Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 1999 Commencement

American University
College of Arts & Sciences
Commencement Address
Former Senator Dale Bumpers
May 16, 2000

President Ladner, Dean Wachtel, Provost Kerwin, words can never fully express my profound gratitude for this signal high honor. So, let me just say, thank you. My relationship with American University goes back a long ways because I've been driving by it for twenty-four years.

My number two son, who was a student at a small liberal arts school in Arkansas named Hendricks came here in 1977 for a semester called the Washington Semester. It was mandatory by students taking political science and history as a major.

So, I followed you very carefully and President Ladner, your role as president of the school is becoming legendary. The progress that has been made by American University under your leadership is indeed awesome and I have no reason to be that it won't continue, the magnificent progress you've made. To your student speaker, you've heard the best speech already. She was eloquent and beautiful. And to Elizabeth Vrenios, she doesn't even know this, but Betty and I have always attended Metropolitan Memorial Church just across the street. And we used to go as much to listen to Elizabeth sing as we do to hear the preacher preach. And so hearing you again today, was a real surprise and I can't tell you how glad it made my heart to hear you once again, Elizabeth.

I am…I think…I thought of a story today that I haven't thought about since I was governor. I told this one time… the fellow who had been invited to deliver a graduation speech and he was so inarticulate and he didn't want to do it and his wife said go ahead and accept it and we'll think of something. So, he accepted it and he couldn't figure out what he could say and so they finally decided he'd just memorize "Ode to a Prim Rose" and he had it down perfectly. The night of the graduation came, the valedictorian unhappily spoke before he did and got up and said that "instead of delivering the traditional valedictory address this evening, I'm just going to recite "Ode to a Prim Rose."" 'Course this poor man's heart sank. He didn't know what else to do so when he got up, he said "As the valedictorian just said,.." and he recited "Ode to a Prim Rose." A couple of the parents walking out after graduation and one of them said, "So what did you think about the graduation speech, the commencement speaker?" And the husband said, "He ain't much of a speaker but he's got a hell of a memory."

One other point, Dr. Ladner and I met a long time ago because I was chanting an organization called The National Faculty. He was deeply involved in that for many years, [and] still have a deep and abiding interest in it in his future. But this is something of a reunion for Ben and me. And Ben, I can't tell you how grateful I am to see you and renew your acquaintance again. Not long ago, I had a heart problem. About two months ago as a matter of fact. I began to get this skip beat. It would beat a couple of times, miss it, and for three days I was becoming increasingly apprehensive and I called my cardiologist and I told him what was happening. He said don't worry about it. Everybody has it to one degree or another and it gets worse with age. I said tell me something that doesn't. I'll tell you students there's one thing that doesn't. But it depends on you. It depends on how much you read, what you read, what you watch and how astutely you observe. Whether or not you make life a learning experience but if you do, you will grow wiser, one of the virtues of the aging process. So many people just continue reciting the same mantra that they'd recited as adolescents.

When I graduated from high school, I was sure that I knew about all that I needed to know. When I graduated from law school, I was quite certain that the world was my oyster and I never need anymore knowledge than I had at that moment. When Betty and I drove off the mansion grounds as my governor's tenure ended and I was coming to Washington to run for the Senate and then president and then take over the world, I was quite sure that there wasn't anything that I need to know that I didn't know. And, I came here and found out that the apparatus was so much more complex than I could have ever envision.

When I was 50, students and graduates, I realized how ignorant I was at 40 and when I was 60, I realized how little I knew at when I was 50. Einstein said after the first nuclear bomb exploded, "Now everything has changed except man's thinking. Is it not mind-numbing when you stop to reflect on it how little time we spend on the fact that we still have the ability to destroy civilization almost in the twinkling of an eye. In 1995, NASA launched a missile from an island just off Norway. The Russians have a very poor early warning system. It has two hours of darkness and they picked the missile up late. NASA had warned the Russians that this missile would be launched but somehow or other they didn't get the word. And they picked it up after it was well on a defined trajectory and they decided that it had been fired from Grand Forks, North Dakota. Or at least from one of our trident submarines. They became extremely excited and it was one and a half minutes before they would lay this proposition on Boris Yeltsin's desk before they concluded that perhaps it wasn't what they thought. They thought it was what in the (parlance) is called a blinder where you explode a nuclear weapon and it jimmies the earlier warning system and you can't see what's coming behind it. One and a half minutes.

There's a general named Lee Butler. A four-star general who was named SAC Commander, commander of all strategic air forces and of course that's all the nuclear forces, in 1991. He said that the first thing he was presented with was a target list of 12,500 targets in Eastern Europe, virtually all of them in Russia. And he went over all 12,500 targets and he thought about what Einstein had said "Everything had changed but man's thinking." and he began to reflect. Here he was, by now elevated to the commander of all strategic nuclear forces and he realized that he had twelve and a half minutes to notify the President of the United States if the Russians launched. He had it within his power but he had to make a decision within twelve and a half minutes as to whether or not mankind would live or die. And here's what he said: "Much of what I took on faith was either wrong, enormously simplistic, extraordinarily fragile, or simply morally intolerable." The nuclear build up over 50 years was as much a product of fear, ignorance and greed and ego and power and turf and dollars, as it was of elegant theories of deterrance. I could remember when I came to the United States Senate…graduates telling you about learning. I took some comfort in the fact that we had 25,000 nuclear warheads and the Russians only had 20,000 and therefore we'd win the war. The only thing more insane that the 50 year nuclear build up is the insanity of our inability to get rid of them. The one piece of advice, 'cause I would not presume to advise you except on this one point graduates, and that is: Never fear being a lonely voice. And remember that you are entitled the promiscy of your own conscience.

