Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2005 Commencement

American University
College of Arts and Sciences
Commencement Address
Tim Russert, NBC News
May 8, 2005
[as delivered]

Thank you all, this is a wonderful honor. Before I want to congratulate the graduates, of course, but this is a very special day. Would all the moms please stand up! Thank you. Happy Mother’s Day! We would not be here without you.

And, to the graduates…you have finally made it!

I am often asked my favorite Washington story, and as you might expect it is a bipartisan story. In the proud 58-year tradition of Meet the Press, it involves a democrat by the name of James Carville, a republican, his wife Mary Matlin. They were having a robust discussion on Meet the Press –right down the block here at NBC studios. The red light on the camera went off, the program was over, but their conversation continued…in the hallway, in the parking lot, in the car as it careened down Nebraska avenue heading toward Ward circle. The next morning I called and I said, “Politics on television is one thing, but marriage is much more important. Are you two OK?” And, Mr. Carville said, “Mr. Russert, I was so upset by the things my wife said, I put the pedal to the medal and one of these police officers came up behind me with the flashing light and said, ‘you’re going 40 in a 25 I want to see your license and registration.’ James said, ‘I’m a law abiding citizen from the state of Lousiana, I’d never violate the laws of the Nations Capital.’ The police officer said, ‘sir 40 in a 25, license and registration. ‘Officer, you don’t seem to understand.’ ‘Sir, 40 in a 25, license and…’ ‘You don’t…’ Mary leaned over and said, ‘Officer, he’s a democrat, he’s lying.’ James said, ‘what got into you woman, my lawful wedded wife, to have and to hold, richer for poor, for better for worse. How could you possibly say such a thing?’ The police officer said, ‘Ma’am, does your husband always talk to you this way on a Sunday morning?’ Mary sat back, smiled and said, ‘only when he’s been drinking officer.’

And, my other favorite, the former First Lady Barbara Bush, revered first lady to Bush 41 as he’s referred to, approached by then White House Chief of Staff John Sununu. And Mr. Sununu said, ‘Barbara, I need your wisdom, your guidance, your help, your counsel…why is that everybody here in Washington and in the White House seems to take an instant dislike to me.’ And she paused, looked at him and said, ‘because it saves time, John.’ He resigned six weeks later.

Before you can move on to the next phase of your life you must undergo the last grueling hurdle in your career here at American University. It’s called the commencement address. Let me be honest with you about my own experiences with commencement addresses…I’ve been through several of my own, sat through dozens of others, and I can’t recall a word or phrase from any of those informed inspirational or seemingly interminable speeches. In preparing for today, I had thought about presenting a scholarly treatise on campaign finance reform, but I thought better of if.

I guess I’m like that noted philosopher, Yogi Berra…I get it eventually. Yogi had flunked his history exam, his teacher ran down the aisle, shook him and said, ‘don’t you know anything?’ Yogi looked up and said, ‘I don’t even suspect anything.’ The same Yogi who went into the pizzeria, ordered his pizza, the waiter asked if he wanted his pizza cut in six or eight slices. Yogi said, ‘six, I can’t eat eight.’ It’s all true.

It’s not often that you have a chance to meet with people who share the same background and same values, so let me skip the temptation of lecturing and instead take a few minutes to have a conversation with you.

Like all of us, my life changed forever on September 11, 2001 at 8:46 a.m. I don’t believe the English language has yet found the words we need to express our sorrow for what happened on that day. Most of you were just freshman for a few days for a few days here at American University. Only in our hearts can we give full and complete expression of our grief and our shocking sense of personal loss, the agony of seeing our nation so violated. And yet we learn much about ourselves that day; about the fragility of life, about the deep love for our country, and about our real heroes.

I decided to write a book about my hero, my dad, Big Russ. A sanitation man and a truck driver—two full time jobs for 30 years, and he never complained. And that was after he nearly died when his B24 Liberator crashed in World War II. That is the story of his generation. He never graduated from high school, but he taught me more by the quiet eloquence of his hard work, his simple decency, his intense loyalty, he taught me the true lessons of life. The response to the book was enormous. Tens of thousands of letters and emails from daughters and sons who shared stories and lessons about their own dad. I realized how many Big Russes there were all across this country and this world. That in fact I’m going to use those letters for the basis of a second book, Dad: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons. As an aside, if any of the graduates or the parents wants to tell me about your dad go to and eat your heart out. You can make you and your dad very famous.

I am the first person in my family to go to college. I attended John Carroll University, a private school in Cleveland where I received a suburb education. And, so to with you. You chose a school that was different, and you make the choice deliberately. The education you received at American University isn’t meant to be the same you could have received at scores of colleges public or private, in this region or across the country. You’ve been given an education that says that it is not enough to have a skill, not enough to have read all the books or know all the facts, commitment and values really do matter. American University committed to excellence. It’s only justification for existing is because it has a special mission…training young men and women to help shape and influence our nation, our world, our society. And that means you now have a special obligation and responsibility. You have been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and, yes, indeed to whom much is given, much is expected.

