Seal of the Department of Defense U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
On the Web:
Media contact: +1 (703) 697-5131/697-5132
Public contact:
or +1 (703) 571-3343

University of Washington Commencement
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Seattle, Washington, Saturday, June 13, 2009

          President Emmert, Mr. Cole, members of the faculty and the Board of Regents – thank you for the distinction you have conferred upon me. I am deeply honored.
          One thing I should get out the way, particularly in this of all cities, is to clear up any case of mistaken identity. Several times over the past couple of months I’ve been introduced as “Bill or William Gates” – by everyone from a Marine sergeant major in Afghanistan to the president of the United States. So, for all I know, that’s who you were expecting today – perhaps with some fundraising in mind. Sorry to disappoint, though I do have plenty of jobs to offer. I do know that the William Gates family was honored here at the beginning of the year, so perhaps my presence is a fitting bookend.
          It is a special and great pleasure to be with you today – especially since it gives me an excuse to get away from the other Washington – a town whose self-regard can reach near-biblical proportions. There’s an old saying about Washington, D.C.: for your first six months you wonder how the hell you ever got there; then you spend the next six months wondering how the hell everybody else got there. I discovered this just over 40 years ago.
          This corner of the country has become a very special place for me and my family. I’ve been coming to Washington state ever since marrying my wife Becky here in Seattle in 1967. She grew up not too far from here. There is a spirited “Washington–Washington State” rivalry among my in-laws, which I wisely stay away from. I get more than enough conflict at my day job. Friends and family members – a special thanks for the love and support you have given to these young people over many years. Parents, I know you are swelling with pride at the achievements of your children. Having put a son and a daughter through college myself, I know you are also breathing a sigh of relief – and maybe already planning on how to spend your newly re-acquired disposable income. Forget about it. Trust me on this – if you think you’ve written your last check to your graduate, dream on. The National Bank of Mom and Dad is still open.
          And to the Class of 2009: Congratulations on this great achievement!
          I guess today, as you finish one chapter in your life and move on to the next, I am supposed to give you some advice on how to succeed. I could quote the billionaire J. Paul Getty, who offered sage wisdom on how to get rich. He said, “Rise early, work late, strike oil.” Or, Alfred Hitchcock, who explained, “There’s nothing to winning really. That is if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever.”
          Well, instead of those messages, my only words of advice for success today come from two great women. First, opera star Beverly Sills, who said: “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” And according to Katharine Hepburn: “Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting. And you don’t do that by sitting around wondering about yourself.”
          In 39 commencements at Texas A&M, I learned the importance of brevity for a speaker. I will speak quickly, because, to paraphrase President Lincoln, I have no doubt you will little note nor long remember what is said here. I also know that I am an obstacle between you and a great party.
          Perhaps it is heretical to say, but the truth of the matter is that, in life, there really are no tricks or shortcuts – or straight lines. In fact, it’s often those times when you think you know exactly what you’re doing that a new opportunity comes along and disrupts all your well-laid plans. I have a lot of experience with this – as recently as after the national elections in 2006 and again in 2008.
          But, it will happen all through your life. When I started college in 1961, I wanted to be a doctor – a career choice that lasted only until the end of my first semester, when I received a “D” in calculus. My father called long-distance call to ask about the “D.” I said, “Dad, the ‘D’ was a gift.”
          Even if there are no straight courses in life, you will nonetheless need to have some anchor points – a set of inner values or higher purposes to guide you. As you graduate today, I encourage you to discover for yourself what it is that drives you. But I also ask you to consider spending at least part of your life in public service. You will have the chance to learn and see things that will make you a better person and a better citizen. You will have a chance to work on issues of great importance to our nation and to the world. And you will have a chance to give back to the country that has already given you so much. No life is complete without service to others.
          I know it may be somewhat redundant to deliver this message here – at a school with such a distinguished record of service. Year in and year out, as noted earlier, this university sends the highest number of graduates in the nation into the Peace Corps. And, 64 members of your class are becoming new lieutenants and ensigns in the United States Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Army – following in the long line of University of Washington grads who proved their valor on the battlefield. Indeed, this university boasts a remarkable seven recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor – tied with Virginia Tech and the university I led for four and a half years, Texas A&M, for the most Medal of Honor recipients of any civilian American university.
          I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all ROTC cadets and midshipmen on campus, University of Washington graduates currently serving, and especially the veterans who are pursuing their education – some of whom are graduating today. You have served your nation honorably, and your nation is proud of and grateful for what you have done.
          The students at this institution and others around the nation are as decent, generous, and compassionate as we’ve ever had in this country. Millions of young people all across the country donate countless hours to volunteer organizations, community service, and public-spirited foundations. I know many of you were active in the 2008 presidential campaign.
But even in last year’s election, with all the challenges facing our nation – two wars, a meltdown on Wall Street and an economy in free-fall – not even half of eligible voters in the college-age bracket cast a ballot. So, I worry – and I worry greatly – that too many of our brightest young Americans, so public-minded in campus and community affairs, turn aside when it comes to our political process or careers in public service.
          I entered public life 43 years ago, and no one is more familiar with its hassles, frustrations, and sacrifices than I am. Certainly the challenges are daunting, and the current state of our politics isn’t exactly the best marketing scheme for attracting new talent. The pay and working conditions can be difficult. Government is, by design of the Founding Fathers, slow, unwieldy, and almost comically inefficient. Will Rogers used to say: “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”
          And all too often, in the public spotlight, the main reward of your labors is criticism, more criticism, and maybe a dash of character assassination thrown in for good measure.
We shouldn’t delude ourselves: Political life has always been a rough business in this country. Ben Franklin once observed that the public is apt to praise you today, crying out “Hosanna,” and tomorrow cry out, “crucify him.” One of Thomas Jefferson’s critics said it would have been advantageous to his reputation if his head had been cut off five minutes before he began his inauguration address. John Adams was called a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” They just don’t talk like that anymore.
          But, there is another aspect to public service about which Americans hear very little: the idealism, the joy, and the satisfaction and fulfillment.
          It was at CIA, throughout the long years of the Cold War, that I first had a chance to observe public servants at all levels, in various agencies and departments, from administrative assistants to great statesmen. And after dealing with governments all over the world, I came to believe Americans have the most dedicated, capable, and honest public servants anywhere. I’ve worked for eight presidents, and worked in the White House under four. I have seen, in political appointees and career civil servants alike, an extraordinary number of people of the highest quality acting with steadfast integrity and love of this country and what it stands for.
          Millions of other Americans have chosen careers in civic service, electing to work for their fellow citizens in the belief they can help make this country and the world a better place: policemen; firemen; teachers; nurses; elected and appointed local, state, and national officials; and many, many others.
          And of course, there are the more than two million troops in the active and reserve armed forces – men and women who have chosen this course with the knowledge they will likely be sent to a combat zone. They are risking their lives in service to our country every day, fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan to the streets of Iraq. Their courage is awesome, their tenacity boundless. As junior Michael Beatty – an Iraq Army vet and co-founder of Husky United Military Veterans put it: “If you don’t do your job, your brother is going to pay for it with his blood.” That spirit is the reason these extraordinary men and women have rightfully been called the new “greatest generation.”
          Each person in public service has his or her own story and motives. But I believe, if you scratch deeply enough, you will find that those who serve – no matter how outwardly tough or jaded or egotistical – are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists. And optimists. We actually believe we can make a difference, that we can make the lives of others better, that we can make a positive difference in the life of this country and the world.
          A few final thoughts. For almost a decade now, our country has been at war. In the last year, we have seen incredible economic turbulence – and, along with it, suffering by many of our fellow Americans. Add to this other mounting challenges international in scope – from global terrorism to ethnic conflicts, rogue nations, rising powers, climate change, pandemics, and more.
          These are no ordinary times – and they are certainly not for the faint of heart. But I am reminded of a letter from Abigail Adams to her son John Quincy Adams. She wrote him: “These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. . . . Great necessities call out great virtues.” 