But pay attention to those who had a life time of rich learning. Gilda Radner was dying of cancer and she wrote a book just before she died whose entitled "It's Always Something." And it is always something, isn't it? Iraq, Kosovo, the Chinese Embassy, Littleton, Colorado following my own state of Jonesboro, Arkansas. The other morning I was on my treadmill which is traditional for me every morning and I was watching on the Today Show Katie Couric ask the national president of the National Gun Owner's Association, "What would you advise to prevent more Littletons?" She said, "Number one, we need to teach these children how to handle these weapons safely. And number two, teachers and principals should be allowed to carry concealed weapons."

You'd think that would make the NRA cringe. One thing we know--230 million guns floating around the country, almost one for every man, woman and child in America with a lot of dysfunctional children, some of whom come from dysfunctional families, is a lethal combination. But like everybody at the coffee shop, I have a solution too. My solution is to tell the president appoint a blue ribbon committee and have them visit countries like Japan, and Great Britain, and Canada. They watch the same movies we watch. They watch the same video games we watch. They read the same literature. And yet in 1996, Japan had 15 handgun deaths. Britain had 60. The Canadians had a hundred and nine and the United States had nine thousand six hundred and six. What do they know that we don't know? Graduates, for history being a great teacher, in the last 10 years we spent three point two trillion dollars and we ran out of cruise missiles the first week. And now we're proposing to start spending part or all of the surplus not on but because of Kosovo. War is always a magnificent excuse to waste money.

Over the next six years we will spend one point eight trillion dollars more. One of the worse things about it is that it breeds a false sense of security and it causes us to neglect the myriad of problems this nation faces. That also go to the strength of the nation. This is precisely what we just got through doing in the 1980s. In the '80s we created staggering national debt which weakened the country greatly. And in the 1990s, we're beginning to spend the first surplus we've generated within thirty years. And at the end of the year, part or all of it will be gone. And Social Security and Medicare will still be unattended. We will still have more people behind bars as a percentage of our population than any nation on earth. And the fastest growing job market in America will still be security guards to protect our property. Incivility and rudeness will still be a growing problem. And, we'll have two million more people and three million more cars. One million children will not be going to college because they do not have the money. Eleven million children will have no health care. Headstart will have less money and schoolteachers in the United States will make less as a percentage of national income than any developed nation of earth. And civilization will still hang by a thread. Omar Bradley, the great World War II general, on his retirement said and listen carefully: "We live in an age of nuclear giants and ethical infants, in a world that has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. We have solved the mystery of the atom and forgotten the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. We know more about war than we do about peace. And more about dying than about living." In short, at the end of this year, we could very well have and probably will have, squandered again a golden opportunity to make the twenty-first century a golden age. This wouldn't be depressing but for the fact that these problems are all solvable.

You think of the hi-tech information we have, the unbelievable advancements that we've made, it is simply a question of political will. We're not an empire, the United States. But I see so many signs that are identical to the ego and the greed and arrogance and yes, the gunboat diplomacy of the Roman Empire, the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and some of us are old enough to have seen the sun set on the British Empire. And even our European allies are showing some impatience with the United States insisting on calling all the shots. And yet we are a dead beat to the tune of one billion dollars in the United Nations. I entered politics because my father taught me at the dinner table that it was the greatest place on earth to help your fellow man. We were taught that when we died we were going to Franklin Roosevelt. He was the first president who had treated the South as anything other than a conquered nation. And people in my little hometown and the South during the Depression regularly died of typhoid fever because the outhouse was just a few steps away from the water well from which we drank. But it was under Franklin Roosevelt that we got sewers, we got running water, we got paved streets, we got rural electricity and government was providing all of it. It is not intended to tell you when I say I went into politics, I don't want to intend that to be self-serving but I believed it strongly because my father ingrained it in me. And our system is never gonna be what we want and have a right to expect until we change the way we finance campaigns in this nation.

Who can believe that a democracy can survive when the laws you pass and the people you elect are totally dependent on how much money you put behind them? And when ninety-four percent…ninety-four percent of the people spend the most money win? Jonathan Shell is one of my favorite writers and he recently described the kind of nation he wants. And it's so perfect for me and I believe it will be for you. Quote: "We should all demand the government that smiled on advancement on human freedom. That guarantees economic decency. That strives for peace and disarmament all over the world. That promotes the common good rather than private pleasure. That's friendly to religious faiths and doesn't attempt to chose between those faiths. That admits sex isn't an explicit power. Advocate its restrain but doesn't try to get into the bedroom." Those of us who have been born here or who came here are so very lucky. Yet only 36 percent of us bothered to vote last November and 64 percent are taking an awful lot for granted. Graduates, the one thing I have learned by both observing and studying history, is that often times when people began taking their good luck for granted, it has a tendency to play out. Don't take yours for granted. Congratulations and God bless and God speed.