Duke University Commencement
Durham, N.C., May 14, 2000
Thank you so much for that wonderful, warm welcome. I am so grateful for the honor bestowed on me today, which I will cherish a lifetime. Thank you, Madame President, for that more than generous introduction. We're all so grateful for your strong and able leadership. Madame President -- that does have a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Oh, well. When the Class of 2000 invited me to be a part of this special day, I was both touched and flattered. After all, I come before you as a recent dropout from the Electoral College! My husband likes to compare a commencement speaker to the corpse at a funeral: you don't really expect him to say anything, but you can hardly hold the ceremony without him. Well, this morning, I feel anything but funereal.
Today is the latest, but by no means the last chapter in a story that began in room 304 of Alspaugh House in the autumn of 1954. Actually, it began a few months earlier than that, when I decided to apply to Duke, and nowhere else, because my older brother John went here. I've always put John on a pedestal, so it seemed only natural that I should want to follow in his academic footsteps. At the time, it seemed just as logical to apply for the Angier Duke Scholarship. Unfortunately, the logic escaped the scholarship committee. While I made it to the finals, I can still remember sitting in the breakfast room one morning opening mail, tears streaming down my face -- and John putting things in perspective.
"You shouldn't be crying," he told me. "Dad's the one who's going to have to pay the bills. If anyone around here should be crying, it's Dad."
Well, it's great to see so many old friends here in Wallace Wade Stadium. And it's an honor to share this stage with a statesman and public servant for whom I have great respect, my fellow degree recipient Ambassador Andrew Young. Both Andy and I have been around long enough to know who everyone has really come to see today -- so before going any further, I want to salute the Class of 2000 and (student commencement speaker) Holly Cooper, whose words of reflection and insight on the pursuit of truth and the traditions of this great university were an inspiration to us all. I salute you. It's been quite a ride for the Class of 2000: over the last four years, you have survived Hurricanes Fran and Floyd, the Achievement Index, the departure of Wild Bill's, Y2K and the Great Snow of 2000.
For the Duke family, this millennial commencement marks a historic crossroads on the calendar. Seventy-five years have passed since President Keohane's predecessors vowed to "develop our resources, increase our wisdom, and promote human happiness." One might think a 75th anniversary would impose the heavy weight of time. On the contrary -- such a day reminds us that youth, like idealism, is very much a state of mind -- and that a university can never grow old so long as it nurtures the flame of innovation and curiosity.
Here we are reminded that, while knowledge is important, wisdom is essential. And the ultimate wisdom is not to be found in the tidal wave of data that saturates our airwaves, our front pages, our modems and textbooks. The poet Robert Frost put it best when he said, "What we do in college is to get over our little mindedness." It is in that same spirit that we gratefully pause to recognize instructors -- in and out of the classroom -- who have assisted countless Duke graduates to raise their sights and enlarge their minds.
For me -- and I suspect for many of you as well -- the greatest of teachers was also the first. So on this Mother's Day of happy reunions and emotional partings, of popping flashbulbs and unabashed pride, I hope you will indulge me if I take a moment to express a daughter's love and gratitude to her mother, Mary Hanford, who'll be 99 years old on May 22nd. Recently, I established a Duke scholarship in Mother's name. Although it hardly compares with the gifts she's bestowed on her loved ones, it does illustrate the debt owed by each of us to those who have gone before. Commencement Day acknowledges such debts, equaled only by the fresh obligations that the Class of 2000 will assume to all who follow in your wake.
In a larger sense, this ceremony is an act of faith -- a faith renewed whenever we step forward to redeem our time through a vision of things that ought to be. We are honored today by the presence of President Jimmy Cater, Rosalynn Carter and Ladybird Johnson. As I have traveled this country and many places around the world, I see the positive difference that President and Mrs. Carter continue to make in the lives of others. Their deep faith has been an inspiration to me personally, and an example to countless millions. And like my own mother, Mrs. Johnson has combined tradition with trailblazing. No American has done more to introduce us to the beauties of nature, or remind us that we are all stewards of God's creation. I cannot let this occasion pass without acknowledging the grace, the generosity, the inspiration of two First Ladies who have always been ladies first.
