Final Exercises 2013: Webb Speech

Jim Webb, Former U.S. Senator from Virginia
Commencement Address, May 19, 2013
University of Virginia

This is a splendid institution, located in an absolutely beautiful place.  Everyone here with us today knows its history, and also the profound impact that so many graduates of this university have had in virtually every area of our society.  Over the past four years, you’ve also sat through probably every Thomas Jefferson quote ever made and I doubt I could come up with one you haven’t heard.


Also I heard that some of you were entertained last night by Steven Colbert, who is a very memorable fellow.  I have been on Mr. Colbert’s show a few times and the only thing I can say right now is that it’s a lot more fun to watch him than it is to be interviewed by him.

So, here’s my challenge.  What can I say that will have meaning for you on this special day, that perhaps you will remember long after you forget who said it?  Let me offer three observations that you might think about, when the time is right for some reflection.

The first is about the quality of the education you’ve received, and what that actually means in the construct of present-day American society.

Second, I would ask you to think about your moment in history, whatever that might be, because that moment is now arriving... 

Third, I think it’s important in events such as these to say a few words about the uniqueness of this country in which we live.

Before I get into that, let me talk about service to country.

The University of Virginia is known as an institution that seeks to instill the notion of personal integrity and societal duty into its students, regardless of the actual professions that they might someday enter.  With its tradition of leadership development, U VA has given us a long line of citizen soldiers.  Time limits the names that I might single out, but I could begin with former Senator and fellow former Navy Secretary John Warner, who studied at U – VA’s law school before deploying as a Marine to the Korean War, and my friend Mike Barron of Rome, Georgia, from your class of 1968, a very fine Marine with whom I served in the same battalion in Vietnam, and R.J. Hess, a recent Army ROTC graduate who lost his life in Afghanistan only a few weeks ago.  I hope all of you will join me in expressing condolences to Mr. Hess’s friends and family.

My family is very proud of our service to this country.  My father was a pilot who flew in World War II and in the Berlin Airlift.  My brother was a Marine.  My son was a Marine, who left college and enlisted as in infantryman, serving in Iraq during some of that war’s hardest fighting.  So I’d like to ask all of our veterans to stand, and I hope all of you will join me in thanking them for their service to our country. 

There is a saying among war veterans:  “All gave some, some gave all.”  On my first day in the Senate I introduced a GI Bill for those who have served since 9/11.  It was a great day when that legislation passed.  It is the best GI Bill in history.  For those of you in this audience who were able to take advantage of it, let me just say, YOU EARNED IT.

Let’s talk about the quality and the impact of your education at this university.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that by graduating from this historically revered institution each one of you has already passed through a gateway that allows immediate entry into the best that America has to offer.  Some of you will make a large difference in the future of our country.  And some – well, maybe not so much. But the truth is that in America the mere act of graduating from this respected institution has put all of you on a fast track. 

Think about that.  Not simply in the context of your peers or of your professors, or even because of your powerful alumni network.  By the time you were about eighteen years old, you had put together the kind of grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and other achievements to be granted admission to the University of Virginia.  Actually in America this sometimes Byzantine process begins to sort itself out even earlier, with all of the GT Programs and magnet schools that decide who the achievers are when a kid is as young as eight nor nine years old, and certainly by the time they are thirteen.

All of us know that different kids have different growth patterns when it comes to intellectual and educational development.  These growth patterns are affected by a whole string of variables, too numerous to mention right now.  As all of you would probably agree, there are some very smart and ambitious people your age who did not get into schools like U – VA.   You’ll see them down the road.  They’re out there hustling right now, although they will not have the starting point that you have had, through the educational opportunities and worldwide reputation of this school. 

But being a part of this institution has given you immediate credibility.  So, congratulations.  You’ve made a great start.  You have a record of early success to build on.  You will see opportunities that are endless.  I hope you will take advantage of them.  So when you leave today, reach out and hug a parent, or remember that great coach or teacher back in high school who motivated you and kept you focused at a time when you were able to pull together the right credentials to get into a school like U VA. 

