White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel urged more than 4,000 GW graduates to serve a cause bigger than themselves, but made room for plenty of self-deprecating jokes in his keynote address at the University-wide Commencement ceremony Sunday morning on the National Mall.
In a speech that echoed President Barack Obama’s message of practical optimism, Emanuel, who received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from GW, told the graduates that times are tough, but with hard work and a generation filled with new ideas, America can emerge better than ever.
“This is a school in the heart of our nation’s capital where students and the University itself make public service a big priority,” Emanuel said. “Anyone would acknowledge that America has had a tough couple years, but in the long run America will be known not for what’s been done over the past few years, but for what we’re about to do to come back. But that will only be true if all of us do our part.”
Emanuel added, “It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment for America.”
During his address, Emanuel said he hoped graduates would learn from his mistakes – including what he said included a “reckless past” and lack of humility that plagued him throughout parts of his career.
“Learn humility and wisdom when you stumble, because it will help you when you succeed,” he said. “Being forced to come back from that failure is why I am standing here today. You will have failures in your life, but it is what you do during those valleys that determine the heights of your peaks.”
Though his speech was serious in nature, Emanuel sprinkled some of his characteristic dry humor into the address.
“This is actually the second honorary degree I received this year,” Emanuel said. “Just last week I was awarded an honorary degree for my contribution in the field of linguistics, particularly my work in four-letter words.”
Emanuel, who previously represented Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives, said GW students are “a great group of kids” in an interview after the ceremony.
“When you work in the White House one cycle you hear about GW,” Emanuel said. “It’s a famous University and I’ve worked with the kids in different aspects of public service.”
University President Steven Knapp said he felt Emanuel’s speech did an impressive job of urging graduates to persevere through tough economic times.
“I think [his speech] was a reminder that we live in a particularly challenging but also exciting moment in history,” Knapp said after the ceremony. “We’re at a turning point here . and we can rise to the occasion.”
Students interviewed at the ceremony said they enjoyed Emanuel’s Commencement address.
“I thought it was a good speech, I really liked it,” said Rebecca Coleman, a graduate of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “I was surprised that I really liked Rahm Emanuel’s speech since I don’t agree with his policies.”
CCAS graduate Natalie Carter said Emanuel was entertaining and his comments made Commencement a livelier ceremony.
“He’s incredible, it was remarkably clean,” Carter said. “I was hoping it would be dirtier.”
Matt Rist contributed to this report.