The Catholic University of America

115th Annual Commencement Address
Brian Williams
NBC News Anchor
The Catholic University of America
May 15, 2004

Thank you very much your Eminence, Very Reverend President, members of the board. We're working on the weather. I saw Cardinal McCarrick do the most extraordinary thing as we were on our way out. He took out his cell phone and just said, "A few clouds." I don't know who he was talking with. Clearly they are on the way. Give us a few minutes, it will be a lot more comfortable in due time.

It is fitting that I begin here at Catholic University with a confession. The degree you just saw me receive is the only degree I have received from Catholic University. Ah, yes, I dropped out of college . . . the technical term I used at the time was "transfer to GW," but the truth is I was in too big of a hurry, I had too little money and I was double digits away from a 4.00.

The good news is you all start out here today with more than I had when I started. But as we say in the television business, more on that in just a moment.

I'm allowed to reminisce as this is the first time I have been able to come back since the day I left. I first came here on a weekend visit, a road trip from the Jersey Shore. I was a fireman back then. And a buddy of mine thought it would be a good idea to fill his van with beverages and come down here on a weekend trip. He was visiting his girlfriend and I was attending community college at that time. And upon arrival, the cathedral was the first thing I saw and I rapidly came down with Potomac fever. I applied and, to my astonishment, I was accepted.

I was a work-study kid. As Father [O'Connell] mentioned, I worked in the Office of Public Affairs. I was a late application as well and so, to my horror as I moved all my trunks down here and my boxes and I finally arrived on campus, the admissions director looked at me and said, "There is no room for you in the dorm. You will have to live across the street at Trinity College." I was very upset. I knew that this would mean I would lose out on the kind of towel-snapping, very male camaraderie of dorm life here at Catholic University. I was upset until dinner that first evening. I had never seen 600 Catholic girls in one place. I moved into the second floor of Alumni Hall. It had the feel of a monastery. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Down the hall I heard the unmistakable sound of the B-52s-not the aircraft, mind you, the rock group. It was the song "Rock Lobster." I'll never forget it-and I've been waiting all morning to see how we were going to sign that one for the deaf.

I hunted down the stereo and bounding from the room where the music was coming [from] was a young man, ebullient, a great personality. He hailed from the Jersey Shore, so we knew instantly we had a lot in common. He introduced himself as "Eddie, a sophomore." You may know him today as Edward Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee. There's more where that came from if he ever tries anything on me.

My "Trinity Years," as I now refer to my Catholic University years, were the greatest. There were just a few of us really that were worthy of the honor of living at Trinity. We were all hand-selected, not every young man fits the requirements of dorm life at a women's college. I dated one girl for the most part during my time there so I was considered "safe." I wanted the girls to see me more as, oh I don't know, "Dad?" I told them all the time, "I want no special treatment. Pretend I'm not here. In fact, dress as you would. Walk as you would down the hall during the day." These were great years. This was, of course, a long time ago. Back then Norman Ornstein was only on television three times a week. I had no money. I drove a cream-colored Dodge Dart, slant six. Yes, it was a chick magnet.

The highlight of my time here, without question, was in this very doorway, shaking hands with the Holy Father [Pope John Paul II] during his visit to this campus. I didn't tell him where I was living at the time. And I certainly never dreamed I'd be back in this capacity.

I know you all remember your first days here. Perhaps you remember that first ran long. Unseasonably warm. Right up until the moment where, had there been any doubt, your childhood was cut short. The weather that early weekend September 2001. Monday, September 10, I now call the last carefree day in modern American history. This is where we get to you and I should probably say I am so sorry, because your parents and your grandparents worked so hard to make sure that everything would be OK as we sent you off into what we assumed would be a safe world. But now that's not up to us anymore. Think about what has happened to your world while you have been here, while Catholic University of America has been your world. In just four years' time. We have suffered the worst attack on the United States in the history of the United States. We have wars underway in two fronts, in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have been alongside our soldiers over there. Just as you cannot change the fact that you have spent these four years here, in these safe confines, they cannot change their assignment or their fate over there. We cannot thank them all, at least not personally. We can try here today to make enough noise to make ourselves heard over there.

And there are some people we can thank and I think we should. And watch this: will all the veterans of foreign wars please stand up and accept our thanks?

