Home » Research » Public Papers - 1990
Facebook Twitter Youtube Flickr

Events Newsletter

Click here to become a member of our e-club and receive news about special events and offers.

National Archives

Public Papers - 1990

Remarks at the University of Texas Commencement Ceremony in Austin

1990-05-19

Governor, thank you. Thank you very, very much. Delighted to be here. A magnificent turnout. Thank you all. Governor Clements -- Bill -- thank you very much for that gracious introduction. And to you and Rita, my profound thanks. I do view you as friends, and I'm very lucky for that. To Congressman Jake Pickle and Beryl, congratulations, and congratulations on the graduation of your granddaughter, Bergan Norris, out here somewhere. And to Chairman Beecherl and members of this distinguished board of regents and to Chancellor Mark and President Cunningham, distinguished platform guests, Reverend Bethune, most distinguished faculty of this great university, thank you all.

I'm pleased to be here, and there is nothing like the great outdoors. For once, it doesn't seem to matter whether you sit on the 50-yard line or not. And I understand I'm also too late for Eeyore's birthday party. But it's great to be back in Longhorn country, just the same.

I gave my first U.T. commencement address in '73, when I had just completed a tour of duty as Ambassador at the United Nations, and I am pleased to be back. And I am grateful and, indeed, honored by this honorary degree [in law]. Thank you very much for that high honor, to the regents.

So many great Americans have given this address, including a former Texas public school teacher by the name of Lyndon Johnson and, later, his wonderful wife who served this university as a regent, Lady Bird Johnson. So, I consider it the highest honor to once again address the graduates of this great institution.

The ideals of U.T. were born with Texas, when the revolutionaries of 1836 called for ``a university of the first class.'' And Texas began dirt-poor, but Texans were rich in land and vision. And so, what began as a dream of 40 acres of pasture is now a minimetropolis housing some of the best schools in America. Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners rank among your faculty; National Merit scholars lead your students. So, let me say it loud and clear: The first Texans, in a sense, were wrong. This is not just a first-class university. You are graduates of a world-class university. And if I ever forget this, if I ever should forget that, our Secretary of State, Jim Baker, would remind me, and so would our own son Jeb, another proud graduate of this University of Texas.

Your splendid libraries house the manuscripts of Joyce and Hemingway and Beckett. You are justly proud of rare books and folios that resound with the rich voices of Chaucer and the Italian Renaissance, Shakespeare and Spenser. But a world-class university must have a revered tradition of its own. And so you do. It was near here that J. Frank Dobie held court with other scholars of the Southwest on the beloved Paisano Ranch, and it was here that Walter Prescott Webb scrutinized old legends and O. Henry spun new ones.

And since then, students from around the world have become a true part of the University of Texas community as U.T. has certainly become more of a part of the world. And within this wide world, you can choose to work and succeed in Paris, France, or Paris, Texas. And in short, you face the best of dilemmas, a wealth of opportunities -- opportunities born of democracy.

In four commencement addresses this spring, I have examined what makes democracy such a special way of life: how democracies refuse to perish by uniting in a strong defensive alliance; how they are strengthened by the rule of law; how freedom empowers people to solve the toughest problems; and how democracy leads to progress and adventure. Tonight, in this, for me, my final commencement address of the year, I want to discuss the personal side of democracy: what it offers us and what we can make of it.

To graduate from college in America is to be as free as any man or woman can be. And now, for the first time in half a century, a new generation in Eastern Europe is reveling in freedom, throwing their caps in the air and shouting to the high heavens because finally they are free to live where they want and free to be what they want. From Austin, Texas, to Berlin to Budapest, we live during a remarkable moment in world history, an exhilarating time: the triumph of freedom.

But freedom has a constant companion: challenge. And so, I am here tonight to challenge you to make the most of our changing world, to live these remarkable times, to take risks, to do something extraordinary. This is what Jack London was getting at when he wrote: ``I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.''

And of course, you don't have to strike out for the South Seas or the wild country of Alaska like Jack London, but you can make your life an adventure. Next month will be 42 years since my own graduation. And like many of you, I, too, was presented with some choices on my graduation day: further study or maybe a law firm or a bank or the stock market, and probably for me in New York or in the East -- honorable interesting professions, all. But the truly great decisions we make in life are rarely logical or practical. They spring right from the heart. And so, I packed up, Barbara and I packed, and I drove my red Studebaker from the Eastern States of our upbringing to the oil fields of west Texas. And we chose a future that would be uniquely our own. And like most Americans, we were free to live where we pleased, do what we wanted. We came of age at a time when the postwar possibilities of America seemed limitless.

But outside of America back then, the world of free choices was shrinking. Winston Churchill's prediction that an Iron Curtain would sever Europe into two hostile camps was soon fact. An Iron Curtain did cut Eastern Europe from the West and Germany from itself. And when every brick, every guard tower, and every strand of barbed wire was in place, two worlds existed: one of free people and free choice, and one of tyranny and subjugation. Eventually, millions of men and women were told what to think and study, what job to take, and where to live. Imagine, all that drive, talent, and imagination misused and wasted. Yet many still held fast to what Barbara Jordan calls conviction values. Even under the pain of death, they resisted.

This was the conviction Andrei Sakharov, who, you remember, confronted Khrushchev with the truth on above-ground nuclear testing. And that's one reason the Soviet people revere his memory today. This is the conviction of an electrician from Gdansk, who I'm proud to know, Lech Walesa, who led the Polish people to freedom. And it's the conviction of Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, the imprisoned playwright who now leads a great nation.

