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Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates transcribed commencement remarks

Thank you, President Nichol. Members of the faculty, parents, distinguished guests. Justice O’Connor—Chancellor—a pleasure to see you. Justice O’Connor administered my oath of office as Director of Central Intelligence in 1991 and, more recently, as President Nichol has mentioned, we served on the Baker-Hamilton Commission last year—although my tenure on the group was rather abruptly interrupted.

Speaking of which, in terms of my timing in taking on the responsibilities of the Secretary of Defense, it reminds me of a story told long ago by Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, who spoke of having seen a bull that charged a locomotive. He said, “You know that was the bravest bull I ever saw, but I can’t say much for his judgment.”

Dr. Kelso and Secretary Coleman, your recognition here today is well-deserved.

To the members of the Class of 2007: Congratulations. I am truly honored—and flattered—to be your graduation speaker.

I presided over 39 commencement ceremonies as president of Texas A&M, yet, today is the first commencement speech I have ever given. I thank all of you for the extraordinary privilege of letting it be at my alma mater.

To the parents: you must be welling up with pride at the achievements of your children. Having put two children through college, I know there are many sighs of relief as well, 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.

I guess I am supposed to give you some advice on how to succeed. I could quote the billionaire J. Paul Getty, who offered advice on how to get rich. He said, “Rise early, work late, strike oil.” Or, Alfred Hitchcock, who said, “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 comes from two great women. First, opera star Beverly Sills, who said, “There are no short cuts to anyplace worth going.” And second, from Katharine 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.”

In all those 39 commencements at Texas A&M, I learned the importance of brevity for a speaker. George Bernard Shaw once told a speaker he had 15 minutes. The speaker asked, “How can I possibly tell them all I know in 15 minutes? Shaw replied, “I advise you to speak very slowly.” 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 arrived at William & Mary in 1961 at age 17, intending to become a medical doctor. My first year was pure pre-med: biology, chemistry, calculus and so on. I soon switched from pre-med to history. I used to say “God only knows how many lives have been saved by my becoming Director of CIA instead of a doctor.”

When reflecting on my experience here I feel gratitude for many things:

  • To William & Mary for being a top-tier school that someone like me could actually afford to attend—even as an out-of-state student. By the way, hold on to your hats, parents: Out of state tuition then was $361 a semester.
  • Gratitude for the personal care and attention from a superb faculty and staff—a manifestation of this university’s commitment to undergraduate education that continues to this day;
  • Gratitude to those in the greater Williamsburg community, who opened their hearts and their homes to a 17-year-old far from his own home; and
  • Gratitude for one more thing. During my Freshman year I got a ‘D’ in calculus. When my father called from Kansas to ask how such a thing was possible, I had to admit, “Dad, the ‘D’ was a gift.” So, I’m grateful to that math professor too.


What William & Mary gave me, above all else, was a calling to serve—a sense of duty to community and country that this college has sought to instill in each generation of students for more than 300 years. It is a calling rooted in the history and traditions of this institution.
Many a night, late, I’d walk down Duke of Gloucester Street from the Wren Building to the Capitol. On those walks, in the dark, I felt the spirit of the patriots who created a free and independent country, who helped birth it right here in Williamsburg. It was on those walks that I made my commitment to public service.

I also was encouraged to make that commitment by the then-president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, who said to we young Americans in the early 1960s, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”

We are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine this country could have gotten off to a more challenging start. It began as a business venture of a group of London merchants with a royal patent. The journalist Richard Brookhiser recently compared it to Congress today granting Wal-Mart and GE a charter to colonize Mars.

Brookhiser wrote, “Its leaders were always fighting. Leaders who were incompetent or unpopular—sometimes the most competent were the least popular—were deposed on the spot,” He continues, “The typical 17th Century account of Jamestown argues that everything would have gone well if everyone besides the author had not done wrong.” Sounds like today’s memoirs by former government officials.

Jamestown saw the New World’s first representative assembly—the institutional expression of the concept that people should have a say in how they were governed, and having that say brought with it certain obligations: a duty to participate, a duty to contribute, a duty to serve the greater good.

It is these four-hundred-year-old obligations that I want to address for the next few minutes. When talking about American democracy, we hear a great deal about freedoms, and rights, and, more recently, about the entitlements of citizenship. We hear a good deal less about the duties and responsibilities of being an American.

Young Americans are as decent, generous, and compassionate as we’ve ever seen in this country—an impression reinforced by my four and a half years of experience as President of Texas A&M, by the response of college students across America—and especially here at William & Mary—to the tragedy at Virginia Tech, and even more powerfully reinforced by almost six months as Secretary of Defense.