Let’s talk for a minute about the era that you have inherited as you step out into the arena of what someday will be called this latest chapter in American history.  Every era has its challenges.  Yours is going to call upon those of you who care about such issues as true fairness, social justice, and retaining America’s greatness as a world leader to innovate, to take some personal risks, and quite frankly to critically examine the workings of our system in a different way than has ever been done before. 

I recall my own graduation day, a long time ago, on June 5, 1968. 

The country was on fire, in some cases literally.  I’m sure you’ve learned that the members of my generation often define this period in dramatically different terms, depending on what part of this incredible turmoil affected them the most.  Some recall those years through the lens of the Civil Rights movement.  Others look at it from the perspective of having marched against the Vietnam War.  Others, including myself, went off to fight that war.  Some became involved in the movement toward greater accountability in government, and the desire to hold the presidency to higher standards when it came to the abuse of power.  Some said to hell with all of it and headed out to a hippy commune.  But all of us knew, for good or for bad, that the post-World War II America in which we had grown up was undergoing dramatic change.

Don’t let anybody tell you that the Sixties was a time of flower power and peace symbols.  This was a period marked by stunning violence. 

In late November, 1963, President John Kennedy was assassinated.

By 1965 we were seeing gut-wrenching racial confrontations most notably brought upon the scene by the violence in Selma Alabama.

In February, 1968, just four months before I graduated, the TET OFFENSIVE brought the Vietnam War to its peak, with the blood of American soldiers splattered daily on the TV screens and into the living rooms of America.

On March 31, President Lyndon Johnson surprised the country by announcing he wouldn’t run for re-election.

Five days later, on April 4, just two months before I graduated, Martin Luther King was assassinated.  Riots broke out across the country.  Cities burned.  The National Guard was on the streets, including in Washington, DC, only a few blocks from the Capitol Building itself. 

Two months after that, in the early hours of June 5, on the very day I graduated from the Naval Academy, Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

Later that very summer, large-scale antiwar protests and violent confrontations marked the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. 

And less than one year after my graduation day – on this day, in fact, May 19th, which happens to be the birthday of Ho Chi Minh – my Marine rifle company was attacked from three sides just after we set into a night perimeter, part of a series of engagements that had us under enemy fire for the entire month of May.  This was the time of Hamburger Hill, as well as the gut-wrenching Life Magazine cover story showing the pictures of 242 Americans who had been killed in one average week of fighting. Back home, it was the year of Woodstock, and of numerous anti-war rallies that culminated in the Moratorium march on Washington.

For those of us who went through this it was indeed the defining experience of our era.  It was a time of conscription, although 73 percent of those who died were volunteers.  2.7 million Americans went to Vietnam, a war which eventually took the lives of 58,000 Americans and cost another 300,000 wounded.  The Marine Corps alone lost 100,000 killed and wounded, more total casualties than in any other war.  During the year I was in Vietnam, 1969, our country lost twice as many dead as we have lost in Iraq and Afghanistan combined over the past ten years of war.  1968 was worse.  1967 was about the same.  Not a day goes by when I do not think about the young Marines I was privileged to lead. 

There were other defining experiences that affected all of us, and also the country.  If I were to summarize their impact on the people who came of age in those years, I could do no better than to lay out the three main themes on which I focused during my years in the Senate:  Re-orient our national security posture, speak strongly on issues of economic fairness and social justice – including reforming our disgraceful criminal justice system – and work to bring full accountability to the actions of our elected officials, including the Presidency.

Ironically, those also will be the dominant issues of your era, in a different context, and matched against the demographic makeup and economic structure of your generation.   

And that leads us to my third point, which goes to the resiliency and uniqueness of the American system.  Despite our political disagreements we are founded on a bedrock of unshakable values, protected by our constitution and at the same time constantly adaptable to the realities of succeeding generations. 

