Tim Russert anchors “The Tim Russert Show,” a weekly interview program on CNBC, is a contributing anchor for MSNBC, and is senior vice president and Washington bureau chief of NBC News. Russert addressed the Class of 2007 and their friends and family members.
It is an honor to be back at Washington University. My fellow honorees, distinguished guests and most important, class of 2007, congratulations! You have finally made it!
And also very important, mom and dad, thanks for paying those bills!
The chancellor mentioned that little white board that I wrote “Florida, Florida, Florida” on, the election of 2000. I came home after being up all night, covering the election, and my son said, “You know dad, I’d love to have that piece of your journalistic career.”
“Son,” I said, “I’ve never been so touched by this bonding moment that you want to share this experience with your dad.”
He then said, “You know what that thing is worth on eBay?” A new generation of entrepreneurs in the Russert family!
I’m often asked my favorite “Meet the Press” story in the proud 60-year tradition of “Meet the Press.” It goes back to 1992. There was a presidential candidate who was then ahead of Bill Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush in the polls, named Ross Perot. He appeared on “Meet the Press” and said, “The deficit was the most important problem confronting our nation.”
I said, “Mr. Perot, that is right, it is the deficit. That’s the problem. You’ve identified it. You’re now a candidate for president. What’s the solution?”
He said, “What?”
I said, “What’s the solution? You’re running for president.”
He said, “Now then if I knew you were going to ask me those trick questions, I wouldn’t have come on your program.”
I caught a flight from Washington to New York right after the show. The flight attendant ran down the aisle and said, “That interview with Ross Perot was unbelievable. What do you think of him?”
I said, “Ma’am, I never comment about my guests or their positions on the issues. I try to be objective down the line, but I’m endlessly curious. As a viewer, as a voter, and as a flight attendant, what did you think of Ross Perot?”
She paused, put her head down, looked up and said, “He strikes me as the kind of guy that would never return his tray table to the upright position.”
Before you can move on to the next phase of your lives, however, you have one last grueling hurdle here at Washington University: The commencement address.
Let me be honest with you about my experiences with commencement addresses. I’ve been through several of my own, sat through dozens of others, and I can’t recall a single word or phrase from those informed, inspirational and often interminable speeches.
In preparing for today, I thought about presenting a scholarly treatise on the impact of Facebook or YouTube on the ’08 election, but I thought better of it. I consulted that St. Louis native and noted philosopher king of the English language, Yogi Berra.
You know Yogi, he had flunked his test. The teacher ran down the aisle, shook him and said “Yogi, don’t you know anything?”
Yogi looked up and said, “I don’t even suspect anything.”
This is the same Yogi Berra, when asked whether he wanted his pizza cut in six or eight slices, said “Six, I can’t eat eight!”
I consulted Whitey Ford about the real Yogi Berra — Whitey Ford the great Yankee pitcher; Yogi, the great Yankee catcher, and Whitey said they were playing the Chicago White Sox one night and Whitey had been out the night before with Mickey Mantle, carousing a bit too much. The first pitch, Nellie Fox, a single to right field. Second pitch, Luis Aparicio single to left field; third pitch, Ford hit Minnie Minoso; the fourth pitch, Ted Kluszewski, big power hitter — gone — grand slam home run.
Four pitches, 4-0 White Sox. Casey Stengel, the Yankee manager came from the dugout. Yogi came from behind home plate, took off his catcher’s mask and Casey said, “Hey Yogi, does Whitey have his stuff tonight?”
Yogi said, “How the hell do I know? I haven’t caught a ball yet!”
As the chancellor mentioned, this is the second most humbling day of my life. The first was in 1985; I was granted the extraordinary opportunity, a private audience with the Holy Father, the late great John Paul II, which in my church is a very big deal. I’ll never forget as the door opened, there was the pope, dressed in white.
He walked solemnly into the room, and at that time, it seemed as large as this quadrangle. I was there to convince him it was in his interest to appear on the “Today” show.
But my thoughts quickly turned from Bryant Gumbel’s career and NBC’s ratings, toward the prospect of salvation. As the pope approached me, you heard this tough, no-nonsense, hard-hitting moderator of “Meet the Press” begin our conversation by saying “bless me Father.” He took my arm and said “You are the man called Timothy from N-B-chee (PHONETIC).”
I said, “I am your guy. Don’t forget this face!”
He said, “They tell me you’re a very important man.” I said, “Your Holiness, with all due and deep respect, there’s only two of us in this room. I’m a most distant second.”
He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and said, “Right.”
In that humble spirit, let me begin. It’s not often you have a chance to meet and talk with people, young people who have the same background and I believe the same values, so let me skip the temptation to lecture and take a very few minutes of your time to have a conversation, particularly with the class of 2007.
Like each of you, my life changed forever on September 11th, at 8:46 a.m. The English language does not yet include the words we need to express our sorrow for what happened on that day, and most of you were just juniors in high school. Only in our hearts can we give full and complete expression of our grief, and shocking sense of personal loss, the agony of seeing our nation so violated. Yet we learned much about ourselves that day, about the fragility of life, and the deep love for our country and about who our real heroes are.
I decided to write a book about my hero, my dad, “Big Russ.” He was a truck driver and a sanitation man. He worked two full-time jobs for 30 years. And he never complained. And that was after he nearly died when his B-24 liberator crashed in World War II, to help save the world from Adolf Hitler. That was the story of his generation.
He never graduated from high school, but he taught me more by the quiet eloquence of his hard work, his basic decency, his intense loyalty — he taught me the true lessons of life.
