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Robert Mueller's 2013 Commencement remarks

  • Mueller's three life lessons
    Mueller's three life lessons  FBI Director Robert Mueller told W&M graduates Sunday that three qualities are essential for success in life: integrity, service and patience.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The following are prepared remarks by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller for the 2013 William & Mary Commencement ceremony. - Ed.

Good morning. I am indeed honored to be here today.

As I look out at all of you, I am reminded of my youngest daughter’s graduation from college a number of years ago. Comedian Bill Cosby delivered the commencement address. He said that a commencement was as much for the parents as for the graduates – for today, parents are not only filled with pride, but with a sense of newfound freedom. Yet Cosby joked that as he drove home from his own daughter’s commencement, with his daughter following in her car, one thought kept running through his mind: Why are you still here … coming back to my house?

As college graduates, you have hopes and dreams. And as parents, we, too, have hopes and dreams. And that part about moving home? Not always part of our dream. You have expectations. We, too, have expectations. And we do expect that you will be on your way … soon. 

As I reflect upon where I have come since I myself graduated, I will say that I never would have expected to end up where I have. And I consider myself most fortunate to have been given the opportunities I have had over the past 30 years – both personally and professionally. 

I have been blessed with three families: my family – my wife and our two daughters; my Marine Corps family; and, for the past 11 years, my FBI family. And from each of these families, I have learned a number of life lessons. One such lesson is that much of what you do impacts those around you, and, in turn, those around you shape your life in a number of ways. Such lessons can often be frustrating as well as uplifting. Lord knows I myself have had plenty of opportunities to grow within these three families.

Today, I want to touch on three lessons learned through these relationships. These lessons relate to integrity, service, and patience – as well as its corollary, which is humility. Perhaps my experiences – and in some cases, my mistakes – will strike a chord with you.

I would like to begin with integrity because it is so essential to who and what you ultimately will become. 

Many of you have a career path in mind. Many of you have no idea where you will end up. A few of you may be surprised by where life takes you. I certainly was. In the end, it is not only what we do, but how we do it. Whatever we do, we must act with honesty and with integrity. 

Regardless of your chosen career, you are only as good as your word. You can be smart, aggressive, articulate, and indeed persuasive. But if you are not honest, your reputation will suffer. And once lost, a good reputation can never, ever be regained. As the saying goes, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. And if you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”  

The FBI’s motto is Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity. For the men and women of the Bureau, uncompromising integrity – both personal and institutional – is the core value. 

That same integrity is a hallmark of this institution. William & Mary was the first college in the country to have a student-run Honor System. That Honor System, and the community of trust it enables, rests on one precept – and that is integrity. Your professional and your personal success will rest on that same precept.

There will come a time when you will be tested. You may find yourself standing alone, against those you thought were trusted colleagues. You may stand to lose what you have worked for. And the decision will not be an easy call.

But surely William & Mary has prepared you for just such a test. Indeed, your own Thomas Jefferson believed that William & Mary was “the finest school of manners and morals that ever existed in America.” As graduates, you are charged with upholding this legacy of honesty and integrity. Today, you become the standard bearers.

Turning to the importance of public service, or service over self. I can say that I did not really choose public service. Rather, I more or less fell into it early on, perhaps not fully appreciating the challenges of such service. Yet one can come to understand the importance of service over self in a myriad of ways – through volunteerism, through commitment to a particular cause, or perhaps by example.

As an undergraduate, I had one of the finest role models I could have asked for in an upperclassman by the name of David Hackett. David was on our 1965 lacrosse team. He was not necessarily the best on the team, but he was a determined and a natural leader. He graduated later that spring. And a year later – as we were graduating – we faced the decision of how to respond to the war in Vietnam.  

We knew that David was in Vietnam serving as a platoon commander in the Marine Corps. In the spring of 1967, he volunteered for a second tour of duty. But on April 29th, as he led his men against a North Vietnamese Army contingent, David was killed by a sniper’s bullet just south of the DMZ. 

One would have thought that the life of a Marine, and David’s death in Vietnam, would argue strongly against following in his footsteps. But many of us saw in him the person we wanted to be, even before his death. He was a leader and a role model on the fields of Princeton. He was a leader and a role model on the fields of battle as well. And a number of his friends and teammates joined the Marine Corps because of him, as did I. 

I do consider myself fortunate to have survived my tour in Vietnam. There were many – men such as David Hackett – who did not. And perhaps because of that, I have always felt compelled to try to give back in some way. I have been lucky to spend the better part of my professional life in public service, and to benefit from the intangible rewards that come from such service. 

The lessons I learned as a Marine have stayed with me for more than 40 years. The value of teamwork, sacrifice, and discipline – life lessons I could not have learned in quite the same way elsewhere. 

