USC Commencement Address
Delivered by Senator John McCain
Friday, May 14, 2004
Thank you…Thank you faculty, families and friends, and thank you University of Southern California Class of 2004. The invitation to give this commencement address is a great honor for someone who graduated fifth from the bottom in the United States Naval Academy Class of 1958. To address such a distinguished assembly has reaffirmed my long held faith that in America anything is possible.
If my old company officer at the Academy were here, whose affection for midshipmen was sorely tested by my less than exemplary behavior, I fear he would decline to hold this university in the high esteem that I do.
I want to join today in the chorus of congratulations to the Class of 2004. This is a day to bask in praise. You’ve earned it. You have succeeded in a demanding course of instruction from a fine university. Life seems full of promise. Such is always the case when a passage of life is marked by significant accomplishment. Today, it must surely seem as if the world attends you.
But spare a moment for those who have truly attended you so well for so long, and whose pride in your accomplishments is even greater than your own – your parents. When the world was looking elsewhere, your parents’ attention was one of life’s certainties. And if tomorrow the world seems a little indifferent as it awaits new achievements from you, your families will still be your most unstinting source of encouragement, counsel and often – since the world can be a little stingy at first – financial support.
So, as I commend the Class of 2004, I offer equal praise to your parents for the sacrifices they made for you, for their confidence in you and their love. More than any other influence in your lives, they have helped make you the success you are today and might become tomorrow.
I thought I would show my gratitude for the privilege of addressing you by keeping my remarks brief. I suspect that some of you might have other plans for the day that you would prefer to commence sooner rather than later, and I will try not to detain you too long.
It’s difficult for commencement speakers to avoid resorting to clichés on these occasions. Given the great number of commencement addresses that are delivered every year by men and women of greater distinction, insights and eloquence than I possess, originality is an elusive quality.
One cliché that works its way into hundreds of addresses before graduating classes from junior high schools to universities is the salutation: “leaders of tomorrow.” Like most clichés, it represents an obvious truth. You and your generational cohorts will be responsible for the future course of our civilization, and, given America’s profound influence in the world, much of the course of human events in your time. But will you specifically, with all the confidence and vitality you possess today, assume the obligations of professional, community, national or world leaders? I’ll be damned if I know.
I’m not clairvoyant, and I don’t know you personally. I don’t what you’ll become. But I know what you could become. What you should become.
No one expects you at your age to know precisely how you will lead accomplished lives or use your talents in a cause greater than your self-interest. You have time, I’m sure, before such choices and challenges confront you. It’s been my experience that such choices reveal themselves over time to everyone. They are seldom choices that arrive just once, are resolved at one time, and, thus, permanently fix the course of your life. Many of the most important choices one must make emerge slowly, sometimes obscurely. Often, they are choices you must make again and again.
Once in a great while a person is confronted with a choice, the implications of which are so profound that its resolution affects your life forever. But that happens rarely and to relatively few people. For most people, life is long enough and varied enough to overcome occasional mistakes and failures.
You might think that I’m now going to advise you not to be afraid to fail. I’m not. Be afraid. Speaking from considerable experience, failing stinks. Just don’t be undone by it. Move on. Failure is no more a permanent condition than is success. “Defeat is never fatal,” Winston Churchill observed. “Victory is never final. It’s courage that counts.” That’s the only really useful advice I have for you: be brave. While that advice might seem a bit stingy and simple in its economy, I assure you, no one ever gave me more important counsel.
Few of you have reached the point when your parents and teachers expect you to have plotted your life in detail or even to have defined your ambitions. What they hope they have done is help develop within you the wherewithal to make the race; to choose well; to confront your challenges intelligently and forthrightly; to overcome mistakes and failures in a way that diminishes the likelihood of your repeating them. In other words, all those who care about you and feel responsible for you hope they have done is helped you build the one thing you must possess – your courage.