That is what makes it puzzling that so many young people who are public-minded when it comes to their campus and community tend to be uninterested in— if not distrustful of—our political processes. Nor is there much enthusiasm for participating in government, either as a candidate or for a career.

While volunteering for a good cause is important, it is not enough. This country will only survive and progress as a democracy if its citizens—young and old alike—take an active role in its political life as well.

Seventy percent of eligible voters in this country cast a ballot in the election of 1964. The voting age was then 21. During the year I graduated, 1965, the first major American combat units arrived in Vietnam, and with them, many 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds. In recognition of that disparity, years later the voting age would be lowered to 18 by constitutional amendment.

Sad to say, that precious franchise, purchased and preserved by the blood of hundreds of thousands of Americans your age and younger from 1776 to today, has not been adequately appreciated or exercised by your generation.

In 2004, with our nation embroiled in two difficult and controversial wars, the voting percentage was only 42 percent for those aged 18 to 24.

Ed Muskie, former senator and Secretary of State, once said that “you have the God given right to kick the government around.” And it starts with voting, and becoming involved in campaigns. If you think that too many politicians are feckless and corrupt, then go out and help elect different ones. Or go out and run yourself. But you must participate, or else the decisions that affect your life and the future of our country will be made for you—and without you.

So vote. And volunteer. But also consider doing something else: dedicating at least part of your life in service to our country.

I entered public life more than 40 years ago, and no one is more familiar with the hassles, frustrations and sacrifices of public service than I am. 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.”

These frustrations are inherent in a system of checks and balances, of divisions and limitations of power. Our Founding Fathers did not have efficiency as their primary goal. They designed a system intended to sustain and protect liberty for the ages. Getting things done in government is not easy, but it’s not supposed to be.

I last spoke at William & Mary on Charter Day in 1998. Since then our country has gone through September 11 with subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We learned once again that the fundamental nature of man has not changed, that evil people and forces will always be with us, and must be dealt with through courage and strength.

Serving the nation 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 stepped forward to put their lives on the line for their country. These past few months I’ve met many of those men and women—in places like Fallujah and Tallil in Iraq and Bagram and Forward Operating Base Tillman in Afghanistan—and at Walter Reed as well. Seeing what they do every day, and the spirit and good humor with which they do it, is an inspiration. The dangers they face, and the dangers our country faces, make it all the more important that this kind of service be honored, supported, and encouraged.

The ranks of these patriots include the graduates of William & Mary’s ROTC program, and the cadets in this Class of 2007, who I’d like to address directly. You could have chosen a different path—something easier, or safer, or better compensated—but you chose to serve. You have my deepest admiration and respect—as Secretary of Defense, but mostly as a fellow American.

You are part of a tradition of voluntary military service dating back to George Washington’s Continental Army. That tradition today includes General David McKiernan, William & Mary Class of 1972, who led the initial ground force in Iraq and now commands all Army troops in Europe. It also is a tradition not without profound loss and heartache.

Some of you may know the story of Ryan McGlothlin, William & Mary Class of 2001: a high school valedictorian, Phi Beta Kappa here, and Ph.D. candidate at Stanford. After being turned down by the Army for medical reasons, he persisted and joined the Marines and was deployed to Iraq in 2005. He was killed leading a platoon of riflemen near the Syrian border.

Ryan’s story attracted media attention because of his academic credentials and family connections. That someone like him would consider the military surprised some people. When Ryan first told his parents about joining the Marines, they asked if there was some other way to contribute. He replied that the privileged of this country bore an equal responsibility to rise to its defense.

It is precisely during these trying times that America needs its best and brightest young people, from all walks of life, to step forward and commit to public service. 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.

During the war of the American Revolution, Abigail Adams wrote the following to her son, John Quincy Adams: “These are 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.”

You graduate in a time of “great necessities.” Therein lies your challenge and your opportunity.

A final thought. As a nation, we have, over more than two centuries, made our share of mistakes. From time to time, we have strayed from our values; and, on occasion, we have become arrogant in our dealings with others. But we have always corrected our course. And that is why 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 Abraham Lincoln described as mankind’s “last, best hope.”

If, in the 21st century, America is to be a force for good in the world—for freedom, the rule of law, and the inherent value of each and every person; if America is to continue to be a beacon for all who are oppressed; if America is to exercise global leadership consistent with our better angels, then the most able and idealistic of your generation must step forward and accept the burden and the duty of public service. I promise you that you will also find joy and satisfaction and fulfillment.

I earlier quoted a letter from Abigail Adams to her son, John Quincy. I will close with a quote from a letter John Adams sent to one of their other sons, Thomas Boylston Adams. And he 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.”

Will the wise and the honest among you come help us serve the American people?

Congratulations and Godspeed.