And when I look back on my career, I think of having the opportunity to participate in major investigations, such as the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland … and working shoulder-to-shoulder with homicide detectives in Washington, D.C. And I think of my experience over the past 11 years, working with one of the finest institutions in the world – the FBI. These were opportunities that would have been difficult to replicate in the private sector, and that, for me, has been time well spent. 

Since its earliest days, the College of William & Mary has emphasized service over self. Your fellow alumni have served as the nation’s highest political officers, attorneys and judges, teachers and doctors, and civic and military leaders. 

The way in which you choose to serve does not matter – only that you work to better your country and your community. Each of you must determine in what way you can best serve others … a way that will leave you believing that your time has been time well spent.

Turning to lessons on patience.   

Writer Barbara Johnson once defined patience as the ability to idle your motor when you feel like stripping your gears. For those of us who are not inherently patient – including myself – it is an acquired skill. And believe me, it is hard earned … and people will say that I am still learning. It is also fair to say that true patience is required at precisely the moment you least have time for it.    

Patience includes the ability to listen – really listen – to others, and especially those close to you. This is not always easy, particularly for someone like me. 

In one of my first positions with the Department of Justice, more than 30 years ago, I found myself head of the Criminal Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston. I soon realized that lawyers would come to my office for one of two reasons: either to “see or be seen” on the one hand, or to obtain a decision on some aspect of their work, on the other hand. I quickly fell into the habit of asking one question whenever someone walked in the door, and that question was:  “What is the issue?” 

A word of advice: This question is not conducive to married life.

One evening I came home to my wife, who had had a long day teaching and then coping with our two young daughters. She began to describe her day to me. After just a few moments, I interrupted, and rather peremptorily asked, “What is the issue?” The response, as I should have anticipated, was immediate. “I am your wife,” she said. “I am not one of your attorneys. Do not ever ask me, ‘What is the issue?’ You will sit there and you will listen until I am finished.” And, of course, I did just that.

That night, I did learn the importance of listening to those around you – truly listening – before making judgment, before taking action. I also learned to use that question sparingly, and never, ever with my wife. 

Humility is closely related to patience. There are those who are naturally humble. But for others, humility may come from life experience; it is the result of facing challenges, making mistakes, and overcoming obstacles.

I would like to close with a story about one of your own – Lee Rawls. Lee was an adjunct professor here at William & Mary for more than 18 years. He taught a seminar entitled “Congress, The Executive, and Public Policy.” Lee was naturally humble. He was always the smartest person in the room, and the last one who would ever tout it. 

Lee and I were college classmates, and we served together in a previous administration. When I became Director of the FBI, I asked him to join me as a close advisor and remarkably, he agreed.  

Lee knew how to cut through the nonsense and get to the heart of the matter better than anyone. He also knew how to put me in my place. During one particularly heated meeting, everyone was frustrated – mostly with me – and I myself may well have been a wee bit impatient and ill tempered. Lee sat silently, and then posed the following question out of the blue: “What is the difference between the Director of the FBI and a four-year-old child?” The room grew hushed. Finally, he said, “Height.”

On those days when we were under attack by the news media and being clobbered by Congress, when the Attorney General was not at all happy with me, I would walk down to Lee’s office, hoping for a sympathetic ear. I would ask, “How are we doing?” Lee would shake his head and say, “You’re toast. You’re dead meat. You’re history.” He would continue, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, because no one else around here does.” 

It was that innate sense of humility – the idea that the world does not revolve around you – that was central to Lee’s character. He never sought to elevate his own status; to the contrary, he sought to elevate those around him – the hallmark of the truly humble. 

As you grow older, you will begin to understand that one’s life is a combination of experiences and teachings of those who become your mentors. Lee Rawls certainly was a mentor to me, and I am a better person for having had the opportunity to be tutored by him. Though he might have suggested that it was rough going for him, having me as one of his students. 

Lee passed away two years ago, and he is greatly missed by family, friends, and colleagues. His was a life of humility … a life of service; a model for many others – for you and for myself. 

I encourage each of you to surround yourselves with such mentors over the coming years – individuals who will make you smarter and better, those who will recognize your potential and challenge you in new ways. And one day, wittingly or unwittingly, you will serve as a mentor to someone in your life. Remember … patience and humility. Both are hard to come by, and each will serve you well.   

The lessons I speak of today are lessons not only for you, but for all of us. We must all find ways to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. We must cultivate patience, each and every day. We must maintain a sense of humility. And most importantly, we must never, ever sacrifice our integrity. If we do each of these things, we will have the best opportunity to be successful – personally and professionally – and our time will indeed have been time well spent. 

Thank you for inviting me to celebrate with you today, and God bless.

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