Dole to use student input in drafting Ellipse speech

Former Sen. Robert Dole will draw on decades of public service and recent discussions with GW students when he gives the keynote address at the University’s Commencement Sunday.

At the invitation of GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Dole met with students several Saturday mornings this year for informal discussions on current events and University issues.

“He’s interested in having a better sense of students and the kinds of concerns they have,” said political communication Professor Steven Livingston, who facilitated one of the meetings between Dole and students.

“Dole was very receptive,” said junior Rob Hendin, a political communication major who attended one of the Saturday morning chat sessions. “He really cared about the students’ concerns about politics and policy.”

Livingston asked each student who attended the most recent meeting to submit a paragraph offering possible topics for Dole’s Commencement speech.

“I told him to be funny and show his human side,” Hendin said. “I was impressed by his humor in person. I told him to talk about his own personal sacrifice to the country.”

“They gave me a lot of good insight about responsibility and sacrifice,” Dole said.

Dole left college to serve in World War II. He was wounded in Italy, leaving him with limited use of his right arm.

“I can talk about sacrifice in a general way,” Dole said, but he said he believes the issue will not be as interesting to the audience.

Dole said his Commencement speech will focus on responsibility and accountability.

“(Students) have learned a lot, but once they leave college, the class is going to be out in the job sector,” Dole said. “Leadership and responsibility go together, and you can’t emphasize that enough.”

Hendin said the University’s decision to ask Dole to give this year’s keynote speech was a well-timed choice because the former presidential candidate is still in the news.

Dole said he wants to convey messages he learned during his recent campaign.

“I want them to realize that success and failure are not opposites but part of life,” he said. “I’m not certain I want to be someone who succeeds in everything.”

Dole said he enjoyed the Saturday morning conversations and would like to continue them.

“I’m perfectly willing to do it on a volunteer basis,” he said. “I want to know what younger people are thinking about.”

Although he said he has been asked to be a professor at GW, his frequent travels make such a commitment unfeasible. But he said he enjoys the Saturday meetings because he is not locked into a schedule.

With the University just blocks away from his apartment in the Watergate complex, Dole said he is happy to make GW one of the three graduating classes he addresses this spring. The other two schools he will address are both in his home state of Kansas.

“I drive through (GW) every day and I see the hippopotamus,” Dole said. “It’s close and it’s a great school.”

Dole said he is excited to address a college-aged crowd.

“It’s good to have contact with young people,” he said.

Dole also admitted he is a bit uncomfortable about giving the keynote address on the Ellipse.

“You always feel insecure when you give a Commencement speech,” he said. Dole said he has always gotten a little nervous during the 20 to 30 Commencement speeches he has delivered throughout his career.

He said he does not want to talk at length and estimates the speech will be 12 to 16 minutes long.

“It’s going to be short, punchy and to the point,” he said.

GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said he was thrilled to have Dole as Commencement speaker and took several steps to get Dole to accept the invitation. He said he mentioned the ideas to members of the Board of Trustees acquainted with Dole and lobbied Dole’s wife, Elizabeth, the president of the American Red Cross.

“We ran a political campaign,” Trachtenberg said.

In 1995, Elizabeth Dole was scheduled to deliver the Commencement speech, but the University canceled the ceremony on the Ellipse because of a lightning storm.

Dole said he has a backup plan in case of inclement weather.

He said, “If it rains, I’ll give (my wife’s) speech.”

-Kathryn Maese contributed to this report.

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