Bob Schieffer: Corps of Cadets commencement speech 2010
CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer
Corps of Cadets Commencement Exercises
May 8, 2010
McAlister Field House
Thank you all so much. General, distinguished guests, graduates, members of the faculty and administration, proud parents and grandparents, surprised brother and sisters who never thought your siblings were smart enough to graduate from college, it is great to be at The Citadel and great to be back in Charleston.
I’ve got to just stop for a second and say how impressed I was to see these two fine graduates who compiled 4-point averages in four years of college and the recognition that you all got. I got some recognition when I graduated in college. I was standing in line waiting to come up on the stage to get my degree, and they came up, and notified me that I had passed the last semester of Spanish, and I would be allowed to graduate! Magna cum laste, but I got that diploma and got out of there!
I begin this speech with the advice that was given to me by Helen Thomas, the first reporter I met when I came to Washington in 1969. And later, as the years passed Helen and I were both White House correspondents covering the presidency of Gerald Ford, and Henry Kissinger was the secretary of state at that time, and one day they brought him into the White House Press Room to give us a background briefing.
And the White House Press Secretary said, “Now Dr. Kissinger is very busy. He has only 20 minutes. He cannot stay a minute longer than 20 minutes. So, we cannot allow him to stay longer than 20 minutes.”
Kissinger, ever the ham, gets up and says, “Well, you know, being a college professor my lectures are normally timed to 40 minutes. I don’t know if I can do it in 20 minutes.”
Helen, sitting in the front row, said, “Well, just start at the end.”
So, that is what I propose to do today. I will start at the end. I will say to the Class of 2010, that dogged group who thought this day would never come, I say, congratulations! This is your day. You have earned it. No one can take it away from you, so celebrate it! Congratulations! … I know the feeling!
Yeah, I have to tell you graduation is my favorite holiday because it holds such special and sometimes so very different meanings for all of those who attend. Parents and grandparents have one feeling. The graduates and the faculty have another feeling. Even one who is honored to be asked to speak has a special feeling. I have to tell you as the parent of two college graduates: parents, I once sat where you sit today, and I can tell you exactly how I felt that day. I felt like I’d been given a substantial pay raise! Congratulations! It’s just a good feeling all around. And I do have just one bit of advice for the parents who are here: you have made a substantial investment in these young people. Now, try to stay on good terms with them… because they’re the ones who pick the nursing home.
While I am truly honored to be here, I will tell you something. I’ll let you in on a little secret. A graduation speech is the easiest speech there is to make, and the reason for that is no one…no one ever remembers what the graduation speaker said because graduation is not about what somebody said, it’s about what you all have done, and that is the important thing. You won’t remember what I said here today, but you will always remember how you feel today. Graduation is one of the great crossroads in life, but unlike so many crossroads, this one is clearly marked. You knew it was coming. You had a plan to get here. You knew there were no shortcuts. Well, maybe there was a Cliff Note or two along the way. But now you have arrived. For nearly all of your lives you have been students—for the last four years, a student at The Citadel. But today all of that changes. From this day forward you are no longer a student. You are a graduate of The Citadel, and that has a good sound, doesn’t it?
And that brings me to the next part. Now what? Many of you sitting out here today know where you are going. You are going to serve your country. And we thank you for that. To some of the others, I would say I wouldn’t be honest if I told you it was going to be easy from here on in. The country is in a real economic crisis. Jobs are hard to find. But this much I know: no job is going to come looking for you. You’ll have to find it, and you’ll have to keep looking. And you know, you might get lucky. Luck always plays a part in our lives, but what I generally have found over the years is that the harder I tried, the luckier I usually got. I’ll tell you one little personal story.
I’d been a reporter for a while and I had tried in those times for five years to get an appointment to apply for a job at CBS News, which was where I’d always wanted to work. For five years I’d tried and I was never able to get an appointment. And one day in desperation I just walked into the CBS News bureau in Washington without an appointment . I was afraid to call and ask for one because I was afraid they wouldn’t give me one. I got in the elevator. I went up to the second floor. The first woman I saw I said, “I’m Bob Schieffer and I’m here to see Mr. Small (who was the bureau chief) about a job.” To my surprise the woman said, “Oh yes, Bob! Come right in!” I was ushered into the bureau chief’s office, interviewed and that interview led to me being hired! Only later did I learn that I’d walked in on someone else’s appointment, a reporter named Bob Hager who went on to have a long and illustrious career at NBC News. When I said Bob Schieffer, the woman just got her Bobs mixed up, ushered me into the office, and I can truly say today I am the only person who was hired at CBS by mistake.
