NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg Commencement Speech 2011
Good morning, everyone. And thank you, President Knapp, for that kind introduction. I really am honored to be this year's GW commencement speaker, even though I hear I was your second choice after Charlie Sheen. Apparently he was already booked to speak at a warlock convention.
Seriously, I was very excited when I got a call from President Knapp inviting me. I was hoping he was inviting me to stay a night at his legendary sheep farm. Not that I'm saying president Knapp is full of sheep. I just want to be clear about that. Although, ultimately I decided not to stay overnight even though some enterprising student did offer to rent me his single in Hensley for $10,000. He said that was half of what he got for the inauguration weekend.
Now, I know this is a bittersweet day for all of you who are graduating. It won't be easy to leave a place where you can rub a hippo's nose, break-dance with big George, sit in Einstein's lap, pet a dog named Ruffles, or buy a hot dog from a guy named Manouch! I can see why you love it here. However, I can also see from up here that some of you look a little tired this morning. Maybe you haven't recovered yet from last night at McFadden's? So I promise to be brief. And besides, I don't want to be the biggest hurdle between you and your degree.
Now, before I offer you some thoughts that you graduates will undoubtedly remember word for word decades from now, let me first thank another very important group here. And I'm talking about the group sitting out there this morning beaming proudly, not even thinking about what it cost to get you to this day. Or what happens if you can't find a job and you have to move back home. Why don't you give your parents and relatives a big hand.
With their support, all of you are joining a distinguished list of alums, including Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Colin Powell. So take a look at the people sitting around you. The guy sitting to your left could be a future Secretary of State, and the girl sitting to your right could be a future President of the United States.
Also, take a moment to look around this National Mall. We gather not only at the foot of the Washington Monument, but also in President Lincoln's long shadow. Last month, our nation marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. It was fought to preserve the union, to preserve America's bold experiment with democratic self-government. But Lincoln's war for Union grew into something even larger, a struggle for freedom. And while more than a century of struggle for equal rights and equal opportunity would follow his death, Lincoln's leadership redeemed America's original sin and allowed us to fulfill our destiny as a land of freedom and opportunity.
Ten years ago, while many of you were in the sixth or seventh grade, the freedom that Lincoln secured for all Americans and that generations of Americans have fought to protect came under attack by terrorists, the most deadly foreign attack in our Nation's history. I'm sure some of you remember where you were or what you were doing that September day when you first heard the news, and I'm sure all of you will remember for the rest of your lives what you'd been doing when you heard the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed.
There are certain moments in the life of our country that stay with us forever. For my generation, it was the assassination of President Kennedy, then Bobby Kennedy, and then Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For my parents' generation, it was Pearl Harbor. For my grandparents, Armistice Day. There have been other moments of celebration and crisis. The landing on the moon, the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle, the inauguration of America's first African American President. And there will be many more.
But before this most recent memory becomes a memory of this -- this recent moment becomes a memory, and because all of you have had such a big part in it, let's take a moment to reflect on the legacy of 9/11 beyond the ongoing war on terror and what it means for the future of our democracy. I was elected mayor just two months after the attacks of 9/11, when smoke was still rising from the rubble of Ground Zero. Back then, the conventional wisdom was that it would take New York decades to recover, if it ever would.
People thought businesses would flee, and that there would be a mass exodus to the suburbs and that crime would return. None of that happened, and I will tell you why. Our city, in fact our whole country, did not give into fear. We came together as never before and did everything we could to help the victims and their families. We offered our prayers. We donated our blood. We opened our wallets. Firefighters and iron workers around the country came to New York to pitch in. People around the world gave us their support. And by making smart investments in our future, we brought the city back faster and smarter than anyone thought possible.
Today, Osama bin Laden is dead, and New York City has never been more alive. The unity that defined our nation in the wake of the attacks was critical to revitalizing our city, and it also led to two other very positive developments for our country.
First, it reminded us that we agree on far more than we disagree on. Especially here in Washington, that can be easy to forget. Now, I know many of you interned on the Hill or in the White House, proudly wearing your ID badges at all times of the day and night and probably annoying your housemates in the process. But you've seen first-hand how consuming and counter-productive partisanship can be. But in New York, we didn't bring our city back as Democrats or Republicans, as liberals or conservatives. We brought it back as New Yorkers and as Americans.
As we head into the next election cycle, our leaders would do well to remember that although our hard-earned freedoms give us the right to disagree, they also give us the right to agree. The idea that Democrats and Republicans hold diametrically opposing views is just not true. You can be a Democrat or Republican -- as a matter of fact, I've been both --or you can be anything else. But never make the mistake of thinking that any particular party has a monopoly on good ideas or God is on its side.
