U.S. Senator, Arizona
January 3, 1987 – August 25, 2018
University Commencement Address
May 13, 2006
Thank you, Dr. Falwell . . . Thank you,
faculty, families and friends, and thank you Liberty University
Class of 2006 for your welcome and your kind invitation to give
this year's commencement address. I want to join in the chorus
of congratulations to the Class of 2006.
This is a day to bask
in praise. You've earned it. You have succeeded in a demanding
course of instruction. Life seems full of promise as is always
the case when a passage in life is marked by significant
accomplishment. Today, it might seem as if the world attends you. But spare a moment for those who have truly attended you so well
for so long, and whose pride in your accomplishments is even
greater than your own -- your parents. When the world was
looking elsewhere your parents' attention was one of life's
certainties. So, as I commend you, I offer equal praise to your
parents for the sacrifices they made for you, for their
confidence in you and their love. More than any other influence
in your lives they have helped you -- make you the success you
are today and might become tomorrow.
Thousands of commencement addresses are given every year, many
by people with greater eloquence and more original minds than I
possess. And it's difficult on such occasions to avoid resorting
to clichés. So let me just say that I wish you all well. This is
a wonderful time to be young. Life will offer you ways to use
your education, industry, and intelligence to achieve personal
success in your chosen professions. And it will also offer you
chances to know a far more sublime happiness by serving
something greater than your self-interest. I hope you make the
most of all your opportunities.
When I was in your situation, many, many years ago, an
undistinguished graduate -- barely -- of the Naval Academy, I
listened to President Eisenhower deliver the commencement
address. I admired President Eisenhower greatly. But I must
admit I remember little of his remarks that day, impatient as I
was to enjoy the less formal celebration of graduation, and
mindful that given my class standing I would not have the
privilege of shaking the President's hand. I do recall, vaguely,
that he encouraged his audience of new navy ensigns and Marine
lieutenants to become "crusaders for peace."
I became an aviator and, eventually, an instrument of war in
Vietnam. I believed, as did many of my friends, we were
defending the cause of a just peace. Some Americans believed we
were agents of American imperialism who were not overly troubled
by the many tragedies of war and the difficult moral dilemmas
that constantly confront our soldiers. Ours is a noisy,
contentious society, and always has been, for we love our
liberties much. And among those liberties we love most,
particularly so when we are young, is our right to
self-expression. That passion for self-expression sometimes
overwhelms our civility, and our presumption that those with
whom we may have strong disagreements, wrong as they might be,
believe that they, too, are answering the demands of their
When I was a young man, I was quite infatuated with
self-expression, and rightly so because, if memory conveniently
serves, I was so much more eloquent, well-informed, and wiser
than anyone else I knew. It seemed I understood the world and
the purpose of life so much more profoundly than most people. I
believed that to be especially true with many of my elders,
people whose only accomplishment, as far as I could tell, was
that they'd been born before me, and, consequently, had suffered
some number of years deprived of my insights. I had opinions on
everything, and I was always right. I loved to argue, and I
could become understandably belligerent with people who lacked
the grace and intelligence to agree with me. With my superior
qualities so obvious, it was an intolerable hardship to have to
suffer fools gladly. So I rarely did. All their resistance to my
brilliantly conceived and cogently argued views proved was that
they possessed an inferior intellect and a weaker character than
God had blessed me with, and I felt it was my clear duty to so
inform them. It's a pity that there wasn't a blogosphere then. I
would have felt very much at home in that medium.
It's funny, now, how less self-assured I feel late in life than
I did when I lived in perpetual springtime. Some of my critics
allege that age hasn't entirely cost me the conceits of my
youth. All I can say to them is, they should have known me then,
when I was brave and true and better looking than I am at
present. But as the great poet, Yeats, wrote, "All that's
beautiful drifts away, like the waters." I've lost some of the
attributes that were the object of a young man's vanity. But
there have been compensations, which I have come to hold dear.
We have our disagreements, we Americans. We contend regularly
and enthusiastically over many questions: over the size and
purposes of our government; over the social responsibilities we
accept in accord with the dictates of our consciousness
[conscience] and our faithfulness to the God we pray to; over
our role in the world and how to defend our security interests
and values in places where they are threatened. These are
important questions; worth arguing about. We should contend over
them with one another. It is more than appropriate: It is
necessary that even in times of crisis, especially in times of
crisis, we fight among ourselves for the things we believe in.
It is not just our right, but our civic and moral obligation.
Our country doesn't depend on the heroism of every citizen. But
all of us should be worthy of the sacrifices made on our behalf.
We have to love our freedom, not just for the private
opportunities its [sic] provides, but for the goodness it makes
possible. We have to love it as much, even if not as heroically,
as the brave Americans who defend us at the risk and often the
cost of their lives. We must love it enough to argue about it,
and to serve it, in whatever way our abilities permit and our
conscience requires, whether it calls us to arms or to altruism
or to politics.
I supported the decision to go to war in Iraq. Many Americans
did not. My patriotism and my conscience required me to support
it and to engage in the debate over whether and how to fight it.