Graduating from AU has given you incredible advantages over others in your generation. Yes, I too have heard smug remarks about non Ivy League schools. You think you have it bad, you should try being a Buffalo Bills fan in Washington, DC. I actually took Meet the Press to the Super Bowl a few years back. At the end of the program I looked at the camera and said, ‘now its in God’s hand. God is good and God is just, please God, one time, Go Bills!’ My colleague, Tom Brokaw jumped up and said, ‘you Irish Catholics from South Buffalo are shameless. You can’t pray on the public airwaves.’ I said, ‘you’ll see the power of prayer, Brokaw.’ Well the Dallas Cowboys slipped by the Bills, 52-17. After the game, the first person I saw, of course, was Brokaw who yelled across the room, ‘hey Russert, I guess God is a Southern Baptist.’

You have something others would give anything for. You believe in something…in your country, in your family, in yourself, in your school and in your values. The message our parents and grandparents and teachers repeated and retreated and have tried to instill in us has a central truth: the belief that if you worked hard and played fair, things really would be alright. And after working for senators and governors and meeting popes and interviewing presidents, I know they are right. I sure seems funny, the older I get, the smarter my mother and father seem to get.

The values you’ve been taught, the struggles you’ve survived, the diploma you’re about to receive have prepared you to compete with anybody, anywhere. People with backgrounds like yours and mine can and will make a difference.

In Albania, a young girl loses her father at age eight, leaves home for India as a teenage…in her own words to care for the unwanted, the lepers, people with AIDS. Believing works of love are in fact, works of peace. She became a living saint…Mother Theresa. In Poland, a young electrician, name Lech Walesa, the son of a carpenter who transformed a nation from communism to democracy. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela, President Nelson Mandela, a brave black man who worked his way through law school as a police officer and spent 28 years in prison to make one central point—we are all created equal. And on September 11 th at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon it was our brother and sister police and fire and rescue workers who properly redefined modern day heroism. All these men and women have one thing in common with you. Like the past, the future leaders of this country and this world will not be born to the blood of kings and queens, but the blood of immigrants and pioneers.

It is now your turn. You’ll have the opportunity to be doctors and nurses and politicians and lawyers…teachers, social workers, and more. And in those vital professions, you’ll be foot soldiers on the front line of our society. Your contributions can be enormous. You can save lives, protect plaintiffs, prevent disease, train young minds, and yes, you will succeed and you will make a difference if you simply accept the fact your family, and your AU education and your values have prepared you for this challenge second to none.

And, remember that it was your grandparents and parents who defended this country. Who built this country, who brought you to this world and a chance to live the American dream. Will your generation do as much for your children? You know you must. Every generation is tested and given the opportunity to be the greatest generation. And, so too, of the American University graduates of 2005, you were born and educated to be players in this extraordinary blessing called life. Climb the ladder of success and work hard and live in comfort and enjoy yourself—you’ve earned it. And, that is the American way. But please do this world one small favor. Remember the people struggling alongside you and below you; people who haven’t had the same opportunity, the same blessings, the same American University education.

Eight children today shot dead on the streets of America. Twenty-five percent of 8 th graders never graduating from high school. Thirty-five million adults in our country without a high school education. If we are serious about continuing as the world’s premiere economic, military and moral force in the world, we have no choice. We need all of our children continuing, contributing and prospering. We can build more prisons, and we will, and more police on the streets. But, unless we instill in our young the most basic social skills and cultural and moral values, we truly will be a very different society. We must motivate, inspire and yes, insist, our children respect one another. Yes, love thy neighbor as thyself. We must teach our children they are never, never entitled, but they are always, always loved. And, we must do everything in our power to make sure our schools are meaningful, skills are learnable, and jobs are available. No matter what profession you choose, you must try, even the smallest ways, to improve the quality of life of our children. No matter what your political philosophy, reach down from that ladder and see if there isn’t some child you can pull up a rung or two. Some are sick, some are lonely, some are uneducated; most have little control over their fate. Give them a hand, give them a chance, give them their dignity. Indeed, no exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to lift up another person.

That is your charge…that is your challenge…that is your opportunity. That’s what I believe it means to be a member of the Class of 2005 of American University. For the good of all of us, please build a future we all can be proud of. You can do it, but please get busy. You only have 2,300 weeks before you’re eligible for social security. Have a wonderful life. Take care of one another. Be careful tonight. And, for the rest of your life…work hard, laugh often and keep your honor.

Go Eagles!