Robert Gates Delivers 2012 Commencement Address

Robert Gates Delivers 2012 Commencement Address


And now it is my great pleasure to welcome
the keynote speaker for UT’s 129th commencement. Our nation’s political life seems increasingly
defined by false choices. We’re prone to choose up sides and then make snap judgments about
our fellow citizens, for good or for bad, based simply on party affiliations. Our speaker
tonight is an exception. He is one of the very few people in history to have served
in the cabinet of both a republican and a democratic president. In this way and in so
many other ways Robert Gates exemplifies the very best in American public service. Born
and raised in Wichita, Kansas, secretary Gates studied history at William and Mary, earned
a master’s degree at Indiana and got his Ph.D. in Soviet and Russian history at Georgetown.
He served for more than two decades in the CIA working his way all the way up to director
under President George H.W. Bush. And as many of you will recall he served ably, indeed,
he served superbly, as the president of a certain university just to our East in College
Station. [ “TEXAS FIGHT!” ]
Thank you. Thank you. It was my privilege, it was my privilege,
it was my distinct privilege to work with him in support of Texas’ two finest public
universities and I can tell you from firsthand experience what a decisive and trustworthy
leader he is. When President George W. Bush asked him to serve as Secretary of Defense
he said yes. And when President Barack Obama asked him to remain he again said yes. And
in 2008 U.S. News and World Report named him one of America’s best leaders. During Secretary
Gates retirement ceremony, President Obama awarded him our country’s highest civilian
award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And just last year he became the 24th chancellor
of the university where his journey began some 50 years ago, William and Mary. So thank
you so much for being here with us tonight, it is our honor. And as I welcome you I don’t
know whether it is as chancellor, Mr. Secretary, doctor, professor, dean or university president.
So, I’ll ask all of the Longhorns here to give a big Longhorn welcome to simply the
honorable Robert Gates. [ MUSIC ] Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, President Powers, for that kind
introduction and thank you for this great honor. Let me just say here, before the Longhorn
nation, how much I enjoyed working with Bill Powers — one of America’s great university
presidents. You are blessed to have him as your leader. And, the best I can wish for
all Longhorns is that people like Bill Powers and Larry Faulkner continue to lead this great
university long into the future. I should start by addressing the many parents
here today. No doubt, you are justifiably proud of what your son or daughter has accomplished
and your own contribution in getting them to this evening. I suspect many of you are
already planning to spend some of your newly re-acquired disposable income. Forget it.
The National Bank of Mom and Dad is still open. Now, to the Class of 2012 – Congratulations
on your great achievement! I am greatly honored to be chosen as your
graduation speaker, and I will return the favor by keeping my remarks short. A British
nobleman, Lord Birkett, known for being long-winded, once said: “I don’t object to people looking
at their watches when I am speaking. But I strongly object when they start shaking them
to make certain that they are still going.” As someone who presided over some 40 commencements
at a certain other Texas university, I know full well that by this point in the ceremony,
I’m the last thing standing between you, the fireworks and a great party. I
also know, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln,
that you will little note nor long remember what is said here tonight. Now, typically a graduation speaker is supposed
to share some advice on how to succeed in life. Well, 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 tonight come from two great women. First, opera star Beverly Sills,
who 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.” So first, a word about the place you’ve
called home these past few years. To be sure, you have been fortunate to attend one of America’s
premier public institutions of higher education. You experienced the unparalleled learning
that takes place at the University of Texas – learning enriched by the combination of
teaching and research that has made American higher education the envy of the world. What
is discovered in the lab one day is taught in the classroom the next. This blending of
teaching and research makes UT, A&M, and all great universities unique incubators of
human talent, discovery, and economic innovation and development. There is no better proof of this than Austin
itself. And after all, what starts here changes the world. Visiting any university campus, especially
in Texas, always carries a special personal meaning for me. It’s a reminder of what
so struck and moved me when I went from being a university president to Secretary of Defense
in a time of war. As president of Texas A&M I would walk the campus, and – just like
here – I would see thousands of students aged 18 to 25, typically wearing t-shirts
and shorts and backpacks. The day after I became Defense secretary in December 2006,
I flew to Iraq and visited our troops there. I was struck by the fact that all of them
were the very same age of the students I had left behind. Except these 18- to 25-year olds
were wearing full body armor, carrying assault rifles, and living in peril, putting their
lives on the line to protect all of us, all of you; putting their dreams on hold so you
could pursue yours. Over the past decade this generation of young
patriots has included many Longhorns in uniform – their ranks most recently joined by the
23 ROTC cadets from all service branches commissioned here yesterday. These cadets signed up knowing
the very real sacrifices that might be required when volunteering in a time of war – long
separations from family, difficult living conditions, exposure to danger, and in the
case of Orlando Bonilla, class of 1999, the ultimate sacrifice. The wars those brave men and women were sent
to fight in Afghanistan and in Iraq – many of them based on deployment orders I signed
– were the most searing of a series of challenges that has made the last few years a difficult