I stand that ground not to chase vainglorious dreams of empire;
not for a noxious sense of racial superiority over a subject
people; not for cheap oil (we could have purchased oil from the
former dictator at a price far less expensive than the blood and
treasure we've paid to secure those resources for the people of
that nation); not for the allure of chauvinism, to wreck [wreak]
destruction in the world in order to feel superior to it; not
for a foolishly romantic conception of war. I stand that ground
because I believed, rightly or wrongly, that my country's
interests and values required it.
War is an awful business. The lives of the nation's finest
patriots are sacrificed. Innocent people suffer. Commerce is
disrupted, economies damaged. Strategic interests shielded by
years of statecraft are endangered as the demands of war and
diplomacy conflict. Whether the cause was necessary or not,
whether it was just or not, we should all shed a tear for all
that is lost when war claims its wages from us. However just or
false the cause, how ever proud and noble the service, it is
loss -- the loss of friendships, the loss of innocent life, the
innocence -- the loss of innocence; and the veteran feels most
keenly forever more. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes war.
Americans should argue about this war. They should argue about
it. It has cost the lives of nearly 2500 of the best of us. It
has taken innocent life. It has imposed an enormous financial
burden on our economy. At a minimum, it has complicated our
ability to respond to other looming threats. Should we lose this
war, our defeat will be further destabilize an already volatile
and dangerous region, strengthen the threat of terrorism, and
unleash furies that will assail us for a very long time. I
believe the benefits of success will justify the costs and the
risks we have incurred. But if an American feels the decision
was unwise, then they should state their opposition, and argue
for another course. It is your right and your obligation. I
respect you for it. I would not respect you if you chose to
ignore such an important responsibility. But I ask that you
consider the possibility that I, too, am trying to meet my
responsibilities, to follow my conscience, to do my duty as best
as I can, as God has given me light to see that duty.
Americans deserve more than tolerance from one another; we
deserve each other's respect, whether we think each other right
or wrong in our views, as long as our character and our
sincerity merit respect, and as long as we share, for all our
differences, for all the noisy debates that enliven our
politics, a mutual devotion to the sublime idea that this nation
was conceived in -- that freedom is the inalienable right of
mankind, and in accord with the laws of nature and nature's
We have so much more that unites us than divides us. We need
only to look to the enemy who now confronts us, and the
benighted ideals to which Islamic extremists pledge allegiance
-- their disdain for the rights of Man, their contempt for human
life -- to appreciate how much unites us.
Take, for example, the awful human catastrophe under way in the
Darfur region of the Sudan. If the United States and the West
can be criticized for our role in this catastrophe it's because
we have waited too long to intervene to protect the multitudes
who are suffering, dying because of it.
Twelve years ago, we turned a blind eye to another genocide, in
Rwanda. And when that reign of terror finally, mercifully
exhausted itself, with over 800,000 Rwandans slaughtered,
Americans, our government, and decent people everywhere in the
world were shocked and ashamed of our silence and inaction, for
ignoring our values, and the demands of our conscience. In shame
and renewed allegiance to our ideals, we swore, not for the
first time, “never again.” But never lasted only until the
tragedy of Darfur.
Now, belatedly, we have recovered our moral sense of duty, and
we are prepared, I hope, to put an end to this genocide. Osama
bin Laden and his followers, ready, as always, to sacrifice
anything and anyone to their hatred of the West and our ideals,
have called on Muslims to rise up against any Westerner who
dares intervene to stop the genocide, even though Muslims,
hundreds of thousands of Muslims, are its victims. Now that, my
friends, is a difference, a cause, worth taking up arms against.
It is not a clash of civilizations. I believe, as I hope all
Americans would believe, that no matter where people live, no
matter their history or religious beliefs or the size of their
GDP, all people share the desire to be free; to make by their
own choices and industry better lives for themselves and their
children. Human rights exist above the state and beyond history
-- they are God-given. They cannot be rescinded by one
government any more than they can be granted by another. They
inhabit the human heart, and from there, though they can be
abridged, they can never be wrenched.
This is a clash of ideals, a profound and terrible clash of
ideals. It is a fight between right and wrong. Relativism has no
place in this confrontation. We're not defending -- We're not
defending an idea that every human being should eat corn flakes,
play baseball, or watch MTV. We're not insisting that all
societies be governed by a bicameral legislature and a
term-limited chief executive. We're insisting that all people
have a right to be free, and that right is not subject to the
whims and interests and authority of another person, government,
or culture. Relativism, in this contest, is most certainly not a
sign of our humility or ecumenism; it is a mask for arrogance
and selfishness. It is, and I mean this sincerely and with all
humility, not worthy of us. We are a better people than that.
We're not a perfect nation. Our history has had its moments of
shame and profound regret. But what we have achieved in our
brief history is irrefutable proof that a nation conceived in
liberty will prove stronger, more decent, and more enduring than
any nation ordered to exalt the few at the expense of the many
or made from a common race or culture or to preserve traditions
that have no greater attribute than longevity.
