Tim Russert's Commencement Address to the Columbus School of Law
24 May 1997
resident Ellis, Dean Dobranski, faculty, staff, distinguished honorees, distinguished guests and the Class of 1997. I wish my Irish grandmother could see me now. On the altar of the National Shrine.
Before all else - congratulations to the class of 1997! You finally made it.
Now, however, before you can begin to move on to the next phase of your lives, you must undergo the last grueling hurdle in your career here at The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.
The Commencement Address.
Let me be honest with you about my experiences with commencement addresses. I've been through several of my own and I've sat through dozens of others. And I can't recall a single word or phrase from any of those informed, inspirational and seemingly interminable addresses.
Despite that, others wiser and more learned than I, have decided there continues to be virtue in this tradition so I will speak to you, but I will not delay you very long.
Whenever I'm addressing men and women who are about to take the bar exam - I passed 2 myself - I am reminded of Yogi Berra who, when he flunked his math exam, a teacher ran down the aisle, shook him and said, "Yogi, don't you know anything?" And he said, "I don't suspect anything."
Brother Ellis mentioned my negotiations with the Vatican. I was there to convince the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, it was in his interest to appear on the NBC Today show. I was granted a private audience with the Pope.
I'll never forget it. The door opened - and there he was, dressed in white. The room was as large as the Shrine here. I was there alone. As he approached me, my mind quickly turned away from Bryant Gumbel's career and NBC's ratings toward the notion of salvation. And you heard this tough, no nonsense, hard-hitting questioner from Meet the Press, a trained attorney, begin my exchange, "Bless me Father!"
"You are the man called Timothy (Timotty) from NB Chee?"
I said yes, "Your Holiness - don't ever forget this face."
"They tell me you are a very important man in broadcasting."
And I replied with all due and deep respect, "Your Holiness, there are only two us in this room, and I am a most distant second."
He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and said, "Right."
In preparing for this afternoon, I had thought about presenting a scholarly essay on the privacy rights of public officials or the impact of the media on Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution. But it's not often you have a chance to meet and talk with people who have the same backgrounds and, I believe, the same values. So let me skip the temptation of trying to author an article for your Law Review. Let me instead take a very few minutes to have a conversation with you.
You have chosen a profession that is unique and you made the choice deliberately. And Columbus School of Law is unique as well. Where else would students sponsor a bingo game for the Little Sisters of the Poor?
But the education you've received here isn't meant to be the same as you could have received at medical or engineering or business school. Or at hundreds of other public universities around the country. You've been given an education that says it's not enough to have a skill. Not even enough to have read all the books, mastered all the briefs or shepardized all the cases. The oath you will take, the ethics you must abide by, demand more than that.
Growing up in the way you did and going to The Catholic University has given you an incredible advantage over others in your generation. Don't be surprised by that.
We've all heard the smug remarks about non-Ivy League law schools...
You think you've had it bad. You should try to be a Buffalo Bills fan and live here in Washington! I actually took Meet the Press to the Super Bowl. At the end of the program, I looked into the camera and said "It's now in God's hands. And God is good. And God is just. One time: Go Bills! My colleague, Tom Brokaw turned to me and said, "You Irish Catholics from Buffalo are shameless. You can't pray on the air."
I said, "I just did, Brokaw."
Well, the Dallas Cowboys snuck by, 52-12. The first person I saw was Brokaw. He came up put his arm around me and said, "Hey, Russert, I guess God is a Southern Baptist."
I'll let you in on a little secret. You've got something others would give anything for! You believe in something - in your God, in your family, in yourselves, in your values ... and now your degree from CUA, and you have a belief that there is an ultimate reward in working hard and playing fair.
After having had the opportunity of interviewing presidents, senators, and governors, meeting popes, I do know one thing to be true: the values you have been taught, the struggles you have survived and the diploma you are about to receive have prepared you to compete with anybody, anywhere.
Reject the conventional wisdom that success is only for the privileged or the Ivy-League-educated. In point of fact, it's the Catholic University graduates who consistently pass the bar exam with very successful numbers - the pass rates exceeding those of Harvard and Yale. And let us not forget - and graduates, if you hear anything today, please hear this - it is people, not degrees, who defend, protect and help those in need.
You will be the foot soldiers - the front-line of our legal system day in and day out with the problems and needs of the ordinary folks, the common citizens, the ones the Courts call plaintiffs and defendants.
People with backgrounds like yours and mine can make a difference. Believe me, you will have more of a role in determining whether true justice prevails in this country than the super lawyer/lobbyist on K St. or so-called rainmakers of Wall Street.
In Poland, it was a young electrician named Lech Walesa, the son of a carpenter, who transformed a nation from communism to democracy. In Czechoslovakia, a writer named Vaclav Havel, the son of an office clerk, who traded his pen for a podium and rallied his people to freedom. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela, a brave black man who worked his way through law school as a police officer, spent 28 years in jail to make one central point: we are all created equal.
All these leaders have one thing in common with you. Like the past, the future leaders of this country, of this world and of the legal profession were not born to the blood of kings, but to the blood of immigrants and pioneers.
It is now your turn. I'm not suggesting you lead revolutions or even run for public office. But your contributions as a lawyer can be significant. You can save lives, protect the innocent, convict the guilty, provide prosperity, guarantee justice and train young minds. Simply accept the fact that your family and education and values have prepared you better for this challenge than anyone in this country.
The Olympics coach told his players, "You were born to be players. You were meant to be here. At this time. At this moment. Seize it. Do it." And they won the gold.
And so, too, with the Catholic University graduates of 1997. You were born to be players in this extraordinary game called life.
So go climb that ladder of success and work and live in comfort and enjoy yourself. You earned it. For that is the American dream.
But please do this world and your honorable profession one small favor. Give back. Remember the people struggling along side you and below you. The people who haven't had the same opportunity, the same blessings, the same education, the same degree.
Recognize, comprehend, understand the society into which you are now venturing.
Since 1960, violent crime in our country has risen 560%... children with single mothers up 300%... teen suicide up 210%. Yes, they are numbing, but they are also all encompassing.
Be it criminal law, family law, corporate law, poverty law, politics, litigation, academia - you cannot - you must not - ignore these problems. They threaten the very foundation of our system of jurisprudence - the very fabric of our society. They are real numbers -real problems -involving real people. If you're liberal, call it doing good. If you're conservative, call it enlightened self-interest.
Whatever your ideology, reach down and see if there isn't someone you can't pull up a rung or two- someone old, someone sick, someone lonely, someone uneducated, someone defenseless. Give them a hand. Give them a chance. Give them a start, give them protection. Give them their dignity. That's what it means to be a Catholic University graduate, a lawyer in 1997. For the good of all of us, and most important to me, my 11-year-old son, Luke, please build a future we can be proud of.
You can do it.
Have an interesting and rewarding career and a wonderful life. Take care of one another. Be careful tonight. God bless. Thanks for inviting me.
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Revised: 27 October 1997
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