Society, it has been said, is a partnership between the dead, the living, and those yet to come. Consider the nation into which my mother was born. At the start of the 20th century, the average life expectancy for an American man was 46 years; for a woman, 48 years. The telegraph system -- Internet of its day -- strained to carry 63 million messages a year. The Dow Jones Industrial Average passed the 100 mark in January 1906. Foreign immigrants streamed through Ellis Island -- the American front porch -- at a rate of 100 per hour. Yet the Census Bureau didn't even keep statistics on the number of Hispanics or Asian Americans.
Fast forward to the 1950s -- enshrined in popular memory as a time of hula hoops, "I Love Lucy" and political indifference. Undoubtedly, some in this audience harbor fond recollections of an era when men wore the pants and women wore the earrings. When surfing was an activity pursued on a board in the ocean, not with a mouse in the dorm room. My classmates worried about pollution of the air, not the airwaves. And we danced to Chubby Checker instead of Smashing Pumpkins.
The world has turned over many times since the class of '58 drank Coke at the Devil's Den, partied at the Saddle Club, and exerted leadership through White Duchy and Red Friars, groups abandoned as "elitist" in the egalitarian Sixties. To be sure, Duke in the Fifties was a great research institution that sometimes felt like a finishing school. Duchesses were instructed to eat breakfast every day, avoid blue jeans and wear hats and hosiery to church. Besides observing the 10:30 curfew, we were told to go down receiving lines at every dance, and to write thank you notes to every date and hostess.
Well, it's easy to look back and laugh at so innocent a culture. Yet if a great university teaches us nothing else, it is to be on guard against facile generalizations, some based on nothing more than nostalgia tinged with condescension. I know. As a member of the so-called Silent Generation, I can tell you we were anything but silent. Indeed, my first letter home put my parents on notice that I intended to pursue a somewhat unconventional path.
"I think it would be fascinating to learn about American government, history in the making," I told them. This was not necessarily what they had in mind. Truth be told, Mother had hoped that I would study home economics -- the natural prelude to marriage and a life next door in our beloved Salisbury. Yet, like any good teacher, Mother has always been prepared to learn from her students. On receiving my letter, she consulted a professor at the University of North Carolina from our hometown. "Let her take political science," he breezily reassured her. "We need women in government. And anyway, they all get married eventually."
Even then, such attitudes were being challenged by women who refused to accept either limits or labels. Here again I find myself standing on the shoulders of giants. Florence Brinkley was a professor of English literature and dean of the Woman's College. No title, however, can begin to gauge her imprint on two generations of Duke students. Miss Brinkley's ambition was to serve, not to be. Her enemies were the slipshod and second rate.
What she gave us was beyond calculation. It was Dean Brinkley who urged me to spend a summer at Oxford University. She nurtured my interest in politics, helped me establish a campus leadership training program for women, and lent tacit support to a whole series of undergraduate reforms. By the time we were through, we'd even managed to push Saturday night curfew back to one o'clock Sunday morning. After much cajoling, I persuaded the dean that the student government and judicial board would accomplish so much more if only we scheduled our retreat at Myrtle Beach. And we did. It was great. Closer to home, I spent long hours working on an honor code, a subject which remains a perennial object of undergraduate debate. As I recall, East Campus was much more favorably inclined to the idea than West Campus. Apparently some things never change.
That's not all that bonds my generation of campus activists with today's Campus Social Board and Students Against Sweatshops. To enforce the 18th Amendment at Duke in my days, we had a semi-official watchdog; in undergraduate parlance, the Delta Patrol. Forty years later, students, faculty and parents alike are struggling to combat a culture in which alcohol and drugs co-exist with sexual violence. What a horror, especially when played out against a tabloid culture wherein celebrity trumps accomplishment, and shame seems the surest route to 15 minutes of televised notoriety.
I don't know whether age bestows wisdom. I'll settle for perspective as the next best thing. My own experience tells me that America is nothing if not a work in progress. Stop and think: in the span of a single lifetime, we have left the surface of the earth to soar into the heavens and explore distant solar systems. We've conquered diseases that once ravaged mankind. A century after the telephone redefined distance, cyberspace -- a term coined by science fiction writer William Gibson in 1984 -- promises to transform life as we know it.
And that's just the beginning. Too rapidly for some, much too slowly for others, we have at last begun to honor promises we made to one another at the dawn of the republic. We have demolished legal and cultural barriers that formerly mocked our democratic aspirations. Indeed, we rejoice in the rich diversity of a land that resembles nothing so much as Joseph's many-colored coat. How diverse? Consider this: today's Americans buy more salsa than ketchup.