As blessed as we are, no nation complacent in its greatness can
long sustain it. We, too, must prove, as those who came before
us proved, that a people free to act in their own interests,
will perceive those interests in an enlightened way, will live
as one nation, in a kinship of ideals, and make of our power and
wealth a civilization for the ages, a civilization in which all
people share in the promise and responsibilities of freedom.
Should we claim our rights and leave to others the duty to the
ideals that protect them, whatever we gain for ourselves will be
of little lasting value. It will build no monuments to virtue,
claim no honored place in the memory of posterity, offer no
worthy summons to the world. Success, wealth and celebrity
gained and kept for private interest is a small thing. It makes
us comfortable, eases the material hardships our children will
bear, purchase[s] a fleeting regard for our lives, yet not the
self-respect that, in the end, matters most. But sacrifice for a
cause greater than yourself, and you invest your life with the
eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured.
All lives are a struggle against selfishness. All my life I've
stood a little apart from institutions that I willingly joined.
It just felt natural to me. But if my life had shared no common
purpose, it would not have amounted to much more than
eccentricity. There is no honor or happiness in just being
strong enough to be left alone. I've spent nearly fifty years in
the service of this country and its ideals. I have made many
mistakes, and I have many regrets. But I've never lived a day,
in good times or bad, that I wasn't grateful for the privilege.
That's the benefit of service to a country that is an idea and a
cause, a righteous idea and cause. America and her ideals helped
spare me from the weaknesses in my own character. And I cannot
When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest
attainment, and all glory was self-glory. My parents had tried
to teach me otherwise, as did my church, as did the Naval
Academy. But I didn't understand the lesson until later in life,
when I confronted challenges I never expected to face.
In that confrontation, I discovered that I was dependent on
others to a greater extent than I had ever realized, but neither
they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On
the contrary, they gave me a larger sense of myself than I had
had before. And I am a better man for it. I discovered that
nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause
that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.
And that has made all the difference, my friends, all the
differences in the world.
Let -- Let us argue with each other then. By all means, let us
argue. Our differences are not petty. They often involve
cherished beliefs, and represent our best judgment about what is
right for our country and humanity. Let us defend those beliefs.
Let's do so sincerely and strenuously. It is our right and duty
to do so. And let's not be too dismayed with the tenor and
passion of our arguments, even when they wound us. We have
fought among ourselves before in our history, over big things
and small, with worse vitriol and bitterness than we experience
Let us exercise our responsibilities as free people. But let us
remember, we are not enemies. We are compatriots defending
ourselves from a real enemy. We have nothing to fear from each
other. We are arguing over the means to better secure our
freedom, promote the general welfare, and defend our ideals. It
should remain an argument among friends; each of us struggling
to hear our conscience, and heed its demands; each of us,
despite our differences, united in our great cause, and
respectful of the goodness in each other. I have not always
heeded that injunction myself, and I regret it very much.
I had a friend once, who, a long time ago, in the passions and
resentments of a tumultuous era in our history, I might have
considered my enemy. He had come once to the capitol of the
country that held me prisoner, that deprived me and my dearest
friends of our most basic rights, and that murdered some of us.
He came to that place to denounce our country's involvement in
the war that had led us there. His speech was broadcast into our
cells. I thought it a grievous wrong then, and I still do.
A few years later, he had moved temporarily to a kibbutz in
Israel. He was there during the Yom Kippur War, when he
witnessed the support America provided our beleaguered ally. He
saw the huge cargo planes bearing the insignia of the United
States Air Force rushing emergency supplies into that country.
And he had an epiphany. He had believed America had made a
tragic mistake by going to Vietnam, and he still did. He had
seen what he believed were his country's faults, and he still
saw them. But he realized he has -- he had let his criticism
temporarily blind him to his country's generosity and the
goodness that most Americans possess, and he regretted his
failing deeply. When he returned to his country he became
prominent in Democratic Party politics, and helped [elect] Bill
Clinton President of the United States. He criticized his
government when he thought it wrong, but he never again lost
sight of all that unites us.
We met some years later. He approached me and asked to apologize
for the mistake he believed he had made as a young man. Many
years had passed since then, and I bore little animosity for
anyone because of what they had done or not done during the
Vietnam War. It was an easy thing to accept such a decent act,
and we moved beyond our old grievance.
We worked together in an organization dedicated to promoting
human rights in the country where he and I had once come for
different reasons. I came to admire him for his generosity, his
passion for his ideals, and for the largeness of his heart, and
I realized he had not been my enemy, but my countryman, my
countryman, and later my friend. His friendship honored me. We
disagreed over much. Our politics were often opposed, and we
argued those disagreements. But we worked together for our
shared ideals. We were not always in the right, but we weren't
always in the wrong either, and we defended our beliefs as we
had each been given the wisdom to defend them.
David (Ifshin) remained my countryman and my friend, until the
day of his death, at the age of forty-seven, when he left a
loving wife and three beautiful children, and legions of friends
behind him. His country was a better place for his service to
Her, and I had become a better man for my friendship with him.
God bless him.
And may God bless you, Class of 2006. The world does indeed
await you, and humanity is impatient for your service. Take good
care of that responsibility. Everything depends upon it.
And thank you, very much, for the privilege of sharing this
great occasion with you.
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