Howard’s gathering was just one of several in the Washington area Saturday morning, when the graduation season opened under cloudy and sometimes rainy skies. Other universities celebrating this weekend included American University, the University of the District of Columbia and St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Howard officials lauded Clinton, who was greeted with prolonged cheering, for his racially diverse White House Cabinet, his global fight against HIV/AIDS and his work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
He held the crowd rapt with a story of a couple he met in Indonesia, in a camp where about 40,000 people left homeless by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had spent six months in sweltering tents. Clinton said the man, whom residents had chosen as their leader, and his wife gave him a tour of the camp.
Clinton said he told an interpreter that the couple’s 10-year-old son was the most beautiful boy he’d ever seen.
“Yes, he’s very handsome,” Clinton quoted the interpreter as saying. “Before the tsunami, he had nine brothers and sisters. They’re all gone, every last one.”
The crowd fell silent.
“This man who had lost nine of his 10 children led me through that camp with a smile on his face and never talked about anything but what those other people needed and what he wanted me to do for them,” Clinton said, his voice rising.
“No matter what happens to you, it is highly unlikely that you will ever face anything as awful as what happened to that mother and father,” he added.
“They somehow found the strength to treasure the one [child] who remained and to serve others.”
He said other people, such as the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, attacked others when their lives lacked “meaning.”
“Most of us were raised to face failure in the face, pick ourselves up, go back to work and make something good happen,” Clinton said to applause. “And I hope you will do that.”
The words of encouragement resonated with many graduates.
“He didn’t really focus on the whole half of us who can’t find jobs,” said Lindsey Parker, 21, of Memphis.
The Russian literature and language major said she’s considering teaching English abroad if she can’t find work in the United States.
“He kept it on a positive note,” she said.
Matt Reaves, 28, of San Jose, who received a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism, said Clinton’s story about the couple in Indonesia gave him perspective.
“You’re going to face challenges, but if that man President Clinton described persevered with his experience, then what excuse do we have?” Reaves said.
Clinton told the crowd that they would join the 7 percent of the world’s college-educated population, allowing them to choose their profession rather than have one thrust upon them. The graduates should focus on their similarities with other people, he said, referring to genetic research findings that people around the world are 99.5 percent identical.
“When you leave here, I want you to never forget for the rest of your life, in good times and bad, that you live in an interdependent world, and we’ve got to pull it together. . . .” Clinton said. “To be a good citizen you got to do something sometime for somebody else, because they’re just like you are. That is really, really important.”
Clinton mostly refrained from talking politics. But when he did, he accidentally drew laughs as he praised President Obama for asking his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to serve as secretary of state after they had battled each other in a “tooth and nail” Democratic primary.
“They developed not just this working relationship but this amazing friendship, which I just watched with great interest,” Clinton said, before his seemingly serious message was drowned out by a burst of guffaws and laughter from the crowd.
“Aw, c’mon guys,” Clinton, 66, said.
“Get a life. When you’re as old as I am, you’ll be able to laugh about this stuff.”