Remarks by Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England
Texas Christian University Commencement
December 15, 2007
Fort Worth, Texas
Chancellor Victor Boschini … or, as the students affectionately know you, “V-Bo”, thank you for that very kind introduction and for your leadership and vision. Under your wise stewardship, Texas Christian continues to thrive and set the standard for excellence. We alums are most grateful.
The invitation to speak today is especially appreciated since TCU is located in the great state of Texas and outside the Beltway around Washington, DC. My theory is that every day outside the Beltway adds a week to my life, and if that day happens to be in Texas, then it adds an entire month. I have been out of Washington and in Texas for less than 24 hours, and I am already feeling younger!
Washington, DC has been described as 25 square miles surrounded by reality, and there’s no place more real than Fort Worth, the heartland of Texas … my home town … and TCU … my alma mater.
My warm thanks to the distinguished faculty and staff for your dedicated efforts to mentor our best and brightest. I’ve always believed that a leader’s true success is revealed in the achievement of those he leads. Looking out across this room, it’s evident that your efforts have been richly rewarded. It is also evident – with no disrespect whatsoever to my esteemed classmates – that the competition has grown stiffer since I was here. As Will Rogers observed, “The schools ain’t what they used to be … and never was.”
Let me first congratulate each of the graduates here today for your great achievement. You are now officially ready for the real world.
I also want to extend my congratulations to the proud families here today. I’m sure many of you are struggling with some unfamiliar emotions.
My wife, Dotty, and I are old pros at this. We’ve watched three children graduate, to include a daughter here at TCU, so we know exactly what you’re feeling. It’s called relief! You’ve … literally … earned it … so, enjoy the day.
Graduates, thank you for asking me to be a part of what is one of the most important days in your lives – when you walk across this stage and leave with a piece of paper that says, “I did it.” You did do something extraordinary. You pursued a path of intellectual rigor, tested your limits, and reached the goal you set for yourself.
Each of you has earned a pat on the back today – maybe more than one. But, unfortunately, in this otherwise joyful season, I have bad tidings for you. This celebration will soon be over … and when the sun rises tomorrow the world is going to be right there in your face asking, “Yeah, well what have you done for me lately?”
The world outside is extraordinarily competitive and fluid -- strategic and technical shocks are the norm. It will belong to the best prepared, to the most motivated, to the most determined, to the toughest and, importantly, to those who can shake off failure and still persevere in their life’s calling. TCU did its part – it prepared you well, now the rest is up to you.
My generation was blessed, and your generation is even more blessed, with greater opportunity than at any time before. Most of you have never faced your own mortality in the violence of war, or gone hungry, or severely suffered through a cold winter or lived under the suffocating weight of a repressive regime. Hopefully, most of you have also never known real poverty – except perhaps to pay off tuition bills!
Your lives, for the most part, have been a gift. So on this day, when you cross an important threshold in your life, you need to ask yourself: “How do I repay this gift? Am I going to make the world a better place … or simply take up space?”
As you set off on the next leg of your life’s journey, there are two things that I’ve learned in the course of my life that I want you to know. I know that’s a pretty short list for someone who’s lived as long as I have … but I’ll be delighted … outright ecstatic … if you remember just one.
When my brother, sister and I were growing up, my Mom had just one rule for us. As children, my Mom let us do anything we wanted … we had no long list of rules … only one: We could do anything we wanted … as long as we never did anything to embarrass her. Now that’s a high standard: Don’t embarrass your Mom! My Mom and brother are long dead, but my sister and I still daily feel the weight of this obligation everyday.
l learned early that ethics are the foundation of everything you are going to do in life. TCU’s got it right – right in its mission statement, “To educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community.”
President Eisenhower expressed it well, “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible.”
My point is that there’s no checklist for ethics … no set of rules you can post on the wall by which to make decisions. In the real world, “rules” don’t work – you must rely on your conscience … your own moral compass … Mom’s rule.
I was once asked by a high school student, “What do you do when you have an ethical dilemma?” My answer was simple – I’ve never had an ethical dilemma. If something’s a dilemma … in the grey area – then you already know the answer.
In my experience, the failure of many institutions and especially nations … is rooted in ethical failure and can be traced directly to corruption of one form or another. Its influence is insidious and corrosive. It eats away at the foundation … destroying the balance … and, in the end, it brings the whole house down.
