Mr. President, members of the board, the faculty, all the parents who are here today, and of course the Class of 2007:
As long as I live, I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out how it all happened. How, while doing my job, while trying to do something for this great city—and by extension this great university—this great university ended up doing so much for me. I don’t know what I did. I do know what all of you have done. I think it’s fair to say that not since war broke out in the 1940s, when the wave of service and sacrifice passed over all our nation’s college campuses, that so much has been asked of a graduating class as has been asked of yours.
The forces of nature swept you away from here. And sadly, we now know, the truth is Katrina had a lot of help. You were failed, all of you, by grownups at every level of government. They could’ve done more, much more. We still wait for answers; we may never get those answers. You didn’t wait; you all did what you had to do. But most of all, I speak for everyone here today, “This is why we honor you, truly, because you came back.” You came back to this great place. There wouldn’t be a Tulane without New Orleans, and I am absolutely convinced there would not be a New Orleans without Tulane.
I have one final task to ask of you until your job is done and you are handed your diplomas, and I’m going to need a little help from the house lights. Would all the graduating seniors and students today who volunteered in any way toward the rebuilding of New Orleans please rise?
That’s what I mean. You may not have known it; you probably didn’t look at it this way in your selflessness, but by your service you’ve already shown greater character than so many people so many years out of college, along with many of those leaders I mentioned earlier. You leave here with a huge lesson learned, as examples to offer before you even receive your diplomas. In 2007 not a lot of Americans can say that.
Tulane has been so kind to me. When they awarded me the President’s Medal, I felt like the Cowardly Lion getting his courage. Today I feel a little bit more like the Scarecrow getting a brain. Please know one thing about me, and it’s true, what you all receive here today, what you’ve all worked so hard to earn, is something I don’t have. And it’s more than I ever started out with. It’s a college degree. It’s one of the great, great regrets of my life.
And let me invoke one more movie since we’re talking about The Wizard of Oz here. How about It’s a Wonderful Life—the great Christmas classic, black-and-white. It’s on when you go home every year, whether you want to see it or not. It stars Jimmy Stewart, and it’s done by the legendary director Frank Capra. Jimmy Stewart plays the local banker George Bailey, and he becomes, because of bank losses, despondent and suicidal. The only way to save George Bailey is for an angel to say, “George, look at what the world would’ve been like without you in it.” So please, leave here today looking at your time here the way the legendary director Frank Capra would have. If you hadn’t been in this world, if you hadn’t done what you’ve done for this great city, if you hadn’t gone to Tulane, this would be a whole different place.
I arrived next door at the Superdome on a Sunday night. It was already raining and the winds were picking up and hundreds of people were in line outside in the rain. They had suitcases, and young children, and grocery bags and Hefty bags. They were decent, they were scared, they were tired. Some of them are now dead. They were told the Superdome in New Orleans was the shelter of last resort, and my friends, truer words have never been spoken.
That next week is a blur, as it is for everybody in here. “Split-screen America,” we call it. On one side we were showing the live pictures from New Orleans; on the other side of the screen, various government officials telling us they were happy with the response and the resources on their way to New Orleans. It was a disconnect.
We lived in rental cars that week, listening to Garland Robinette on the radio. Any innocence we had about our society was washed away. Any beliefs I used to cling to about my children and their counterparts in the Superdome being equals, they were washed away that day. I would give anything I have for all of you to not have to learn the lessons you had to learn in that way. It was an evil storm, it was a criminally slow and botched response. You deserved better and so did this great American city.
But then again, why are we surprised? Look at what your generation has learned already about sacrifice. In all the time you have been here, American soldiers have been fighting overseas. For every one of them, there is an American family making a towering, quiet sacrifice back at home. So many of the men and women in that fight would cherish what you’re about to receive today. So many would love to be in your place, but for volunteering for duty. You are free to hate this war, of course, but having been over there with them, having been alongside them in this fight, I would ask you forever to show your gratitude and your nation’s gratitude for those who are in this fight.
And because our college president likes a participatory Commencement, let’s start a little bit of that here today. Would all the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are with us today, please rise? Would all the veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces please rise? Thank you.
It’s useful to look back on what's happened since you’ve been here. Not all of it’s bad. I did some checking myself—it’s what I do for a living. When I’m not appearing as the “Giant Head of Brian Williams.”
When the class of 2007 arrived at Tulane, the top five web searches the month you got here: “Osama bin Laden,” “anthrax,” “Napster,” “Eminem” and “Shakira.” Among the top five films the month you arrived here: Signs (remember that one?), 8 Mile, and this next one is proof that, at least as a country, we still know and enjoy culture when we see it: Scooby Doo. The most requested music that month: Nelly (not Furtado), Korn, Blink 182.
So you were the guys downloading Korn, huh? That’s great.
The hot TV show at the time when you all arrived at Tulane: “The Osbournes.” Remember “The Osbournes?” Like a lifetime ago. And the dog who did terrible things.
The computer game that was hot at that time: The Sims.
It was all new back then. We were all so innocent. It was a simpler time. Remember we had encyclopedias? You’d get up, you’d go get a big book, you’d bring it back to where you were working, opening it…it was unbelievable. It was full of facts and written by experts and learned men and women. No wonder we invented Wikipedia.
But we were younger. I look at pictures of myself. I had more hair. Britney Spears had hair.
I got to town yesterday. I read the Times Picayune as I always do. I watched the local news last night. I’m always, during my visits here, trying to see if the news is good. It’s like the story of the carved sunset or sunrise on the back of the chair in Constitution Hall in Philadelphia. During the Constitutional Convention they used to ask, “Is it rising or setting?” Is the glass half empty or half full? Where is New Orleans, exactly?
There is a new pet shelter opening in Algiers. There are new plans for evacuation routes, I see, and information stops along the line for those families, who if they have to get out again, can get out. There are new restaurants opening up in St. Bernard Parish. I see people out on the streets that I haven’t seen on previous visits. And I read that Fats Domino is playing Tipitina’s tonight. That’s gotta be a sign of recovery. I can almost hear Ellis saying, “Well, let’s wait and see if Fats shows up at Tipitina’s tonight.”
And then I came to the obituary pages in the Times Picayune, and I always scan the pages—I don’t know why but I always have. And, in part, I look at the great family names from this part of the world: Simonet and Thibodeaux; Honore and Villaneaux; Hebert and Bottenet; and Bergeron and Bonaparte. I now see that the paper no longer lists the cause of death. I now notice it’s not just older folks who have “gone to their great reward,” as they put it, after a life well-lived here in this great place. I wonder how many of them died of a broken heart. And then I read the ages. Two 17-year-olds. 21, 24, 29. How can we let such great young people go?
But remember that same phrase can be applied to all of you. How can we let such great young people go, be released from our grasp here in New Orleans, knowing you’ve done so much? We understand, though, that life awaits you. You’ve learned far more while you’ve been here than you were intended to—more than any other graduating class.
You came back once. And while we will never forget you for what you did, I’d like to propose a deal here today. Hear me out. There is a state program here in Louisiana, it’s called the “Road Home.” It’s not intended for you; it’s for homeowners who need money to rebuild and repair their homes. Money that’s coming to them through the government. But I like the way it sounds. “The road home.” What could be better? Well, New Orleans could be better.
Today many of you will go home, meaning the place you associate with family, and Thanksgiving, and Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life. Well you now have another home. You helped to rebuild it. Never forget that. While great forces tried to drive you out of here, you pushed back. And you built something while you were in college. So, it’s been mentioned before here today, let me ask again: come back to Tulane, come back to New Orleans. Wherever else you may end up, this is the road home. Congratulations and God bless you.