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Full Text of Colin L. Powell Commencement address

Wake Forest University
Commencement Address

U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell
May 17, 2004

Thank you very much, so very much ladies and gentlemen. President Hearn. I thank you for that most kind and generous introduction. It's a great pleasure to be with you, Mr. President. I am so pleased to see you looking so well, in such good health. Us cancer defeaters have to stick together, sir, and I'm proud of you. (Applause.)

Let me also express my thanks to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees and the trustees for granting me an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree, and I offer my congratulations to the other distinguished individuals here who will be similarly recognized with honorary degrees. I am pleased to have as my sponsor for that honor Dr. Herman Eure, Professor of Biology and Chair of the Wake Forest Biology Department. And I thank you very much too, Herman.

What a pleasure it is to be with all of you on a "Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina" morning on the beautiful quad. (Applause.) And what a contrast this is from where I spent the weekend, in Jordan on the shores of the Dead Sea. Not quite the same as spring break at the beach, but close. (Laughter.)

I wonder if President Hearn and the faculty committee that selected me as your speaker went limp yesterday morning when they saw on their television sets the Secretary of State and your commencement speaker relaxing on the patio of a hotel with the Dead Sea behind him, without the slightest care in his mind except answering questions from Tim Russert, George Stephanopoulos and a few other individuals. What is he doing there? Why isn't he home working on the speech? (Laughter.)

In fact, I'm still supposed to be in Jordan at the World Economic Forum. My staff had meetings scheduled all through the evening, but I said, "No way, I've got to get back. I've got to be on the quad on 20 hours." (Laughter.) Who knows? I might even roll the quad when I get there. (Laughter and applause.)

But there is no place else I'm going to be on Monday morning than to be with the magnificent Wake Forest Graduating Class of 2004, and here I am. (Applause.)

Today is another day of celebration, as well, besides your graduation, and that is the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision known forever as Brown v. the Board of Education of 1954. (Applause.)

You youngsters are too young to realize this, but back then, I wouldn't be here; and I wouldn't even be sitting there.

Well, look how much has changed. Look what this law has done for us. Look how this law has changed America for the better, how the law showed, again, to the world how the American people can look in a mirror and see their own reflection, and when they don't like that reflection, because of our democratic system, because of the nature of our founding documents, because of our Constitution and our courts, we can change things for the better.

So while we celebrate this landmark piece of legislation, and we take comfort in what we've accomplished over the last 50 years, let's not take too much comfort because we all know the struggle is not over; the struggle will never be over until every youngster in America has the opportunity for a quality education wherever they may live, whatever their circumstances. We must remain committed, as the President has said, to leaving no child behind. (Applause.)

I really enjoy commencement activities. I enjoy being with young people at this important turning point in their lives. And I look forward to shaking the hand of all 900 former undergraduates here this morning.

And believe me, nothing will give me greater pleasure than to lead Wake Forest ROTC Army Cadets in taking of their oaths of offices. They are commissioned as second lieutenants in the United States Army and we all know that cadets rock; and I'm looking forward to that.

(Hoo-hah!)

(Applause.)

I enjoy sharing a day like this too, with the faculty and administrators of the university who have worked so hard to bring you graduates to this moment. After a parent or grandparent, no one shapes our lives, your lives, for the better more than our teachers. They have profoundly changed you during the years you have been here.

These wonderful faculty members and administrators deserve your genuine and generous gratitude. Please, for your leaders. (Applause.)

And, of course, all the family members who are here, I know the pride you parents and grandparents and other family members feel. I know the joy that is in your hearts today and I know the relief your checkbooks are now starting to feel -- (laughter) -- just about now because I've been there myself.

My wife Alma and I have three children, and we sent them all to the College of William & Mary in Virginia, one after another, paying out-of-state tuition for ten straight poverty-stricken years. (Laughter.) And we sat through each of three commencement exercises as proud as can be, just as you are today.

So graduates, this is your day. But, you, it really belongs to your parents, it belongs to your family members, it belongs to all those who gave you love and support and you owe them your heartfelt thanks as well. (Applause.)

So this is a happy day, a great day for all of us. But, at this moment, there is only one pressing question on the minds of the young graduates and I know what it is, "Is he going to keep it short and get off?" That's a good question. And a commencement speaker is always torn because I know what the students want. Go.

But, you see, your parents have waited a long time. They have come from lots of places around the country. They have come a far piece. They have been praying for this day and they want it to last. They want to be talked to three, four hours. (Laughter.) I mean, this is the first commencement I have ever done where they've got picnic tables set up -- (laughter) -- in the back of the quad. I mean, folks are pulling out roast chicken now. They're ready to stay -- (laughter) -- for hours and hours.

