Here is something to make you feel patriotic. The bold sections were made by me.
May 21, 2001
Thank you. . . .Thank you distinguished faculty, families and friends, and thank you University of Pennsylvania Class of 2001. The invitation to give this commencement address is a great honor for someone who graduated fifth from the bottom in the United States Naval Academy Class of 1958. To stand here, in full academic regalia, and address an audience of distinguished academics and their learned students has reaffirmed my long held faith that in America anything is possible.
If my old company officer at the Academy were here, whose affection for midshipmen was sorely tested by my less than exemplary behavior, I fear he would decline to hold Penn in the high esteem that I do.
Nevertheless, I want to join in the chorus of congratulations to the Class of 2001. This is a day to luxuriate in praise. You have earned it. You have succeeded in a demanding course of instruction from an excellent university. Life seems full of promise. Such is always the case when a passage of life is marked by significant accomplishment. Today, it must surely seem as if the world attends you.
But spare a moment for those who have truly attended you so well and for so long, and whose pride in your accomplishments is even greater than your own – your parents. When the world was looking elsewhere, your parents’ attention was one of life’s certainties. And if tomorrow the world seems a little more indifferent as it awaits new achievements from you, your families will still be your most unstinting source of encouragement, counsel and often – since the world can be a little stingy at first – financial support.
So, as I commend the Class of 2001, I offer equal praise to your parents for the sacrifices they have made for you, and for their confidence in you and love. More than any other influence in your lives, they have helped make you the success you are today, and might become tomorrow.
I thought I would show my gratitude for the privilege of addressing you by keeping my remarks brief. I suspect that some of you might have other plans for the day that you would prefer to commence sooner rather than later, and I will try not to detain you too long.
It is difficult for commencement speakers to avoid resorting to cliches on these occasions. Or at least, I find it difficult. Given the great number of commencement addresses that are delivered every year by men and women of greater distinction, greater insights and greater eloquence than I possess, originality proves to be an elusive quality.
One cliché that seems to insist on my attention is the salutation “leaders of tomorrow,” which is probably uttered hundreds of times by speakers addressing graduating classes from junior high schools to universities. In a general sense, it is an obvious truth. You and your generational cohorts, after all, will be responsible for the future course of our civilization, and, given America’s profound influence in the world, much of the course of human events in your time. But will you specifically, with all the confidence and vitality that you claim today, assume the obligations of professional, community, national, or world leaders? I’ll be damned if I know.
I’m not clairvoyant, and I don’t know you personally. I don’t know what you will become. But I know what you could become. What you should become.
America is still a land of unlimited opportunities, and American citizenship confers advantages, no matter one’s socio-economic status, that are the envy of people from every other country on earth. Moreover, no matter the circumstances of your birth, the very fact that you have been blessed with a quality education from this prestigious university gives you an enormous advantage as you seek and begin your chosen occupations. Whatever course you choose, absent unforeseen misfortune, success should be within your reach. You are members of an elite, but, of course, this is a democracy, and leaders are not exclusively chosen from among our most advantaged citizens.
All of you will eventually face a choice, earlier in life than you might now presume about whether you will become leaders in our society, in commerce, industry, government, the arts, religion, the military, or any integral part of our civilization. Or will you allow others to assume that responsibility while you attempt to reap the blessings of a prosperous country without meaningfully contributing to its advancement. I very much hope you will take the first course.
Such responsibility, to be sure, is not always an unalloyed blessing to the person who chooses it. Leadership is both burden and privilege. But as Socrates contended “the unexamined life is not worth living,” so I contend that the passive life is not worth forgoing the deep satisfaction, the self –respect, that comes from employing all the blessings God bestowed on you to leaving the world better for your presence in it.
No one expects you at your age to know precisely how you will lead accomplished lives or use your talents in a cause greater than your self-interest. You have some time, I’m sure, before such choices and challenges confront you. Indeed, it has been my experience that such choices reveal themselves over time to every human being. They are seldom choices that arrive just once, are resolved at one time, and, thus, permanently fix the course of your life. Many of the most important choices one must make emerge slowly, sometimes obscurely. Often, they are choices that you must make again and again.
Once in a great while a person is confronted with a choice or a dilemma, the implications of which are so profound that its resolution might affect your life forever. But that happens rarely and to relatively few people. For most people, life is long enough, and varied enough to account for occasional mistakes and failures.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is often recalled for his observation that “there are no second acts in America.” It’s a pity that such a gifted writer is frequently remembered for this one observation, which in my opinion couldn’t have been more mistaken. There are a great many second, third and fourth acts for Americans in all walks of life. I have had two or three already, and some would say I should be looking for another right about now.
I can think of a great many people throughout our nation’s rich history whose lives refute Fitzgerald’s argument. Indeed, our history would not be so rich absent the presence of many thousands of politicians, generals, religious leaders, artists, businesspeople, inventors, scientists, who had gained historical prominence after failing, some times more than once, to make much of a mark in the world.