Let me tell you a little incident about President Havel and a few other brave souls from the East. It was this man that I had the honor of inviting up to the White House Residence not so many days ago to see the Lincoln Bedroom. And President Havel was in awe because he knew that this room was really President Lincoln's old office, and it was there that Lincoln worked, deliberated, agonized over a terrible war. But President Havel knew that that room is hallowed for one reason above all: It was there that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was there in that room that he freed a people, and it was there in that room that I saw President Havel moved to tears by the knowledge that freedom's bell was ringing at long last for his beloved Czechoslovakia.

What one man draws from history another finds in music. President Landsbergis of Lithuania, who adopted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as an anthem for his people's movement, was asked why the strains of Beethoven should resound through the streets and squares of Vilnius; and he replied that it is because the Ninth is a ``symphony of freedom and victory against slavery, insidiousness, and darkest hatred.''

And what one finds in music another finds in words. Consider the case of a man named Cestimir Suchy, a Czech journalist who refused to describe the 1968 Soviet invasion of his country as an act of brotherly love. Mr. Suchy was fired for his honesty, but he was allowed to make a living at a new profession: washing windows. Ask him for his business card today, and it still says Suchy, Window Washer. But this is an example of the man's good humor, for now he has a job with a new title. He is the dean of journalism at Prague's Charles University. Throughout the universities of the East it is the mandarins of Marxist dogma who are now out of work.

Let me tell you one last story, that of Arpad Goncz of Hungary, who came to visit me just yesterday in the Oval Office. Like President Havel, President Goncz is also a playwright. I don't know what it is about playwrights becoming Presidents of great countries in Eastern Europe, but a former anti-Fascist fighter and newspaper editor, he was sentenced to life imprisonment during the 1956 revolution. But once released, he persevered as a dissident, and today he leads the Hungarian people as their acting President.

And so, the determination of men and women yearning to be free is simply proving tougher than the walls that surround them. Because of their courage, the free world is now more vast than anyone ever dared imagine. And this is our amazing new world of freedom. And with greater freedom comes greater opportunity -- in the East and the West. Whether you will make your careers in the arts, business, law, or science, this can only be good news.

Just this morning, I toured the Houston office of what will be the site of our next economic summit with Canada, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and Western Germany. When we meet, it will be more than just a comparison of balance sheets: it will be an act of fellowship between free nations. These nations stood with us through that long twilight struggle; through the painstaking building of alliances and the endless preparations for a war that must never be; through the human toil and the human toll, the sacrifice of resources that could have been used for gentler ends. And this is what the Cold War has cost Western Europe and America, but that sacrifice has been rewarded by the most precious gift of all: the dawn of new freedom and new hope for millions.

Today we see progress on many important fronts. As you know, Secretary Baker has been meeting this week with Soviet leaders to prepare for my summit conference with President Gorbachev beginning May 31. And while there is additional work to be done, I think Jim Baker's meetings represent a major step forward. This breakthrough should allow us to reach the important goal that we set in Malta: completing the major substantive elements of an historic strategic arms reduction treaty. In addition, we will be able to conclude other arms control measures with the Soviets, including an agreement on dramatic reduction in chemical weapons, as well as technical and commercial agreements. I am confident that the progress that we have made will allow this summit to be another solid step forward in the vital U.S.-Soviet relationship.

Today, as perhaps never before in history, freedom is prevailing throughout the world because freedom works. Freedom is not only right, it's practical. It's not only good, it is better. And it is because of the indomitable spirit of man that the day of the dictator is over. But there are also many extraordinary men and women to be found right here at home, like Felicitas Atabong, a student from Cameroon, who tonight will receive a degree in computer science. She just turned 19. And then there's Maggie Taylor, who graduates tonight with a bachelor of fine arts degree at the age of 70, or Irene Burnside, a nurse whose experience goes back to the Army Nurse Corps in the Pacific theater of World War II. And tonight she earns her Ph.D. in nursing with a speciality in gerontology.

But like them, you -- all of you -- have spent years learning, and now is the time as you leave this great university to spend your life doing. Make your Czech or Polish lessons work for the Citizens Democracy Corps. Put your Spanish in service of the Peace Corps. Or work with VISTA right here in our precious United States of America. Care for the AID babies. Love every child, in the hospital corridors of your own backyard in Austin to the beleaguered clinics of Central Africa. But whatever you do, live a life of adventure and meaning so brilliant that, like a Roman candle, it lights up the world. Dazzle us. Astonish us. Be extraordinary.

Once again, it is a delight to be back. God bless all of you graduates of this great university, and may God bless the United States of America. Hook 'em, 'Horns! Thank you very, very much. Thank you. Thank you all.

Note: The President spoke at 8:20 p.m. at the Neuhaus-Royal Athletic Complex on the campus of the university. In his remarks, he referred to Rita Clements, wife of Gov. William P. Clements, Jr.; Beryl Pickle, wife of Representative J.J. Pickle; Louis A. Beecherl, Jr., and Hans Mark, chairman of the board of regents and chancellor, respectively, of the university system; and William H. Cunningham, president of the university. The President also referred to the city's annual celebration of the birthday of Eeyore, a character from the Winnie-the-Pooh children's stories by A.A. Milne.

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
1000 George Bush Drive West, College Station, Texas 77845
Telephone: (979) 691-4000 | Facsimile: (979) 691-4050 | TTY: (979) 691-4091