So, I would just say this to you: Keep pounding on those doors, and eventually it will pay off even if you’re not who they thought you were. Even more important, and this is the most important advice I could give to you today—find something you like to do, and then learn to do it well… to the best of your ability.
There’s such great pressure on young people today to be successful…in other words, to make a lot of money. I’m going to tell you I’ve been around for a while, and I know a lot of people who have a lot of money. Some don’t have as much as they had a couple of years ago, but they’re still okay. But some of them are happy, and some of them are not. I’ve generally found over the years the people who are the happiest and who have gotten the most out of life were those who did something that they truly had a passion for, something that they liked, something that they wanted to do. That’s what I always did, and that’s why to me, even at my age now, what I do does not seem like work.
I would say something else to you. There may be jobs out there because our technology is moving so rapidly, there may be jobs for you in the future that haven’t even been invented yet. I remember when my children were young, they used to say to me, “Dad, did you when you were a little boy, did you want to be a TV reporter when you grew up?”
And I had to say, “They didn’t have TV when I was a little boy.”
Think of the opportunities that are out there for you. From the eighth grade when I saw my byline on top of the junior high school newspaper where I had written a story—when I saw that byline set in type on top of that story and I thought that just looked so fine there. I thought, “That’s what I want to do! That’s what I want to do!” So, I was one of the lucky ones. I got to do as a grownup what I wanted to do as a young child, and I feel very lucky about that.
But the way I am most lucky is because of the parents that I had. They were determined that I would have a better life than they had. Whatever I am today, I owe to them. They had been children of the Depression. They lived in the shadow of the tower at the University of Texas at Austin in Texas. But that campus might as well have been 1,000 miles from where they lived because they had no money to go there. So, it became the driving force in my mother’s life to see that her children had what had been denied for her—a college education. When I became the first person on either side of the family to go to college, it was the proudest moment of her life. I would also tell you that she would live to see all three of her children graduate from college, and I know she knows this, but we lost her long ago, but I know she knows that not only did her children get a college degree, but all of her grandchildren as well. That’s why coming to graduation makes me so happy, because it makes me think of her, and it makes me understand what she did for me, and how happy that made me. She asked nothing of her children but they do their best, and then she expected us to follow up to that rule. At our house—this is true—at our house there was a three-day limit on being sick. After three days she said, “Get up to there and go to school. You’re well.” And we did.
I remember once when I was grown and my brother was still at the University of Texas at Austin, and he got in an argument with her about she had never given him enough credit for all the good things he had done. He said—and I remember it very well—he said, “You never had to come down to the University of Texas and get me out of jail like some other parents did.”
And she looked at him and said, “I didn’t send you down there to go to jail. I sent you to go to school.”
When she died an obituary writer at the Fort Worth paper called me up and said, “You know, you and your brother and sister have all been very successful in your various fields of endeavor. Why do you think that was?”
And I said, “Very honestly because we were afraid not to be. We were afraid of what she would have done to us.”
I’ve never held much to this self-made man or woman theory. We all get help from somebody and many of those who helped you may be in this arena today. There is no better time than right now to look at them and say, “Thank you, parents.” Let’s just say that. “Thank you, parents, for what you have done to get these people here today. Thank you very much.”
And I want to say one other thing to these graduates. Until you sit where your parents sit, you will never know how proud they are of you today. John Kennedy once said that few men would trade their time on earth for the time of another, and I certainly would not trade mine. But I am envious of the adventure that awaits you, the wonders you are sure to behold, and I know you will see those wonders because I think back to the world that I have been privileged to see and all that has happened in just my lifetime. How, while I was still a child, my parents met and defeated the greatest menace ever encountered by civilized people—Nazism, and they knew they had to do it. They knew they had to win because had they lost, they knew the world would have been placed on the edge of a new dark age, and they did what they had to do.
