Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2004 Commencement

American University
School of Public Affairs/School of International Service
Commencement Address
Lee H. Hamilton
May 9, 2004

President Ladner, Thank you very much for your gracious introduction. Chaplain Eldridge; Akua, Ylber, you make it pretty tough as a commencement speaker; you both did a magnificent job and I’m proud to be on the platform with you. Provost Kerwin; Deans LeoGrande and Goodman; my friend, Vice President Bob Pastor and my friend Dr. Jim Thurber; honored graduates, family and friends.

As a commencement speaker, I know my place in the scheme of things. What I say won’t matter much, nor should it.

For whatever it’s worth, like many of you, I’ve attended a lot of commencements, as an undergraduate, graduate, parent, relative, friend and speaker. I can not remember what the speakers said — even when they were my own speeches.

Honored graduates, you sit only a few feet from me, but a half-century separates us. Because we do — at least in this sense — occupy different worlds. I know you will discount much of what I say. I expect that, and that’s all right with me. It may be a bridge too far to gap. I will simply do my best to bridge these worlds and try to say something of value to you.

I am, of course, very honored to be with you at this magnificent university under Dr. Ladner’s leadership, with your family and your friends on this very special day, at this very special institution.

I hold the School of Public Affairs and the School of International Service in highest esteem. Your excellence is reflected in the rankings and surveys. But far more important than that, your schools have produced graduates over a period of years who have gone on to public service, researchers and faculty contribute to the enhancement of our society — and societies around the world — on a daily basis. For that, and for your future service, I commend you.

And I am honored to join you on the 70th Anniversary of the School of Public Affairs. I’m told that the school was inaugurated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who came to AU to issue a resounding call for public servants in a time of some crisis. His call has echoed through years.

Changes while at AU

I’m sure you can not believe that your years at AU have gone by so quickly. You are not the first graduates to feel that way, and you won’t be the last.

Whether undergraduate or graduate student, you came to Washington to study public and international affairs. What unites your experience is the awesome sequence of events that have taken place over these past few years:

-- One of the most closely contested and extraordinary presidential elections in American history;
-- September 11th 2001 — a catastrophe that changed the way Americans look at themselves, look at the world, and reordered domestic governance and international relations in ways that we are still trying to understand;

-- corporate scandals, which shook the public trust in some of the fundamental institutions of our country;

-- Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the historic debates that preceded them, the awesome images that accompany them, and the painful uncertainties that persist.

All of us are being challenged in unprecedented ways — to think about America’s place in the world, and to consider anew the goals of democracy.

Capacity of Our Democracy to Meet These Challenges

Events often move faster than our ability to comprehend them. But despite this breathtaking pace, I believe in the capacity of our democracy to meet these challenges.

The processes of democracy may be messy, imprecise, and frustratingly slow. But in the end our government usually — not unfailingly — is responsive to the people; and usually — not always — will try to do what is right. It works, not for everybody, not all the time, not perfectly; but it works for most of us most of the time.

Democracy fascinates me. People from all branches of government and society — and all backgrounds and political outlooks — debate, cajole, posture, analyze, argue, listen, and eventually reach a consensus that moves our country forward. Democracy makes us articulate our views, defend them, and refine them. In the process, we get better policy.

As AU students, you have had a front-row seat to this process. No doubt it has let you down at times. You have noticed the imperfections. Government does not work as well as any of us would like.

But the solution is not to give up and disengage from the process. Rather it is the opposite — to confirm by word and act our faith in American democracy. That is why I particularly congratulate you for focusing your education on public affairs and international service, and I am encouraged by your actions.

Nation Never Finished, Re-Created in Each Generation

This nation is never finished. It has to be re-created in each generation.

You and I, most of us, were born free. We are privileged to live free. And we have a responsibility to die free.

Some miles from here the newly opened World War II memorial is attracting many visitors. Its opening had to be rushed because many of those it honors are dying each day. It is good to erect such a monument to the extraordinary accomplishments of that generation of Americans. But the true monument to their service is the America that they left to their children and grandchildren.

Our democracy is not a product but a continual process. It is preserved not by monuments but deeds. Sometimes it needs refining; sometimes it needs amending; sometimes it needs defending. Always, it needs improving.

Democracy is hard work. It has been achieved for us and given to us. It takes the rule of the majority and the rights of the minority. It requires deliberation, consulting, consensus-building, and accommodating different points of view in a nation of extraordinary diversity, size, and complexity. As many of you have no doubt learned, it takes more than a little effort to understand our system, to explain it and participate in it.

But what impresses me today most about our democracy is that it needs your talents and virtues in order to make it work. Just as it needed the remarkable generation of our Founders, or the extraordinary sacrifices of the World War II generation, or the painful journey of the Vietnam generation, it needs you. Your task is to protect and nurture it for those who come after you.

