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Washington State University Commencement

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Pullman, WA, Saturday, May 07, 2011

Dean Epperson, thank you for that very kind introduction.  Members of the faculty, parents, distinguished guests.

It’s a special pleasure to be here with you today – especially since it gives me an excuse to get about as far away from the other Washington as one can get within the continental United States.  And as you may have read, I very soon plan on spending much more time in this corner of the world – a place that has become very special for me and my family. 

In fact, I’ve been coming to Washington state ever since marrying Becky in Seattle in 1967.  Not only did she grow up in western Washington, she’s also a graduate of this great institution.  I met Becky in1966, at Indiana University, where we were both graduate students.  We were also both resident assistants in the student dorms and we met on a blind date chaperoning a student hayride.  Yes, chaperoning.  A hayride.  It was a long time ago.  And when I asked her to marry me, I knew full well I was “marrying-up” to a WSU grad.

To friends, family members – and especially the moms, grandmothers and great grandmothers on this day before Mother’s Day – a special thanks for the love and support you have given to these young people over many years.  Parents, I know you must be welling up with pride at the achievements of your children – as I was, eight years ago, when I sat where you are and watched my son, Brad, Washington State class of 2003, receive his diploma. 

Having put two children through college, I know that there are many sighs of relief among the parents here, and you are probably already planning how to spend your newly re-acquired disposable income.  Forget it.  Trust me on this.  If you think you’ve written your last check to your son or daughter, dream on.  The National Bank of Mom and Dad is still open for business.

To the members of the class of 2011: Congratulations.  I am truly honored – and flattered – to be your graduation speaker.  In 39 commencements at Texas A&M, I learned the importance of brevity for a commencement speaker.  I will speak quickly, because, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, I have no doubt you will little note nor long remember what is said here.  I also observe that I am probably an obstacle between you and a great party.  And for many probably the continuation of a great party.

Iguess today I’m supposed to give you some advice on how to succeed in life.   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, film director 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 in fact come from two great women.  First, opera star Beverly Sills, who once said, “There are no short cuts to any place worth going.”  And second, from Katherine Hepburn, who wrote, “Life is to be lived.  If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well find some way that is going to be interesting.  And you don’t do that by sitting around wondering about yourself.” 

Graduates, as you finish one chapter in your life and prepare to move on to the next, I know that many of you must be looking ahead with some anxiety about what awaits you.  You may be concerned about getting a job in an economy with high unemployment, or more broadly, where our nation is headed and how we’ll compete in the 21st century.  You are graduating in challenging times – of that, there is no question.  For almost a decade now, our country has been at war. We are only just emerging from a period of wrenching economic turbulence, but with a huge budget deficit and a huge national debt.   No surprise then, that recent polls show a souring of the public mood, with many Americans pessimistic about the trajectory our country is on.

And yet, I can remember clearly other times in my life when pessimism was prevalent.  In 1957, when I was a freshman in high school, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and Americans feared being left behind in the space race and, even more worrisome, in the missile race.  After Vietnam, in the 1970s the nation entered another period of questioning its place in the world brought on by the angst over the war and the OPEC oil embargo and subsequent price shocks – with sky high inflation and equally high interest rates.  In the late 1980s, America’s growing fiscal and trade deficits led many to worry that we would soon be overtaken by Japan.  I lived through each of these periods of “declinism,” when many were convinced American was stuck in a downward spiral.  Yet, after meeting the many challenges we faced head on, our nation emerged from each of these periods stronger than before – and I’m convinced we will do so again. 

Indeed, today, as throughout our history, this country remains the world’s most powerful force for good – the ultimate protector of what Vaclav Havel once called “civilization’s thin veneer.”  A nation Lincoln described as mankind’s “last, best hope.”  The U.S. will remain, I’m convinced, the “indispensable nation,” and I am convinced that the country will be able to adapt and overcome once again as it has in the past.  

