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President Runte, thank you.

Congratulations to Adm. Giambastiani, Conrad Hall and Thelma Harrison for your honorary degrees.

Thanks also to everyone here at Old Dominion University, especially the administration and staff, for your kindness and for making me feel so welcome. You have been really great, and I appreciate it. It is wonderful to be back here.

And thanks to all of you for letting me spend a few minutes with you today. Congratulations on earning your degree. Whether this marks the end of your formal education, or a step on a longer journey, you've set an example by completing your studies. Congratulations also to friends, family and especially parents. You may be broke - but at least you've got something to show for it!

Let me also thank professors. Teaching is a very special and noble profession, and many of the professors who have guided you toward your degree will become friends and guides throughout your life. Teaching requires knowledge, dedication and caring.

I have a personal stake in this. I come from a family of teachers. My grandmother taught in a small school in the second-poorest county in Kentucky. She not only taught fourth graders how to read and add, she also did things like sew skirts, darn socks and help those who were too poor to afford even basic things.

The professors and students you've met here are likely to become some of your closest and most trusted friends. They know you. They care about you. And those who teach deserve special thanks.

So now, some advice. Graduates, don't let any of today's festivities go to your head. You have only just begun to learn. You may have mastered the basics of a discipline, but what about mastering life? No matter how carefully you have tried to plot your future course - no matter how hard you have worked or how dazzling your successes may be - your future will hinge on things beyond your control. You likely will wind up someplace you never imagined because in the great game of life, the unexpected is the rule, not the exception.

This isn't bad; it's thrilling. You will confront things you have never thought about and make use of talents you didn't know you possessed. With any luck, your journey will deliver you to a destination that surpasses your wildest expectations.

Let me share a bit of my experience along these lines. Thirty years ago today, I was in Africa, teaching physics and East African geography. I was in Africa because I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. I had a degree in philosophy and a minor in math, which made me about as marketable as - well, a guy with a philosophy degree. I lived in a mud hut in Bushiangala, Kenya - a village where the water supply was provided by women who trudged each morning to a nearby valley, dipped enormous clay jugs into the river, and carried the jugs back up the hill, atop their heads. It was a place where you learned the evening meal was going to be stringy chicken because you could hear the cook strangling the main course just outside your window. The last thing I expected back then was a career in journalism, let alone two stints in the White House and invitations to serve as a commencement speaker.

The one constant in life, as Heraclitus first remarked - at last, I've found a way to make use of that philosophy degree! - is change.

Consider journalism and politics. Three decades ago, newspapers - such as my alma mater, the Virginian Pilot - dominated the business. I wrote my first stories on a typewriter and handed carbon copies to a copy editor. Cable news did not exist. The Internet was a closely held defense-industry secret. We bought music on vinyl discs called records and played them on turntables - using the same technology Thomas Edison employed 70 years earlier with the first phonograph.

Politics was similarly antediluvian. Campaigns moved slowly, and political parties didn't crown candidates until the early summer. Voters got plenty of time to mull over candidacies and think through issues. Would-be commanders-in-chief traveled from city to city and state to state, relying primarily on personal appearances. People got to see them, hear them, touch them. When Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter ran in 1980 - that last pre-cable-news presidential race - people in virtually every state got a glimpse of them during the primaries. Now, campaigns unfold not on solid ground, but in the stratosphere, where electrons race to convey messages via television, radio and the Internet. You don't see candidates the way you used to. If they show up, chances are the event has been scripted highly, and the spectators are there to fill in the background rather than to judge the politicians.

In some ways, today's electioneering process is more democratic: Bloggers have become a fascinating new factor in the business. While the business of journalism used to require huge sums of money - for broadcast towers, printing presses and the like - now anybody with a personal computer can enter. This has democratized elections and election coverage. At the same time, however, the pressure to get in the public eye constantly has forced campaigns to become more shallow, orchestrated and rushed.

