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Final Exercises 2003: Caplin Speech

Mortimer M. Caplin
Commencement Address, May 18, 2003
University of Virginia

Mr. Rector, Members of the Board of Visitors, Mr. President, Members of the Faculty, Members of the Graduating Class, Parents, Grandparents and Friends:

My warmest greetings to each of you--on this day so important to all of us. Congratulations to the graduating class; and special wishes to your friends and, particularly, to your parents—who shared with you all the trials and traumas in your earning a degree.

To one with lifetime ties to these splendid and venerable Grounds, it is a high privilege to address the University of Virginia Class of 2003.  Or, shall I say “The Great Class of 2003.”  I must confess, in trying to recall who spoke and what was said at my own college graduation—“The Great Class of 1937”-- my mind remains a blank.  In fact, most commencement speakers play a rather modest, not to say easily forgotten, role in an otherwise exciting day-- competing with Moms and Dads, family and friends, all eagerly awaiting the official awarding of degrees and full celebration.

But I am delighted to be part of your ceremony. I hope there will be at least a few thoughts expressed this morning that will stay with you beyond the end of this day. And as I share these thoughts, I am ever conscious of Mr. Jefferson standing behind me and listening.


The one commencement I do remember was here at my law graduation in 1940.  The speaker was the President of the United States--Franklin Delano Roosevelt (“FDR”).  He came to the University to attend the law graduation of his son, Franklin, Jr.,
one of our classmates. The Nazi armies of Adolph Hitler were then overrunning Europe and threatening the freedom of the entire world. On that very morning, Mussolini’s Fascist forces-- joining Hitler-- had invaded their neighbor France.  Soon, every member of our class would be required to register under the vigorously debated Selective Service Act, the first peacetime military draft in our nation’s history.

In Memorial Gymnasium, after a sudden torrential rainstorm had driven us from McIntyre Amphitheater, the President delivered an historic speech— the most sensitive  part inserted by him during his train ride from Washington, contrary to the State Department’s specific pleas that America’s neutrality would be compromised. FDR dramatically declared: “On this tenth day of June 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor. “On this tenth day of June 1940, in this University founded by the first great American teacher of democracy, we send forth our prayers and our hopes to those beyond the seas who are maintaining with magnificent valor their battle for freedom.” Remember, in 1940 there was no television; no cellphones, no internet. Until then, we heard President Roosevelt only on the radio. To have the President of the United States before us in person, delivering to the world his famous “dagger-in-the-back” speech, is a moment I will never forget.

That day, he also gave us a glimpse into what lay before us when he solemnly committed, for the first time and without congressional approval, to “extend…the material resources of this nation” to the embattled democracies. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt later said: “Franklin’s address was not just a commencement address, it was a speech to the nation…that brought us one step nearer to total war.” For us, World War II had begun. And it was not long before many of us were on our way. It was not at all what we graduates had been planning.


As a law student, I spent many hours thinking about my post-graduation career and dreams.   I had already accepted a legal clerkship with Judge Armistead Mason Dobie, our former Law School Dean and, at that time, a United States Circuit Court of Appeals Judge. Next, I would go to New York to begin the practice of law-- to learn, in the celebrated words of Judge Dobie, how to “make a noise like a lawyer.” With two UVA degrees in hand, I felt prepared to face and perhaps conquer the world. But on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and all our lives changed. I had hardly begun my Wall Street law practice, when I found myself in uniform, commissioned an Ensign, U.S. Naval Reserve.  Reporting first to Naval Intelligence, I was later transferred to train as a Navy Beachmaster.  When my training was completed, I said goodbye to Ruth, my wife of just one year, and set sail for duty as a Beachmaster on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, for the D-Day landing on the Normandy coast of France. World War II and the Navy did teach me a number of important life skills— many still of help in my private career. Two, in particular, are worth remembering:
First, avoid fixed and rigid plans. Instead, allow for flexibility, innovation, and possible change— but always hold true to your personal values. Second, be willing to accept risk when necessary as you move forward towards your goals.

Philosopher William James acutely observed: “It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.” Simply put, have faith in your choices, and be at the ready to risk challenge as well as change. You will grow in strength as you do. I often recall a Virginia automobile inspection sticker on my front windshield, shouting at me daily while driving the children to school: “Expect the Unexpected”— very wise counsel, indeed.


We’ve heard a great deal of late about those involved in what has been dubbed “The Greatest Generation”-- glorifying our ordinary citizens who, through hard work, courage and sacrifice, successfully confronted the Great Depression and World II. Let me confess, though-- as a duly designated member of that body-- I find the anointment somewhat overdone.  Countless generations, both before and after--including today-- have also faced challenging times and national crises. And, in each case, everyday Americans have always demonstrated equal patriotism, equal devotion, equal courage-- all inherently part of our national culture, traditions and training.

