Last Updated June 20, 2008

2007 Commencement

American University
School of Communication/School of International Service
Commencement Address
David Gregory, Chief White House Correspondent, NBC News
May 13, 2007
[as delivered]

Thank you very much, Dr. Kerwin, other distinguished members of the dais.  

Here, I really am, very honored, and you know, this is quite a morning for me.  I have the opportunity to say, “Congratulations to all of you.” And as I was thinking, I am so honored to be here for several reasons, and Dr. Kerwin, I think I speak for the students when I say that one of those reasons is, “This is a very good look.”

But you know, I am in a unique position, because I’ve been where you are today, literally right there where you are. And I think I’m so cool.  I’m only 36 years old.  I’m a lot closer to you than anybody else, but the truth is I find myself all morning long getting kind of weepy about the whole thing -- which shows you that, with three young children, I’m a lot closer to all your moms and dads emotionally than I am to you.  So bear with me. 

But I say to you graduates on this wonderful, beautiful morning in Washington, DC, that “This is your day!”  And I say to all the moms and dads out there, “Way to go!”  [applause]  Because this is a special moment for you to be here as well.  [applause] 

It’s an honor for me to attend my second AU graduation ceremony.  I do want to be honest.  I should tell you that I’ve only given one other commencement address in my life, and that was high school.  So I hope I’m a little bit more inspiring today.  The theme of that speech, in my senior year at high school, was “Time.”  And that’s the theme today as well because, I don’t have a lot of time.  So, I want to keep this simple.

And  I was trying to think about what I could say to all of you this moring and as I was thinking about it, my wife suggested I think about what I would want my three children, Max, Ava and Jed, to know at this stage of their lives.  That really helped. So, with that in mind,  I’ve got three thoughts about my life and experiences to share with you.  And perhaps you’ll find something useful.  

The first is a story about disappointment. When I was 15, I was traveling in a car when someone very close to me, who was driving, was arrested for driving drunk.  That night was a sure sign of this person’s alcoholism and for me it capped a period of life that was frankly unpleasant.  I had many friends, yes, but I was unhappy in my life, and wanted to escape.  And I did -- in the nightly news.  I began to dream of being a newsman, of seeing the world and becoming – perhaps – a credible and influential participant in the nation’s story. That dream guided me through my own anger and disappointment about my life and brought me here to American University where I beat down the  doors of Washington’s media establishment; I studied abroad in Paris; and I embarked on a love of ideas and curiosity that I feed off of today on a daily basis.

The person driving that car was my mother.  She has been sober since that night when I was 15.  [applause]   She took the courageous step…[applause] …Thank you.  She took the courageous step of changing her life.  Today she is a better person, an important part of my life and a terrific grandmother.  And I wish her a happy mother’s day.

Disappointment back then yielded some important wisdom now, I think.  Had I not experienced that period of my life, I would have missed out on an important lesson that’s good for all of you to think about as well:  Life doesn’t always go as planned.  But it’s up to you to get over it and get on with making your life what you want it to be.  Through that experience, I learned about self-reliance,  I learned about ambition,  and I learned, frankly,  that a little pain helped make me a little bit more prepared for life

My second story flows from that experience.  It is about ambition; it’s about following your heart and your drive, and about not letting people change your mind about it.

When I was a sophomore here at American, living in Letts Hal… [cheers]…Yeah, let’s hear it for Letts Hall -- my roommate and I -- now listen to this because this is frighteningly true -- my roommate and I sat every morning at 7a.m. sophomore year -- 7 a.m., drinking coffee, reading the newspapers and listening to NPR.  [laughter] Yeah, no, I know what you’re thinking.  And, I wonder why people thought we were so boring.

The truth is, as much as I enjoyed college, and I did, I actually, I wanted to start working as a reporter.  And I did  -- for AU’s campus television station then known as WAVE. I can tell you those were low ratings.  And for a station, as mentioned, in Arizona, where at age 18 I spent my first of three summers working on the air.

Now, I knew this was a tough business; that there were people smarter, better looking and more poised than me who wanted to be reporters.  But, I didn’t know anybody who wanted it more than I did.  And I really do think this is an important lesson: Sometimes wanting it really bad helps a lot.

I was willing to go places others were not; I was willing to work longer than others would, and to seek out those in the business, like some have done on this stage, to get their guidance and their advice -- as a matter of fact, to demand that they teach me how to do it.    My father always told me, “Never say no for other people.”  I expected yeses and didn’t stop until I heard them.