          We live in a time of great necessities, and we must come to grips with a very old truth: As individuals, the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy are permanent. And as a nation, we cannot escape the long-term burdens, responsibilities, and costs of global citizenship and global leadership.
          If, in the 21st century, America is to be a force for good in the world – for freedom, social justice, the rule of law, and the inherent value of each person; if America is to be a beacon to all who are oppressed; if America is to exercise leadership consistent with our better angels, then the most able and idealistic of today’s young people must step forward and accept the burden and the duty of public service. As President Obama said, you must “put your foot firmly into the current of history.”
          When I was a college student at another time of great necessities, I heard a different president beckon to service Americans young and old with words that still ring true. President Kennedy said, “Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation,’ a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”
          These common enemies are with us still, enduring and stubborn barriers to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for too many. Public service still calls for the best among us to do battle with those common enemies of humanity about which President Kennedy spoke.
          Preparedness to serve, devotion to one’s community and fellow citizens, caring beyond self – these are all fundamental to democracy. Our forebears understood this when they risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to establish a new nation conceived in liberty.
But it is a lesson that must be refreshed in every generation by the best and brightest young Americans. It is a lesson that must be refreshed by you.
          John Adams wrote his son, Thomas Adams: “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or another. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.”
          Will the wise and the honest among you come help us serve the American people?
          Congratulations and Godspeed.