Warren M. Christopher 116th Commencement Speaker Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa
A COMMENCEMENT address by Warren M. Christopher is a rarity – but the former U.S. secretary of state said he made an exception to speak at USC on May 14 “because Steve Sample persuaded me.”
“I did some [commencement speeches] a long time ago,” said Christopher, who chaired the 1991 Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department. But he has since declined requests even though invitations have multiplied as his career has carried him through numerous high-profile posts.
Christopher added that he had “one or two things” he wanted to say on Friday, when he delivers USC’s 116th commencement address, entitled “Freedom and Responsibility – That’s the Deal.”
The diplomat, advocate, civic reformer, former naval officer and USC alumnus – an exemplar of what Tom Brokaw calls “the greatest generation” – will also receive an honorary degree.
Christopher’s advice May 14 will carry the weight of one of the most distinguished and varied careers in American life today. It is a career that began on the University Park Campus during World War II, when he transferred at age 18 from the University of Redlands to USC to complete his Navy ROTC training.
HE HAS FOND MEMORIES of his time on campus. The wartime Navy ROTC program brought, along with Christopher, a cornucopia of football talent. Christopher’s ROTC classmates included All-Americans like John Ferraro (now a longtime Los Angeles city councilman) and quarterback Jim Hardy, one of the “Hardy Boys” who went on to lead USC to victory in the 1945 Rose Bowl.
Christopher received his degree in February 1945, remembering with particular affection Kenneth L. Trefftzs, a “brilliant, iconoclastic professor who turned me on to finance” – his eventual major.
After graduation he went to the Pacific as a freshly commissioned ensign, serving on the USS Tomahawk with Ferraro.
When the war ended, Christopher returned to school for a law degree from Stanford. Then he worked as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (“an extraordinary year,” he recollects) before joining O’Melveny & Myers, one of Los Angeles’ – and the nation’s – most distinguished law firms.
He became a partner at O’Melveny in 1958, just after marrying a USC alum, Marie Wyllis (B.A., education, 1953). Other Trojan family ties include a daughter, Kristen, who followed her parents to USC as a graduate student in journalism. And Kristen’s husband, Andrew R. Henderson, has a master’s degree in business taxation from USC.
In the late 1950s, Christopher began a career in public service that eventually led to distinguished work in two Cabinet departments and three administrations. In 1965, Christopher was vice chair of the commission appointed by Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown to investigate the Los Angeles riots. Then he accepted an appointment as U.S. deputy attorney general in the Lyndon Johnson administration in 1967, serving for two years.
He returned to government in the Carter administration, joining the State Department as deputy secretary in 1977 and carrying out key assignments, including negotiation of the release of the American hostages held in Iran. President Carter awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in 1981.
Christopher returned to Los Angeles in that year, becoming chairman of O’Melveny & Myers.
IN 1991, in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident, Christopher took on a key assignment as chair of a commission to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department. The report, now recognized as a landmark in the field of police oversight and a turning point in Los Angeles history, called for “a new standard of accountability.”
USC professor of journalism Bryce Nelson, who served as director and senior adviser for press information for the commission, noted Christopher’s achievement. “He came in, and in a matter of three months, created a report whose recommendations were not only highly respected then, but which have stood the test of time, and remain to this day as a standard,” Nelson said.
The commission included strong supporters of then-Police Chief Darryl Gates, but under Christopher’s diplomatic leadership, came to a consensus that Gates should resign.
“This was an amazing accomplishment,” Nelson said.
In January, 1993, Christopher took the oath of office as the 63rd U.S. secretary of state. He set a record for travel, and played a key role in activities promoting peace and human rights throughout the world – in Haiti, Bosnia and the Middle East.
When Christopher returned to private life in 1997, President Clinton noted that “the cause of peace and freedom and decency has never had a more tireless or tenacious advocate.”
“Being secretary of state is to take part in history’s relay race,” said Christopher when he stepped down.
Looking over his career, it can be said that few have run so well in so many races.
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