American University School of Communication
May 7, 2011
Distinguished guests, graduates, members of the faculty and administration, proud parents and grandparents, surprised brothers and sisters who never dreamed your older siblings were actually this smart, it's great to be at American University.
I begin this talk with the advice given to me by Helen Thomas, the first reporter I met when I came to Washington 41 years ago. The year was 1975, Helen and I were White House correspondents covering Gerald Ford and one day, the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, came to the White House to brief us. The press secretary told us Kissinger was very busy and could spare only 20 minutes, not a minute more.
But Kissinger, ever the ham, said, "being a college professor my lectures are timed to 40 minutes and I'm not sure I could do it in 20 minutes..."
Helen on the front row, without missing a beat, responded, "Then start at the end."
So I begin at the end, to the class of 2011—that dogged group who thought this day would never come, I say, "Congratulations, this is your day. You earned it. No one can take it away from you—so celebrate it."
Graduation is my favorite holiday because it holds special and sometimes very different meaning for all who attend: parents and grandparents, graduates and faculty, and even one who is honored to be asked to speak.
As the proud parent of two college graduates, I once sat where your parents sit today and I can tell you exactly how I felt that day. I felt I had been given a substantial pay raise. It is a good feeling all around, isn't it? Just one bit of advice to the parents here: You have made a substantial investment in your sons and daughters. Now try to stay on good terms with them, because, and remember this always, they are the ones who choose the nursing home.
While I am truly honored to be here, I have a confession. A graduation speech is not hard to make because there is really no pressure on the speaker and the reason why is that no one ever remembers anything said by a graduation speaker. I can't even remember who spoke at my graduation. There is a reason for that. Graduation is not about what someone says. it is about what you have done, and that is as it should be.
You won't remember what is said here, but you will always remember this day and how you felt. Graduation Day is one of life's cross roads. For nearly all of your life you have been a student. For the last four years, a student at AU. But today all that changes. From this day forward, you are no longer a student. You are a graduate of the American University. It does have a nice ring, doesn't it?
Which brings us to the next part. Now what? I wouldn't be honest if I told you that it's going to be easy to find a job. Many of you are going into some part of the field of communications, and I don't have to tell you, we are in the midst of a communications revolution that is moving at warp speed.
Newspapers are failing not for journalistic reasons but for economic reasons. The big question is not really whether newspapers can continue to be printed on paper. Frankly, no one knows. The technology will decide whether we get newspapers on the iPad or over our wristwatch or on paper. The larger and more important question is can they find sources of revenue to support the staffing that is required to produce the kind of product that we have come to expect from the main stream media, and that is basically that we don't publish or broadcast anything until we have made every effort to determine it is true. That takes editors. That takes reporters that still hew to the standards we now expect from the mainstream media.
So if you are headed into journalism, I cannot tell you where you'll be working—a Web site, cable, broadcast news, or a newspaper. But I know this: There will always be a need for accurate, independently gathered information. You cannot have a democracy without it. The difference in a totalitarian society and a democracy is that in a totalitarian society, there is only one source of news: the government. In a democracy, a free press gives its citizens a second choice, independently gathered information that a citizen can compare to the government's version and decide which version to believe. If there were no other reason for a free press that is reason enough.
So when people ask me, “Will there be a need for journalists?” I say, “Yes.” Because without independently gathered information, you can't have a democracy. It is as vital to a democracy as our right to vote. As for where that job is, I can't say, but I know you have to find it. It won't come looking for you.
Your graduation comes at the end of a very good week in American history, and I want to talk about that a little. We have become a society that puts an emphasis on speed—fast food and with the coming of the 24/7 news cycle, the 15-second commercial, and then Twitter and all that, which I am sad to say may have turned us into a people with limited attention spans, and, too often I am afraid, an impatient people.
Whatever it is, we want it now, and that's fine. Speed is of the essence many times. But being able to do something quickly, is not the foundation on which our country is built.
What has made our country strong is our resolve, our courage, our ability to set a goal and never, ever give up. When the terrorists attacked this country, they thought we didn’t have the stomach. It has been nearly ten years since Osama bin Laden engineered the worst attack in history on our homeland. But we finally got him and brought him to justice. We never wavered. We never gave up. We set out to find him, and we did, and we can all be proud of that. That is a powerful message to the world.
I was there. I saw it unfold. 9/11 is engraved in my memory, but for all those memories, it is the day after 9/11 that I remember most, because on that day, we saw remarkable things. I covered Congress in those days, and as I drove to the capital it dawned on me there was no road rage. People honked. They waved. We had all been through that awful thing together. Congress had been in a row about something, but that day, whatever the argument had been about, it seemed meaningless. The senate and congress passed a 40 billion dollar emergency appropriations bill and passed it unanimously.
People said the country had come together as it had never come together, but I knew better, because I had been a child during World War II, and I had seen this country come together to rid the world of Nazism, the most evil force the world has ever known. My parents’ generation came together, because they had to. They knew that unless we defeated this awful thing, the world was on the edge of a dark new age. My parents’ generation recognized that, and they got it done.
Sadly, within months after 9/11 we somehow let that feeling of unity slip away, and we find ourselves now in a Washington that, in recent months, has been more partisan and just meaner than anytime I can recall in my 42 years in Washington. Which brings me to this: Since the successful conclusion of the mission to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, I sense a revival of the spirit of togetherness that we all felt after 9/11. If our leaders can seize this moment, I believe they can use it as a way to come together and get Washington running again in a way that can make us all proud.
We have done it before. We can do it again. They and we must at least try. You face a difficult and complicated world, but the thing to remember is we have had complications before.
And we must remember something else. For all its wonders, we can never take America for granted. It must be nourished and defended still as my parents nourished and defended it for my generation. We do that first by remembering where our true strength lies, by remembering that it is not our weapons but our values that are the core of our real strength, the foundation upon which all else rests, the values that you were taught here, the values that my parents instilled in me and your parents passed on to you.
America leads best when it leads by example. Hubert Humphrey famously remarked that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was the most effective foreign policy achievement of the last half of the 20th Century, not because it had anything to do with foreign policy, but because it told the world what kind of people we were, how we treated one another, and how we were willing to correct wrongs, no matter how long in what place or how difficult. And, that our way works.
During the Cold War we built the greatest arsenal of weapons the world has ever known, and that arsenal kept the Soviet Union at bay, but it was not the weapons that won the war. The war was won when the people east of the Iron Curtain looked across and saw that the people on the other side had a better way of life, and that it was a life their form of government was incapable of giving them. They didn't want guns and rockets and tanks. They wanted washing machines and televisions and good schools, and when they saw that—and there are no secrets in the television age—the walls came down and communism collapsed. Our greatest security comes when people have a good understanding of who we are. We must always practice what we preach.
America is and always has been about fairness, family and taking care of one another even when it wasn't easy. Remember always what Ed Murrow used to say: "We are not descended from fearful people. Those who came here were optimists who were not afraid to cross an ocean, and once they got here not afraid to cross a great continent in covered wagons for no other reason than to find a better life for their children. That is who we are, and as long as you remember that, you will be alright, and this country will remain secure."
Do your best, and set your expectations high, and remember always, true greatness comes not from the battles we win, but the battles we choose to fight.
I thank you. The world needs you. May God bless you.