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2005 Commencement Speech: Cokie Roberts, journalist

Source: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries

Well thank you so much I’m thrilled to be here with all of you graduates.

Its here, you made it. The day has arrived.

I’m also pleased to be with my fellow honors and to be standing at the same lectern where Barbara Bush stood not to long ago giving this graduating address. She is called by Laura Bush, “The Enforcer”, which is her reputation in the family.

I’m also really glad to be at a Jesuit event that I am not paying for.

It doesn’t happen very often, and it is a treat to be here at this one. My uncle was a Jesuit, so you can see that for all of my life this has been something that you have to be wary about.

I also have spent a great deal of time covering the politicians who are Jesuit grads, there is a little something for everyone there; from Bill Clinton to Clarence Thomas, from Jerry Brown to Pat Buchanan; from Pat Leahy to Bill Bennet and of course John McLaughlin. It is quite a collection.

I must say my personal favorite of the politicians of Jesuit graduations is Tip O’Neil. Who of course was long time speaker of the house and was a wonderful man.

I remain eternally grateful to him because he is the person who told me the only joke I can ever remember. So it is my one joke, which you are about to hear. It is a joke that starts the way most do of the great and good man that dies and gets to heaven and he arrives at the pearly gates and St. Peter says, ‘Well, you have been a good son of Holy Mother Church, so you get a wish.’

And the guy says, ‘Great, I get a wish, I want to meet the Blessed Mother.’

So in he goes, he meets Mary and she says ‘I understand you always wanted to meet me’ and he says ‘Yes, I have something I’ve been wanting to ask you all of my life. Over all those centuries and all that art and all those stained glass windows and all those sculptures and all those paintings, any time you are holding the baby Jesus you look sad. Why?’

She said, ‘I wanted a girl.’

Now I promise you will never be able to look at a Madonna and child again.

I am also personally grateful to Marquette, aside form its Jesuitness, for the specific fact of Marquette because the oncologist who saved my life went here to school.

Dr. Zadusky, her daughter is here now. Dr. Joanne Zadusky told me that Marquette made her what she is today; a Warrior against cancer.

I’m sorry trustees, I couldn’t help it.

And I promise you, I will not do what last years commencement speaker did and offer you a million or 2 million to change the name back. In fact I’ll be happy for car fare home.

I know this is a somewhat painful issue, I hear it from politicians all the time. You don’t pay attention to all the good things were are doing you only pay attention to silly stuff like this. I just had a conversation with Tom DeLay the other day.

But I have to say I’m personally happy that I showed up as a result of your tribulations with my name on the sports page of the New York Times.

My name. That would have never happened otherwise.

And I have gotten some wonderful emails about this. One suggested you should call yourselves the Harleys. Which I think my fellow honoree Mr. Teerlink would be very happy about.

The one I heard on All Things Considered, which I thought was quite wonderful, was the Jumpin’ Jesuits. Which given the new regime in Rome could be the case, they could be jumping a lot in the days to come. But I will leave that now and let you work it out yourselves.

I want to talk to you today about politics and politicians, not just those that have graduated from Jesuit schools and not just my fellow honoree Jerry Kleczka.

I grew up as a child of politicians so I have a bias, both my father and mother, my father, the brother of a Jesuit, were in Congress many years.

My father for 32 years and then he was lost in a plane crash and my mother was elected to take his seat and she served for nine terms. And then she retired and discovered that was exceptionally hard work so she took a new job in a new country in 1997 when she was 81 years old and it was the job of being the United States Ambassador to the Vatican, which was quite wonderful, except that what happened in this country happened and she found herself representing Bill Clinton to the Pope. And it was a challenge and if anyone could do it, my mother could.

But I’m happy to tell you she is safely back in Bourbon Street in New Orleans where she lives. She is 89 years old and she lives by herself on Bourbon Street; and if you have been to Bourbon Street you have been to my mother’s house because it is not like it is out someplace nice.

When the children were small we would walk past the strippers and the other neighbors and I would say through the woods and over the hills to grandmothers house we go.

And then she moved from Bourbon Street to the Vatican and I teased her that the costumes didn’t change, it was still guys in dresses.

In fact I was just back for the funeral of the pope and with the Cardinals all there, their petticoats, it is quite wonderful.

Therefore I do care about politics and politicians and I want to talk to you about the importance of public service, particularly at this time.

