The Honorable Harold E. Ford, Jr.
Congressman, U.S. House of Representatives, Ninth District of Tennessee

Commencement Speech

My daddy had to go to school for two years to get one of these degrees. I thank you, Mr. President, for today – my daddy is a graduate of the business school here at Howard.

I thank the distinguished President for all the kind words. I thank the Chairwoman of this Board of Trustees, the great doctor, for her friendship and for all the leadership she has provided, not only here but across the country. Dr. McKenzie, you were a shining star for Bill Clinton, and you are a shining star for Howard University, and I might say for all the young people whose lives you have impacted.

To the entire Board of Trustees, many who have known me for all of my life, and some have known me for great portions of it, I'm delighted that someone I look up to like an uncle, Stacey Mobley, is a member of the Board, and I thank him. I thank my neighbors and dear friends, Ms. Higginbotham and Ms. Hudson.

To all of the leadership of this great Board, Counselor Reed and the many, many others who make it work day-in and day-out for all the young people at this university, to the distinguished faculty.

I'm a classmate of one of your distinguished faculty, Kim Evelyn; Dr. Evelyn, who sits in the audience, went to 7th through 12th grade with me. We didn't think either of us would amount to much, and look at us now.

To my mommy, who I love so much, who sits in the front row. As I listen to Dr. Swygert read those very kind words – and I'm just 35, I don't think I warrant all those nice words, but I appreciate them. He indicated that there were three things that my two brothers and I had to do [“our homework, go to church; and work in political campaigns]. Amazingly, when I run into parents today who complain about their kids, how they can't get them to go to church, I don't know how kids have those choices today. When I was growing up, we had no choices along those lines.

And I see the chair of my deacon board is here as well, from Memphis, and his daughter, Danielle, who is a graduate of this school, and now just graduated from Georgetown Law School. I am delighted they are here as well.

Homework was never an option. You had to do it. I often hear people criticize – Dean Richardson, I often hear people criticize and talk about how government should do more. You're absolutely right, but so much of this just starts at home, and I thank my mom for being the mom that she is, and the mom that she was.

Judge Ernest E. Hunt, I got folks up from Memphis, and to all of the students from Tennessee and especially Memphis, I thank you and the entire Mobley family. Aunt Joan, who is Dr. Mobley, I thank you so very much for being here as well, and to all of this Howard extended family.

We come together at a difficult time, and at an interesting time for our country. I say difficult, obviously, because as all of us open our hearts and minds and wallets to our brethren. It hurts me so bad to see so many Americans referred to as refugees during the immediate days after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast region. So many Americans have opened their hearts and, again, given to local organizations, including their churches, and national entities, like the Salvation Army and Red Cross, all in an effort to take in and take care of our brothers and sisters who were affected by something they had little or no control over.

I thank Howard University for the students you've taken in, and for the many other students who have been affected. I was instructed to say in my remarks, for all of you, some 400 of you who may have been affected by this storm, either as an evacuee or just as a resident of those areas, you too qualify for special benefits, public and private benefits, and can register for those benefits at the Armory, and President Swygert and this great team at Howard urges and encourages you to do just that.

I want to take a special moment to recognize and congratulate all of your academic accomplishments. Your [University] moving up on all of the national lists is something that many in Congress, if not many across the country, look to and applaud.

I want to especially congratulate your newspaper [The Hilltop], which I understand was recognized by the Princeton Review, as one of if not the best newspapers, college newspapers, in the country.

I take a little pride in the fact that when I was at the University of Pennsylvania, I founded a newspaper called The Vision, which was our monthly African-American student newspaper at Penn, and it still lives today. And I remember when we started the paper, President Swygert, I thought all you had to do was write a bunch of articles, come together and print them and the paper would just materialize. It taught me a little something about advertising and business, and how to make a very, very small business work when you need it to work. So I congratulate those students for their hard work and dedication and accomplishment.

I say this is an interesting time because I think we are presented as a country, and I particular direct my comments to this class of 2009, we are presented as a country with an opportunity to really transform and change who we are, and live up to the tradition that was laid out. Your [University] motto, truth and service, the idea and the premise which the Constitution is built on, this perfect union that guarantees these rights and these opportunities in the pursuit of happiness for all, we have a chance now, for God works in mysterious ways. And I always try to look for the positive in something, even when we lose elections, my party, always tries to look for the positive in everything.

I have to think this moment has been thrust upon us to force us as a national community to deal with things that we sometimes like to sweep under the rug; the fact that there are a lot of people in our country who don't necessarily look like us, who don't have a whole lot; a lot of people who just don't have the luxury or advantage of leaving when warned to leave; many people who, as much as we'd like to see people climb the economic and education ladder, just don't have a ladder to climb, who if given a chance and given an opportunity probably would do just that.

