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114th Commencement Address

From left, Malcolm R. Currie, chairman of the board of trustees, commencement speaker Jack Kemp and dean of public administration Jane Pisano during USC’s 114th commencement May 9. After his address, Kemp received an honorary doctor of laws degree.


Thank you, Dr. Sample. Thank you very much for that wonderful introduction. It’s nice to be introduced as a former professional football player, former congressman, former HUD secretary, former next vice-president. My grandson introduced me to his Sunday school class as a “former very important public serpent.”

Dr. Martin Luther King was asked a question on a college campus a number of years ago: At what point in the history of the world would he have most liked to have been alive? He reflected on Athens in the 5th century, in the time of Pericles and Socrates and Sophocles. He thought about Florence and Rome in the time of the Renaissance; Egypt in the time of Moses; Jerusalem in the time of Jesus; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the time of our founders; and then he paused and said, “No, this is the greatest time in the history of the world.” Tragically, he is not with us to help us realize not only his dream but our dream that began in 1776.

But let me say here today, Jing Chen reminds us that our dream is not American at all, it is Chinese and Asian, it is Latino and Hispanic, it is African and European and Eastern European, it is the free universe – and you are graduating in the most exciting time in the history of the world. Congratulations to each and every one of you of the Class of ’97.

Now I’d like you to stand and thank the men and women who made it possible: your parents and the faculty of the University of Southern California. Wish your mothers a happy Mother’s Day!

I’m taking my watch off because we’re on a very tight schedule and I have the reputation of being the Hubert Humphrey of the Republican Party. He said one time that he didn’t think his speeches were too long – he enjoyed every moment of them.

Dr. Sample did not tell you how he got me to come to USC, notwithstanding the fact that I’m from Southern California and went to Fairfax High School and graduated along with my wife from Oxy 40 years ago this month. He called me one day about three weeks ago and said, “Kemp, do you believe in free speech?” I said, “Well, Steve, you know I believe in free speech, I worship at its shrine – why do you ask?” He said, “You’re going to give one at USC.”

But in an age of political candor I must tell you a true story – I don’t know why politicians have to label their stories true – but he did not tell you how I went from football into politics. In 13 years of professional football, from the San Diego Chargers to the Buffalo Bills, I broke both ankles, both shoulders, my right knee, my right hand, and I had 11 concussions – nothing left to do but run for Congress.

What a great day; what a great world: A P.E. major from Occidental College gets an honorary Ph.D from USC – is that great or not? I know many of you thought I majored in [pause] Jing Chen’s major.

Problems abound, from Zaire to Bosnia, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland, throughout this world. We are not going to create a perfect world. It is a world, however, in which we are moving with such rapidity toward a global economy-information age that it requires that we look at it with optimism – or pessimism, as Woody Allen a few years ago reminded the students on a campus in which he said, “Time is at a crossroads: Down one path is despair and utter hopelessness, while down the other path is total, absolute destruction. Let us hope that your generation has the wisdom to chose correctly.”

But you cannot play quarterback in the NFL for 13 years and be a pessimist. I look at this world and I see South Africa as a new democracy, where its prisoner for 27 years is now its president. I look at those free elections in South Africa. I look at Asia, where whole regions are being lifted out of poverty by the most powerful impulse in the history of mankind: the human desire for freedom and creativity and equality of opportunity. I look at Latin America, where the president of the United States is today in Costa Rica working on a program to accelerate trade in our hemisphere. According to Freedom House, today in the hemisphere that we live in 97 percent of the people of North America and Central and Latin America freely elect their leaders.

Freedom is on the march all over the world, with obstacles and challenges and problems that remain. There are too many in the world that have yet to breathe the air of freedom. Far too many still live under the tyrannical hand of oppression. Far too many streets and neighborhoods in inner cities of America are traps of despair where the material conditions of life are poor and the status of families and human trust are even worse. To the graduates of the University of Southern California, representing over 110 nations on this very campus, you’ve come to the end of your time of preparations poised to begin your time of performance. I, too, along with President Sample and the trustees, congratulate you on your remarkable spirit of volunteerism – more than 65 percent of the graduates of USC have participated in volunteer efforts in every corner of Los Angeles and Southern California. God bless you for that spirit; we need to do more.

The great challenge of today is in three areas, in my opinion.

One is the calling of civic responsibility, not only to our communities, not only to our country, but to the whole world. This morning I encourage you to continue that commitment, to augment it as you go forth from here today, and to recognize that for the first time in our history we have the possibility and the potential to create the conditions in the world, and here at home, of true peace – to advance freedom and democracy, the progress of free enterprise and the expansion of free trade and open commerce with the free exchange of ideas and knowledge.

