Former President George W. Bush used his commencement address to Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) class of 2015 in Moody Coliseum in Dallas, Texas on Saturday afternoon, May 16, 2015 to encourage the C students that they too could become president. The former president (2001-09) spoke to the 2,000 graduates in his first commencement address since leaving office. Bush let it be known that unlike Bill and Hillary Clinton the address he was delivering was in fact a “free speech.”SMU is also the home of Bush’s library, museum and presidential center.
President Bush’s speech was full of his well-remembered self-deprecating humor. Bush referenced his below average marks in university, his post presidential painting career and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Bush’s speech which mixed humor with serious issues had an overriding message to graduates; be hopeful about their future, while encouraging them to “participate in civic life.”
The former president recounted how he was asked to deliver the address for the university’s centennial commencement. Bush called his decision a “practical one,” explaining, “I got a call from my landlord…[SMU President] Gerald Turner. Rather than raising the rent or threatening to withhold our security deposit, I was relieved to hear President Turner ask me if I believed in free speech.” Continuing Bush recounted, “I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Perfect. Here’s your chance to give one.'”
The remark was clearly a jab at the former President Bill Clinton and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and an opponent to his brother undeclared Republican candidate Jeb Bush. The public financial disclosure report the Clintons filed to Federal Election Commission on Friday afternoon, May 15, 2015 indicate they have made $25.3 million since the start of 2014 from a combined total of 104 speeches, not charging less than $100,000 for any speech.
SMU President Gerald Turner, who had introduced Bush, also recounted the story, saying the university was looking for someone “very special” to deliver the centennial address. Turner explained, “I asked for examples and they had one, George W. Bush, the 43rd president. I was relieved when he said yes, my backup plan was to get a certain member of the board of trustees to twist his arm.”
Bush who was an average student while undergraduate at Yale University, told the graduates that one’s grades do not predict success, letting the graduates even if they have Cs they can still aspire to the presidency. Bush expressed, “To those of you who are graduating this afternoon with high honors, awards and distinctions, I say, ‘Well done.’ As I like to tell the C students, you too can be president,” the remark went over well with the graduates, who laughed in response.
The former president also tried to instill in the graduates a desire for public service, explaining that he was too inspired by “the example of many selfless servants,” such as Winston Churchill. Continuing, Bush mocked his post presidential painting career and talent, comparing himself to Churchill, who also painted after leaving office, “Like Churchill I now paint. Unlike Churchill, the painting didn’t work much without the signature.”
The former president did not just to entertain the graduates, but impart on them important life lessons, and focused part of his speech on “defending the right to religious freedom.” Telling graduates, “It is essential to this nation’s future that we remember that the freedom to worship who we want and how we want, or not to worship at all, is a core belief of our founding.”
Bush’s remarks about religious freedom are relevant as there is a renewed debate if religious liberty laws actually promote discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Bush however, was not stepping into the debate only discussing his personal views on faith and religion. Bush concluded by telling the graduates how religion makes him hopeful, “I’ve made my choice. I believe that the almighty’s grace and unconditional love will sustain you.”
For most university graduates the economy is still leading to uncertain unemployment, much of which are disappointing to the illusions many have about their future careers. To counter the former president also attempted to impart an optimistic message to the graduates. Bush invoking Churchill expressed, “Today, some doubt America’s future, and they say our best days are behind us. I say, given our strengths—one of which is a bright new generation like you—these are not dark days. These are great days.”
Remarks by President George W. Bush at SMU’s 100th Spring Commencement Convocation, Bush Center, May 16, 2015
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.