Thank you. Thank you, President Cowen. Thank all of you for that extraordinarily warm welcome. I want to salute the chairman of the board, Cathy Pierson, sitting over here, and all the other trustees, members of the board, distinguished guests. I know President Clinton feels this way. We’re delighted to be sharing these honors with Dr. Gil and Dr. Olden.
I want to salute the alumni, the students, other extended members of the Tulane family, Casey — she did a wonderful job as class speaker. Where is she? (APPLAUSE) There she is — and all those great musicians — Dr. White’s Jazz Band and Jeff Epstein with that beautiful song. It’s been a very special treat to be here. I salute the Class of 2006 and all our broke parents sitting up there. (APPLAUSE)
We’re a week late for Jazz Festival, but let me start by saying I would not have dreamed of coming here today without the best saxophone player ever to occupy the Oval Office. (APPLAUSE) Wait a minute, maybe he was the only saxophone player to occupy… but it’s been a joy working with him on this Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund. As a Houstonian, let me also start by saying you’re welcome for Reggie Bush. (LAUGHTER) I was kind of disappointed when I learned that Reggie was not the first choice of our team in the NFL draft. After all, you think anyone in Houston was more excited to hear “Touchdown Bush,” “Bush is unbelievable,” “Reggie is really good,” “Bush for President.” You know, (LAUGHTER) now it won’t happen. (APPLAUSE)
It’s an honor to be asked to share a few thoughts at what is certainly a meaningful time in the history of Tulane. It’s customary for a graduation speaker to come and impart words of wisdom. I remember Socrates going around and giving words of wisdom and they poisoned him, so I’m not going to do that. (LAUGHTER)
I find that it’s great being here and I’ve looked forward to this enormously. It is each of you assembled here that has inspired me. Dr. Olden put it very well. It inspired me, our nation, and indeed our world, for its determination, like that shown by President Cowen and the board to carry forward with the school year and the determination of the faculty, and each of you to return to Tulane under extraordinary circumstances. That is real inspiration for a graduation. And each of you here has your own story to tell in the days that the water came, in the days of profound hardship that followed. Hurricane Katrina left in its wake a path of devastation, biblical in proportion. And we struggled at first to come to terms with the unimaginable reality. How can you repair a shattered home if you can’t find the pieces? Where can you go when the sea swallows the land? And that’s what makes the leadership of this university, President Cowen and the trustees and everybody else, who refused to yield to despair so inspiring.
The floodwaters may have breached the levees that surrounded this city. They may have destroyed home after home, block after block, but today we also know they couldn’t break the spirit of the people who call this remarkable, improbable city “home.” The courage of the people in New Orleans is just fantastic. (APPLAUSE) And that includes the Tulane students. Even before Katrina made landfall, student volunteers of the Tulane Emergency Medical Services, TEMS, T-E-M-S (APPLAUSE) provided care to fellow Tulane students and then after the storm TEMS members triaged patients at an improvised Baton Rouge facility, joined in search-and-rescue efforts in St. Tammany Parish, and delivered drugs and medical supplies to the New Orleans Convention Center. And this selfless scene, in which many of you participated, played out time and again. I saw a quote from Tulane historian, American historian, Doug Brinkley, whose new books details how the men and women from the Wildlife & Fisheries, the folks “who normally give out hunting licenses or worry about saving ecosystems, were pulling human beings out of buildings and rescuing them from hospitals.” Everywhere President Clinton and I have gone, we hear stories just like that. It’s been said that adversity doesn’t test your character; it reveals it. And if so, then here in the aftermath of Katrina, the world is seeing the essence of the American spirit — courage, compassion, resourcefulness, determination. I can honestly say that working with my distinguished colleague here to help raise awareness of the reconstruction effort under way throughout the Gulf, is one of the most important and rewarding projects I have been involved in. And let’s face it; I’m 82, so I’ve had a lot of rewarding projects out there one way or another, (LAUGHTER) but this is the best. (APPLAUSE) This is the best.
To today’s graduates, I hope our working together sends a clear message. There are some things that are more important than politics. You get in politics — the elbows get sharp. He [Clinton] beat me fair and square, (LAUGHTER) but when we come together it has nothing to do with politics. It has with joining you in being what I call one of a thousand points of light.
Billy Graham once said, “Time is the capital we’ve been given by God to invest wisely. So the question is where do we invest it? God calls us to invest our time capital in the very lives of people, not in projects, not in possessions.”
So even as I stand here today to congratulate you all for reaching this achievement in your lives, let me also encourage you to continue investing your time in your fellow man and that means getting off the sidelines, staking a personal claim in your country or your state or your community. It doesn’t have to be running for office. It doesn’t have to involve politics, but find a way to be of service to others. And though I’ve had a challenging, diversified, wonderful life, I got more of a kick of being one of the founders of the Midland, Texas, YMCA in 1952 than almost anything else I did because we did something positive. We didn’t change the world, just a tiny small corner of it, but we helped a lot of great kids by doing it.
A lot of people out there like to talk about the cynical times in which we live. But as I look around this room and bask in the warmth of your welcome, I still believe there are people out there who care, who are willing to open their hearts to the pain and need around them and do the hard work that makes a positive difference in our world. I still believe there are people out there who seek a higher purpose to serve with their lives during our time together on this earth. And when I look at what happened along the Gulf Coast, I still believe in heroes. When I look at our world, the good I see far outweighs the bad, which maybe explains why I am a real optimist about the future that you all will be facing.
Let me put it this way, back during my Navy days, Word War II Navy pilots had a saying to describe a cloudless a perfect flying day, it says “Ceiling and visibility unlimited,” C.A.V.U. I made a plaque. I put it on our house in Maine. Barbara said, “What’s that doing?” I said never mind, that’s a plaque that I’m putting on here; it reminds me of something very important — “ceiling and visibility unlimited.” And that’s what you wanted to hear when you were climbing into your plane and preparing for the mission ahead — that the skies were clear. So such is my wish for each of you as you prepare to leave Tulane, to tackle the challenges of life ahead. I wish all your days will be blessed with ceiling and visibility unlimited. Lord knows I’ll be pulling for you, so get out there and make us all proud. Thank you very, very much.
Tulane University commencement address