So what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to blend all of this together? How am I supposed to decide?

Well, I've got a little rule that usually works. Now, if you want me to speak for a very short period of time, you've got to give me some encouragement. You've got to give me some applause. No applause, we're going to be here a long time. (Laughter and applause.) That's right.

In just a few moments, my young friends, you will leave this institution and the shelter of your family to strike out on your own. Wake Forest has prepared you with a quality education, a quality education that is a treasure that will always be yours. It will never be lost. Wake Forest has also taught you the value of service to others, as it has done for generations of graduates since your founding in 1834.

You've been taught to work for goals that transcend the individual: service to community, service to country, service to mankind. Your motto, "Pro Humanitate," says it all. Never forget it. And never forget the obligation those two words place upon each and every one of you and place upon your heart. Use a goodly portion, a very goodly portion of the time and talent you have, and the treasure you will surely accumulate, to serve others. Give back and you will find that you will receive back in many measures.

Your parents have also given you an education, but of a different, and perhaps even more important, kind. From them you have learned the understanding of who you are, what you are, where you came from, your roots. You have learned the value of self, of self-worth, and above all, the greatest gift you receive from your family, and from your family and your community, all coming together as a gift of character.

In my profession, soldiering, character is perhaps the most important trait we seek and expect in our leaders, character which inspires trust in others, character which gives confidence to others to follow you into the darkest night, character which keeps you pointed towards true north no matter what winds or waves come to try to push you off course onto the shoals of doubt, dishonesty and despair, character which always presses you to do the right thing.

Do the right thing. Simple words. Childhood words. And you've heard it since childhood. You've heard it a thousand times as you grew up and many times here at Wake Forest. But it's still just as valuable a piece of advice as you'll ever receive. Always do the right thing. Do the right thing by setting your own internal standards of excellence, your own internal standards of behavior, and making sure that you meet them and exceed them. Do the right thing, even when you get no credit for it, even if you get hurt by doing the right thing. Do the right thing when no one is watching or will ever know about it. You will always know.

Our nation is now going through a period of deep disappointment, a period of deep pain over some of our soldiers not doing the right thing at a place called Abu Ghraib. I spent a good part of my time in Jordan this past weekend dealing with this problem and the terrible impact it has had on our image in the world. I told the audiences that I spoke to over the weekend that all Americans deplored what happened there and there could be no excuse. But I also told them that one soldier had done the right thing. He knew something wrong was happening and he spoke out. He told his commanders, who immediately began an investigation.

I also told them that in their disappointment about America right now. Watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing. Watch what a nation of values and character, a nation that believes in justice, does to right this kind of wrong. Watch how a nation such as ours will not tolerate such actions.

I told them that they will see a free press and an independent Congress at work. They will see a Defense Department led by Secretary Rumsfeld that will launch multiple investigations to get to the facts. Above all, they will see a President -- our President, President Bush -- determined to find out where responsibility and accountability lie. And justice will be done. The world will see that we are still a nation with a moral code that defines our national character. (Applause.)

Above all, I told them, remember that in Iraq today there are tens of thousands of young American soldiers and diplomats who are putting their lives on the line daily for the freedom of the Iraqi people. They are fighting terrorists and regime remnants. They are building hospitals and schools. They are repairing water plants and oil facilities. They are helping to build democratic institutions where none ever existed previously. They are teaching a people about freedom and democracy. They are working to help Iraqis rebuild a country that was devastated by Saddam Hussein during a tyrannical reign of 30 years.

And our troops will succeed because they are doing the right thing. Keep them in your thoughts and keep them in your prayers on this beautiful Monday morning here on the quad, and let them know this morning how proud you are of them, each and every one. God bless them, and keep them safe. (Applause.)

We are doing the right thing in Iraq, let there be no doubt. It is dangerous work. We mourn every loss. We are making progress. Next month, we will return sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government. That interim government will have its work cut out for it as it prepares Iraq for elections through a national assembly at the end of the year, followed by a new constitution and then elections for new leaders within another year.

They won't be alone. The troops, our diplomats and our aid workers will be there to help them. The international community will help. Americans have generously provided the financial help they will need. We must be steady. We must be patient as we move forward. We are doing the right thing, and we must stay the course.

This was a major issue over the weekend in Jordan, but there were other major issues that I had to deal with as well. Uppermost among the minds of the leaders that assembled in Jordan was the challenge of finding peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

It would be easy for the United States to just lean back and say there's nothing we can do, but that's not the way President Bush runs foreign policy. He instructed me to do everything I could: to work with the Israelis and the Palestinians to see if we could not get the process moving again.

