Former Sen. Bob Dole said he always dreamed of giving a major speech on the National Mall. But Sunday’s GW Commencement address wasn’t what he had in mind.
“The way I imagined it, we were all standing a little closer to the Capitol,” Dole told graduates and guests on the Ellipse.
“And I was on a much bigger platform. And the guy in the long gown was not President (Stephen Joel) Trachtenberg, but Chief Justice (William) Rehnquist. And my speech began with the words: `I, Bob Dole, do solemnly swear,’ ” he said.
Dole, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1996, was the keynote speaker for the 1998 Commencement ceremony and drew loud laughter from the 22,000 people in attendance by comparing it to an inaugural address.
In his speech, he reflected on the conversations he has had with students during Saturday morning coffee meetings this year. He answered one student’s request to speak about the city of Washington.
“This city and our government certainly are not perfect,” Dole said. “But I hope you never become so jaded that you will fail to see Washington in all its beauty and grandeur, a place that, like America, is ever ancient, ever new.”
Dole also spoke about the lessons learned from losing.
“The difference between success and failure is what you do after events when they do not go your way,” he said. “To lose means that you were willing to risk something, to put yourself on the line. No one who does that has any cause for shame.”
Dole joked throughout his speech. He said he came in second to his wife, American Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole, who was asked to speak at Commencement in 1995, when the University was forced to cancel the outdoor ceremony because of inclement weather
“You might remember her speech – it was 90 seconds and then rained out,” he said. “But she took the entire class of 1995 across the street to the Red Cross and convinced them to give a blood donation.”
He also compared his role as Commencement speaker to that of a body at a funeral.
“They cannot hold the event without one, but nobody expects you to say very much,” Dole said.
Dole, who shook hands and spoke with dozens of students and guests after the ceremony, said he was impressed with Commencement.
“The young people get better every year,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to communicate with students.”
“Dole was funny,” said graduate Eulalia Delarosa. “He was better than I expected.”
Dole was one of six honorary degree recipients. The other five honorees congratulated students and offered advice in their acceptance speeches.
“This is just the beginning of a period of life-long learning,” said Arthur Brimmer, chair of the D.C. financial control board, who received a honorary degree in public service. “Today I put on my blue and gold with the assumption that you want me to be part of this community.”
Also receiving honorary degrees were Harolyn Blackwell, Oliver Carr, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Allan B. Weingold.
Blackwell, a soprano with the New York Metropolitan Opera, sang to the graduates in her speech, reminding them, “You’ve only just begun.”
Trachtenberg began the Commencement ceremony by thanking his waitress at Sam and Harry’s restaurant – a graduating senior – and saying hello to her mother. He also asked mothers, fathers, spouses and children of the graduates to stand and be acknowledged.
Every year, Trachtenberg asks students to vote on whether they want to hear his charge to the graduates. This year, as in the past, students voted overwhelmingly to skip the speech.
“Once again, democracy reigns,” Trachtenberg said. “Isn’t America great?”
Trachtenberg bestowed the George Washington Awards on seven members of the University community, including Jonathan Pompan, former chair of the Marvin Center Governing Board.
“If anybody, four years ago, said I would be given the award and sitting up there, I would have said they were kidding,” Pompan said.
Students were represented on stage by Nettie Baldwin, the student speaker and a graduate of the School of Education and Human Development.
Baldwin has been a student at GW for 20 years and received her doctorate in education from the University Sunday.
“I knew I would return to GW, because there was a little button in me that kept telling me I wanted more education,” Baldwin said.
She said GW has prepared students for the outside world.
“We have heard it takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “It takes a global village at The George Washington University to produce strong, talented students who face the issues confronting contemporary society.”
Baldwin advised graduates to follow in her footsteps by continuing to learn after graduation.
“Be life-long learners,” she said. “Never lose the spirit of curiosity, inquiry and creativity that has served us all so well.”
John Zeglis, chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees, told graduates they are now partners with the University for life.
“From this day forward, your success is GW’s success,” Zeglis said. “The better you do, the better GW and the partnership work.”
The local temperature during the two-hour ceremony reached 82 degrees, according to the National Park Service. Fourteen people were taken to the first aid station with heat-related problems. None were serious, according to Bob Ludwig, GW public affairs specialist.
Ludwig said approximately 22,000 people attended the ceremony and 30,000 bottles of water were distributed.
-Kathryn Maese contributed to this report.