GREENVILLE, S.C. – President Bush, ignoring faculty members who stood in silent protest of his commencement speech, admitted Saturday that when he left college, thinking about how to be a "model citizen" was the furthest thing from his mind.
Yet that was the goal the president set for the 2008 graduating class of Furman University.
"As you move ahead in life, you will find temptations and distractions that can take you off course," Bush said. "You might also find that years may pass before you learn some important truths: That who you are is more important than what you have. And that you have responsibilities to your fellow citizens, your country, your family, and yourself."
Scores of Bush supporters lined his motorcade route and the crowd gave Bush a warm welcome as he strode into the university stadium for the outdoor commencement ceremony. But about 15 members of the faculty stood in silent protest during the president's speech. They wore white T-shirts emblazoned with "We Object" to show their opposition to Bush's policies on the Iraq war, global warming and other issues.
Bush, who has about eight months left in office, urged students to vote in the upcoming race to succeed him.
"I know the democratic spirit is alive in our country because there was a big vote recently: The new American Idol got about 55 million votes," Bush said. "I hope we see an even bigger turnout this November.
"For some of you, this will be your first presidential election. I ask you to get involved in the process and do your duty and vote. By the way, if you are wondering who to vote for this year, the governor and I would be happy to offer a few suggestions."
Bush offered one self-deprecating line about his frequent verbal gaffes. Noting that his father, former President George H.W. Bush, spoke at the university's commencement 25 years ago, Bush said, "This is a great step forward for the Bush family, and a great step backward for your English Department."
But the backbone of his speech was to urge the 655 graduates to be responsible and accountable to both themselves and the nation. He said he remembers how he felt at his college graduation.
"At the time, I must confess that the last thing on my mind was how to be a model citizen. Just ask my mother," Bush told the students and several thousand guests. "Yet I found, as you will, the world has a way of helping you grow."
Bush said volunteerism was on the rise in America. He noted the compassion and camaraderie displayed in Greensburg, Kan., after last year's tornado; the work that community and religious groups do help the needy; the military service of U.S. troops; and the U.S. effort to help fight disease in Africa.
"As you leave this campus today, my call to you is this: Strengthen this rising culture of responsibility in America by serving others, contributing to our civic life and being accountable to yourself and your families," he said.
The president also urged the graduates to resist the temptations of drugs, alcohol and promiscuity.
"There was a time in my life when alcohol competed for my affections, but I found salvation in my family and in my faith," he said. "There is no shame in recognizing your failings or getting help if you need it. The tragedy comes when we fail to take responsibility for our weaknesses and surrender to them."
In addition to the silent protesters, 31 other professors were granted "conscientious objector" status, allowing them to skip commencement exercises in objection to Bush's visit. There are 230 full-time professors at Furman.
Part of the animosity comes from the faculty's disagreement with Furman's president, David Shi. They say he failed to consult them before inviting Bush, breaking a tradition of having students give commencement speeches. University spokesman Vince Moore said Shi agreed with professors who voted this month to admonish him for not first consulting them.
About 20 protesters also gathered near the stadium, where one woman handed out armbands and asked attendees to clap for the graduates but not for the president. A handmade coffin protested the Iraq war and one protester held a sign that read, "The end is near." Next to the protesters and anti-war signs, a woman sang "God Bless America." Others waved American flags to welcome the president.