Final Exercises 2004: Warner Speech

Senator John Warner
Commencement Address, May 16, 2004
University of Virginia

Rector Rainey, it did stop raining. You brought this beautiful day, but I was told that there’s a short window without rain and, as speaker, I should bear that in mind, and I shall.

President Casteen, I thank both you and the Rector and many members of this great institution for their friendship through all these years, and I join in welcoming this magnificent crowd today, all the joy in their hearts, a sense of accomplishment hard earned, sacrifices by parents and friends, hard work by the graduates. (Applause)

I remember so well years ago when I was here. Colgate Darden was the President and Charlottesville was a very small community. I don’t think it was much below half the size of today. The University students numbered probably 5,000 to 6,000, and President Darden would walk around the campus and sometimes you’d feel someone grab you by the arm and suddenly he was there and shared a few moments with you. And many times I’ve been asked, "Why did you go into public life and become, fortunately, a United States Senator?" My dear friends, I share with you today, it started right here at this University, with the encouragement of Colgate Darden whose biography I’ve read and re-read many times. And I have a streak of the maverick in me as did he. Politics be damned. Do what is right when right is to be done. (Applause) Thank you.

Graduation speakers are given a great opportunity to make news. I will unlikely make any news today. I didn’t come for that purpose. I don’t wish to pontificate, as I have now for 26 years as a Senator. (Laughter) I only want to share with you some of my most personal reflections of a half-century of life since I left this campus, and encourage you to believe that you’ll have the same good fortune in every way as have I.

I also am reminded of being at this very spot at another graduation, in 1972, with another wonderful President whom I had formed a great deal of friendship and respect for, Edgar Shannon, by my side. It was the graduation of the various members of the armed forces. It was in ’72, in the height of the Vietnam War and, as he introduced me, I went to this very rostrum and started on a powerful wind-up and a speech. Suddenly there was a voice that echoed down across this magnificent Lawn emanating from someone who was not burdened by academic regalia. As a matter of fact, he was burdened by nothing. He was a streaker, and he stood on top of the Rotunda and he gave a speech and all the cameras focused on him, and I was drowned out and that was the end of the day. (Laughter) I do hope I’ll have a little better fortune.

Now, for a personal confession: as you grow older in life - and I’m happily at 77 now - you begin to think there are certain things that you’ve got to confess to at long last, and today is confession day for me. And so in making that confession, I hope it warms your heart with laughter. I want to read a letter sent to me by the Admissions Director of the University of Virginia Law School, August 1949, 55 years ago. "Dear Mr. Warner: Your score on the law school admission test has been received. We are sorry that you did not make a higher mark on this test." (Laughter) Wait a minute. It goes on. "400 matched against the 1947-48 scores means only 24% received lower scores against all the candidates for the 1949 entering classes. It is even lower, 21% receiving lower grades, nationwide. Nevertheless, the Committee has decided to allow you to begin your study of law in the semester beginning September 8, 1949." (Laughter) Wait a minute. "But we feel that you should be warned that unless you apply yourself diligently to your studies here, you will be most unlikely to succeed." (Laughter)

A few years ago, I was reading the biography of an individual who was one year ahead of me in law school, a friend, a very valued friend. I knew him well, and guess what? He received the same letter: a former Attorney General of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy. So how did we manage? I’m going to tell you the secret of that today in brief terms. That letter is now framed and hangs in my front office. I look at it often. I show it to so many young people coming through to encourage them that they, too, can succeed. But I succeeded because of the tremendous support I received from classmates at the University, from the faculty - a magnificent, strong-willed faculty, who guided me every step of the way. So I come here today to read that letter and say, with the greatest degree of humility, thank you, University of Virginia. (Applause)

Now, as the last remaining obstacle to your graduation, the speaker, I want to share with you but two messages, and then I’ll streak to my seat. (Laughter)

I want to compare the world in which I walked out into these many years ago when America was preeminent and America was idolized by the whole world for its strength, the principles upon which it was founded, an America which provided opportunity for everyone. And we, as a nation, were protected by two great oceans, never thinking for a moment that anything could strike us here in our towns and villages. But as you leave here today, you’re to be greeted by a far different world. 9/11 changed all of that, changed everything, but I think today, as an outgrowth of that tragedy, this country is stronger than ever. (Applause)

You know, you stop to think about that event, and I’ve done a lot of study about it. For perhaps $100,000, - that was the total cost that was invested by al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to equip and train some 20-odd individuals who brought the death of over 3,000 - the destruction and the damage not only to life and limb, but it shattered the economy as well, and we only see today really the beginnings of the recovery from that. For that $100,000, this country has now invested hundreds of billions of dollars to prepare ourselves to try and fight al-Qaeda terrorists on other shores, and despots in Afghanistan and Iraq. The cost has been enormous, but this nation remains stronger than ever before. (Applause)

Terrorism has no boundaries. It has no boundaries, but this nation will succeed. I am privileged to be in a position today to try and make those decisions - which I’ll address momentarily - to keep America strong and to follow the rule of law, whether it’s the Geneva Convention or in the trials that are about to take place to redress great wrongs. We are a nation of a rule of law and will always be that way.

