Thursday, May 24, 2007

DeFrank's commencement address

Here are Tommy DeFrank's words to A&M graduates on May 11; there's some fun stuff in here about covering presidents, from A&M President Rudder (who fired him as Batt editor) to President Bush, and words of inspiration as well.

May 11, 2007
Ladies and gentlemen, members of the Class of 2007, it’s been my privilege as a reporter to address the last seven leaders of our country as “Mr. President.” But it’s infinitely more satisfying to be able to use those same words today to salute my friend and classmate, Ed Davis – a great educator, a better man, and a wonderful Aggie. This is none of my business, but as far as I’m concerned, somebody ought to do something about that “interim President” business right away.
After an introduction like that, EJ, I’m tempted to say something dopey like: “That’s an introduction I so rarely receive and so richly deserve.” I certainly don’t deserve it – and there are a few of you here, like Eddie Jo, who also know better.
There’s somebody else who knows better – the President of the United States. When he was campaigning in 2000, George W. Bush introduced me to a fellow governor as “a good man for his ilk.” A left-handed compliment if ever there were one.
Nevertheless, that good man for his ilk is delighted, and to tell you the truth a little overwhelmed, to be here today. In nearly 40 years in Washington, I’ve covered presidents and prime ministers, popes and potentates. But for an Aggie, this is truly the honor of a lifetime, and I want to thank President Davis for making it happen.
I’m especially sorry two people couldn’t be here today. My Dad, Class of 1948, who I’ll see on Sunday in Arlington when our family celebrates Mother’s Day, and the late David Bowers, my faculty adviser here, who more than anyone else inspired me to believe that if I worked a little harder I might have a future in journalism. I’m very pleased Mary Helen Bowers is my official Den Mother today; God knows I need one.
David Bowers was the centerpiece of a strong Department of Journalism, something we don’t have here any longer, and should re-establish, without further delay. In my opinion, a university of this world-class caliber without a full-fledged journalism department is unfortunate.
Inevitably, commencement addresses prompt you to reflect on your own graduation day. I remember mine with great clarity. I was one of eight High Honors graduates that Saturday morning 40 years ago. A new tradition was unveiled that day, mercifully short-lived; the president of the university, who personally awarded diplomas to the high honors graduates, didn’t. As some of you may know, he wasn’t thrilled by some of my stories in The Battalion.
Three weeks ago, at the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association, I had a pleasant conversation with President Bush, who I’ve been covering since 1987. He asked me what I was up to and I told him about this invitation. He was a little incredulous, but thought it was a nice honor.
I told him it was especially nice since at my own commencement, the president of Texas A&M wouldn’t shake my hand.
He had an idea whose fault that was. “What’d you do?” he wanted to know.
When I told him about writing newspaper stories the president hadn’t liked, he laughed and said, “Well, THAT certainly sounds familiar.”
Then he grabbed my arm and said, “Well, I’m shakin’ your hand,” and so he did - a very clever and thoughtful gesture that I appreciated.
So with that brief detour down Memory Lane, now perhaps you know why this invitation is particularly special to me, and I hope you’ll understand and overlook a modest measure of self-satisfaction on my part for standing here.
But it’s time for me to say that if Earl Rudder were here today, I would definitely shake HIS hand. As I walked around this magnificent campus yesterday, resurrecting powerful and bittersweet memories of what Shakespeare called halcyon days of yore, what an old Texas Ranger captain called “the sunny slopes of long ago,” General Rudder’s presence was everywhere. His vision of what Texas A&M could be is the underpinning of today’s world-class university, and all of us should honor his memory. I certainly do.
Even if I still remember him telling me a couple of years after graduation in a chance encounter in Washington: “If your grades hadn’t been so good, I’d have thrown your butt out of school.”
We all know about commencement addresses: I’m supposed to say things like “the best is yet to come,” “the future is in your hands,” “you’re embarking on an exciting journey,” “dare to dream,” etcetera.
A little corny, perhaps, but all of that is true. Especially the part about the future being in your hands.
I’m sometimes asked by journalism students how I got to where I am from where I was. I’m the first to admit that a lot of simple, dumb luck was involved, but the story begins not far from here, in the basement of the old YMCA Building in the spring of 1966.
I was reading a student magazine with an ad from Newsweek bragging about how they were the only newsmagazine with its own campus correspondents. I sat down at my typewriter at The Batt and wrote a letter offering my services as the Texas A&M campus correspondent.
Deafening silence for eight months – then a phone call from Newsweek’s Houston bureau chief accepting my generous offer.

