Brian Williams Commencement Speech 2012

Thank you very much. I want to thank the D.C. Fire Department for the drive-by just as I was named. And you can thank me later.

I note you're all wearing black; because someone knows I am about to discuss my academic past, the dark cloud has arrived. People are enjoying a lovely day from Cabin John to Arlington to the Eastern Shore except for us because I am about to talk about my time at the George Washington University. And now we have air support. So this is going to get interesting.

I did tell them when they called -- it's really okay, I've got this. I told them when they called, I said, you know, I dropped out of GW. It was my third and final attempt at college. And they said, "Oh, no, that's cool. Come on ahead."

And so today I want to share with you a bit of the story of how I came academically to achieve the sum total of 18 college credits. Thank you very much.

There is an atmosphere of academia up on the stage that you can't understand. So excuse me while I accept the congratulations of my fellow academics.

The best news is I don't have a speech. I have just a few thoughts because it's hot, and you're hung over. But enough about your parents. We're also way too close to Congress to give a speech, and we've established you're all than me. So I have just two things to tell you. Number one, how I dropped out of GW, which is kind of a fun story, and number two, a few great things about America. And then you're free to go.

How I dropped out of GW begins with how I got to Washington, and that starts with a guy named Tony LaVeglia. Tony's name you don't have to remember it, but it's immaterial in that we all have a Tony LaVeglia in our lives. In my case he's the guy who calls you, you're a young firefighter on the Jersey shore, you're in your very first year of Brookdale Community College.

I don't like to brag. It's supposed to just take two years, but you're settling in for a good long haul, you're just getting your rhythm going. You've just passed your EMT exam, and you have applied for a civil service job as a dispatcher in Freehold, New Jersey. Again, I'm going to be bragging throughout my remarks today.

Tony calls, he drives a Ford Econoline van which he has filled with cold liquids, and he says come with me this weekend to Washington, D.C. where I'm going to visit my French girlfriend Claire who is a student at Catholic University. Who was I to say no to Tony LaVeglia? So for just a weekend trip, I leave the confines of my home county in New Jersey, and I come down here, where my eyes are opened.

I think they call it Potomac fever. I get here, and I see young people, all of them wearing khakis. And they're wearing blue blazers, and they are scurrying around, and they all seem to have internships, and they're talking about important things, and they know important people, and all I knew was I had to be a part of it.
Tony, by the way, is today a wine distributor, which shows there is justice in life. I would buy wine from him. He has spent years researching his product line.

I come down and I tried to transfer my vast credits from Brookdale to Catholic University. They have run out of dorm space because I am a little late in applying, so they find room for me in the administration building of Trinity College across the street. There are eight of us living on the top floor, eight men, 600 Catholic women. It was fantastic.

And things just start happening to me. One of the young men we lived with in the administration building named Rocco came home one day and said he had to vacate an internship at the White House, was anyone interested. I owned one blue blazer, again not to brag, but I had worked at Sears, and I bought it with my employee discount.

And I said, "Why, Rocco, that sounds like a terrific opportunity for me." After all, there is nothing about my background that doesn't leave me perfectly equipped to go into the West Wing every day. And so I interviewed for the internship, and by some quirk I got it. And for the next year every day I was going into the West Wing in the Old Executive Office Building, while trying to pursue my college studies at Catholic University.

I was a work-study kid. I've worked since the day I turned 14. Well, the need to make money exceeded my ability to pay for my classes at Catholic University, and so I had to concentrate full time on working there but not studying there, and toward the end of my internship at the White House, I just thought that the night school program at GW fit my schedule better.

I enrolled in a couple of classes, and I remember my last class that would be ever prior to leaving college. It was a night course here at GW on politics and media. Now, I would run from the West Wing with my pass, my West Wing pass casually in my shirt pocket, the chain dangling. Oh, that? Yes. That all-access, this close to the President pass? Why, yes. What about it?

The professor hired -- and this is a long time ago, so it's meant to harm no one. The professor hired to teach this class had come from a PR firm and told us that, that he was working by day at a PR firm and signed up to teach this class. He admitted along the way he had only been on the public tour of the West Wing, and when I was sitting in class, since I was paying the freight, it was like a taxi meter every moment it went by.

I knew it was my money, and it was my future, and then one day he said, "I'll tell you about the news media, they're gullible. At my PR firm, we run something called The Road Information Program or TRIP. We get our funding from road contractors, and every year we put out the list of the roads and bridges in this country that we feel are in most dire need of repair. And every year we kind of sit back and watch the media breathlessly report this list of road and bridges."

It was the first lesson I learned in the news media and how it works. And I'll be darned if all the years I've anchored various news broadcasts we have never repeated the list of road information program, roads and bridges in this country, because I learned my lesson.

Just as your student speaker today has now navigated the political thicket of that dirty Twizzler money in politics. Thank you, both of you. Appreciate it. It was during a particularly tough stretch and one night I was stressed out, I was running out of money, I was living in a basement apartment at 35th and O Streets that flooded on occasion, and the meter was running, and I was running out of cash. And I walked out, walked out of college for the last time.