None of this happened by accident. It happened because of the Florence Brinkleys, the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carters, the Andrew Youngs, the Ladybird Johnsons, the Bob Doles and countless others dissatisfied with the status quo. Officiating at a wedding in 1931, Justice Benjamin Cardozo spoke of "three great mysteries" in the lives of mortal beings: the mystery of birth at the beginning; the mystery of death at the end; and, greater than either, the mystery of love. Everything that is most precious in life is a form of love, he said. "Art is a form of love, if it be noble; labor is a form of love, if it be worthy; thought is a form of love, if it be inspired."
If Commencement Day is about anything, it is this mysterious love, this overarching passion for possibility that makes today's ceremony both a linking of the generations and a renewal of hope. I read not long ago that Madison Avenue is having trouble coming up with a label for those -- including many in this graduating class -- who are seen as the natural successors of Generation X, which in turn succeeded the Boomers, which in turn were divided between hipsters and the Me Generation.
Let me suggest an alternative: Why not dispense with labels altogether? After all, what is a label but a preconception brought to life, a marketing tool that blurs your identity and judges you by the car you drive, the jeans you wear or the CDs that you buy? In such a culture, we don't know people -- we categorize them. Replacing subtlety with stereotype, we rob citizens of their most precious possession -- their individuality. In any event, America needs leaders, not labels. Lest we forget: it wasn't a label that wrote the Gettysburg Address, or charged up San Juan Hill or refused to move to the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
Nothing so stamps our individuality as our beliefs. Deciding what you believe is the essence of education. Acting upon those beliefs is the essence of a purposeful life. For no cynic ever built a cathedral. Growing up in small town North Carolina, I was taught that we are all sinners, and that righteousness should never be confused with self-righteousness. Religion was about doing things for people, not standing in judgment of people. Our faith taught us that service came before self. Nor was political activism frowned upon. On the contrary, think of the historic contributions made by men and women who have lived for -- and, on occasion, been willing to die for -- their beliefs. From John Winthrop's city upon a hill and Dorothy Day's social gospel to the vision of racial justice so eloquently espoused by the Reverend Martin Luther King, the truest believers have been among the most powerful champions of the exploited and oppressed.
Forty years have passed since John F. Kennedy shattered, once and for all, the irrational prejudice against Catholics in the White House. Today, an equally irrational prejudice is applied by some, not only against those stigmatized as "the religious right," but against anyone primarily driven by their faith to pursue a better world. One of the glories of America is that no one tells you what to believe. At the same time, the essence of our government is self-government. That means millions of individuals acting upon their beliefs, demanding a government they can be proud of -- consistent with Duke's own mission to "develop our resources, increase our wisdom, and promote human happiness."
Certainly my generation can never forget how the modern civil rights revolution unfolded on a powerful wave of Biblical teaching, African-American spirituals and a courage reminiscent of the early martyrs. Since then, believers of all stripes have regarded society's imperfections as a call to duty, not as an excuse for bitterness. Nor have they hesitated to criticize those who care more for their pockets than for their principles. After all, the cash register has yet to be invented that has a conscience. On no one does this responsibility fall more heavily than the university. It has been said that while men may be born free, they cannot be born wise; and it is the duty of the university to make the free, wise. One need look no further than the Duke Chapel -- heart as well as soul of this campus -- or the Durham Neighborhood Partnership to appreciate just how much a committed university can do to enhance the health, advance the learning and promote the safety of its neighbors.
Meanwhile, we are told that change is the only constant. Yet, amidst so much change, it is critically important that we cling to what is changeless -- to love and honor and reverence for things seen and unseen. In this age of satellite dishes, automated tellers and 500 channels on which to watch infomercials for the Ab Flex, may I suggest that we frazzled humans have need of inspiration as well as information, and of faith to match our facts. You don't have to be a missionary to have a sense of mission. All you need is the love of which Justice Cardozo spoke.
So why, you ask, do so many current opinion makers seem leery of faith as a basis for public service? It isn't enough to say we inhabit a secular age. At the end of a century which has severely tested man's humanity, billions of people acknowledge a higher power, one who guides our conscience and raises us above the level of mere existence. Perhaps our culture is worshipping the wrong god -- material wealth and professional status. In our nation's capital and in too many other places, success is often defined by the power you hold, the names in your Rolodex or the view from your office window.