That said, most of the change in American society is driven by this nation's raw and ragged dynamism. Our information society is more knowledge-intensive, competitive and creative than any in history - and it's only going to get more so. None of us in the news business 30 years ago could have imagined the technological revolution in journalism and broadcasting - but here we are. Don't assume progress stops with you. Before you know it, you'll be asking your kids how to operate gizmos that seemed to spring out of nowhere, just as your parents now are asking, "What on earth is that Facebook thing?"!

The point is, you are headed into the great unknowable - a life defined, enriched, decorated and upended by surprise. It is a time of inexpressible excitement and promise. So what should you do? How should you arm yourself against the looming onslaught?

By all means, keep learning. Your chief objective as a college or graduate student is not to become wise, but merely to learn how to learn.

But you also need to expand your horizons. Get yourself some hobbies. Learn to play a musical instrument or climb a mountain or knit - something, anything different and new.

But I didn't come here to advocate knitting. Instead, I'd like to suggest that you spend some time thinking about two topics that are taboo on many college campuses, but which will occupy a great deal of your attention in years to come. Those topics are … God and country.

I'm not being facetious. You will encounter big questions about these things as the years roll by, and the answers you supply will determine the shape of your life.

The issue of God is an interesting one. None, in my opinion, is more important - and few in this day and age are as controversial. We live in an aggressively secularized society in which authorities actively belittle or suppress religious conversation. God has become politically incorrect. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't ask whether He exists - I emphatically believe he does - or that you shouldn't ask how your reply to the God question influences the way you view yourself, your work, and your fellow human beings.

We live in a profoundly religious society, which from the start drew astonishing conclusions from shared articles of faith. Our founders believed in a Creator who fashioned not just the universe and the laws that govern it, but also created humankind and the laws that describe proper relations between people. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Washington & Co. did not consider morals mere products of trial and error. They viewed ethical precepts as fundamental truths, woven by the Almighty into our natures.

Jefferson decreed that these unalienable truths are not subject to human amendment. Powers and principalities might question them, but they can't change them. Nobody can revoke fundamental rights that accrue to us as children of God. Nor can anybody alter the fundamental dignity of every created being. We all have rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - and these rights carve out a special place in the scheme of things. They give us indestructible potential. The entitle us to explore our dreams - rather than answering to the call of a master. They let us push our imaginations, test our daring, pursue goals that in other societies would seem impossible or insane - like going to the moon, or trying to fathom Britney Spears.

On the political front, this approach has incredible power. It protects us from us from servitude. It makes each person sovereign, and each politician a servant rather than master. It lays the groundwork for a society governed not by brute force and power, but by bonds of trust, affection - and love. Mull that last part. The unique and abiding feature of American democracy is the place it holds for the most powerful of all human emotions, love. There's something magical in a political system that hinges on something so tender and so mighty.

There's more. The question of a Creator dares you to ask whether life as we know it is a product of chance or design. If you believe life arose out of blind luck, as proteins arrayed themselves propitiously in an ammonia-like soup, you are not likely to believe it possesses any greater underlying meaning. Everything you see and do and experience is a fluke. We live. We die. So eat, drink and be merry. Our intense joys, our feelings of profound satisfaction and happiness - all are accidental, and therefore not of any lasting importance. To crib a line from Las Vegas: What happens with you, stays with you.

I'll go no further here. I won't propose to answer any of the God questions for you. You must do that yourself. But realize: You won't be able to avoid them. They will leap out in front of you whenever you approach the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and they will return when things in your life seem perilous or grim. You might want to get started thinking now, rather than waiting for those heart-pounding moments when the Grim Reaper appears unbidden on the walkway leading to your door.

The second issue is country. Most of you are Americans, and all of you have enjoyed the luxury and privilege of living in this country. The wonder of America is a firm fact for each of us, but it's worth examining.

How is it that this country, of all those on earth, has managed to become so wealthy, powerful and inspirational? And what kind of country are we, really? Are we great or evil?

The first question has an easy answer. America abounds in resources and natural treasures, but other nations have more.

We also enjoy geographical diversity, moderate climate and plenty of arable land. But other nations have even balmier temperatures, and many abound in fertile ground.