I noticed last year for Opening Convocation, you were blessed to have one of the great minds and great leaders in all of finance and all of business, the wonderful E. Stanley O'Neal, who challenged the students of this great university. He said, “As you begin this new academic year, I would ask you to remember how fortunate you are, what extraordinary possibilities lay ahead, and to seize them.” He couldn't be more right.

He went on to say, “I would ask you to think, too, about the other side of the educational divide in our communities and do something with your success to help, at least to make a reality of the promise of equal educational opportunity.”

My advice to those in this class of 2009 isn't quite as eloquent or isn't quite as long. It's just simple: do the hard stuff.

Our nation faces an interesting and difficult moment, because I contend over the last several years we've chosen an easy route. While America was ahead and leading and winning on so many fronts, we became too cavalier and nonchalant about everything we did, from whether you compare how we treated and took care of the poor to even the scriptural mandate, Dean Richardson, that so many Democrats and Republicans like to point to, all of us being hypocrites at a time in which our nation had an opportunity to look ahead and prepare for the looming bills and deficits that would come our way from Social Security and Medicare; we chose not to.

In a time in which the world cried out for leadership in different ways, be it health crises in Africa, growing security threats in Asia and North Africa, or Europe, that in many ways became separate from us on so many fronts, we got lazy and nonchalant and decided not to do the hard things.

Knowing full well that we import 85 percent of all of our energy, and knowing full well that we consume more than 25 percent of the world's energy output, and that we only produce three percent of it, and represent less than four percent of the world's population, we got lazy, and didn't do the hard things.

We now find ourselves, class of 2009, presented with a lot of questions and the chance to provide some tough answers. But I frankly say, if we do, we will make America safer and better.

Here we are, four years and almost two weeks after the commemoration of the most horrific set of attacks on our nation that my generation has ever seen, and one could say ever, with Pearl Harbor rivaling.

Four years and a few weeks later, the people who enacted and brought that harm on us, the money used to pay for that, you and I provide day-in and day-out when we start our cars -- when we turn the lights on in our churches and our homes and our businesses and classrooms. And today we spend more money and import more of that stuff that was used to bring harm to us than before. Class of 2009, you are going to have to do the hard things.

I've been to Iraq three times and will go back in November, hopeful and prayerful, President Swygert, that a constitution that all can live with would have been voted on and accepted by the people of that country.

Each time I've gone, the security threat is worse. Each time I've gone, I've been amazed, Dr. McKenzie, how little or better prepared we are as a country to communicate and to understand other parts of the world. If I had a piece of tangible advice for my friends in the Class of 2009, it's to learn Farsi or Arabic. Learn what they call the mission-critical languages. One of the challenges our military faces on the ground is that they understand very little about the culture that has been thrust upon them, and they can't even communicate with the people who they're asked to protect, let alone help them understand a democracy that we want to export to them.

You and I have a great challenge on our plate, and a unique opportunity in so many ways to make America better and to restore our moral authority and our might. Some people are critical of the United States. Some people are harsh in their criticism of our country. I want to be clear: I love America, wouldn't trade it, and wouldn't leave. And anybody who wants to, we've got a whole group of people waiting to get in, so anyone who wants to leave, feel free to do so.

Having said that, you and I have a responsibility to help us to live up to all that we represent and all that we mean. At no time in the nation's history, at least as long as they've been taking these surveys, has America's prestige been questioned more, have our policies been more disrespected and disliked, and have we as a people been more misunderstood.

Now is not a time to be cavalier. Now is not a time to be nonchalant. Now is not a time to not do the hard things, and make the hard choices.

I serve with a group of people, a whole bunch of them I like. I get in trouble at times because I make clear that I like President Bush personally. I'm a Christian. I always try to find the upside in everybody. Bless his heart, but I always try to find the upside in everybody.

He has proposed in the last few days an ambitious set of ideas to help get the Gulf Coast back up on its feet, and it's estimated it will cost you and I as taxpayers upwards of $150 – $200 billion. The President has said that he will not raise taxes, and he is willing to sit with Congress and work through all the details.

We've all said to the President, even members of his own party, Mr. President, where do you plan to find the cuts? Are you going to ask veterans, as they return, to give up health care? Do you want to ask students struggling to meet the rising costs of tuition, are we going to cut Pell grants? Cut scholarship and grant opportunities? Or maybe we should tell the kids in schools across Memphis and New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi and Biloxi, and in Mobile, Alabama, instead of having free lunches Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, we just decided to do it Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday now, because we have things to pay for, and we're unwilling to ask all of us to share in the sacrifice. Or we ask those who are working 50 or 60 hours a week that if your daughter breaks an arm, you go every other time to the hospital, not the first time.