period for the United States. Indeed, for the first time in decades, this country is
dealing with a combination of prolonged unemployment, staggering debt, stagnant growth, and record
high budget deficits. America’s leadership is being questioned and our way of life challenged
around the globe. Consequently, there has not been a lot of optimism in the air recently.
And that was before the 2012 election campaign got underway. Over the course of more than four decades
in public life, I’ve been accused of many things. Being a starry-eyed optimist is not
one of them. There’s an old saying that when an intelligence officer smells the flowers,
he looks around for the coffin. Indeed, I was once referred to as the “Eyeore of the
national security establishment,” looking for the darkest lining in the brightest cloud.
Well, today the clouds appear pretty dark, but the silver lining I see is this: While
the obstacles to getting this country back on track are steep, Americans also have the
means at our disposal to overcome them; whether the issue is our national debt, immigration,
crumbling infrastructure, government deficits, underperforming schools, or whatever. The progress on these or any other major issue
will require America’s political class to show leadership and make decisions that may
be unpopular in the short run but will strengthen the country in the long haul. It will require
tough choices – choices politicians must be willing to make, choices the voting public
must be willing to accept. It will require a combination of compromise and sacrifice
– both dirty words these days. Elected officials will have to decide whether saving their seat
– literally or figuratively – is more important than saving the country. Overcoming America’s problems will require
something else: And that is the willingness of our best and brightest young people, from
all walks of life, to step forward and bring their talents and fresh perspectives to bear
on the problems facing this country. The obligations of citizenship in any democracy are considerable,
but they are even more profound, and more demanding for a nation with America’s domestic
problems and international obligations. So as you venture forth from this great university,
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 – to give back to the community, the state, or
the country that have already given you so much. As you contemplate the prospect of public
life, it can be disheartening to hear the rancorous and even tawdry political discourse
in today’s world. So I worry that too many of our brightest young Americans, so public-minded,
so engaged when it comes to volunteerism on campus and in their communities, turn aside
when it comes to careers in public service. I entered government nearly 46 years ago,
and no one is more familiar with its hassles, frustrations, and sacrifices. Government is,
by design, slow and unwieldy. Our Founding Fathers set up a system to protect liberty,
not to maximize efficiency. Will Rogers once said: “I don’t make jokes. I just watch
the government and report the facts.” As one moves up the career ladder to more
senior positions in government, the vetting and selection process only becomes more intrusive,
more acrimonious and more politicized. And the current state of our politics isn’t
exactly the best marketing scheme for attracting new talent. Yet we shouldn’t delude ourselves about
recapturing a reasonable, civil, and mostly imaginary political past. In reality, political
life has always been rough in America. One of Thomas Jefferson’s critics said it would
have been advantageous to his reputation had his head been cut off five minutes before
he took his inaugural oath. John Adams was once called a “hideous hermaphroditical
character who has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility
of a woman.” But there is another aspect to public service
about which Americans hear very little: and that is the idealism, the joy, the satisfaction
and the fulfillment. I joined CIA in 1966 to defend our country against the former Soviet
Union, and with any luck, to help bring down the entire rotten structure. Twenty-five years
later, as Director of CIA, I watched the Soviet empire crumble, liberating hundreds of millions
of people and ending what had been a near constant threat of nuclear Armageddon. There
are countless others whose stories may not reach world-historical levels of drama or
consequence. Yet these Americans still look back with pride and satisfaction on what they
accomplished in service to their fellow Americans. In the end, each person in public service
has his or her own story and motives. But I believe, if you scratch deeply enough, you
will find that those who serve – no matter how outwardly tough or jaded or even egotistical
– are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists. And optimists. We actually
believe we can make a difference in the lives of others, that we can better the future of
this country and of the world. To serve your fellow citizens you don’t
need to deploy to a war zone or move to a developing country or bury yourself in a cubicle
by the Potomac River. You don’t have to be a CIA operative tracking the world’s
most notorious terrorist. Nor, must you lead a team of warriors bringing that terrorist
to a just and violent end – like Admiral Bill McCraven, distinguished alumnus, Texas
class of ’77. Everywhere there are children to be taught, veterans to be healed, roads
to build, communities to strengthen, especially in these challenging times. In building a
good business and staying involved in your community, you render public service in many
ways. One of the great women of American history,
Abigail Adams, wrote to her son and future president, John Quincy, during the American
Revolution. She wrote: “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 implications for your generation are best captured by the
words of Abigail Adams’ husband. In a letter to another son, John 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 University of Texas Class of 2012, will the wise and honest among
you come help serve the American people and help make a better world? Congratulations, God Bless and Godspeed. Well Mr. Secretary, thank you. Thank you for
those inspiring words. Thank you for calling us all to do something to better our country
and public service.

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