You might think that I am now going to advise you not to be afraid to fail. I’m not. Be afraid. Failing stinks. . . . Just don’t stop there. Don’t be undone by it. Move on. Failure is no more a permanent condition than is success. “Defeat is never fatal,” Winston Churchill observed. “Victory is never final. It’s courage that counts.”
As I observed earlier, few of you have reached the point when your parents and teachers expect you to have plotted your life in detail or even to have defined your ambitions. What they hope they have done is help develop within you the wherewithal to make the race; to choose well; to confront challenges intelligently and forthrightly; to overcome mistakes and failures in a way that diminishes the likelihood of your repeating them. In other words, all those who care about you and feel responsible for you hope they have done is helped you build the one thing you must possess – strength of character.
Bad people can occasionally do good things. Good people can occasionally do bad things. But those things are anomalies in a life that is defined by opposing acts. People of bad character will never reach the end of life satisfied with the experience. People of good character will never waste their life, whether they die in obscurity or renown.
“Character,” said the 19th Century evangelist, Dwight Moody, “is what you are in the dark.”
I have always found that the most difficult choices between honor and dishonor occur when no one is watching. For a politician that presents something of a dilemma. We like to have our virtue affirmed in the public spotlight. But no matter how clever you are in crafting a public image of integrity, if it is a false image, the truth will emerge and usually sooner than expected.
The lessons I learned as a young man and officer have sometimes helped me withstand the temptations of public life to cut a few corners here and there for the sake of ambition. And sometimes not. I wouldn’t want anyone here to be fooled into thinking that I am the example of rectitude I pretend to be to my children.
But events I have witnessed and the example of others have taught me that it is far preferable in one short lifetime to stick by truths that give more meaning to life than fame or fortune.
God grants us all the privilege of having our character and our honor tested. The tests come frequently, as often in peace as in war, as often in private as in public.
For me, many of those tests came in Vietnam. I knew no one who ever chose death over homecoming. But I knew some men who chose death over dishonor. The memory of them, of what they bore for us, helped me see the virtue in my own humility. It helped me understand that good character is self-respect, and courage and humility are its attributes.
Many years have passed since I learned that lesson. But I have not let the comforts and privileges of my present life obscure the memory of what I witnessed then. And in recent years when I have faced difficult decisions and chosen well, the choice was made easier by the memory of those who once made harder choices, and paid a much higher price for the privilege. And when I chose poorly, their example made me ashamed and left me no explanation for my failure other than my own weakness.
When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition, and that all glory was self-glory. My parents tried to teach me otherwise, as did the Naval Academy. But I didn’t understand the lesson until later in life, when I confronted challenges I never expected to face.
In that confrontation, I discovered that I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized, but that neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, they gave me a larger sense of myself than I had before. I discovered that nothing is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself; something that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone.
In America, our rights come before our duties, as well they should. We are a free people, and among our freedoms is the liberty to care or not care for our birthright. But those who claim their liberty but not their duty to the civilization that ensures it live a half-life, having indulged their self-interest at the cost of their self-respect. The richest man or woman possesses nothing of real value if their lives have no greater object than themselves.
Should we only claim our rights and leave to others our duty to the nation that protects them, whatever we gain for ourselves will be of little value, it will build no monuments to virtue, claim no place in the memory of posterity, hold no brief with aspiring nations. Success, wealth, celebrity gained and kept for private interest is a small thing. It makes us comfortable, eases the material hardships our children will bear, purchases a fleeting regard for our lives, yet not the self-respect that in the end will matter to you most. But sacrifice for a cause greater than self-interest and you invest your lives with the eminence of that cause.
We are not a perfect nation, a perfect union. Prosperity and power may delude us into thinking we have achieved that distinction, but inequities and challenges unforeseen a mere generation ago command every good citizen’s concern and labor. What we have achieved in our brief history is irrefutable proof that a nation conceived in an idea, in liberty, will prove stronger and more enduring than any nation ordered to exalt the few at the expense of the many or made from a common race or culture or to preserve traditions that have no greater attribute other than longevity.
As blessed as we are, as empowered by liberty as we are, no nation complacent in its greatness can long sustain it. We are an unfinished nation. And we are not a people of half-measures.
I ask you to take your place in the enterprise of renewal, giving your counsel, your labor, your passion in your time to the enduring task of national greatness. Prove again, as those who came before you proved, that a people free to act in their own interests will perceive their interests in an enlightened way, will live as one nation, in a kinship of ideals, and make of their power and wealth a civilization in which all people share in the promise of freedom.
Although you were born in the last century, you will spend most of your life in this one. You are 21st Century Americans. I am not. I don’t know how far humanity will progress in this century, but I expect great things, great things, indeed. I envy you so for the discoveries you will experience. Be worthy of your times and your advantages. Be worthy of your country. Serve a cause greater than yourselves and you’ll know a happiness far more sublime than pleasure.
Will you be tomorrow’s leaders? I don’t know. But I would be proud if you were. You are blessed. Your opportunity is at hand. Make the most of it.
Thank you for the honor of addressing you.