And I like to say to people that I was in a big hurry and I needed to go make a living, and I never looked back. But the truth is, as the last college I attended, I can tell you, I look back every day, and I look in the mirror, and it's one of my great regrets, and don't forget that by being here today you have now achieved something I was not able to achieve.

And this is where you come in. You enter the world right now -- and I know you've heard this before -- at a time when we're hearing talk about our nation we've never heard before. We're hearing the generation just in front of you tell pollsters for the first time that they don't think they're leaving a better world for you, they don't think your chances will be better than theirs. I have a few reminders, though.

Not far from here, this has to do with our geography here today. Just reminders of how good we are. In the Smithsonian Air and Space, part of this mall, there is an orange aircraft hanging from the ceiling. It was designed to resemble the bullet from a 50-caliber weapon. It's called the X-1. Chuck Yeager flew that aircraft. If you've read the book or seen the movie, then you know. This is back when we were different.

This was 1947. We had been home from World War II for a few years, and we must have been bored. We must have needed excitement. They called it the sound barrier for a reason, because no one knew if Chuck Yeager was going to disintegrate in this thing, and he never gave it a moment's thought or hesitation.

He went up in the X-1, and after that day, the sound barrier was nothing. And it's hanging right over there in that beautiful museum. He just thought we ought to move forward, and there was no guarantee we were going to make it.

Also in that building is a magnificent thing called the X-15. A dozen men flew it, including Neil Armstrong. They had to drop it out of the bottom of a B-52. It flew so high that when the pilots came back down, they had to be designated astronauts because they had flown over 50 miles up, 67 miles high, to be exact. They flew it four and five and six thousand miles an hour. One pilot died trying. His body was ripped apart by a fall of 16Gs, aircraft settled over a 50-mile area. It did not affect the program or his fellow pilots. They all knew there was no guarantee they were going to make it.

Also in that museum is Friendship 7. I described the color of it as kind of charcoal and fire black. It's really a corrugated steel can. John Glenn climbed in that thing. He knew there was no guarantee he was going to make it back. On his way back to reenter Earth's atmosphere, he hummed the Battle Hymn of the Republic to kind of kill the time and occupy his mind, flames are shooting past the window. He thought he was going to roast alive inside. He really did think he was going to die.

And of course all the missions to the moon, there was no guarantee we were going to make it. We lost the first three astronauts on the launching pad in a fire before the first mission.

Again, not to brag, but I drive a Chevy Tahoe. It's big and black and menacing, just as I like it. It a hybrid, just to calm everybody down. I love my car. And about 85 percent of my Chevy Tahoe is because of the space program. The gauges and the sensors and the wiring and the relays and the GPS and the brake linings, NASA was an idea machine. Chuck Yeager, thank you, Neil Armstrong, thank you, John Glenn, thank you, all of you who were involved in the program.

Remember there was no guarantee they were going to make it.

[Applause]

So that's where I hand off to you. Here we are. Our politics are broken. Here we are in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. How many of you have worked in politics during your time at the George Washington University? All right. Keep that up. My only advice would be get along, please. Introduce yourselves before you leave here today. Remember, there would be no Constitution in this country without compromise. We wouldn't have been formed without compromise. Going without compromise makes you a highly principled person, but it can often lead us to a government that is not attuned to the needs of the people.

How many of you plan to be educators?

[Cheers]

Thank you for that. How many of you spent some time overseas helping impoverished people?

[Cheers]

How many of you plan to keep at that work?

[Cheers]

John F. Kennedy was right when he talked about the army of young people going out around the world. I've walked through countries like Malawi where the difference between a small community with running water coming out of a one-inch white PVC pipe and a town without water is often just which towns have been visited by terrific young American people acting as volunteers.

You should be very proud of something else. It was mostly GW students, as far as I could tell, who climbed those light poles and showed up at the White House the night we learned bin Laden had been killed. It was a good feeling. We had done something. And with that mission, too, there was no guarantee of success.

One more thing. While you've been here, a lot of people have been over there. And a troubling trend in society right now is that our civilian life and our military life are going down -- picture it as a train track – two separate paths, and they don't intersect because of the small percentage of people we call upon to fight our wars because we don't have a draft. You can walk door to door in this country and have to go to 250 homes before you come to the home of a military family. And because we need to bridge that gap and because we might as well start today, can I ask all the veterans with us today to stand up and accept our thanks and congratulations.

[Applause]

That's the greatest part of my job. I've been able to go to both of this nation's wars and see what they do and come back knowing they're the best team we've ever fielded.

And now here's the problem. You know, when our American astronauts, as they did last week, needed a ride up to the international space station, we have to ask the Russians. We don't have a way to get them up there ourselves. It's a last insult to Chuck Yeager. He's still around and with us, and he can see this, and it's an insult to John Glenn. He's still with us living here in the Washington area. He can see this. It breaks their hearts and mine. And remember, Gene Kranz, the great man at Mission Control. His motto was failure is not an option.

You don't actually have to build a rocket or go into space, but please take us somewhere. Please keep us moving. Push us, lift us up. Make us better. Remember this, as I leave you, again as of today, you've achieved what I could not.

Congratulations, God bless, go achieve some more.

[Applause]