By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006
When the featured speakers advanced to the lectern yesterday on the Mall, the crowd of more than 25,000 that had assembled for George Washington University's commencement buzzed with anticipation.
Cameras clicked; video recorders whirred. People moved closer to the stage and crowded the graduates in their black robes. What would former president George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, say? Would they be serious? Sentimental? Political?
Nope, nope, nope.
Instead, the Bushes struck a humorous vein.
Barbara: "I'm sensitive about the age thing. Once when I was speaking, a girl went home and told her mother, 'I heard the mother of the president of the United States -- George Washington.' "
George: "I consider that an honest mistake. After all, you look like George Washington."
One after another came the jokes, George even rehashing one of his all-time favorites when he told the crowd that a speech by Desmond Tutu was only "so-so."
The Bush comedy hour drew mostly chuckles from the crowd that included about 4,500 of the 6,500 graduates who received degrees this spring. The pair drew a standing ovation before and after they spoke, with only a handful of protesters.
One woman was escorted off the Mall by authorities after she ignored warnings to close a pink umbrella that read, "No More War." A GWU spokeswoman said the sign violated U.S. Park Police policy against large signs of any kind on the Mall.
Two graduates who taped the peace sign on their mortar boards stood throughout the speech with their backs to the Bushes.
Several other colleges in the Washington area held graduation ceremonies yesterday, including the University of Maryland at College Park and the University of Virginia. About 6,400 students received degrees at U-Md. and 6,037 at U-Va., according to the schools.
The Bushes had the highest profile among the speakers culled from that most Washington of industries: politics. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) spoke at U-Md. and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) at U-Va.
GWU's ceremony was mostly politics-free, despite the storied career of the featured speakers. Aaron Huertas, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in political communication, gave a speech about the importance of using technology responsibly.
GWU President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg told the crowd: "I wrote to President Bush in 1991 asking him to speak at commencement. At the time, he said he would give my request to his schedulers and get back to me. It took 15 years, but he kept his promise."
The Bushes received honorary doctorates in public service before concluding their remarks with some serious thoughts. Barbara Bush urged the graduates to spend time reading.
"Time is the capital from God that is yours to invest," George Bush said. "How will you invest that? With more massive projects under tight deadlines? By playing video games? You'll get a lot more satisfaction by tucking a child into bed, seeing a victim of Hurricane Katrina moving back into their home. It's best to invest in the lives of people."
Staff writer Mary Otto contributed to this report.