However, particularly in these times of fiscal constraint, we must come up with innovative solutions to the challenges facing America.  As the noted physicist Ernest Rutherford is reputed to have said: “We’ve got no money, so we’ve got to think.”  And, I would add, we’ve got to lead.  That is where you come in.  

Because it’s precisely during these trying times that America needs its best and brightest young people, from all walks of life, to step forward and bring their talents and fresh perspectives to bear on the challenges facing this country.  Because while the obligations of citizenship in any democracy are considerable, they are even more profound, and more demanding, as citizens of a nation with America’s global challenges and responsibilities – and America’s values and aspirations. 

As you graduate today, I encourage you to discover for yourself what it is that drives you, what course or career path engages your head and your heart and your passion, and then pursue it with all your energy and all your commitment.  But I also ask you to consider spending at least a part of your life in public service.  You will have a chance to give back to the community, the state or the country that have already given you so much. 

I understand that it can be disheartening to hear today’s often rancorous and even tawdry political discourse.  Too often those who chose public service are dismissed as bureaucrats or worse, and in many cases politicians run for office running down the very government they hope to lead.  Cynicism about the people and the institutions that govern and protect our country can be corrosive.  So I worry that too many of our brightest young Americans, so public-minded, so engaged in volunteer service, on campus and in their communities, turn aside when it comes to careers in public service.

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 gave his inauguration address.  

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 for four of them.  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.

Over this past decade, doing one’s duty has taken on a whole new meaning and required a whole new level of risk and sacrifice – with hundreds of thousands of young Americans in uniform who have volunteered to put their lives on the line to defend us – to set aside their dreams so you can enjoy your dreams.  They come from all over the United States and they join up knowing they will likely be sent to war. 

The ranks of these patriots include the graduates of Washington State’s ROTC program in this class of 2011.  Nineteen new officers will soon join the ranks of other “Cougars” serving with distinction, such as First Lieutenant Thomas Westphal, WSU class of 2009, who is currently deployed to Iraq where he advises and assists the Iraqi Army. 

I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all ROTC cadets and midshipmen on campus, and especially the veterans who are pursuing their education – you have my deepest admiration and respect – as Secretary of Defense, but mostly as a fellow American.  This school, the faculty, the administration and you students have done so much to recruit and embrace our military veterans returning home from America’s wars.  I’d like to recognize and thank your president, Elson Floyd, for helping this nation’s young military men and women realize the important goal of receiving a college education. 

To serve our country you don’t need to deploy to a war zone or Third World country or be buried in a windowless cube in a gothic structure by the Potomac River.  You don’t have to be a CIA spy or analyst or Navy SEAL who track down and bring to justice the most notorious terrorist in the world.  Whatever the job, working in the public sector at some level offers a chance to serve your fellow citizens as well as learn the inner workings of our government and build skills that will stand you in good stead in facing other challenges in your career and in your life. 

One of the great women of American history, Abigail Adams, wrote her son, John Quincy Adams, during the war of the American Revolution.  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” – a time when we cannot avoid the challenges of addressing our country’s domestic problems or the burdens of global leadership.  The stakes are unimaginably high.  It is now that America needs its best and brightest, from all walks of life, to come to the fore.  If, in the 21st century, America is to continue to be a force for good in the world – for freedom, justice, the rule of law, and the inherent value of each person – then the most able and idealistic of our young people – of you – must step forward and accept the burden and the duty of public service.  As President Obama has said, you must “put your foot firmly into the current of history.”  I promise you that you will find joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

Even as I look forward to retiring to this area of America, when my time as Secretary of Defense is over, I will be forever thankful for the opportunity I had to serve and to lead the very best men and women our country has to offer – those who chose to serve their fellow Americans in uniform. 

I earlier quoted what Abigail Adams told her son, John Quincy.  I will close with a quote from a letter that her husband, John Adams, sent to one of their other sons, Thomas Boylston Adams.  Adams wrote: “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.”

And so I ask you, the Washington State University Class of 2011, will the wise and honest among you come help us serve the American people?

Thank you.

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