We all want the American dream – unending opportunity at the top if you put things together and you make it, fairness along the way, and a safety net underneath you if you fall on hard times or suffer disability or as you reach your retirement years.  That’s the American Trifecta – unlimited opportunity, unquestioned fairness, and a humanity that guarantees security for those in need.  It’s why people from all over the world do whatever they can to come here. 

We all know we have big problems to solve, but they must be solved at all three levels of this governing structure.  We’re not doing a very good job of this.  This country hit an economic crisis just about the time that most of you started here at U – VA.  Our recovery has been, shall we say, less than balanced. 

At the top, the stock market has more than doubled since this great recession bottomed out.  As our working people have struggled following the collapse of the economy, the people at the very top have continued to separate themselves from the rest of our society.  I’ll say it again.  The stock market has more than doubled, from 6443 in March of 2009 to 15,354 as of Friday.  That’s great if you own a lot of stocks, especially since investors pay a low capital gains tax rate on their profits, and no payroll tax.   

On the third tier of this Trifecta, I am happy to say that our social programs for the elderly, the vulnerable, the disabled, and for those in need, are solid.  The safety net is there, and we want to keep it there. 

Our challenge – which may well be the greatest challenge of your generation – is to bring a full measure of economic fairness and social justice back to those who are in the middle.  Our working people and our small business owners are the ones who have always carried the American dream on their backs.  They want a shot not just at the very top, but simply to have a life of independence and financial predictability.  Their place in our society has been severely damaged over the past several years.  They are living inside an economic system and tax base that constantly threatens to strangle their desires to succeed and to push them into positions of need.  Their income certainly has not doubled in the past four years.  Their access to health care is constantly at risk.  Many are still struggling to pay for an education.  Many others lack predictable retirement plans, even when working for reputable organizations.  Few are receiving the kinds of bonuses and stock options that have driven the incomes of people at the very top so far above the rest of our society.  

This University is Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, but let me take a moment and remember another giant from that early era of our country, a rough-hewn, self-made leader whose contributions to the evolution of American democracy are too often overlooked these days.  The principles of American-style populist democracy were first enunciated by Andrew Jackson.  He absolutely frightened the ruling aristocracies of Virginia and New England when he was elected.  Thomas Jefferson called him “dangerous” and unfit for office.  John Quincy Adams, his predecessor, called him a barbarian and refused to attend his inauguration.

Jackson was a leader of enormous courage.  He was both a combat veteran and an orphan at the age of thirteen, having lost his dad before he was born, and his mother and both brothers in the Revolutionary War.  He believed in the American dream – all of it – and he lived it.  But he also despised the notion that this country should ever become dominated by a permanent aristocracy and he never forgot the roots from whence he came.  He was the first President to argue that we measure the health of this society not at its apex but at its base, and that the role of our government leaders should be to provide a voice for those who otherwise would not be heard in the corridors of power.  He built the foundation of his presidency on a base of working people that he labeled the farmers, the mechanics and the laborers.  He once said that “the rich and the powerful can take care of themselves.  But the poor and the humble require the arm and the shield of the law.” 

When I come to a college graduation I cannot help but think of my father.  My family has been in this country for a long time.  When Thomas Jefferson was putting together the idea of this university, they were already living in the Appalachian mountains of far Southwest Virginia.  My Dad became the first known Webb to finish high school.  And then, after twenty-six years of night school mixed in with his military service, when I was a senior in high school, my Dad graduated from college.

(Describe his graduation, then sticking the diploma into my face, telling me):  “You can get anything you want in this country, and don’t you ever forget it!”

I will never forget it.  And I hope you will never forget it.  There is no other country like ours – that’s why people from across the world hope and dream that they might some day come here.  Here’s the American way:  If you want it, go get it.  Work hard.  Play hard.  And whatever you do with your lives, never lose sight of the fact that you have been blessed to be able to live, and work, and be a part, of this historically unique country called the United States of America.

Thank you for having allowed me to be a part of this very special day.  Congratulations to all of you, and good luck.