at’s how it started. Forty-one years later, I’m blessed in still being able to do something I love. So when you hear guys with gray hair claim you have something to say about creating your destiny, believe them. If a fired Battalion editor can stand here today, anything is possible.
I know I’m supposed to impart some special wisdom now, but alas, I’m not a pundit, or an oracle, or a sage; I’m just a working reporter. But here are a couple of quick suggestions:

  • Don’t be afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom. It’s frequently wrong. A mind is like a parachute: it functions best when it’s open.
  • Don’t believe everything your government tells you. Sometimes you’re being spun.
  • Similarly, don’t believe everything you read in the press. Sometimes we get it wrong. Some of us have compromised our standards. But most of us try our best, most of the time.
  • Never forget the sacrifices and encouragement of loved ones who helped make this day happen for you. You can never fully repay them, but never stop trying.
  • Cherish the memories of your days here. Billy Joel sings, “These are the times to remember, for they will not last forever.” True enough. But the older you get, the more you’ll recognize just how special these days were. Maintain the bonds you made here. President George H. W. Bush, who reveres this place as much as we do, likes to say: “Where would we be without friends?” Nowhere. Trust me on that.
  • Most of all, pay no attention to the hand-wringers who claim America’s brightest days are behind us, that your children and grandchildren, or my beautiful two-year-old granddaughter Madison, won’t enjoy lives as full and fulfilling as ours. That’s baloney.

No question: these are troubling times for our country. I’m stunned by how little good will exists at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue these days. The spirit of acting in a bipartisanship fashion in the common interest seems to have died. I’ve never seen such poison and corrosiveness in Washington as today. In my opinion, the country is sick of it, and those politicians who continue to behave as though there must always be a winner and a loser will pay a well-deserved price in November of 2008.
And whatever we may think of the Iraq war, we all know it’s difficult and above all, heart-wrenching. Once again, the Long Maroon Line has answered its country’s call, as it always will. Including Bob Gates, I might add. If any one person can make a difference, it’s Bob.
This is a proud and resilient nation that has survived much travail in 231 years. In my relatively short time in Washington I’ve been an eyewitness to two assassination attempts against a President, covered the resignation of another, and the impeachment of a third. Other grave challenges lie ahead: today the scourge of international terrorism cannot be underestimated.

Yet our democr
acy endures, and will again – but not without your help. All of you have something to say about that.
A famous politician once called Aggies “doers, not booers.” He also said this amid another moment of national turmoil, words which resonate today:
“The government in Washington isn’t about to sink…it is and will continue to be about as good as concerned and conscientious citizens make it. The Constitutional processes are working as the Founding Fathers intended, without riot or repression, without as yet seriously weakening our strength at home and abroad.”
The man who spoke those calming words was Gerald R. Ford. He was the vice president of the United States at the time, later to become our 38th President. And he made those remarks right here at Texas A&M – at another commencement exactly 33 years ago today – May 11, 1974.
Accompanying the Vice President on Air Force Two from Washington that day was a 28-year-old apprentice reporter who had no idea how the rest of his career and life would turn out, but who was very excited to be covering a big story, and thrilled to be home.
A third of a century later to the very day, I’m still thrilled to be home – and very humbled.
Thank you again for inviting me; heartiest congratulations to all the graduates and their families, and I wish you Godspeed.