Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie

The Citadel Graduate College (CGC) Commencement
Charleston, SC
May 4, 2019

Thank you to my friend General Walters [President of The Citadel] and thank you to the men, women, parents, friends of this remarkable, remarkable institution.

Today recognizes the fact that this is a milestone in life—and it marks a great time of change for all of you. My first advice is to take time to thank those who have been of help to you. Those family members and friends whose love and support helped you arrive at this day.

Now, having given speeches in Arlington Cemetery, at the White House, and in the British House of Commons, I have always had, in the back of my mind, Winston Churchill’s admonition that there are three B’s in public speaking: Be bold, be brief, and be gone. I will try to live up to his reputation.

Churchill himself actually had a great rhetorical antagonist, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. And when Shaw had just written the play Pygmalion, which Lerner and Loewe had turned, forty years later, into the musical My Fair Lady, he sent a note to Churchill that said, “Dear Winston, please take two tickets to the opening night of my play. Please bring a friend if you have one.” And Churchill responded and said, “Dear Shaw, occupied with the business of government tonight, will come to the second night of your play—if there is one.”

But Shaw had the last word when it came to pompous graduation speakers. He was walking across Parliament Square in London and coming toward him was the former British Prime Minister, James Ramsey McDonald, who Churchill had once called a sheep in sheep’s clothing. And he said, “Shaw, I’m most distressed. I’ve been asked to give the commencement address at Balliol College in Oxford, and, Shaw, they have only given me fifteen minutes to speak. I cannot tell them everything I know in fifteen minutes – what should I do?” Shaw said, “Ramsey, speak very slowly.”

But on a more serious note, as the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are few colleges or universities in this country that provide a more welcoming home for active-duty servicemembers, veterans, and their families than does The Citadel. That fact makes it even more of an honor for me to be here with you today. So, I’d like to share a couple of stories that mean a great deal to me.

Twenty-six years ago, a great American spoke here at the commencement of the Corp of Cadets—our nation’s 40th President, Ronald Reagan. President Reagan noted that Citadel graduates formed a “roll of honor” that “stretches unblemished from the Ardennes to the 38th parallel, from Grenada to the Persian Gulf, with name after name of those who have served our country bravely in time of war.”

In looking out at the audience today, I am reminded about something that my former boss, Condi Rice once said. She said:

I’ve learned from my father that it was fine to ask questions. Fine to learn the whole range of human knowledge, but there were some things that one could not see. There are some things that one cannot prove. The essence of being human is the knowledge of what is, combined with the belief of what might be. So, you have taken advantage of this place or reason. The world too easily dismisses the role of reason and faith in our society and our world. But this place has encouraged you to find your passion. Remember what you are passionate about, what will make you get up every day for the rest of your life . . . I was more fulfilled in overcoming and mastering something difficult than something that comes easy. When you overcome something that is hard you know you can meet life’s challenges no matter how hard they are. You might not be able to control your circumstances, but you can control your response to those circumstances. If you can keep that in mind, you will not give way to aggrievement and to entitlement, both of which rob you of your ability to control your life. Whenever you’re lacking in optimism, remember your special responsibility because of where you are and what you have been granted by this place to hold up those who don’t fall to cynicism and to hold up those who can see a world not as it is, but a world as it should be.

And I’d like to spend our last moments together talking about something that I have thought about and cared about for a long time, and that is the obligation of service to our great nation. We hear a lot in the United States about our rights as citizens. What we don’t hear enough about are our responsibilities as citizens. What does it mean to be a citizen of this great republic?

Churchill, who was the son of an American mother, summed it up this way about the United States: In America, when great causes are on the move in the world, we learn that we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which whether we like it or not, in America, spells duty.

This nation was born in circumstances so unique that we still cannot comprehend the miracle. The founders—the lawyers, tradesmen, merchants, farmers—achieved security and standing in life, but they valued liberty more. They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Sixteen of them gave their lives. Most gave their fortunes. All preserved that sacred honor. They gave us more than a nation. They brought to mankind for the first time the central idea that we are born free. That each of us has an inalienable right and that the government was created for our convenience, having only the powers people chose to give it.

That is the heritage that you’re about to claim, and that is the heritage that many in this audience have already defended in uniform. We need you. We need your great ideas, your strength, and your idealism to help us make right that which is wrong. So don’t let the cynics persuade you that the past is behind us, that the past will never catch up with the future, that from here it is all downhill.

Each generation can see farther than the generation that preceded it because it stands on the shoulders of those who came before. You are going to have unique opportunities that can only be found in this magnificent republic. When your history is written, it won’t dwell on the turmoil of the recent past. But history will ask, and our answer determines the fate of freedom for a thousand years: Did a nation lose hope? Did a people created by the courage of others lose that courage?

Forty years ago, the Australian Prime Minister John Curtain said, I wonder if anybody ever thought what the situation for the comparatively small nations of the world would be if there were not an existence of the United States of America. If there were not this magnificent country prepared to make so many sacrifices for the peace of mankind.

This is our noble and rich heritage. It is yours to protect. It is yours to pass on. And that is your duty as citizens of a free republic.

Last year, I had the great honor of visiting Rowan Oak, just outside of Oxford, Mississippi, the home of the towering genius of twentieth-century American literature, Mr. William Faulkner.

In 1950, Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and he delivered the speech for the ages, the shortest in Nobel history because, like Churchill, he believed in brevity as well. And I believe that Faulkner that day was speaking to the spark that exists in all of us, and that man is a learning and spiritual creature.

Faulkner said that we must teach ourselves that the basest of all things is to be afraid. In teaching that, forget it forever. Leaving no room in our workshop for anything but the old verities and the truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor, pity and pride, compassion, sacrifice. Until man does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, and the defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and of victories without hope, and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart. Until he relearns these great things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man.

And as Faulkner concluded, he said, I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure. That when the last dong of doom has clanged and fainted from the last worthless rock, hanging timeless in the last red and dying evening, that even then, there will still be one more sound, that of his puny, God-given inexhaustible voice still talking. And he concluded by saying, I refuse to accept that end. I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail. He is immortal. Not because he alone among the creatures has the inexhaustible voice, but because he has a God-given soul, spirit, capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

This graduate school has helped prepare you for the next phase of your lives. Your challenge is to make the most of it. And always remember those core values that are written on every building on this campus: Honor. Duty. Respect. Remember, remember what you are passionate about. And remember that all people have a spirit, capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

So the best of luck in the next phases of your life. Thank you for what you will do for our country. God bless you. God bless your families, this great institution, and God bless our great republic. Thank you all very much.