I rely on Churchill again to make my point. “Courage is…the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all the others.” Without courage we can possess no other virtue securely. Without courage honesty, compassion, justice, happiness, love are fragile qualities – admired, sought, professed, perhaps, but held cheaply and surrendered without a fight. That’s what we mean when we claim the courage of our convictions. Not that our convictions possess an innate courage, but that if we lack the courage to hold them, not just when they accord with the convictions of others, but against threatening opposition, in the moment of their testing, they’re superficial, vain things that add nothing to our self-respect or our society’s respect for the virtues we profess. We can admire virtue and abhor corruption sincerely, but without courage we are corruptible.
My late colleague, Pat Moynihan coined the phrase defining deviancy down to criticize how American culture in the late 20th Century embraced situational morality in reaction to rising crime rates rather than insist on moral absolutes as the foundation of a functioning liberal society. Similarly, American culture over the last thirty years or so has defined courage down. We have attributed courage to all manner of actions that may indeed be admirable, but they hardly compare to the conscious self-sacrifice on behalf of something greater than self-interest that once defined courage. We have come to accept one or more of the attributes of courage – fortitude, discipline, or daring, for example, as the entire virtue.
In our excessively psychoanalyzed society, sharing one’s secret fears with others is considered courage. So does escaping a failed marriage. So does “having it all,” a career, children and leisure. Refusing to help enable a loved one indulge a ruinous vice is considered an act of courage. We say it takes courage to be different from the mainstream in our preferences in fashion, music, the length and color of our hair.
Here is what real courage looks like. I’m sure you’re all aware of the inspiring story of Pat Tillman, who gave up a successful professional football career to enlist in the Army after September 11. He served one combat tour in Iraq, and then another in Afghanistan where he was killed in action. He was, by all accounts, a hell of a guy. A good son, brother, husband and friend, an excellent student, an overachieving athlete, a decent, considerate man, a solid citizen in every respect. Obviously, he had been raised to be an honorable man, and to possess the virtues that make an honorable life. He had skill and fortitude and daring in his chosen profession. But it was his unexpected choice of duty to his country over the riches and other comforts of celebrity that proved his courage. In earlier generations, many professional athletes risked such a sacrifice for their country. It’s rather rare today.
He loved his country, and the values that make us exceptional among nations, and good. And he worried that he had “never done a damn thing” to serve her. Love and honor oblige. They oblige us to pay our debts to those who sacrificed to secure our blessings. Pat Tillman felt that debt, and he did not consider it an unwanted burden. He knew that the recompense of such debts earn us happiness. His loss and the loss of every American in combat should grieve us, whether or not we agree with the war in which they served. I respect and mourn his death. But I will not dwell on it when I remember him. There are many who will live a longer life than Pat, but few of us will ever live a better one. It is far better, and far more respectful to his memory, that we celebrate the brief, brave, and happy life of Pat Tillman, a most honorable man.
Few of us will have occasion to need the physical courage that Pat Tillman possessed. Nor must we serve in the military to need or prove real courage. We all need and can possess moral courage. In truth, I don’t think the two are all that different. For either to be authentic it must encounter fear and prove itself superior to it. A sense of honor and duty, a regard for the dignity of others as well as our own, and the shame we feel when we neglect them motivate both moral and physical courage. By fear I mean fear of serious harm to your well-being, physical, emotional or material, that wars with your need to take action but is overcome because you value something or someone more.
Moral courage will sometimes require its physical counterpart. Martin Luther King had the moral courage to struggle non-violently for justice, and it gave him the physical courage to persevere not only in the face of political opposition, social alienation, slurs and insults, but when suffering threats of physical injury and death. “If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for,” he declared, “he isn’t fit to live.”
In our blessed and progressive society there may be fewer occasions when we need to be afraid to be virtuous, when we need our courage to remain so, but still they are more numerous than the occasions when we need something more than our conscience, when we need physical strength and skill to act. And moral courage, unlike physical courage, is seldom exhausted.