We have a new opportunity with Prime Minister Sharon's announcement of his intention to leave all of the settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, or Gaza and four of them in the West Bank, I should say.

He's trying to figure out how to get this through his government, but he has the support of his people. And we believe with this decision to leave the 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank, an opportunity has been presented to the Palestinians that we hope they will grab, use.

We know that at the end of the day, they must agree between themselves about all of the final status issues. But the end of the day won't come until you have a start of the day. And I hope, and I tried to convey to everybody at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, that this must be the start of the day.

We also talked in Jordan about what the United States can do to help our friends in the Arab world to reform themselves. Reform has to come from within. It can't be imposed from without. And I'm so pleased that Arab leaders are now talking more about political reform, economic reform, opening up their societies and political systems to participation by women, improving their educational systems. And we spoke about how we could help them, how the industrialized world could come together to help them with these challenges.

These two issues -- the Middle East peace process and reform -- dominated most of the weekend, in addition to what's going on in Iraq. And they dominated your headlines. You saw it on television. You saw it in your newspapers. And sometimes you might think that's all we have to worry about with foreign policy -- challenges and crises of these natures, of this nature. But, you know, there's so much more that we do in foreign policy that you don't often read about in the paper.

We have a number of initiatives that President Bush has taken that really have the potential of changing the world. President Bush decided that the greatest scourge on the face of the earth right now, the greatest weapons of mass destruction, is the scourge of HIV/AIDS. And he put forward a program that will put 15 billion new dollars into the fight against HIV/AIDS. We have no greater challenge before us, and your nation is in the lead on going after this terrible, terrible tragedy. (Applause.)

I hope you noticed in some of the papers this morning that, over the weekend, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and Randall Tobias, the President's Special Advisor for HIV/AIDS, made an announcement where we are going to make it easier for generic and combination anti-retroviral drugs to be made available to people in need around the world. We'll drive the price down, make it more available, make it more available on a more rapid time schedule, and get on with the task of saving people who are in terrible need.

We're also working to fight other crimes that should not be even thought about on the face of the earth: trafficking in persons, human rights abuses -- major concerns of the State Department. We're working hard to help lift the burden of acute poverty in the world.

The President has another program called the Millennium Challenge Account; where we're going to be investing in undeveloped nations that have made a firm commitment to democracy, open societies, to human freedom and to the end of corruption and the establishment of the rule of law.

Just last week, we announced the first 16 countries to receive this new aid. The program will grow so that in 2006, $5 billion new every year will be put into this program, the greatest increase in assistance to nations of the world since the Marshall Plan in 1948. And this is a result of the leadership of our President, but more importantly, the result of the generosity of the American people to reach out and serve humankind.

Each of these challenges is difficult. Each of the opportunities that I've just discussed to help people in poverty and in need are marvelous to work on and marvelous to see action taken on. But all of these challenges calls for enormous work and calls for patience. But the opportunities that will be opened up by success are vast and irresistible.

Such successes are in America's national interests, as well as consistent with our deepest principles. President Bush recognizes that there's no lasting or inherent contradiction between American interests and American ideals. His approach is straightforward.

When people are suffering and you can help them, you help them. You act. You do what's right. That's the American way. Whether it's fighting poverty, disease or hunger, or whether it's fighting terrorism or rogue regimes, we are determined to lead our nation -- this Administration is -- in always doing the right thing.

Graduates, that same impulse from the heart applies to individuals no less than to nations. To deal with the troubles and confusion life can bring, we all need to be morally well armed. Moral clarity isn't a substitute for dealing with complexity; it's a necessary first step in dealing with complexity. And, friends, that first step is a critical one, because neither individuals nor nations can fight something with nothing. We can only defeat evil if we have the capacity to build more powerful good. We have to know what we are for. We have to know and to do, always, what's right.

And so you leave here today with competence and character, a powerful combination: the competence that you acquired for your education; the character that you've inherited from your parents and your family, your community, your church, your other places of worship. This powerful combination will keep you doing the right thing as you go forward in life. Use them to be successful and to prosper, use them to do well, and also to do good.

And so I congratulate you on this marvelous day. I charge you to dedicate a part of your life to the service of others, to this country, to the world. I charge you to go forth from this place inspired by all those who have gone before you.

Go forth with the love of your family, the blessings of your teachers, and the respect of your peers. Go forth to perform your duty to protect this nation's honor and to help it become a still more perfect union. Go forth in the certain knowledge that all you will eventually leave behind are your good name, your good works, and the blessings of your children.

Indeed, may God see fit that you marry well and raise strong families to build another generation of proud Wake Forest parents and graduates. My friends, graduates, your only limitation are your dreams. So dream well, dream large. And above all, party on, Demon Deacons, party on.

Thank you.

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