What may we expect of your generation?  A former UVA Law School student of mine-- who later became Attorney General of the United States—Robert F. Kennedy, offered an answer in his 1966 Capetown University speech:  “Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation.” A good sampling of issues which call for your thought and action are captured in three recent news headlines:

--Pitt. Post-Gazette: “This War has Spawned a Generation’s Political Awakening.”

The oceans that seemed so large and protective of America when we sailed across the Atlantic in 1944 to engage the Nazis, suddenly do not seem so expansive after 9/11— a day that revealed our vulnerability and vastly changed our sense of national security. our generation now faces the difficult task of monitoring the delicate balance between using all means possible to protect the security of the nation, on the one hand, while carefully safeguarding our individual privacy and constitutional liberties, on the other. And you will be required to decide how our extraordinary military and economic powers should best be used—or not used-- to support or cooperate with other countries in their struggles, many in common with our own.

From ABC News: “Fighting World Hunger seems to be a Losing Proposition.”

Tens of millions of chronically hungry people in the world today cannot be ignored.  Nor can we ignore here at home our own health care problems. Nor the ongoing challenges of our nation’s four big “E’s”-- education, environment, energy, the economy.

From The Washington Post: Life Expectancy in U.S. Reaches a Record High.”

Some predict that you, in this audience, will live well beyond the 100 years mark.The consequences are manifold; but let me point to one aspect alone: You will undoubtedly make multiple changes in your career path; and no longer will age 65 be normal retirement. Already, the financial soundness of the nation’s pension and social security systems is under serious question. Congress is deeply delinquent in not beginning a major overhaul of the whole complex. Obviously, you won’t be able to focus on all these challenges. But each of you can identify important ideas and events which you feel are worthy and, usingyour convictions, education, and talents, find ways to participate and serve.


Mr. Jefferson consistently laid stress on, not just the rights of citizens of this country, but also on the responsibilities.   Writing in 1796—shortly before he assumed the unhappy post of Vice President-- he stated strongly: “There is a debt of service due from every man to his country, proportioned to the bounties which nature and fortune have measured to him.” And if he were with us today, he would, no doubt, amend his statement to read, “There is a debt of service due from every man and woman to their country.”

Jefferson urged each of us to “aspire to be a public citizen,” with a sense of shared responsibility for the democratic society in which we live. President John F. Kennedy, under whom I served as Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, leaned heavily on Jefferson’s thoughts and writings. He too spoke repeatedly of, not just the rights, but also the responsibilities of citizenship. He cited three particular obligations of the educated citizen: (1) the pursuit of learning, (2) the duty to uphold the law, and (3) the obligation to serve the public.  Be a participant, he said, not just a spectator-- “enter the lists.” It was Mr. Jefferson’s desire, from its very beginning, that this institution would produce thoughtful, articulate, and public-spirited young leaders.  And, in response, the University has throughout its history placed special emphasis on public service in its many forms. For me, my years in public service were the most satisfying and the most fulfilling of my entire life—experiences I never forget.


If your aspiration is to make a difference in your society, be willing to get out of your comfortable, private shell,-- broaden your horizons-- and become involved in your community and the world about you. In brief, “enter the lists.” In this age, most information is at your fingertips and communicating it is convenient and instantaneous— satellite imagery, computers of stunning sophistication, internet, e-mail, cellphone mania, and now “WiFi,” the fastest network in town. Participation in the democratic process is now more available and more open to you than ever before. Just think of what Paul Revere could have done if he’d had e-mail or a cellphone with “text imaging.” Just think of what your generation can do with all these powerful tools right in your hands—in voting, organizing, influencing politicians and other prominent figures, making sure your voices are truly heard, and most certainly “making a difference.” All of us here today are very proud of each of you graduates; and we warmly congratulate you on your sustained efforts in earning your degrees. I know it wasn’t easy!

You have walked in great footprints here at the University of Virginia, and you have participated in an ancient and honorable way of learning. You are now at a unique moment in your life, equipped to move in almost any direction, to test deeply felt ideas and aspirations, to reach for the best—always acting with honor and integrity. My own reward will be to greet some of you later on in your different leadership roles--  whether in government, business, the professions, nonprofits, teaching, or the arts.  I feel secure in knowing that our nation’s affairs will be in excellent hands with you graduates of this great University in charge.

To all of you:  May fortune be with you on your quest.