The response to that story was enormous. It didn’t matter people’s ethnicity or religion or geographic region where they resided. There was a universal truth. People wanted to share stories about their dad. Their dad did not preach a sermon, in most cases, he lived one, and that’s what we learned: Mutual respect, responsibility, discipline, civility.
I am the first person in my family to have received a college diploma. I attended John Carroll University in Ohio where I received a superb education, and so, too, with you. You have chosen Washington University. You made a choice that was choosing a school that was different, and you made the choice deliberately.
The education you have received here isn’t meant to be the same as what you could have received at a series or scores of colleges, public or private, in Missouri, or all across this country. You’ve been given an education that says it’s not enough to have a skill, not enough to have read all the books or know all the facts, and you know and understand the academic rigors here at this extraordinary place, but you also understand that values really do matter.
The only justification for Washington University to exist is because it has a special mission, training young men and women to help shape and influence the moral tone and fiber of our nation and our world.
And that means, now, you, as graduates — sons and daughters of Washington University — you now have a special obligation and responsibility.
Graduating from Washington University has given you incredible advantages over others in your generation. You think you have it bad? Sometimes being from out of town, living here in St. Louis? You should try being a Buffalo Bills fan in Washington, D.C.!
I actually took “Meet the Press” to the Super Bowl a few years back. At the end of the program, I looked into the camera and I said, “And now it’s on to the Super Bowl. It’s in God’s hands, God is good, God is just, please God one time — go Bills!”
Tom Brokaw, my colleague, jumped up from the seat. He said, “You can’t pray on the public air waves.”
I said, “Brokaw, you’ll see the power of prayer.”
Well the Dallas Cowboys slipped by the Bills that day 52-10. As I moped back to the hotel, the first person I saw, of course, was Brokaw, who yelled across the room, “Hey Russert, I guess God is a Southern Baptist! ”
You have something those who have not attended Washington University would give almost anything for. You believe in your country, in your family, in your school, in yourself, in your education, and in your values. The message our parents and grandparents and teachers repeated and repeated, and tried so hard to instill in us; a belief if you worked hard and played fair, things really would be all right.
And you know, after working for senators and governors and meeting popes and interviewing presidents, they sure are right. It sure seems funny, the older I get, the smarter my mother and father really do seem to get.
The values you’ve been taught, the struggles you’ve survived, the diploma you’re about to receive have prepared you to compete with anybody anywhere. People with backgrounds like yours and mine can and will make a difference.
In Albania, a young girl loses her father and mother at age eight, leaves home for India as a teenager, in her own words, to care for the unwanted, the lepers, people with AIDS, believing works of love are works of peace. She became a living saint, Mother Teresa.
In Poland, it was a young electrician named Lech Walesa, the son of a carpenter, who transformed a nation from communism to democracy.
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela, former president Nelson Mandela, a brave black man who worked his way through law school as a police officer and then spent 28 years in prison to make one central point: We indeed are all created equal.
On September 11th, at the World Trade Center, and at the Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania, it was our brother and sister police and fire and rescue workers who properly redefined modern-day heroism. All these men and women have one thing in common with you.
Like the past, the future leaders of this country, and this world, will not be born to the blood of kings and queens, but to the blood of immigrants and pioneers.
It is now your turn. You have the chance to be doctors, and lawyers, bankers, accountants, social workers, soldiers, journalists, entrepreneurs, business people, teachers and more.
And in those vital professions, your contributions will be enormous. You can save lives, provide prosperity, record history, prevent disease, train young minds. Your family and your education and your values have prepared you for this challenge.
And remember, your grandparents and parents, who defended this country, who built this country, who brought you into this world, and a chance to live the American dream. Will your generation do as much for your children? You know you must. Every generation is tested and given the opportunity to be the greatest generation.
And so, too, with the Washington University graduates of 2007. You were born, and you were educated to be players in this extraordinary blessing called life. But please do the world one small favor. Remember the people struggling alongside you and below you; the people who haven’t had the same opportunity, the same blessings, the same Washington University education. Twenty-five percent of our 8th graders will never graduate from high school. Thirty-five million adults in our country, without even a high school education.
If we are serious about remaining the world’s premier economic, military, and moral force in the world, we have no choice. We need all of our children contributing, and prospering, and competing. We can build more prisons, and we will, and put more police on the streets, and we will. But unless we instill in our young people the most basic social skills and cultural and moral values, we will be a very different society.
We must motivate — yes; inspire — yes; insist our children and all of us respect one another and love thy neighbors as thyself. We must teach our children they are never, never entitled but they are always, always loved. And we must do everything in our power to make sure our schools are meaningful; skills are learnable; jobs are available; that we protect our environment, make our world their world — safe and secure.
No matter what profession you choose, you must try, even in the smallest ways, to improve the quality of life of all the children in this country. No matter what your political philosophy, isn’t there a child you can tutor, or mentor, or just help? Every child needs an adult in his or her life. Some are sick, some are lonely, some are uneducated. Most have little control over their fate. Give them a hand, give them a chance, give them their dignity.
The best commencement I ever heard was all of 16 words, “No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to lift up another person.” That is your charge. That is your challenge. That is what I believe it means to be a member of the class of 2007, of this wonderful place called Washington University.
For the good of all of us, please build a future we can be proud of. You can do it, but please get busy. You only have 2,300 weeks before you’ll be eligible for Social Security.
Have a wonderful life, take care of one another, be careful tonight. For the rest of your life, work hard, laugh often, and keep your honor, and of course, go battling Bears.