We must build global security in this world by bringing a greater portion of this world into the democratic zone of peace and prosperity – a goal that in bipartisan spirit started 50 years ago this month at Harvard University when Gen. George Marshall announced the recovery plan for Europe, the Marshall Plan. In that spirit I want to suggest today that, as our president meets in Costa Rica and just subsequent to his very successful trip to Mexico, we – both Republicans and Democrats in the Congress – should support his efforts by giving fast-track negotiating authority to President Clinton to negotiate a free-trade zone from Canada to Mexico to Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. That is essential if we are to build a hemisphere of democracy and prosperity.

In my opinion, the next step ought to be a bipartisan effort to build a NAFTA-like agreement with Asia, and we ought to, from the Pacific Rim to Africa, follow the lead of Congressman Crane of Illinois and Charlie Rangel of Harlem and negotiate a sub-Sahara Africa free-trade zone that would open up the Third World to the possibility of trading freely and openly with the United States of America, the greatest open market in the world. We must keep it open if we truly believe in our promise of democracy, liberalism and free enterprise for all.

There are those on the far left and far right who say “Come home, America,” “America first,” or “America only for Americans.” Protectionism and isolationism left the ground fertile for Nazism, fascism and communism in the 1930s; we must not make that mistake again. We must build a world of open markets and open commerce. We have trading partners all over the world; they’re not our enemies. Our only enemy is bad ideas and erroneous policies. Let’s fight bad ideas, not our trading partners in Latin America, Asia and in Africa and Europe. We have that possibility today for the very first time.

Secondly, we need to look to our inner cities, as I pointed out. We cannot preach democracy in Eastern Europe if we are not making it work in East L.A. We cannot tell South Africa it will work there if it’s not working in South-Central Los Angeles.

Despair cannot be overcome by force and more prisons, or more police. It must be overcome by hope – the hope of good education, the hope of a good job, the hope of equality of opportunity and a shot at the universal dream of improving one’s lot in life, building a family, building a future for our children. That’s what Dr. King gave his life for; that’s what President Lincoln preached and practiced. That’s what this nation was founded upon, and with all our faults we have it within our grasp to do that on the edge of the 21st century and a new millennium. And that’s what the Good Shepherd would remind us. We must move this country forward; we cannot leave anyone behind.

We have to dismantle the failed system of planning people’s lives for them. We must step into the breech by establishing enterprise zones throughout Los Angeles, throughout every corner of America. We must extend the availability of quality education, both public and private, to every child in America. We must stop the policies of tax and regulatory burdens that drive small-businessmen and -women out of those communities.

These are the kinds of affirmative efforts, or affirmative action if you will, that the government must be involved in. We must give all people access to education, access to capital, credit, property ownership and equality of opportunity. That’s what America must stand for here on the eve of the 21st century.

Finally, as our greatest challenge, on the eve of not only a new century but also a new millennium, as Tony Blair said in his inaugural speech before the House of Commons, “We must use the next thousand days to prepare for the next thousand years.” We must directly counter those who fear diversity, who preach racism and hatred, who threaten America because of their hostility toward other cultures, other colors, other religions or even gender.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is our responsibility to put an end once and for all to that persistent strain of hate and fear in our midst. It is what Jackie Robinson did 50 years ago when he broke through a color line that not only liberated the African American baseball players – let me say here today it also liberated white professional football players. By holding anybody back we hold back the potential of this country

It could not have been done without a young, diminutive shortstop, born in Louisville, Kentucky, by the name of Pee Wee Reese. Pee Wee was the captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers – oh, I know they’re in L.A. now. The morning of a game – as the story was told by Ira Berkow in the New York Times two weeks ago – the booing in Cincinnati was so loud they couldn’t even hear the public announcer. The announcements couldn’t be made. Pee Wee Reese was captain of the Dodgers, and he called time out. He put the ball on the mound, walked over to Jackie Robinson at first base, put his arm around him, and 47,000 people stopped booing and spitting. You see, that was ignorance. But one man, one woman, can make a difference.

This is the time in which we need men and women of courage and conviction who will stand up. We’re not the captain of the Dodgers, but we’re the captain of our own souls. And the soul of America is in how we treat the less fortunate. The soul of America is how we treat our brothers and sisters. The soul of America is in what we do about the Third World. The soul of America is in what we do in our neighborhoods that are hurting and in despair and in lack of opportunity. We are the ones who must stand up and hold our arms around all men and women of goodwill who want a chance to be what God meant them to be, not what the state wants them to be.

This is a great university. It carries out a universal ideal. It carries out the principle of democracy, as Jing Chen reminded us in her wonderful valedictory. Forty years ago I was at Oxy, graduating; I got a chance to marry my college sweetheart 39 years ago. I’m in the fourth quarter of my life. I have four children and 11 grandchildren. I look at all the parents and all the families, all the spouses, all the men and women who have sacrificed, and I want to say this from the bottom of my heart: Ladies and gentlemen – it’s 1776 all over again. Only this time, it’s not just for us, but the whole world. We have a chance to make a difference. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by.

God bless you and God bless America and the University of Southern California graduates of 1997.

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