How much we need your now very valuable talents in public service in this country, maybe we never needed them more, to have graduates with the Jesuit values of social justice coming into public life.

I was in my hometown of New Orleans yesterday and I noticed a poster in the airport advertising Loyola University there and it said SJ, social justice.

I think that those values are so important to bring into public service and I particularly hope that those of you in the Law School who specialized in dispute resolution would join us because the situation is not good.

You keep hearing, I know, that it is more partisan than it has ever been and that it lacks civility. At President Regan’s funeral everybody who came back kept talking about that; that the civility that was there when they were there is just gone.

And that’s true. That partisanship is greater and that lack of civility is greater than it has been, really probably at anytime in our history since the 19th century.

Well people will say, in the 19th century they used to cane people on the floor of the Senate, but that was in the lead up to the Civil War and as a failure of politics because people were so unable to come together, we went to war. It is not exactly a period that we want to emulate.

I know the idea of going into politics is not always a popular idea and that politicians are not the most popular of people and there are a whole lot of reasons for that. Part of it is our fault in the media because we do focus on the negative way to often.

Part of it is the politicians’ fault themselves because they often run against the institutions for which they serve.

Part of it is our fault as voters because when people try to lead we wont let them, we punish them immediately.

But I think there has also been a very dangerous atmosphere in the country of denigrating the professional politician. Those words are somehow considered evil together; professional politician.

And you know, to denigrate the professional is to denigrate the profession. We demand professional doctors and respect the practice of medicine and we expect professional bridge builders and respect the art of engineering. To say that only amateurs, non-professionals, should be governing us is to show a basic disrespect for government. And as I say, while that sentiment has been popular in recent years, I think that it is extremely dangerous.

Nothing in this country, we have nothing that binds us together, we have no common ethnicity, we have no common history we have no common religion, we don’t even have a common language anymore. Nothing binds us together except our government and if you look at what is happening in the rest of the world with the ethnic and religious conflict you see what a miracle this nation, with all of its diversity, is and it is because of the institutions that the Constitution, that one great document that glues us together as a nation, and the institutions it created, have the effect that they have had over the centuries, have been the reason we are a country that can come together.

And it is all the institutions crated by the Constitution; the Executive, the Judiciary and the Congress, that are part of the bringing us together. In fact for those of you who remember your Latin, congress means coming together.

I think to have a disrespect for it is to really be a recipe for disunion, the kind of disunion we see in the rest of the world.

You know more than 170 years ago when Alexis de Tocqueville was wandering around the country trying to figure it out, he wrote about this question of how could America be a country when these people are so different from each other and of course we were much less different then than we are now and he couldn’t figure out how we could form a nation, but then he finally decided and he said:

“It is because everyone and his peer takes an active part in the government of society. The cares of politics engross a prominent place in the occupation of a citizen in the United States. Even the women frequently attend public meetings and listen to political harangues as a recreation from their household labors.”

Well of course, now women are running those meetings I’m happy to say and I remember reading a wonderful quotation from a woman who did run for office saying “I either had to run for office or stop complaining and I knew I couldn’t stop complaining.”

But the fact is now that you have the influx of women and minorities into elected office is an even greater reason to have respect for them. These are not institutions closed off to segments of the American populace anymore. And that was a result of a great deal of effort, but it should also have the effect of giving you a sense of the importance of this kind of public service.

I know that your own representative, a graduate of Marquette University, certainly understands that. Congresswoman Gwen Moore, who learned the hard way what it was like to get an education, support a family and is now trying to give back through public service.

Of course service is what it is all about and this institution has a wonderful tradition of service. In all of your lives you will give service in one way or another. The engineers and scientists among you like Fr. Coyne and Dr. Warner, will improve all of our lives. Those of you in the humanities can enrich all of our lives; those of you in communication and teaching can inform all of our lives; those of you in the healthcare professions can enable all of our lives; those of you in business can enhance all of our lives and those of you who are mentors like Mr. Teerlink and Dr. Warner can guide all of our lives. But as you go forth from this wonderful place and look at the life ahead, let me commend the particular kind of service that Congressmen Kleczka represents; public service.

It holds such an important place in our history as a nation, it is the thing that brings us together and keeps us together as a country. It is tough work, but you are now Marquette graduates, you can do it. Go out there into the fray.


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