I say to the Class of 2009, you and I will have to figure out the answers to these questions, and live with the consequences of the decisions being made today.

I'm a believer, and I get in trouble at times for saying this, because I'm a Democrat, but as much as I like my party spending money, I like to be able to pay the bill when it comes in as well. I just don't believe that we have done generations of Americans justice by the way we have managed their finances.

We in Congress, Class of 2009, will have to do the hard things as well, and I contend that many of us will try our hardest to lead them in that way.

You know the Prophet Isaiah, in Chapters 54 and 55, said something along these lines. He said, “all unhappy storm-tossed souls, with none to comfort you, I will make garnet your building stones, and sapphires your foundations. I will build your towers with rubies, your gates with precious stones, your border with gems.”

We don't want to say, come all who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money, come buy food and eat. Come buy food without money, milk without cost. Open your ears, come to me, harken and you shall live.

For that mandate of that instructor is not just directed at those who lost their homes and have been disconnected from families and are trying to restabilize. That scripture is for all of us. For all of us to realize that we have a role to play and a responsibility and a burden not just as Americans, but as His children to do right and to do what's best.

I said earlier that I'm excited and remain optimistic about the challenges we face, Class of 2009. Not just because of that scripture and that verse, but because I have to think, throughout our nation's history, the critical and tough and hard moments when Americans didn't know how to get through, and all these history professors here – forgive me for jumping around chronologically – but I've got to think George Washington didn't always know how he was going to win the Revolutionary War and lead us to victory.

Had the wind blown one way or the other, according to one of these books written about it, we might have lost that war.

I’ve got to think that Lincoln at times wondered, how will I reunite a country so bitterly divided over issues of income and class and race and region?

I have to think that all those young men who were dropped off on those beaches at the beginning of that war guaranteeing or working to guarantee freedom for us and the world, many of who had never left their farms or their neighborhoods, they had to wonder how we were going to get through it. But they went through World War II and won.

I have to think that many people who look like many of us, and many who did not, who fought so valiantly and bravely during the '50s and '60s for the rights that we enjoy and often take for granted, had to wonder, how will we make it through this moment? They did, through faith and hard work, and a belief that tomorrow would just be better. They did.

You and I face similar kinds of challenges, for we face a world that is hostile to us in many ways, new and emerging security threats that must be confronted, and a country that needs to work again.

I was in New York two days ago, Mr. President. I was on top of one of the big hotels up there, the St. Regis, and was speaking to a group of about 60 very wealth business guys all wanting to know from me, from Memphis, as a member of this Committee on Banking, how could they get a better audience with the government to present their technology products, which they believe would actually lower the cost for government by some $10 – $30 billion over the next 10 years.

As I said, I had all these remarks, and I was ready to walk through all of these things and I said, you know, this is an amazing thing. Just three weeks ago I was watching television images of poor people, a lot of who look like me, outside of a convention center and a dome where they played the Super Bowl and a national championship game in football, wondering when water and food would come, and wondering if government would work for them.

You had 60 rich guys on top of the St. Regis wondering if government would work for them, as they were offering incentives and technology to save government money, and they couldn't get an audience, and a group of poor people in New Orleans who, even with Fox and CNN and MS-NBC, and all the major networks glaring down, had to wait five days for food and rescue.

Government doesn't work like it should any more. Class of 2009, you have been given an awesome set of opportunities, and to match it, we have an awesome set of responsibilities that await you.

As I close, I'm reminded in a lot of ways of my kind of faith I bring, and I'll just share, we had to go to church all the time. I didn't like it. My mother would put these little ties on us and dress us up in the morning. When we were here we went to New Bethel, Rev. Fauntroy, and we'd sometimes go over to Metropolitan Baptist Church. I'm from Memphis, but my dad was in Congress for 22 years, so we spent a lot of time growing up here. All I would remember, oftentimes, every time in church it was all about how you've got to take care of the least, take care of the least, take care of the least.

Class of 2009, we have that responsibility and that burden. Bless all of us with the vision to see all of those less fortunate than the privileged graduates and students of this great institution.

Bless all of us to see the afflicted and to want to help. Bless all of us to see the poor and the survivors as God indeed sees them as Reverend Fauntroy and my own pastor at home, Rev. Smith, would say, as recipients of our concern and love.

As your youngest recipient, I understand, of an honorary degree, Class of 2009, I thank you for honoring me, and I thank this Board of Trustees. I end where I began. Remember, going forward, always, always do the hard stuff.

Thank you, and God bless you.