The reason why I said I was sorry earlier . . . I don't think there has been a graduating class heading out into a more uncertain world since the class of 1941. No American generation has been as fortunate as the class of 2004. You are after all at the confluence of scientific advances, economic prosperity and equal opportunity. And yet, no American generation until now has been asked to do so much: To stare down terrorism. To really reformulate the way we think as a nation. And to face such unpredictable sacrifice while trying all the while to take the degrees that are conferred upon you today and make a success of yourselves and make your way in the world. That's what we're supposed to do in America. To do all that we're going to have to cinch up our saddles and we're going to have to bear down.

Somehow in the face of a horrible terrorist attack we have allowed the trivial to become what sells newspapers and magazines in this country. Somewhere along the way, we have become alarmingly self-centered. The expression "It's about me," threatens to kill all of us. Commercials we watch on television, please note this, they all end with "And I like that. And that's perfect for me. And that fits my lifestyle." We are great today because the generations that came before us didn't think for a moment it was about them. It was about everything else, everyone else, but them.

I was in Rome recently for the Holy Father's anniversary. We were there for a week covering the events. And I have to repeat for you a story from one specific day. I had interviewed for NBC News His Eminence Cardinal McCarrick, impressed as always with his grace, the quality of his intellect. I had stood just feet from the Holy Father, in awe, of course as everyone is, of his strength, his stoicism, his remarkable grace, and his bravery bearing up under tremendous pain. It was an extraordinary day. It was a long day and as I returned to my hotel, I flipped on the television and called home to check in with my family and something was amiss. An interview had just started on Larry King. His guest that night was a singer. She was just, after all, a singer. As our celebrity-driven media culture has dictated, I'm sure she was an American icon in some homes. But she was just after all a singer and I noticed something about the interview. She was using the word 'I' more than I think I had ever heard it used before. I called my office in New York and I said "Can you grab a transcript of this interview tomorrow? I'm curious. I'm investigating something. I want to see how many times she used the first person possessive." The answer when we counted them all up-and it took a long time-was 540 times in a one-hour interview minus commercials.

'I, me, my.' That is our problem. Our problem in the media, the engine which fuels the celebration of celebrity. Our problem as consumers. Our buying power makes it all go, after all. On television last night after the news was over "Access Hollywood" came on. "Huge response to a viewer poll: 'Has "American Idol" lost its credibility?" And I couldn't help but think as I sat there watching, given the stakes in the world right now, given the content of the 30-minute national newscast I had just watched, what would the response have been, would it have been as robust had the question been, "Has American diplomacy lost its credibility?" By a three-to-two margin, the polling as of last night shows Americans thinking this nation is headed in the wrong direction.

When I was here, four days a week I had a free period and I would go over to Alumni Hall and make lunch and turn on the television. And because of the stone construction of the building, I only got one channel during my years here. It was Channel 13 out of Baltimore. And I used to watch "The Noon News," anchored by a young woman named Oprah Winfrey. She knew then, you could tell in her eyes she knew then where she was headed. And she stood out because of it.

And another confession: every day that I walked across this campus, I did so harboring a huge secret. I would sooner die than admit it to those in my dorm or those in my classrooms. I would sooner die than admit it to my buddy and dorm mate Eddie, he of "Rock Lobster" fame. My secret was that I planned in my core, I knew I planned to someday, become the anchor and managing editor of one of only three network evening newscasts someday. That there were only three jobs like it in the world didn't scare me at all. It was my secret.

We get back now to the advantage you have today over me. Effective today you have a degree from a great university. You have the grounding and community and blessing that a Catholic university education can bring. All of you have embedded in you that idea. That far-flung, don't-tell-anybody-they'll-laugh-me-out-of-the-room idea. You have it and you know you have it. Hold on tight to it. As they say, never let it go. No excuses, either. Yes, much will be expected of all of you. But much more is available to you. You grew up in a great nation. You are the very best there is and never forget that. There is nowhere you can't go. Please take us with you. I'll be able to say, at least, that I said goodbye to you the day you set off on your adventure-to protect us, to make us better, to make us proud, to remind people everywhere, all over this troubled globe, who we really are. We will be back here watching. We'll be cheering. We'll be depending on you. Because we must. God bless you, class of 2004. Go get 'em.