Natural bounties are a necessary condition of our success, but they aren't sufficient to explain why our country today has more wealth than the rest of the world combined - even though we represent less than 5 percent of global population.

This country owes its existence to a wonderful combination of restlessness, righteousness, rebelliousness, and seat-of-the-pants ingenuity. Our forebears came here in search of land, liberty, and refuge. They weren't aristocrats. They were a motley crew - usually short on funds and less than fully refined. They differed sharply on fundamental issues, ranging from religious practice to slavery. But within a short span, they came to share an idea that spawned a dream. The idea was freedom and the dream was, in the words of the Declaration, a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal."

Societies develop customs - personalities. We've got a special and distinct personality, and it stands out. We Americans are an optimistic lot. The people who founded this country made what at the time seemed to be a wild and reckless bet. They spurned government by the wealthy and well connected and cast their fate with farmers, and craftsmen, and merchants -laborers. Advocates of independence risked death in the faith that people will make good and creative use of liberty - provided we create a system of laws that protects equally the rights of all.

That faith makes all the difference. When you believe in freedom, that give others the chance not just to succeed, but to fail - gigantically, stunningly, tragically. You encourage risk, which is why we have become the brashest society in the history of the world - filled with creative energy, missionary zeal, unparalleled generosity and deep optimism about the might and rightness of liberty.

I know: The nation was deeply hypocritical at the outset, and suffers its share of hypocrisies today. Slavery was a founding stain, expunged only in part by our bloodiest war, prolonged by decades of bigotry and violence, and finally rendered unacceptable through the determined action of freedom riders and civil-rights heroes and heroines such as Thelma Harrison. But note: The solution came from within - from Americans who refused to accept the hypocrisy - people like William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They stood up at great personal risk, and transformed the moral, political and economic landscape of the country.

We saw a similar, but slower and less dramatic arc when it came to the rights of women.

Today, fundamental debates continue, as we wrestle with the rights and claims of everyone from the unborn, to the infirm, to immigrants. Our imperfections have spurred reformers to demand a more perfect union - knowing that we will never finish the job of improving this country.

But despite our flaws, we live in a special land at a special time. It may be fashionable to talk in apocalyptic terms about contemporary America. But it's also wrong. We're not collapsing as a culture. In fact, this may be our finest hour. In six short years, we have experienced the worst attack ever on our soil. We were in a recession on September 11th, 2001, and since then, we have absorbed economic blows that would have crippled lesser countries. We have endured These corporate scandals - Enron and the like - expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the costliest natural disaster ever - Hurricane Katrina - oil prices approaching $100 a barrel, and the subprime lending mess. And through it all, every major indicator of well-being has improved.

The economy is the most competitive on earth. More people are working than ever, earning more than ever, saving more than ever. More own homes. More send their children to college. Figures released last week place the national wealth at an astounding $58 trillion dollars - more than the rest of the world.

Non-economic indicators provide let us draw an even broader picture. Drug use is down across the board, and especially among the young. Teenage pregnancies are at the lowest levels in more than three decades. The same for the abortion. Divorce rates haven't been this low in nearly 40 years. Kids are smarter - educational attainment levels are up - and we're seeing a more equal distribution of everything from wealth to family security across all income levels and racial/demographic groups. We are the most charitable people on earth.

Those who claim we're a pariah state have it wrong. For a time, world leaders such as Gerhard Schroeder in Germany and Jacques Chirac in France tried to deflect attention from their failures by pointing fingers at the United States. Eventually, their voters turned them out, in favor of strongly pro-American leaders, who are advocating bold, American-style economic reforms.

Ask yourself: When disaster strikes, who does the rest of the world call? Venezuela? No: They call us. They call because they know we will respond. We take pride in trying to be generous and good.

It is in our DNA to think of ourselves as members of a special society and culture. And we are. There's no place like our place. You will receive the challenge each American generation hands to the next - the duty to keep freedom's flame bright, and to serve as a force for decency and not bare-knuckled power.