And here’s the advice I give you:  “You’ll know that you’re doing what you love--you know everybody says, “Do what you love.”  You’ll know that you’re doing what you love when you realize that your work is not just a job, but it’s actually part of who you are.

My final thought to you this morning is about learning.  No matter what your degree says here at American University, your time here has really been about learning that learning has just started at American.  Excellence in your lives is about thinking critically, using judgment, and it’s about courage.

I can tell you I’ve learned quite a lot in the 15 years since sitting in this arena.

For instance, I’ve learned that speaking French to power has consequences. Several years ago, I asked the French President, at the Elysée Palace in Paris, in French, why so many Europeans opposed President Bush and his policies. The President--President  Bush, that is--rather startled by my use of a foreign tongue, responded by taking off his translation headsets and saying,  “Guy memorizes four words, he plays like he’s intercontinental.”  [laughter and applause]  Now, my retort, having studied in Paris, was “Now, you know, Mr. President, I could go on.”  To which he said, “Oh really?”  [laughter]  “I’m impressed.”[laughter]  “Que Bueno.”  [laughter and applause]  “Now I’m bilingual.”  Great thing about that story is that it has the added benefit of being true.

Now, I’ve thought a lot about what--that the lesson from that day--what it taught us about the President.  And what it also taught me. I actually think the President believes that anyone who speaks French, including the French, is pretentious. [laughter]  So I just think…  But to be fair, there was also a lesson for me as well:  It was a reminder that in language, and in life, one-upmanship is never a great idea.

I’ve also learned in my professional life, that  yes, size matters. [laughter]

I received this email from a viewer watching me substitute for Matt Lauer on The Today Show. He writes, quote, I was startled by David Gregory’s height. He should never stand next to a normal-sized human being. Al and Meredith always look like they’re looking towards heaven when they talk to him.  It’s a bird.  It’s a plane.  No, it’s David Gregory.  It is very weird. End quote.

Some things you just can’t change.  You know what I’m saying?

And you know this past week I had the high honor of meeting the Queen of England at a White House State Dinner.  I was pleased to shake her hand, but was told prior to the dinner I could only do so if she offered it to me, first. That’s protocol, you see, with her majesty.  And there was a lesson there, too, that I wanted to share with you this morning: always be prepared.  You never know who will reach out to you.

On a more serious note, I’ve learned through my work, that asking tough questions of the nation’s leaders matters because, particularly when lives are on the line, officials in our government,  Republican and Democrat, from the President on down, should justify their decisions and their positions.

I’ve learned from my lovely wife, Beth Wilkinson, a former army captain who prosecuted the men behind the Oklahoma City bombing, about the importance of service to our nation.

And, I’ve learned about pain and sacrifice from covering the events of 9-11 and by witnessing the valor of our men and women-- many younger than you-- who, after volunteering for service, have died or been seriously wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I’ve learned from my children, too, just as your parents have, that no matter how self-involved I become, which is possible in television, there are three little people --4 years old and 2-year-old twins--for whom I would trade my place on earth without hesitation.

And, I’ve learned having sat in this very arena for this ceremony 15 years ago, that this is a great day to take a moment and say to your parents, “I love you and thank you for your help in bringing me to this wonderful moment.”  “I love you” should be part of our daily routine.  Life is short.  You only have to look at the terrible violence at Virginia Tech to remind you of that.  And you know what?  The whole “I love you” thing…? We parents fall for that every single time.

Now look, I realize that at your age, you’re all still pretty idealistic and I don’t want to rain on your parade.  But, at the same time I also know that you’re looking for some of the real deal here from me. So I want to temper some of this high-minded guidance with some real-world thinking.
I’m not going to take long, just three quick pieces of advice:

Number one: Never ever settle…unless you don’t have any other options.

Number two: You’ve heard this before:  Follow your heart… as long as it leads you into private equity! [laughter]

Number three: I think this is the most important: Always be yourself…unless you find that’s not working for you. [laughter and applause]

Now, I mentioned “time” before.  It’s your time now, nobody else’s. Savor it; waste some of it if you like.  But one thing: Make sure it has meaning. 

See the world.  Make mistakes.  Experience all aspects of life.  And, don’t forget to chill out! 

This may be a pretty stressful time for you as you think about what to do with your lives.  But you’ll be okay if you remember to have a great time!

Thank you.  And, congratulations.  [applause]