It’s also important that you face a one-world market today, unlike in my day when America dominated. You couldn’t even look behind you and see nations that were scurrying and rushing to catch up to the dynamic economic engine of that time, but with the education you have today, with the enthusiasm that you have, you will go out, and even though there's a 24-hour news cycle and the Internet and instant global communications creating this one-world market, you will succeed in keeping America strong economically. Yes, it is a far more complex world today. And as was mentioned, I got onto the tag-end as a young trainee in World War II, and that generation is called The Greatest Generation. But here today, I pronounce to you, you, the graduates of today, will make America even greater, and you will be a greater generation. (Applause)

Crossing your mind is the thought of, "How do we do it?" And I select but two pillars of strength for me, and I hope they’ll be a strength for you. First, education. (Applause) We must try in every way to let there be no restriction on America's investment in education - to make it stronger. I think of Mr. Jefferson's view that universal education is society's crusade against ignorance. It's embodied in our founding principles of "a public education for all our citizens." In this new century, these words are never more true. We must expand our horizons to make education the most powerful force for positive change around the world. Stop to think of that. (Applause)

You know, I checked the other day: in the Arab world, 65 million adults, including half of the women, are illiterate, and less than 2% of the Arab population has access to the Internet. The time has come that education must be exported beyond our shores in such a way as to bring about peace and that can be done. Education can be a far more powerful weapon for peace than all of the armaments in the world. (Applause)

I now turn to the second pillar that has stood me so well. It might surprise you in a way but in my profession, which I have now been in these 26 years and elsewhere in public life, there’s great temptation. If you were to ask of the saddest moments that I’ve ever endured in these many years in the Senate, it was those two to three occasions when all one hundred Senators went into the Chamber, the doors were closed, and we had to sit in judgment of a fellow United States Senator and determine his suitability to remain. I cannot tell you of the stress on every individual to render that judgment. Three times in this period have members of the Senate been expelled, but they were done in accordance with the rules, treated fairly, judged fairly and held accountable.

Now, you say, "Senator, what’s the relevance today?" And I say it's because you leave here with the Honor System as a part of your background. It will stand you well, my dear friends, wherever you go. (Applause) It has stood the test of time for me, and I have reflected on it so heavily in the past week or so, when, once again, I find myself in the vortex of crisis here in this country. When but a very few men and women in uniform perpetrated crimes, a basic rejection of any thought of civil rights, a basic rejection of everything they had to have been taught in their homes, in their schools, and in their churches, and just abandoned civilization. My Committee has held three hearings on it. We will hold more, because I feel ever so strongly that the mistreatment of these prisoners in Iraq represents an appalling and totally unacceptable breech of military regulations, conduct, and professionalism. (Applause)

It pains me because the damage done to the reputation of our armed forces and to our nation around the world has the potential of undermining so much good that we have done thus far. But, again, we’re a strong nation and this degree of breakdown in military leadership is being addressed now by the various entities of the Department of Defense. Apologies have come from the highest levels of government and will continue, I fear. And our Committee will search on behalf of the Senate. We will search until all the facts are out, all those bits of information that can render judgment in accordance with the rule of law and a fair trial can be made. We will let no stone go unturned. We’ll go up the ladder of chain of command, down the ladder and sideways. We will do this on behalf, not just of the Senate but the people of the United States of America. (Applause)

Bear in mind - and I'm so pleased that the President recognized the men and women in the armed forces who participated today who graduated yesterday with their degrees in military science and their commissions - 99.99% of the men and women of the United States military are magnificently performing their services all over the world. All over the world, taking risks, losing them, losing life, most painful to all of us, and losing limb. We must be mindful that we are gathered here today only because generation after generation of Americans have gone forward in the cause of freedom to protect our freedom of speech and assembly. And to let us join today not only here but all across America to welcome our new graduates. (Applause)

So I finally turn, again, to say that we will not fail in our mission to provide freedom in far-flung lands of the world. We will not be deterred. We will hold those accountable and get on about our business and the whole world will see democracy in action, and democracy treating with fairness and firmness those that have been wrong. (Applause)

So I wanted to end with a short story at another graduation some years ago. As I walked down the lawn, a young graduate, a lady, pressed a note in my hand and said, "read this." And when I got to the rostrum and sat down and I opened it up, it revealed one of the best pieces of wisdom I've ever received in my entire life. The note said "Blessed are ye that are brief for ye shall be re-invited." (Laughter)

This campus has been home for me. It is hallowed ground for me, because I will continue to draw on the roots of the teachers, the confidence that was taught me, the values that were taught me, as I go about every decision I will make and have made through these many years and for that, I'm so grateful. (Applause)

The other day I met with a student and we talked about my speech. I wanted a few suggestions. I said, "There’s got to be fear and apprehension in the graduates," and she dispelled it. "Oh no, we’ll find our way in the world. The only fear that we have is that as we leave, never again in our lifetime will we be able to create the joy, the body of friendships, the support that we received at this University," and there's a lot of truth in that. You will not likely ever find it again, but that will provide you an emotional base, a sense of mind and determination, and in moments of challenge and stress, you can think back upon it, and be ever so grateful of what this magnificent University has given you. (Applause)

So I close with this little story about Winston Churchill. I read it often in times of great challenge to our government and our institutions. He delivered a graduation speech, the shortest on record, at his old preparatory school, Harrow, in the fall of 1941. The students before him would all soon be in uniform because the Battle of Britain was underway, and that nation was struggling for its very basic preservation. He stood before them, after putting his derby on the rostrum, and, leaning his cane up against the side, he started out and gave a few preliminary remarks, and then he ended with the following. I quote him: "Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never - on nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in, except to the convictions of your own honor and good sense."

So I leave you today, urging you to remember those words and reminding you that you have that great strength from what you've learned here. And, if you use the Honor System as your moral code, you will most certainly succeed.

God bless and thank you.