The District's colleges and universities held their commencement ceremonies last month, following tradition not only in conferring thousands of degrees but also in hearing addresses from world and national political leaders, as well as prominent figures in business, education and entertainment.
Taken together, the speeches offered a trove of insights and observations about foreign and domestic issues, plus plenty of advice--occasionally delivered tongue in cheek. The distinguished roster of those offering thoughts and views included the secretary general of the United Nations; two Supreme Court justices; a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; a former U.S. senator who gave a widely hailed speech during the recent impeachment trial; a respected civil rights leader; and the secretary of state.
Topics for the orations included such subjects as: the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba; Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosovic; the causes of conflict in Africa; the ways of God; the audience for televised wrestling; and the need to wear sunscreen and not to whine. Excerpts from the addresses, which represented a multifaceted view of the world and its concerns near the close of the millennium, offer a taste of their eloquence, wit and wisdom.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright provided graduates at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service with her assessment of Milosovic: "The best that can be said," she argued, "is that he doesn't kill people by accident."
Everyone, she said, has "a responsibility . . . not to be prisoners of history, but to shape history; a responsibility to oppose evil and uphold justice; and to build with others a global network of purpose and law that will protect our citizens, preserve our values and safeguard the future."
Albright told the graduates that there is no road map to certain success. But, she said, "Let us remember that there is not a page of American history of which we are proud that was authored by a chronic complainer or prophet of despair," she said. "We must be doers."
In his address to American University's School of Communication and School of International Service, movie and television producer/director Barry Levinson pondered the effects of television on American life, saying its impact is still not completely understood.
For example, he said, 35 million people a week watch wrestling. But, "I've never called someone and they've said to me, 'Can I get back with you, I'm in the middle of wrestling.' " And, when television debuted, he said, "who knew that new invention would lead to the Jerry Springer show?" Citing the "it's just entertainment" defense made for some television shows, Levinson said people also were entertained by throwing Christians to the lions, "but that didn't make it right." Appealing to the lowest common denominator "is not enough."
What seemed to characterize most of the speeches was exhortation--offered with varying degrees of specificity--to the graduates to help achieve a better world.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, speaking at the commencement of American University's law school, specifically asked the fledgling lawyers to do some good while doing well.
At Georgetown law school's graduation, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said that as cynicism about lawyers has grown, lawyer jokes "don't seem as funny anymore." As a remedy, she asked lawyers to bring to the fore the "problem-solving and reform" impulses that are at the core of their everyday work.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited the value of "moral formation" in education, according to the Associated Press. "Sad to say," he told graduates of Catholic University, "not only is moral formation not an objective of higher education, it is virtually a forbidden topic."
Among those with advice oriented to their own profession was nursing educator Linda H. Aiken, who spoke to graduates of Georgetown's School of Nursing.
At the top of their professional agenda, said Aiken, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and head of its Center for Health Services and Policy Research, must be "restoring the public's confidence in health care." She told them not to forsake their clinical judgment and urged that they "not be intimidated by the language and culture of business that . . . drives out due consideration of clinical care objectives and priorities."
Pedro Meurice Estiu, the Archbishop of Santiago, Cuba, spoke at Georgetown College in favor of improved relations between the United States and Cuba. "The solutions which have failed for many years must be replaced by others, even if these are untried, because they are alternatives to complete immobilization," he said.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) had this advice for graduates of American University's schools for public affairs and business: "Complaining will get you and us nowhere. You cannot wait for someone else to do it. You cannot wait for the government to do it. Through you own efforts, through action, through creativity, and a vision, you must make our society a better place."
Lewis, one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the South in the 1960s, told graduates they "must build an all-inclusive world community based on simple justice, an all-encompassing community that values the dignity of every individual."
At one point during his address, Lewis wondered aloud "why young people today are so quiet?" At the commencement of Georgetown University's Graduate School, Robert L. Gallucci gave an answer.
Gallucci, the dean of Georgetown's school of foreign service, said that 30 years ago, students sometimes refused out of protest to attend their own graduation ceremonies. Now, the passionate convictions of those days are gone, in part, he suggested, because of the recognition that "innocent victims . . . seem part of every policy option."
Graduates, he said, "should expect international problems to be complicated--and you should beware of those who insist on solutions to those problems that are simple." They should "be active citizens" with the responsibility to "be aware, to care and, on occasion, to act, to vote, to write, to speak, to be involved."
Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, spoke at the Howard University commencement about conflict in Africa. He called it neither inevitable nor intractable, but rather something caused by human action that could be ended by human action.
South Africa since the end of apartheid and the recent history of Nigeria show that "past need not be prologue, that Africa can turn a new leaf, and that a new generation can be asked to shoulder Africa's burdens with faith in the future," he said. Together, "we can help bring about the Africa that Africa deserves. To succeed, we must think and act as Africans, as African Americans, and as citizens of the world."
Former senator Dale Bumpers, a Democrat from Arkansas, offered a relatively somber assessment of America's situation at the end of the 20th century, citing such problems as low pay for teachers, high rates of incarceration, the influence of money in politics and "rudeness and incivility."
Bumpers, who defended President Clinton during the impeachment trial in the Senate, drew comparisons between the United States and the Roman Empire and said it was depressing that while many problems went unsolved, they were "all solvable."
"Never fear being a lonely voice," he told graduates of American University's College of Arts and Sciences. "Remember that you are entitled [to] the primacy of your own conscience." At the same time, "pay attention to those who had a lifetime of rich learning."
From history, he said, he had learned that "oftentimes, when people begin taking their good luck for granted, it has a tendency to play out. Don't take yours for granted."
At Trinity College's exercises, Marie C. Johns, president of Bell Atlantic-Washington, cited four cornerstones of effective leadership: Always work hard. Be mindful of your physical self. Give back. Give thanks.
"Embrace life with joy and thanksgiving," she urged. "Use your education to make things better. Never forget to revel in the adventure of life."
In his address to George Washington University graduates on the Ellipse, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa talked of what he called the paradox of an omnipotent God. "We have an extraordinary God . . . who doesn't send lightning bolts to destroy those that are the sources of evil, but who waits on such as yourselves to be God's partners, to seek, to bring about the great good that there is in all of us."
He appealed to his audience to "help God realize God's dream . . . of a world that says we are family, a world in which there are no outsiders, a world that draws all in a cosmic embrace . . . to say you all belong, all of us belong . . . in God's family."
Arthur Levitt Jr., chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who was given an honorary degree at the same GW ceremonies, noted that he had been told to speak for roughly a minute.
"If I have to say one thing to you today, it's this: Wear sunscreen."
The sunscreen recommendation, which has been absorbed into popular culture, apparently owes its origin to a Chicago Tribune column written two years ago by Mary Schmich, which became the basis this year for a popular song. Her first words of advice in the fantasy commencement speech are: Wear sunscreen.
Levitt's advice to the graduates on the sun-splashed Ellipse was reminiscent of the tone and spirit of the column. He told the graduates "to live. Grab life, pull the reins back and go. Seize the big opportunities. You'll know when they avail themselves. Don't over-plan or over-strategize. . . . Live your life through passion. Be careful when you cross the street. Get lots of sleep, and call home often."
CAPTION: Speakers at recent D.C. area college commencements included, clockwise from top, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, movie producer/director Barry Levinson, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.