Johnny Isakson, Elizabeth Dole and Congressman Roy Blunt for joining us today, and to Senator Ted Kennedy for his gracious letter.

Let me also thank President Chuck Canterbury and President Mike Sacco, two strong leaders who are fierce advocates for their members.

It’s great to see Secretary of Agriculture Edward Schafer, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, former HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, White House Counsel Fred Fielding, Chief of Staff to the First Lady Anita McBride, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joel Kaplan, Deputy Secretaries of OMB, Transportation and Commerce: Clay Johnson, Admiral Thomas J. Barrett and John J. Sullivan, former OMB Director Rob Portman, former U. S. Ambassador to Finland Marilyn Ware and former Deputy Secretary of Labor Steven Law.

We’re also so pleased to see Ambassador Chan Heng-Chee of Singapore, Ambassador Lee Tae-Sik of South Korea, Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki of Japan and Deputy Chief of Mission Minister Xie of China for joining us today.

Let me also acknowledge Mr. Chen Yanning, the artist whose work we unveil today, and his family.

Finally, let me also introduce my father, Dr. James S.C. Chao, and the other members of my family who are with us today, my sisters: May Chao, Christine Chao, and Angela Chao and my brothers-in-law: Jeff Hwang, Jos Shaver, and my nephews: Ben and Tyler. My uncle James Chu and aunt Bess Tieh.

Thank you all so much for being here today.

As you know, the portraits of the past Secretaries of Labor are hung in this Great Hall that we are gathered in today. Each portrayal is a painted biography. Each portrait depicts the elements that have influenced the lives, character and careers of previous Secretaries of Labor.

So, let me describe the elements in my portrait. First, you will see two flags to my right: the American flag and the Kentucky state flag. The American flag stands for the land of opportunity. The Kentucky flag represents my beloved adopted Commonwealth. I am thankful to President George W. Bush for appointing me as the first Kentuckian in over half a century to serve in a President’s cabinet.

In the background, outside my office picture window, you can see the outline of the U. S. Capitol. The Capitol is important not only because it is a beautiful building and is the place where my husband works. It also symbolizes an essential branch of government in our Republic.

On the credenza, there is a photo of my husband who commands not only my love but my respect for his integrity, character, and strength. The other photograph is of my parents, James and Ruth Chao, who brought me not only into this world but to this country when I was eight years old, not speaking a word of English, in order to find better opportunities. Their determination, hard work, sacrifices, courage, and boundless optimism in the promise of America are the foundation of all that my sisters and I are today.

The President gave me the unprecedented opportunity to serve a full eight years as U.S. Secretary of Labor, and my colleagues and I have made the most of this great gift. As the first U.S. Secretary of Labor in the 21st century, I have urged the Department to use each and every day to strengthen the competitiveness of America’s workforce in a globalized economy.

During the past eight years, our country has faced unprecedented challenges that called for sustained leadership at every level of the Department. And the career and non-career professionals rose to the occasion every time, above and beyond the call of duty. Howard mentioned a few of our accomplishments in his remarks. Let me mention a few of the other major milestones that we have achieved together

Foremost is the Department’s tremendous response to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and other national emergencies. Billions of dollars in assistance were delivered in record time to help the victims of these tragedies rebuild their lives. Health and safety inspectors volunteered for assignments in difficult and dangerous conditions such as Ground Zero.

Our Mine Rescue teams saved lives through heroic rescue efforts at Quecreek. And some made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives trying to save miners at other venues. They are among the best our country has to offer.

I am also proud of the success the Department had in promoting and protecting the reemployment rights of our nation’s soldiers fighting the war on terror.

These are just a few of the milestones we have achieved together on behalf of America’s workforce. There are so many more: leveling the playing field for faith-based organizations, dispersing billions of dollars to compensate the nation’s energy workers exposed to radiation, combating immigration fraud, modernizing the labor certification process, and helping to end the West Coast Ports labor impasse in 2002, and many, many more. The credit for all of these accomplishments rests with the career and non-career professionals with whom I have worked over the past eight years.

To my colleagues at the Department, thank you for everything that you do, everyday, to make our communities and our country better, safer and stronger.

As a little girl growing up in a new country, it was hard to imagine that I would be where I am today.

My father, Dr. James S. C. Chao, and mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, are Americans of Chinese descent. They grew up in 20th Century China, which was buffeted with domestic turmoil, natural disasters, foreign invasions, instability, and insecurity.

When my mother was seven months pregnant with my third sister, May, my father had an opportunity to come to the United States. He had scored number one in the national examinations, was written up in the newspapers, and offered the opportunity to study in America. My mother never hesitated — she urged him to go to seek better opportunities for the family.

My father was separated from us for three long years. When he finally saved enough money to send for his family, the only fare he could afford for us was aboard a cargo ship. So, my mother, two sisters, and I sailed for nearly a month over a sea journey of more than 11,000 nautical miles to reach America!

Needless to say, our initial years in America were very challenging. Our little family of five lived in a small one-bedroom apartment. My father worked three jobs to support us. Our family had no family or friends in America. Everything was foreign to us: the culture, people, language, traditions, and even the food. Through the grace of God, the determination and eternal optimism of my parents, we survived and, yes indeed, thrived in this new country.

Eight years ago, my mother was with us when I arrived at the Department. Last year, the Lord called her home. She was the rock of our family and is forever in our hearts. We also remember my sister, Jeanette, who also left us this year.

We are grateful to God and to America for all that we have been given. I am grateful for the honor of being able to serve the country that has given my family and me so much.

God bless you. And God bless America.
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