I think about how in my lifetime, man for the first time left the earth and here we are with one of our astronauts here today. I remember it was in my lifetime that America underwent not one, but two great social revolutions: the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s movement. Think about it. When I graduated from high school, no black person had every attended any school that I had attended. When I played sports, no black athlete was ever on a team with me or did I play against an African American. Yet, in less than my lifetime, a society that once sanctioned and legalized segregation came to outlaw it, and women were finally allowed to take their rightful place in our society.
I remember when I was a young reporter. I was sent to Oxford, Mississippi, to cover what would be my first big story, the enrollment of James Meredith. And I spent the most terrifying night of my life, even including the times later when I went to Vietnam, when we were caught on that campus and that riot broke out. Two people were killed, 166 people were wounded and injured, and the governor of Mississippi vowed that no black person would ever attend that tax-supported institution.
But now I can remember going back to that campus in 2008 to cover the first presidential debate and seeing the governor of that state, Haley Barber, working with black kids and white kids together, and I said to him, “Governor, what are you doing here?”
And he said, “We want to make this perfect.”
And as you’ll recall, it was perfect and one of the candidates in that debate that night was an African American. It made me understand. We may still have a long way to go in this country, but we have come a very long way in less than my lifetime and that day made me very proud to be an American.
As I reflect back on my own life, I remember what one of my favorite historians, Will Durant, once said that, “Rome was not built in a day, but neither did it fall in a week.”
The fall of Rome occurred over 300 years. That is longer than any democracy, including our own, has survived. As wondrous as it is, we can never take our democracy for granted. It can only survive as long as we, its citizens, are willing to nurture, to defend, and to tend it.
Many of you here will be leaving to serve on the front lines of freedom. Others will be here in this country being good citizens. To both of you, there are so many, different ways to serve our country. To both of you I ask you to remember this: Remember it is not our weapons, but our values that are the core of the real strength of America, the foundation upon which all else rests, the values that you were taught here at The Citadel, the values that my parents taught me and that your parents taught you.
Hubert Humphrey famously remarked that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the single, most effective foreign policy achievement of the last half of the 20th century. It had nothing to do with foreign policy, but it showed the rest of the world who we were, how we treated the least among us, that we were not afraid to correct wrongs that had been a long time in the making, and that we were the better for it, and that our country was the stronger for it, and even more importantly it demonstrated that the way we conduct our business, the way we go about things, works.
During the Cold War we built the greatest arsenal of weapons that the human race has ever assembled and yet, it was not the weapons that won the Cold War. The weapons kept the Soviet Union at bay. The war was won when the people east of the Iron Curtain looked across and saw that the people on the other side had a better way of life, and they wanted some of it. They didn’t want rockets and guns. They wanted washing machines, and television sets, and schools where they could send their children and feel that their children would be having a chance to compete with the richest people in town. They saw that their system of government couldn’t provide that, and when they saw that, the Berlin Wall came down, communism collapsed, and America and its values prevailed.
Our greatest security comes when people understand who we are and that our system works. When we mistakenly take shortcuts and in haste or panic try to adopt the methods of those who oppose us, we do not strengthen our country, we weaken it. We must always practice in this country what we preach. And our message to the world must be that disregarding the law, obeying only the laws that are convenient, those are the things that the other side does. That is not America. That is not what we do. For one thing, we have never found it necessary.
So, you leave this campus today to enter a world more complicated than the America of my college days and the challenges are more complex. But you are better equipped to meet them because the store of knowledge increases with every generation. It is your task now to meet the challenges of your time. But your most important task is to pass onto your children what you have learned here and before you got here, to pass on basic American values.
To again quote the imminently quotable Will Durant, “Civilization is not imperishable. It must be relearned by every generation.” It is a message we have disregarded our peril for as he has phrased it. “Barbarism like the jungle does not die, but only retreats behind the barriers that civilization has thrown up against it and waits their always to reclaim that to which civilization has temporarily laid claim.”
So, I close by saying: do your best, love your country, set your expectations high, and remember always—true greatness comes not from the battles we win, but the battles we choose to fight.
I thank you. The world needs you. God bless you.