Great nations collapse when they take greatness for granted. We must remember to remain humble, to keep our doors open to those who wish to share the life of liberty and make this country great by the addition of their hard work and incorrigible enthusiasm. We must reject nativism, protectionism, isolationism and negativism. If we resist those recurring scourges, we can remain confident, strong and good. The moral: Don't diss the United States. Appreciate it. Refine it. Improve it. But don't mess with the basic ingredient - freedom.

Finally one other matter: truth. Most if not all of you are graduating smarter than I was when I collected my diploma. That's the way it is these days: you learn more and you learn it more quickly. I'm having trouble helping my 15-year-old with high-school chemistry, and I'm likely to be useless as an aide by her senior year - and I couldn't be prouder.

But knowledge alone won't get you through. You need what the ancients called discernment. You must know how to distinguish between good arguments and bad ones, good practices and bad ones, truth from falsehood. You have access to more information than any generation ever, and the flood of data will only intensify. But you have to make sense of it all.

America experiences a constant and necessary struggle to define who we are and what we will be. In a free society, everybody gets a vote, whether it is at the ballot box - or at the store, where you vote on which products best fit your needs. If you try to sit out the debates about where this country is headed, others will take the initiative - perhaps at your expense. So find your voice. Acquire discernment. Don't be afraid to change your mind. And remember, when someone offers something that is too good to be true, it's not true.

Moral knowledge counts as well. You'll get plenty of offers to cut corners, trash others, and behave more like a jackal than an angel. You'll find it tempting to view yourself as a solitary genius, in need of no one's guidance or help. In other words, from time to time, you'll entertain thoughts of being a jerk.

This is where you will need to learn the importance of having firm beliefs and living by them. It is important to say "no" when others invite or order to you behave badly. It's even more important to say "yes" to the kind of decency that respects others and invites others to respect you. Resist taking seemingly easy paths. They lead only to regret. There's nothing worse than a guilty conscience - unless it's a dead conscience.

Be patient. Young superstars regularly crash to earth because they thought the moral rules didn't apply. Even if they're smarter than everyone else, abler, more creative, more industrious, more productive - it doesn't matter. Those who don't accept moral truth eventually destroy themselves.

You have the best support system in the world, and you probably don't know it. You're surrounded by Americans - people who will prod, cajole, teach and encourage. You should draw from the energy and sheer ambition of the society around you.

Permit me to get personal for a moment. I have experienced the wonders of this energy first hand. I have stage four cancer. That used to be a death sentence. Instead, I have been the beneficiary of miracles, produced by doctors and researchers, and the recipient of love and kindness from people all over the country. That is a prime feature of the American spirit. When bad things happen, people rush to help. I always advice cancer patients: Don't be a hero. Let people know your troubles and concerns. They'll come out of the woodwork - and you'll be surprised. People you never would have expected to help will be there with the right word at the right time, a bit of encouragement, a piece of advice.

Medical professionals provide an even more special sacrifice. They throw themselves into the business of finding cures. They get to know you. They treat you. They talk to you. They get close, even though they know that they're risking the pain that comes when your friends don't make it. It takes a special person to risk that kind of anguish in order to seek cures, and to provide the gift of better health.

Take full advantage of this resource. You will need it - and you will find a time when you can help others in need. There's no better feeling than to do something good for another. Trust me on this.

So there you have it - my sketchy thoughts about the things you need to consider as you move along life's way. Take pride in this day, but realize that this is just the beginning. The best and most exciting days lie ahead, as do those filled with fear and dread. The two go hand-in-hand. But the journey will strengthen you. It will forge your character. It will define you.

Embrace joy. Appreciate what you have, have fun with what you do - and laugh as often as you can… appropriately. As you do these things, keep in mind the vast and vital matters that lie at the heart of your life and times: God and country. They will play a major role in determining how you fare in the thrilling, pulsating, wildly careening world in which we live - and in which you will make your mark.

Go for it!

Thank you.

This article was posted on: December 20, 2007

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