Democracy Needs Your Talents

Over and over again, I am impressed by how much my generation will depend on yours to achieve the goals we sought.

Abraham Lincoln once attended a church service at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church here in Washington. As he walked back to the White House he was asked by his companion to appraise the sermon. He said the content was excellent, it was delivered with eloquence, and the pastor had put a lot of hard work into the message.

His companion said, “Then you thought it was a great sermon?” President Lincoln replied, “No.” He said the pastor forgot the most important ingredient: he forgot to ask us to do something great.

I don’t want to make that mistake.

I hope that you will make a contribution to your generation. There is so much that our nation needs and so much that you have to offer.

We need politicians, and people engaged in civic affairs, who know how to accommodate different points of view and work for common solutions;

We need talented men and women working in a wide range of government positions from medical research to protecting our rivers and oceans and streams to securing our homeland;

We need committed men and women building non-governmental organizations that attend to overlooked national — and international — needs.

Abroad, we need people who understand a host of languages and cultures — from Arabic to Somali, from Pashto to Hindi — so that we can communicate and better understand one another;

We need experts in a wide range of regions and religions, so that tolerance and understanding can eclipse mistrust;

We need diplomats and military leaders who can advance the cause of peace in the pockets of the world that have known protracted conflict;

We need creative and strategic minds that can adapt to the realities of the new world coming.

In these enterprises, there is room for intelligence, and innovation, and idealism and integration. It is appropriate that your two schools are joined together — and that your ranks include both Americans and those from around the globe as our student speakers illustrated. Because in today’s world, service knows no borders and restricts itself to no nationality. The world needs your expertise your perspective and your service. You choose the field, you choose the time, you choose the place, you choose the manner.

At the end of your days — and that will come far sooner than any of you can possibly think — I hope you will be able to look back with a measure of satisfaction that you have made a difference, that what you have done has counted. The monuments of your generation must stand on the same foundation of idealism and achievement as the stone and marble structures that dot the landscape of this city.

Democracy’s Wager

You see my friends; democracy makes a little wager on each one of us. It bets that if we are given freedom we shall respond to the challenges of a free life, no matter how great they may be. It bets that if we are given freedom, we shall:

-- improve ourselves and our communities;
-- take advantage of education and opportunities offered to us;
-- live constructively;
-- summon up our strengths;
-- respond to challenges;
-- and accept the imperatives of responsibility.

You and I know that sometimes the bet is lost, but more often than not it is won. For wherever there is freedom, there are those who work and fight for it.

The temptations are great to simply retreat to the domain of private life and give up on our public problems. But I think, I hope, that many of you want to be a part of what Oliver Wendell Holmes called: “The action and passion of your times.”

Your commitment encourages me to believe that your generation wants to become personally engaged in bringing about change in our society and in the world; your generation sees the obligations that extend beyond yourselves; and understands that in our current moment in history, the measure of these obligations is extraordinary, and the challenges exciting.

I can assure you, public service is a stimulating, proud and lively enterprise. It is not just a way of life, it is a way to live fully. Its greatest attraction is the sheer challenge of it — struggling to find solutions to the great issues of the day. It can fulfill your highest aspirations. The call to service is one of the highest callings you will hear and your country can make.

If that service is well-performed, you receive the incomparable gratitude from others, and an indescribable, but deeply fulfilling sense of personal satisfaction — the satisfaction that comes from paying back democracy’s wager and placing your own stamp upon it.


You are surrounded today by hope — from the proud family, friends and faculty assembled here. We all hope you will seize your opportunities, find joy in life, and be filled with excitement for the journey ahead. We have hope for you and your generation.

My generation has not done its work perfectly. We bequeath to you a nation with unrivaled and unprecedented power, wealth in the world; but also one with unprecedented challenges and problems — both abroad and at home.

But, above all, I hope we bequeath to you a few simple virtues, like tolerance, a sense of public service, and a commitment to liberty and justice for all.

I am optimistic about you and the country. You have achieved an important step through your education in public affairs and international service. You have acquainted yourself with the great issues of the day. You are developing your understanding of your country and the world.

You leave here with hard-earned pride in your achievement, and considerable skills. You also leave here — not only with an opportunity to make a living — but with the opportunity to make a difference.

You really are the best hope this world knows. Your life, writ large or writ small, will be full of surprises. I have confidence in you, believing, in the words of the Athenian oath, that you will transmit this country better, greater, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to you. I want to live long enough to see and be a part of the world that you will make. You will best honor all of us in this room who are older than you by being better than we have been.


On the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, Lincoln’s great question is carved: whether a government of the people, by the people, and for the people could long endure. There is no guarantee that it will.

You have before you a boundless frontier. The world lies before you, as the poet Mathew Arnold said, like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new.

Your energy, commitment and confidence will determine your future and the future of your country. The challenge of Lincoln’s question now rests with you. What more could you want?

Thank you.