For a time I lived in a prison cell in Vietnam next to one of our senior ranking officers, a fierce resister, maybe the bravest of us all. The stories of what he would do to resist our enemies were legends in the camp and greatly strengthened our morale and courage. Many times when I was brought back to my cell after a physically challenging interrogation, the first thing I wanted to do is communicate with my neighbor by tapping on the wall that separated us. I wanted to tell him what had happened and how well or poorly I had endured it, even though communicating was what had often landed me in the interrogation room in the first place.
Once, when my neighbor had been hauled back into his cell after what appeared to be a pretty rough interrogation, I waited for him to tap me up on the wall so I could learn what had happened and offer him some encouragement, as he had so often given me. The tap never came. So I tried tapping him up, again and again. No reply ever came. He was as brave as they come, a good and great man. But sometimes you just get tired; your physical courage just fails you. No one can ever be entirely certain of it.
But moral courage is more certain, and can be summoned more readily than its physical counterpart. And most importantly, it grows stronger with exercise. We can all have it when we need it. We must, as Eleanor Roosevelt – a woman plagued by feelings of insecurity – put it, “do the thing you think you cannot do,” and “you gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience.”
Most of us see the need for moral courage. Most of us accept social norms: that it’s right to be honest; to respect the rights of others; to have compassion. But accepting the appropriateness of these virtues and wanting them aren’t the same as actually possessing them. Accepting their validity isn’t moral courage. How honest are we if we tell the truth most of the time and stay silent only when telling the truth will embarrass us or cost us something dear. We need moral courage to be honest all the time. It’s the enforcing virtue, the one that makes all the others possible. If you don’t have the courage to keep your virtue when facing unwanted consequences, you’re not virtuous.
If admiring and wanting virtue isn’t virtuous what is it? It’s a beginning. It is love that makes us willing to sacrifice, love that gives us courage. It moves the parent to rush into the burning house to save a child. But love often begins with desire. If we desire virtue strongly enough we will come to love it. And if we love virtue so much that we consider the condition of not possessing it far more terrible than the consequences of keeping it, we’ll find the courage to hold it, whatever the cost. We won’t let our love be constrained by fear or selfishness.
We all have to face fear and make choices in our lives to act or not, to love well or not, to be brave or not. One in a ten thousand of us, if that many, will make the choice Pat Tillman or Dr. King made. We will face choices, not as dire as theirs, perhaps, but the quality of our lives will depend on them nevertheless.
I began by expressing my hope that you would use your education and many other advantages to become valued contributors to your chosen professions, your communities, your country, to the progress of humanity. I wish that of you because I wish you happiness. All that your parents and teachers wish for you is your happiness. That most important accomplishment, however, requires you to choose well, despite your fears. It requires your courage. And how well you choose in the tests that come to us all will affect the happiness of others as well. It’s misery enough to live with the knowledge that you’re a coward. How greater must be the misery to know that you loved so little that the example of your cowardice has weakened the hearts of your children, made their courage harder to find, their love poorer, their happiness more elusive. What other success could we achieve to overcome the guilt of such a failure? Nothing, absolutely nothing, could ever matter more.
If you do the things you think you cannot do, you’ll feel your resistance, your hope, your dignity, and your courage grow stronger every time you prove it. You will face harder choices someday that may very well require greater courage. You’re getting ready for them. And when those moments come, unbidden but certain, and you choose well, your courage will be recognized by those who matter most to you. When your children see you choose to value virtue more than security, to love more than you fear, they will learn what courage looks like, what love it serves, what happiness it earns, and they will dread its absence.
We are all afraid of something. Some have more fears than others for reasons to various to quantity and examine. The one we must all guard against is the fear of ourselves. Don’t let the sensation of fear convince you that you’re too weak for courage. Fear is the opportunity for courage, not proof of cowardice. No one is born a coward. We were meant to love. And we were meant to have the courage for it. So be brave. The rest is easy.
Thank you and good luck to you all.