Thank you very much, President Cowen, Board Chair Pierson, members of the faculty. Dr. Olden, Dr. Gil …congratulations, we’re honored to be in your presence. To the family and friends in the Class of 2006, I thank you for giving my partner here and I the chance to be here today. I would come just to hear Casey’s address. (APPLAUSE) I fell in love with New Orleans before she was born. (LAUGHTER)
I first came here at three to see my mother, who was in nursing school at Charity Hospital. (APPLAUSE) I came at fifteen to hear the Dixieland music.
By the way, you know, I do love George Bush, but saying that I am the best saxophone player to ever occupy the White House is kind of like saying I drove the fastest car in one of New York City’s traffic jams. (LAUGHTER) I mean I guess there’s a limit to how far this bipartisan compliment can go. (LAUGHTER) But I love you outside the White House and beyond that, so there. (LAUGHTER)
You know, we’ve had a wonderful time together and I am profoundly grateful to the President for asking his father and me to head up this fund. It’s been an exciting adventure that we couldn’t have predicted. It’s taken us in directions that we couldn’t have known. And as I think of this commencement speech, I know only three things about them. The speaker is supposed to say something timely, something timeless and be brief. (LAUGHTER) I will try to meet the requirements.
But if you look at this fund and the chance that all of you have given us to have one of the best experiences of our lives, this is not something either of us could ever have planned. Life doesn’t always take you in a predictable direction, but it’s important to understand where you start and have some sense of how to get to where you want to go.
If you look at Katrina and the enormous response it provoked from all around the world –60,000 contributors just to our little fund, and people not just in America, but lots of countries came and gave us money to help you. It is a positive manifestation of the most important fact of your lives — the interdependence of human beings on this planet. And if you look at the negative aspects of Katrina — the lives lost, the property washed away, the dreams broken — it is also evidence of our own interdependence.
If you look at the racial and religious composition of the Tulane student body today and compare it to what it was 30 years ago, it is evidence of our growing interdependence. So the timely thing I have to say to you is — you live in the most globally interdependent time in human history, and it can be good, bad or both. Interdependence simply means we can’t escape each other. We are all in this boat, whether we like it or not. It is therefore quite clear that the major work of all citizens, but especially those who have good degrees and good potential, is to build a positive and reduce the negative forces of interdependence. To work for security against terror and weapons of mass destruction, the killing of innocents in places like Darfur, or the spread of deadly diseases like avian influenza, and against the dramatic changes in climate, which have given us a decade of Katrinas, and tsunamis, and other events that have cost insurance companies three times more than natural disasters in any previous decade in history.
You also have to build the positive forces of interdependence. We benefit from trade and travel, and information technology, and scientific research, and music and culture, but half of the world’s people aren’t a part of it. They live on less than $2 a day. And by fighting against extreme poverty and disease, and the alleviation of ignorance, to give more people a chance to do what you’ve done…to sit in places like this, all around the world, you make a better life for yourselves and the children I hope you will have.
So, that’s the timely thing and a decision for you to make. And as President Bush said, a lot of these decisions about building a more interdependent, integrated world where you have share benefits, and responsibilities and values has to be done by the government, but an enormous amount can be done by the people as private citizens. From the time our country was founded we have believed this. Benjamin Franklin created the first volunteer fire department before the Constitution was ratified. One year after Tulane came into business, in 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his Democracy in America that Americans had the most unusual propensity for just getting together in communities and working together to solve problems, and not waiting for the state to solve it for them. Today this not-for-profit, non-governmental movement is sweeping the globe. So as you gave 38,000 hours of volunteer service in the wake of Katrina, I ask all of you, whatever you do in your lives, to try to find some space in it always to be a private citizen doing public good — trying to build a world of shared benefits, responsibilities and values.
As for the timeless message, I have only two bits of advice, based on having lived most of my life. (LAUGHTER) I wish you wouldn’t laugh; I kind of hate it myself. (LAUGHTER) Although, I’m sometimes consoled by the fact that George is a little older than I am (LAUGHTER) until I realize that he’ll still jump out of an airplane and I won’t. (LAUGHTER)
But, I want to tell you two things seriously that I have learned from a long life. You will be happier if you cultivate what one theologian has called “the discipline of gratitude” to your family, your teachers, to those whose service makes your lives better who are often overlooked — to people who clean your streets and maintain your buildings and serve your food in restaurants. Being grateful in a constant way reminds us that no matter how bad things are, there are a lot of people who are profoundly worse off and it gives us the courage to go on.
My second piece of advice is to dream your dreams and try to live them. For life’s largest disappointments are not rooted in failures or mistakes. Anybody who’s lived long enough has made a fair share of both. The greatest disappointments are in the absence of passionate commitment and effort — the sense of not having tried. You may not end up exactly where you want to go in life, but following your stars will guarantee you a marvelous journey. And it will enable you to begin again. When I think of all you — in this great city I have loved all my life — have endured. I’m reminded of a phrase that Ernest Hemingway made famous: “Life breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
The invocation today was a Dixieland rendition of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” It was breathtakingly beautiful. And it was done just the way Dixieland bands have done it forever in New Orleans — in a low, grieving, moaning, beautiful dirge. And then at the end of a funeral service — a new beginning, in fast, happy, Dixieland rhythm. Life’s like that. It is always about new beginnings. I wish you many. God bless you.
Tulane University commencement address