Yet this is not the gold that Duke mints with every graduation. For the real gold is the kind that cannot be measured with dollar signs or weighed on a scale. Class of 2000, I'm sure I don't tell you something new when I say that life is much more than the sum total of possessions. For such things will rust away, wear away or depreciate, but you inner resources -- character - must never tarnish. Whether on the floor of Congress, in the boardrooms of corporate America or in the corridors of a big city hospital, character provides both a sense of direction and a means to fulfillment. It asks not what you want to be, but who you want to be. For in the final analysis, it is your moral compass that counts far more than any bank balance, any resume and, yes, any diploma.
Character expresses itself in countless ways. To me, however, it is tested -- as it is defined -- through the practical application of faith. I hasten to add that faith is about nothing if not humility. In his book Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt, Gregg Easterbrook takes pains to refute the notion that America's Founders wished to ban spiritual expression from the public square. They were products of a particular culture, he writes, a colonial society that knelt before an established church, and that all too often permitted Anglican or other sects to repress those with whom they differed.
It was this exclusionary idea -- this compulsory faith -- to which they took exception. They never insisted on government hostility toward faith itself. The late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin summed it up brilliantly when he declared, "to endorse a properly secular state, which has no established ties to any religious institution, does not mean we should support a secularized society, one in which faith is reduced to a purely private role." Here is a critical distinction, all the more important for a nation that at times appears so eager to celebrate our differences that we forget what, if anything, unites us.
At the start of a new millennium, nothing is more important than repairing the frayed bonds of community in America. In this era of runaway isolation -- "when people all over the developed world eat, read, watch and do pretty much the same things, but isolated from others" -- it is often hard to tell where life begins and entertainment leaves off. Controversies are made for and by television; politics are reduced to fodder for late-night comics. Aware of our power, we seem uncertain as to our purpose.
To its harshest critics, our nation's capital is a chamber of horrors. To many of those holding office it is a pressure cooker. To me, Washington is nothing more or less than a mirror held up to the people and the process it represents. If it is less civil than it might be, isn't that a reflection of a society coarsened by tabloid values? No doubt to many of you, Washington may seem an alien place, a city of hot air, shrill voices and manufactured controversies. Perhaps you have lost interest in today's virtual reality politics, where more and more candidates without ideas hire consultants without convictions to run campaigns without substance.
Yet this is the one luxury we cannot afford. For representative government is exactly that -- representative. If politics seems irrelevant, then it falls to you to make it more relevant. If it appears lacking in civility, then your task is to help civilize it. In my eight years as president of the American Red Cross, I saw the evil that humans can inflict on one another -- saw it in the dim eyes of starving children in Rwanda and in the paralyzing grief of parents in Oklahoma City. I have felt the hopelessness and despair of families who have lost everything to a tornado's brief, terrifying violence.
But I have also been uplifted by the extraordinary power of human generosity -- of a kindness not legislated by any Congress or Parliament, but mandated by faith and in neighborliness and, yes, occasional saintliness. At the outset, I quoted Robert Frost, no mean educator himself, on the civilizing mission of the university. Let me conclude with some other lines from the Yankee poet. They were penned in the bleak 1930s, when hardship shadowed America and fanaticism stalked the globe. Yet they are timeless, I think, in suggesting the relationship of belief to action, and of service to success.
"My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight
Only where love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes."
"My object in living is to unite/my avocation and my vocation." I have never heard a more eloquent summons to the purposeful life -- or a more compelling argument for a faith that serves your country and your conscience. You take from this ceremony much more than a diploma. You take with you the responsibility for writing the next chapter of the American story. What we become as a nation will depend in large measure on what you become -- and what you believe.
I hope you never forget those who have gone before, nor those who will come after. For Heaven and the future's sakes, don't get jaded. Don't fall victim to cynicism. Remember that life is not meant to be endured, but enjoyed. Retain your curiosity, and though you may get wrinkles, you will never grow old. Be brave. Take risks. Above all, be yourselves, for therein lies the greatest gift you can return to those who have given so much that you might join the Duke family. May love and need be one, and all your work be play for mortal stakes. Congratulations, and God bless you all. Thank you so very much.