Bush Talks to Graduates About Redemption

President Bush greets students before delivering an unusually personal commencement address at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
President Bush greets students before delivering an unusually personal commencement address at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

GREENVILLE, S.C., May 31 -- Delivering the final commencement address of his tenure, President Bush told supporters and protesters at Furman University here Saturday that he was far from "a model citizen" when he left college but that "it is never too late to recover and get back on track."

In a lighthearted speech peppered with personal details, Bush also urged graduates to embrace "a culture of responsibility" and referred to his drinking problems as a younger man. The topic has become something of a touchstone for Bush during his last year in office.

"There was a time in my life when alcohol competed for my affections, but I found salvation in my family and in my faith," Bush told the crowd at Furman's outdoor stadium, including more than 600 graduating seniors.

"There is no shame in recognizing your failings or getting help if you need it," he added. "The tragedy comes when we fail to take responsibility for our weaknesses and surrender to them."

Although he received a warm welcome, Bush's visit was preceded by controversy as more than 200 faculty and students signed a letter objecting to his policies on the Iraq war, detentions and other issues. A conservative group responded with its own, larger list of signatories, and said the protesters were being disrespectful of the presidency and of graduating seniors.

Several dozen protesters greeted Bush's arrival outside the stadium Saturday, and a group of 14 faculty members stood during Bush's speech while wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase "WE OBJECT."

Though less conservative than nearby Bob Jones University, Furman is a campus with strong Baptist roots that has graduated a number of prominent Republicans over the years, including South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who helped arrange Bush's visit.

Stanley Crowe, the English department chairman and an outspoken critic of the president's visit, said before the ceremony that Bush "is a man who has undermined some pretty basic constitutional values. . . . The fact that one objects to the president has nothing to do with not respecting students. That's a false dilemma."

James L. Guth, a Republican who teaches political science at Furman, called the debate "a standard, expected scenario when a Republican is invited to speak at a liberal arts college these days. . . . But I didn't anticipate it would develop into the community controversy it has."

Bush made a joking reference to the protests, telling the audience: "I, too, am a strong believer in free speech. And to prove it, I'm about to give you one."

Bush faced a similar controversy when he delivered the commencement address in 2005 at Calvin College, a moderate evangelical Christian school in Grand Rapids, Mich., where hundreds of professors and students signed petitions and took out advertisements protesting his appearance.

Bush has generally stuck to friendly venues such as the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where he addressed graduates Wednesday, or the tornado-ravaged high school in Greensburg, Kan., which hosted Bush earlier in the spring.

Bush noted that his national intelligence director, Mike McConnell, is a 1966 graduate of Furman and that his own father, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, delivered the commencement here 25 years ago.

"By the way, if you are wondering who to vote for this year, the governor and I would be happy to offer a few suggestions," Bush quipped, referring to Sanford, in his speech's only clear political reference.

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