Bush Officials Tell New Grads to Reach for the Stars

Over the years, presidents and Cabinet members have dropped a few bombshells on unsuspecting graduates at commencement time, but they usually stick with exhortations to reach for the stars or climb every mountain.

"The same values that got you to this commencement will get you anywhere you want to go," Treasury Secretary John Snow (search) told University of Toledo graduates last weekend. "No matter what the government's policies, in America, you can always take charge of your own future."

In an address last weekend at the University of Missouri in Jefferson City, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told new graduates, "You owe it to yourself to take reasonable risks, to seize opportunity."

It's not always so predictable. President Bush used a commencement address at the University of South Carolina last Friday to propose a new free trade zone in the Middle East.

"The way forward in the Middle East is not a mystery," he said. "It is a matter of will and vision and action."

The idea didn't garner as much reaction as a commencement address Bush gave last year, when he told West Point's 2002 graduates that we must "confront the worst threats before they emerge."

The pre-emptive strike doctrine (search) was a radical shift in foreign policy and became the administration's justification for war in Iraq earlier this spring.

In some other notable commencement addresses by presidents:

-- Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the term "Great Society" (search) in a 1964 commencement speech at the University of Michigan. The catch phrase came to encompass many social programs started by the government in the mid-1960s.

-- John F. Kennedy told Yale University's 1963 graduates that the money spent on weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union "could be better devoted to combat ignorance, poverty and disease." He said the two countries were "caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle." George Washington University professor Leo Ribuffo said that speech is the best evidence for scholars who argue that Kennedy was rethinking his Cold War views.

When the president can't make it, schools often reach out to members of his administration.

Drawing a recognizable name "brings a certain excitement to the graduation exercises," said Darby Dickerson, interim dean at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez addressed Stetson's new lawyers this year. "After you accept your diploma and make your way out into the world, I urge you ... to live by your oath and show compassion for those you meet along the trail," he said at the ceremony last weekend.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao focused on faith in an address to the Virginia Beach, Va., school founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

"In Washington, they say that knowledge is power," Chao told Regent University's 824 graduates. "But we know that faith offers more than power. It offers strength, peace and hope."

Education Secretary Rod Paige plans to give four graduation speeches this year, from Islip, N.Y., to Malibu, Calif.

"Have the courage to always think for yourselves," Paige told graduates last Saturday at Texas Southern University in Houston. "Modern life is not simple. Answers are rarely cut and dried."

Bush will speak at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduation next week in New London, Conn. In upcoming weeks, first lady Laura Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne Cheney, and numerous cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices and Bush appointees also will address graduates and maybe even introduce a new political idea or two.

Speaking to Harvard University's graduating class of 1947, then-Secretary of State George C. Marshall outlined for the first time his plan to bring economic stability to postwar Europe while staving off communism. The Marshall Plan (search) became a major model for war-zone reconstruction.

There will be no such graduation-speech news from the secretary of state this year. Colin Powell is sitting out this round of commencements.