Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering's commencement address

To the trustees and their chairman, the faculty, most of all the graduates of 2015, their families and friends and all who brought them here today, it is my special pleasure to give you my good wishes and my thoughts for continuing success. Following President Fred Lawrence on the platform is only slightly more difficult than following Lincoln at Gettysburg. I am very pleased to be here, and pleased to receive an honorary degree from this great university, and pleased as well to be asked to address you today.

My sense is that commencement speeches, like a strong arrow, should be short and sharply pointed. And I say that with those two qualities in the order in which I gave them to you.  I was also struck, and perhaps others have, by the notion that the word which describes our meeting today, with some allowances for spelling, could also be pronounced, “common cement.” Don’t laugh, there are some qualities of common cement in being here together today; bringing us all to a common place to think about common endeavors.

And I want to talk for a few minutes about common endeavors. John F. Kennedy, who received an honorary degree from this university, said famously at his first inaugural, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” Public service is, in every respect, an honorable and rewarding pursuit, and this university in no way has stinted in its commitment, and its graduates in their participation, in public service. And I come today both to honor them and their work, and to talk to you about my sense of the value and importance of that activity for all of you now, and for the future.

In many ways, some of you have already made your decisions about what you will do, and some still ponder. But I speak to both groups, because service to country, to family, to friends, to our society, remains an extremely important part of what determines our success as people, as a nation, and in our world, whether it is in local or state or federal government, or in service through non-governmental organization, or in academia, the media and in your religion -- it all has much to offer, it all has much to give us. I believe that the opportunity for such service is one that all college graduates, all university graduates should consider, and adopt sometime in their lives. We can include in this kind of activity those developments and thoughts and activities that one gives back, whether it is to an organized community, or indeed, to the greater nation.

We are now engaged in an electoral process, indeed, it’s rare in this country to find we are not so. Perhaps presidential elections begin the day before the previous election; at least in my view, that is the case. Public service has come in, in my view, already, for a bad rap. Those now contesting the presidency have come to believe that running against public servants is something that induces great popularity in the voting public, and perhaps they are right. But epithets, like bloated and corrupt and inefficient, do not in any way match my sense of public service, certainly my experience of public service over the years.

For 40 years, I had the great privilege of belonging to the American foreign service; the diplomatic core that oversees and makes recommendations upon our foreign policy and its future. It is a service that is highly competitive. It is a service that is committed to go anywhere, anytime, in the cause of serving the nation. It is a service, I am sorry to say, that has lost more ambassadors to death and assassination since World War II than our armed forces have lost general officers; the risks are real and apparent. It is an important service, and I was lucky to have the opportunity to contribute in many ways to the future of our country. I worked in El Salvador with a committed group of American officials and diplomats, and we had the unique opportunity of taking a policy which was overly mesmerized by the threat of communism and working in support of authoritarian government, and yes, even death squads, and to turning that policy around so that it focused on the people of the country, their survival, their prosperity and their future governance. I had the opportunity both in Jordan and Israel of working on processes and activities that led up both to the Camp David peace process between Egypt and Israel, and many years later to peace between Jordan and Israel, peace that still stays in place.

And in Washington, in the 1990s, I was asked to lead an American government effort to see what could be done about Colombia. Colombia was, at that time, deeply, deeply flawed, and in many cases, falling apart before our eyes. We organized a set of activities which took into account not the military confrontation alone, and not the struggle over drugs, their production and their trafficking. And not just the criminal part of that society, but the better and more useful work of bringing about judicial reform, and looking to see how women and labor union leaders could prosper in a society oriented against them, and how the people of Colombia could come to enjoy the kind of peace and tranquility which the peace negotiations in recent days are now, in my view, coming to assuring. And that, too, is an important and useful set of movements to support friends, allies and, indeed, the interests of our own nation.

Presidents and leaders in the past have been fond of pulling out the yellow legal tablet and putting the pros and cons of any particular issue before them. Let me do that mentally and quickly for you today. Public service will bring you the opportunity to be part of a mission that has the greater good in mind, and the ability to advocate and make changes, to support and improve the lives of millions at home and around the world. It will not provide a lavish living, but you and your family will enjoy pay and benefits significant enough to educate the children to raise your family, and to have a life which will be both interesting and rewarding.

In my line of work, we had an opportunity given to few to speak for the United States for its people and its leaders. And indeed, service to the president as his representative when I was ambassador was both a unique challenge, but a great opportunity. And from time to time, in conversations I was permitted the opportunity to tell the president how I thought he should change U.S. policy, and how he should accomplish that. It’s significant that in public service, you have one of those opportunities to serve the values you honor and cherish; integrity, honesty, self-sacrifice, knowledge and its use, judgment and wisdom -- the things that we all value highly.  And you have the opportunity to prepare yourself for what I believe are the important rewards of retirement; whether you choose to carry that out on the sporting fields, or, indeed, in the continued efforts that you made while you were in public service for the greater benefit of your country. These are all important and significant, and valuable benefits of making a decision in favor of public service.

But what are the downsides? Certainly you will not become rich. Certainly you will have to undertake, particularly in some jobs, the dangers and the uncertainties of being in difficult places at unforeseen and inopportune times. But that, too, comes with the job.  You will not be, as I mentioned a moment ago, the darling of the political candidates, but you can over time demonstrate how wrong they are about the question of public service and their importance to the country as a whole. And you can, as well, know and understand that while both the Congress and sometimes antiquated laws and policies may bedevil you, even there you are given the opportunity that few are to work for change and improvement.

In the Second World War, posters appeared on the streets of the United States, saying the Marines are “looking for a few good”    and let me add here -- “women and men.” And so, too, is public service. And back one world war earlier, Uncle Sam decorated the windows and the building sides saying, “I want you.” To me, there is no more important challenge. Think about it.  If you’re inclined, I know you will not regret it. It will be important to you, to your family and to your country. And while we are thinking about commencement and common cement, public service is part of the common cement that makes us a great country and a leader in the world, but even more important makes great individuals even greater in both their service and rewards.

Thank you today, many congratulations to the graduates. It’s been a privilege and an honor to speak with you.

Categories: Alumni, General, Student Life

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