Even though the unity that existed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks has had no lasting impact on Washington, it did have a lasting impact on Americans, especially young people. Your generation, more than any other before it, recognizes the truth of what John F. Kennedy's wisdom was when he said, "Sometimes party loyalty asks too much." And I think that's a big reason why independents are the fastest growing block of voters in this country.
As usual, the people are a step ahead of the politicians, especially young people. I believe that it takes a generation in this town to change, and I have no doubt that many of you will occupy some of its most powerful seats, you will begin moving the country away from this period of hyper partisanship, which is preventing us from accomplishing so many urgent needs, and towards a new era where more independent thinking allows for consensus-driven solutions.
The second lasting, positive development that grew out of the 9/11 attacks was just as encouraging, a growth in service and volunteering. Americans of all backgrounds, but especially your generation, wanted to do more to help, so they signed up to volunteer at a school, hospital or a homeless center. And, as a result, volunteering has become a bigger part of our culture. I know there are a lot of opportunities here at GW, and I'm told your school not only met but exceeded the challenge that First Lady Michelle Obama set for you last year to perform a combined 100,000 hours of service. And I think that deserves a round of applause.
I would also like to add my applause to those graduates who volunteered for the most dangerous and selfless assignment, serving our nation in uniform. We can never take their service and sacrifice for granted, and we should never make the mistake of thinking that the defense of freedom is solely a concern for the military. The freedom our Founding Fathers secured, the freedom that Lincoln extended, the freedom our Armed Forces now protect, the freedom that billions of people are yearning every day to experience, is a freedom that all of us must defend. Even when it's not popular, especially when it's not popular, we have a responsibility to stand up for the rights of people to express themselves as they wish, to worship how and where they wish, and to love who they wish.
That's why, two weeks ago, I spoke out in support of an artist who was scheduled to open an exhibit in New York City but who has been detained indefinitely by the Chinese authorities. It is why, ten months ago, I strongly defended the rights of New York's Muslim community to build a mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan. And it's why, on Tuesday, I'm going up to our state capitol in Albany to support legislation that would grant marriage equality to all men and all women.
The freer we are to expressing ourselves as individuals, the stronger we become as a nation. Earlier, I met Todd Belok, who was expelled from the ROTC program because of his sexual orientation. But because he and so many others stood up for change, including one of today's graduates, Michael Komo, Congress recently passed, and President Obama signed, a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Now, let me give a perspective from somebody that's a lot older than you. It takes courage to stand up to power, to take an unpopular stand, to risk life and limb and livelihood for your ideals. But that's the courage that led to Lexington and Concord, to Fort Sumter and to Seneca Falls, to Selma, Alabama, to the Stonewall Inn, and to this National Mall, where Martin Luther King shared his dream with America. Today, thanks to all of those who had the courage to march and fight and speak out for freedom, there is no road that you can't travel. No future you can't create. No dream you can't realize. You are bound only by the limits of your imagination. The question for all of you graduates is, how will you use that freedom?
Don't worry if you don't have all the answers right now. Your life, your career path will not be a straight line. When I graduated from college, no one would have believed, least of all my professors, that I would start a media company and later become the mayor of New York City. Even my mother can hardly believe it.
But as you think about your career, whatever you do, don't worry about mapping it all out. Just don't play it safe. Don't be the person who quits a startup company, or a band, before giving it a chance to make it big. And don't be afraid to start over or change direction. The more risks you take, the happier you will be, even if they don't work out. And I can assure you, sometimes they won't. But I can also assure you this: No matter what job you have, no matter who your employer is, the harder you work, the luckier you will get.
And whether you feel ready to begin a career or not, the education that you received here at George Washington has prepared you for success. And I just don't mean the education you've gotten in the classroom. You've heard from some of the most important and influential leaders of our time. You have been given unprecedented access to the power center of government. And I will bet you learned a few other things, too. Like what the meals to avoid are at J street, and what exactly you are allowed to do in each of those Gellman study areas, where you can use laptops, where you can study in groups, where you can eat snacks and where you can do none of those things. Whatever you are going to do next, there will be new rules to master, and new frontiers to conquer. And my advice is relatively simple: Continue learning. Continue asking difficult questions. Continue thinking independently. Continue volunteering your time to help others. Continuing defending, and enjoying, the freedoms that make America great.
Tonight, before you begin this new phase of your life, enjoy one last happy hour at McFadden's, one last hot dog from Manouch, and one last hail to the Buff and Blue, because tomorrow the real work begins.
Congratulations to you all. Best of luck. And God bless.