In President Bush’s Second Inaugural Address, he said:
“In America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character – on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self.”
Which leads me to my second message. This is an age of great promise … and of great danger; an age when freedom and liberty can be expanded ... and in a time of deadly global terror. It is an historic moment for our nation and, to be frank, one that may well demand far more of you as Americans, and as citizens of the international community, than was ever asked of your parents.
For 230 years, generations before you have shouldered the responsibility of serving this country, in ways large and small, to preserve the liberties and freedoms that we all enjoy today. This mantle of responsibility has now been passed to your generation.
America’s fundamental belief is freedom for our citizens – and for all people around the world. We’ve learned through the passage of time that, by contributing to the global cause of freedom, we better secure our own freedoms. As a Nation, we are willing to sacrifice our blood and treasure for our founding belief – freedom for all … and freedom, by definition … should know no boundaries.
President Bush has expressed our responsibility this way, “The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country. We believe that liberty is the design of nature; we believe that liberty is the direction of history. We believe that human fulfillment and excellence come in the responsible exercise of liberty. And we believe that freedom – the freedom we prize – is not for us alone, it is the right and capacity of all mankind.”
But, while freedom is every person’s inalienable right ... it is not a natural state. Freedom is like a sand castle at the surf’s edge ... precarious in its existence … subject to the effects of wind and tide … and always in imminent danger of being washed away. Every facet is vulnerable … assembly, religion, speech, education. The clear lesson of this country’s experience is that we must diligently defend freedom each and every day. It’s hard work and never-ending.
As President Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We don’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
It’s a tall order … and a task that no nation can achieve alone. No nation is so big that it can defend freedom alone … and no nation is too small to contribute … and every civilized nation has a responsibility to stand up for people suffering under oppression.
History is an imperfect teacher, but in this case, I think the lesson is clear … and encouraging. The passing generations of Americans have been united by the shared commitment to the fundamental values of our nation.
Our success across history has been the product of national unity, firm resolve, and steadfast purpose. In the early days of the Cold War, President Truman and Congress rarely saw eye to eye, but they found common cause and forged a national security consensus. It wasn’t a question of being a Democrat or a Republican, or a liberal or a conservative – America’s leaders came together to defend freedom in its hour of need.
The need is even greater today for a shared, fundamental commitment to protect and defend freedom and liberty. This is not the time for America to retreat from the world. The greater the freedom enjoyed by other countries, the more secure our own nation, and the world, will be. This is a time for America’s firm, consistent vision and leadership – as well as the equal commitment of our international partners.
We are the fortunate beneficiaries of the diligence and sacrifice of those who have come before us. We now have the same obligation to our children and grandchildren.
In his Inaugural address, President Kennedy said, “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.”
As I speak, dedicated men and women, uniformed and civilian, go about the nation’s vital, difficult work in far-flung, distant lands and here at home … because the struggle in which we’re engaged is far bigger than Iraq or Afghanistan. The challenges confronting us are not restricted to those places. The defense of freedom takes many forms … and includes, prominently, the good work everyday by committed citizens in every community across the land.
Because of who you are … as evidenced by your achievement at this distinguished university and by virtue of your tremendous potential … you are uniquely qualified to contribute to the fight for freedom and, through your actions , to sustain this nation … and, in so doing … to make our world a better place.
So, in conclusion, remember who we are as a nation and what we stand for. Contribute to the greater good. Set the example for your countrymen. Let your conduct define you and your generation. Seize the opportunity before you and lead your neighbors, communities, this nation and the whole world forward to a time and place where freedom and its fruits are truly universal.
Churchill said, “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” You need to do some getting … you’ve earned it … but don’t forget the giving … make a life for yourself by giving to your country and to the world.
And never forget that democracy and its foundation of freedom cannot survive without the dedicated stewardship of highly ethical leaders across the entire spectrum of public and private activities. Therefore, no matter what you choose to do in your careers, you absolutely must commit yourself to high ethical standards every time, with everyone and in every situation. There are no exceptions, and there are no compromises. Never, ever embarrass your Mom.
Graduates, congratulations. God Bless each one of you, this great institution and great nation and may God especially bless all those who stand the watch every day to preserve our freedoms. Go Frogs!