Final Exercises 2011: McDonnell Speech

Governor Bob McDonnell
Commencement Address, May 22, 2011
University of Virginia

Thank you. It is great to be on the Grounds at THE University.

Congratulations to the University of Virginia Class of 2011! And congratulations to the UVa men’s lacrosse team on their way to another Final Four, and the #1 in the country UVa baseball team!

I want to thank President Sullivan, Rector Wynn, the Board of Visitors, and the incredible faculty of this university for a great year of love and training of your students.

And I want to especially congratulate those of you graduating with honors. You are exceptional achievers. Some of you have even received a 4.0 GPA. I got a 4.0 one year…a 2.0 the first semester and a 2.0 the second. It wasn’t really that hard.

I truly am honored to be here.

You see I’m not only Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, but also a Wahoo father who looks forward to, in May of 2014, sitting out there where you are and watching my twin sons walk across this stage.

Parents, grandparents and families, thanks for your love and support for your graduate.  I too feel your pain of tuition checks. Congratulations on the pay raise you get today! As I like to say, I come to Charlottesville every now and then just to check on my investments.

Today I want to share a few, simple, thoughts on life as you take your next step.

Mercifully, no speech has to be long.  Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address lasted just five minutes.  I promise you that this talk will take only a few minutes more!

The graduates of Hampton will never forget who spoke at their commencement exercises.

I am realistic enough to know that may not be the case for you!

I think a graduation speech is a lot like Thanksgiving dinner.

It is an annual event that provides us the welcomed opportunity for a short while, to focus on what is unchanging, good and worth remembering in the midst of a complicated, busy and ever-shifting world.

Due to great advances in knowledge and technology the world keeps getting more complex, but the keys to success have remained about the same.

The same general rules of life that led to happiness and fulfillment before the invention of the Guttenberg press, are still pretty good ones to follow, even at a time when a speech given in Charlottesville can be viewed simultaneously on an iPad in Beijing.

We all intuitively know these rules for success, because God has planted in the human heart a universal desire to love and be loved, to serve others and find purpose.

It was your founder, and Virginia’s second governor, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that, “God has formed us moral agents that we may promote the happiness of those with whom He has placed us in society, by acting honestly towards all, benevolently to those who fall within our way, respecting sacredly their rights, bodily and mental, and cherishing especially their freedom of conscience, as we value our own.”

Across ages and cultures, genders and races, the path to fulfillment is universal. Some of the keys to staying on that path include:

  • Follow the Golden Rule
  • Help and Serve your Neighbor
  • Be Kind and Generous to Others
  • Take Responsibility for Your Actions- Make No Excuses
  • Give Back to Your Community
  • Live Today Well- Don’t Worry about Tomorrow

Those are lessons most of you learned as kids. So I’ll add a couple more, lesser known ones:

  • Always Vote
  • Tip Well
  • Laugh Often
  • Never Miss the Opportunity to Enjoy a Sunset or Sunrise
  • Follow the Boy Scouts Rule: Be Prepared and Leave the Campground a Little Better Than You Found It

To sum it up: If you work hard, dream big, be honest, love your neighbor and seek opportunity you can achieve anything you want in the United States of America!

These are well worn pieces of advice. Nothing complex. But here’s the thing. In this very busy world we can easily forget the basics. I’ll tell you though, from experience, if you keep those very simple rules in your heart and practice them even when you are stressed, worn out, or generally annoyed at the world, you will find that things will go fairly well.

And I want to add two more ideas that are worth considering, ones that I try to follow as your Governor:

  • Practice Civility
  • Avoid Cynicism

I’m blessed to have a career in politics and government. But sometimes it seems that government officials possess all the etiquette of professional wrestlers.

Somewhere along the line it appears that everyone: Democrats, Republicans, office holders, activists, journalists: we all forgot why we do what we do.

We all get so invested in “winning the next battle or campaign” that we do not put enough focus on governing and serving well.

Turn on MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News any minute of any day. You will see the ubiquitous talking heads from opposing sides screaming over each other about every issue. No wonder your generation can get so turned off about politics. It doesn’t have to be that way.

As a Republican, I believe deeply in the conservative principles of my party. And I know that Democrats believe strongly in the principles of their party.

While it doesn’t get much coverage, the fact is there are very good people throughout government.

So let’s make something clear.

Neither political party has a monopoly on virtue or patriotism.

Neither political party owns our flag.

Neither political party cares more about America than the other.

Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, Tea Partiers: We are all incredibly fortunate to be Americans, living in the freest and most prosperous nation on earth.

We remember this profoundly when our nation is attacked or we have a military victory.

We shouldn’t need a special occasion to remember our common bonds. We should remember them, and cherish them, every day. The freedom our Virginia and American founders promised in immortal writings 235 years ago is alive and well today. Cherish and embrace it, and know it has been preserved with the great price of American blood.

We aren’t going to get through the tremendous fiscal and international challenges facing our great nation if we can’t first agree that we are all on the same American team.

We can disagree without being disagreeable. We can practice civility.

And that leads me to the second point: Avoid Cynicism. Cynicism allows individuals to feel justified in their inaction and disinterest. It affirms lethargy. It’s not the American way.

Trust me; I know it’s hard with media coverage filled with reports of crime, corruption and conflict. One longs for some good news stories!

I ask you today, don’t perpetuate this problem. Instead, be part of the solution.

  • Our nation’s independence was not secured by cynics
  • The D-Day invasion was not launched by cynics
  • The mapping of the human genome was not done by cynics
  • The men and women in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan today are not cynics

Cynics don’t build. They just tear down.

And while a good laugh is always welcome, no one ever built a monument to cynicism.

The future of this nation and this world depends upon you optimistic graduates today believing passionately in what you are doing, and not being afraid to risk all to try all to make this world a better place.

President Theodore Roosevelt said it this way: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood……..who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I’m not looking out at a crowd of “cold and timid souls.”

As graduates of this great University, THE University, planted nearly 200 years ago by Jefferson, you are prepared for great things. So go do them!

You step into the world with impeccable credentials, quick minds, innovative ideas and limitless opportunities.

Consider the UVa students who have come before you: Richard Byrd, Leroy Hassell, Robert F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Walter Reed, Woodrow Wilson, Georgia O’Keefe.

And now, come all of you. You walk out into a nation where the American Dream is still very much alive, where the fire of freedom still burns brightly.

Believe that you can make the world better. Be a problem solver, and not a complainer. Light a candle, don’t curse the darkness.

Use your unique God-given talents to serve one another. Volunteer at your local food bank, Boys and Girls Club, or homeless shelter. Get and stay involved. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

And now I have to don my hat as Virginia Governor one more time.  I do have one request for you.

I know there are opportunities in every direction for all of you. But I humbly ask:

If you are going to create something, do it here in Virginia.

If you are going to open a business, open it in Virginia.

If you are going to be an artist, doctor, lawyer, musician, engineer, counselor, teacher, whatever it may be, pursue your profession in Virginia.

We need your talents to keep Virginia, the cradle of democracy, strong and prosperous.

Congratulations parents, grandparents, spouses, family members and especially all of you in the great UVa class of 2011!