PULLMAN – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates implored Washington State University graduates today to ignore the rancor often aimed at government workers and consider a career in public service.
Gates said he’s worried that too many of the “brightest Americans” are dissuaded from government work.
“I understand that it can be disheartening to hear today’s talk of rancorous and even tawdry political discourse,” he said. “Too often those who chose public service are dismissed as bureaucrats or worse.”
Speaking at the second of three WSU graduation ceremonies at Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum, Gates only briefly referred to the Navy SEAL operation that led to the death of Osama bin Laden early this week.
“To serve our country you don’t need to deploy to a war zone or third-world country or be buried in a windowless cube in a Gothic structure by the Potomac River. You don’t have to be a CIA spy or analyst or Navy SEAL who tracked down to bring to justice the most notorious terrorist in the world,” Gates said to loud applause in his only mention of bin Laden’s death.
Careers in public service will give graduates the “chance to give back to the community, the state or the country that have already given you so much,” he said.
The speech was Gates’ second since SEALs stormed bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. On Friday, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, Gates said the death of bin Laden could be a “game changer,” according to the Associated Press.
“Frankly I think it’s too early to make a judgment in terms of the impact inside Afghanistan, but I think in six months or so, we’ll know if it’s made a difference,” Gates said of bin Laden’s death.
At WSU, Gates focused mainly on the traditional commencement themes of pursuing careers, dreams and service.
He said the recent economic downturn reminds him of other periods in the country’s history when the outlook seemed dire, including the Cold War, the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the oil crisis of the late 1970s.
“I lived through each of these periods of declinism, when many were convinced America was stuck in a downward spiral. And yet after meeting the many challenges we face head on, our nation emerged from each of these” stronger than before, he said. “I’m convinced that we will do so again.”
Many of today’s graduates were junior high school students on 9/11 and say their high school and college careers were impacted by the day and the country’s pursuit of bin Laden.
Franciesca Bulaclac, who received a political science bachelor’s and plans to pursue law school, said 9/11 was made more emotional because her 7th grade English teacher had a relative who died in the World Trade Center.
“It probably made me more passionate about my career,” said Bulaclac, of Edmonds, Wash. “It made me more passionate to live in this country.”
Danyaile Hammond, who earned a bachelor’s degree in human development, said she remembers her mom crying the morning of 9/11 and not fully understanding the gravity of the situation until she got to school.
“Once I got to school I was an emotional wreck,” said Hammond, who is from Seattle. “I didn’t feel as safe in my country from that point on.”
“I am really happy for all the families who feel like they’ve gotten closure,” she said of bin Laden’s death.
Some of today’s graduates said the 9/11 made them more likely to pursue a career in public service or least pay closer attention to world affairs.
Arthur Sawe, who earned a political science bachelor’s degree today, said 9/11 made him more interested in foreign relations and diplomacy.
“I don’t really agree with some of the things that happened in the last 10 years,” said Sawe, citing the United States’ decision to pursue war in Iraq. “But I’m glad we were able to catch Osama.”
Trisha Elliot-Napier, of Everett, was a student at Shoreline Community College and the mother of a 3-month-old on 9/11.
She said because of 9/11 she has worked to pass to her children values that promote peace and to make her kids aware of the political process.
“It wasn’t part of my childhood and I wanted it to be part of theirs,” she said.
WSU announced last month that Gates would be a featured speaker at today’s ceremony. Gates’ wife, Becky Gates, earned a history degree from WSU in 1965 and sits on WSU’s College of Liberal Arts council. His son also is a WSU graduate.
Gates, who has served as the defense secretary since 2006, is retiring June 30. President Barack Obama plans to replace him with Leon Panetta, who leads the CIA. Gates said he and his wife plan to move to the Northwest.
Saturday’s graduating class is the largest in WSU’s history.
Gates’ speech lasted about 15 minutes. He promised at the start to keep it short.
“I am probably an obstacle between you and a great party – and for many of you a continuation of a great party.”