Transcript: Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s 2015 Norwich Commencement Address

Sen. Elizabeth Dole received an honorary doctorate in public service from Norwich University on May 9, 2015, after which she delivered the 2015 Norwich University Commencement Address (video). A copy of her prepared remarks follow.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for that wonderful warm welcome! And thank you, Dr. Schneider for your very kind words of introduction.

Commencement is a remarkable milestone for the students who have worked so hard to reach this moment, the loved ones who supported them along their journey, and the institution that is celebrating yet another generation of outstanding leaders. General Sullivan, President Schneider, distinguished guests and Class of 2015, thank you for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful occasion.

The value of any special recognition is often judged by the distinction of the institution presenting the award and those who have also received the honor. By these measures, I am humbled, indeed, to accept an honorary degree from this distinguished university. In addition to the great military and civilian leaders who have come before me, each of you graduating today makes this recognition one that I am proud to accept. Your hard work, dedication, leadership and character uphold the renowned and respected name of Norwich University, and I shall cherish my association with you all.

Now – in the spirit of Norwich’s emphasis on truth and honesty – I have to admit that when I first opened the letter inviting me to speak and to receive an honorary degree, I felt a bit of trepidation. A small, red booklet entitled, “Cadet Handbook” fell out of the folder accompanying the letter. Was this was a hint that I’d be required to follow the guidelines set out in the handbook? I decided to look through it, to see how I measured up to Norwich University’s expectations.

First – Cadets should have a strong understanding of military culture. I knew I had that down. As you may know, I share most of my time with a World War II Army Captain.

Second – Cadets must adhere to a uniform code. My alma mater may not have required a uniform, but there were certainly dress code expectations, including avoiding blue jeans and wearing hats and hosiery to church. If anything, a uniform might have even saved me some time in the morning.

Third – Cadets will demonstrate proper social standards. This didn’t scare me off either. As far as I am concerned, the “Proper Etiquette” section of the handbook could have been renamed, “growing up in Salisbury, North Carolina, my hometown.”

Fourth – Rooks may not possess more snack food than can fit in a shoebox. It was at this time that I decided to close the handbook and call President Schneider to clarify the expectations that come with an honorary degree.

I have been looking forward to this event for some time. Norwich University is one of our nation’s great institutions. It was founded on the American principle that no matter what path we choose in life, we each have the opportunity to serve our neighbor, our country and our world. I love that.

In many ways, military service is unmatched in its level of personal sacrifice. I hold those who serve in uniform, and those who care for them upon their return from war, very close to my heart. Yet I have also seen profound acts of selflessness among nonprofit volunteers, extraordinary achievements for the greater good by people in business, and a tireless determination to change the world for the better from government leaders on both sides of the aisle.

This spirit of service in every sector of society is uniquely American. It is both a value and a responsibility we accept as citizens of this great nation.

When someone asked Benjamin Franklin upon his departure from the Constitutional Convention what type of government had been created, he famously responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin’s cautionary note was a wise warning about the fragility of our nation, and its reliance on each of us to think and act beyond ourselves.

As you prepare to contribute your talents and ideas to the world, remember that Franklin’s words are just as relevant today as they were more than 200 hundred years ago. Our country still faces significant challenges and we need your help to solve them!

Several years ago, I came upon one such societal issue that threatened to weaken our nation. My husband, Senator Bob Dole, was admitted to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for an extended period of time. During my many visits to Walter Reed over eleven months, my eyes were opened to the incredible challenges facing the loved ones caring for our wounded warriors. I discovered that across this country, there was a quiet, untold story of profound need being overlooked…the story of the wives and husbands, moms and dads, siblings and other loved ones devoting their lives to caring for those who cared for us.

5.5 million Americans serve as military and veteran caregivers. Too often, they take on this challenge in isolation, with little or no support. Experts believe these caregivers are the most significant factor determining the well-being of our wounded, ill and injured service members. Therefore, when we neglect to support our caregivers, most of them so young, we also neglect our service members and veterans.

Upon Bob’s release from Walter Reed, I established Caring for Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation. In the years since establishing the Foundation and our Coalition for Military and Veteran Caregivers, I have been fortunate to collaborate with a broad coalition of over 150 service-minded leaders. Scholars and behavioral health specialists have helped us measure the severity of the caregiver issue; private corporations have initiated hiring programs and funded caregiver services; nonprofits have offered free training programs and formed peer support networks; Congressional leaders have established a military and veteran caregivers caucus and introduced bipartisan, bicameral caregiver legislation; and faith organizations have integrated caregivers into their veteran support programs and community outreach initiatives.

Any one of these changes on its own is good. Yet together, through acts of service from every sector, they form a proportionate national response to this critical societal issue.

When I think of the work that remains to be done for military and veteran caregivers, and the many other challenges that face our nation, I take comfort knowing that another generation of bright leaders, grounded in upstanding values, is about to step out into the world ready to make a difference through fields such as math and science, engineering and architecture, accounting and computer science, politics and nursing.

I’m also inspired by how Norwich University cultivates the spirit of service not just among its student body, but among every graduate who has sat where you sit today. Choosing “service” as the theme for the first year of your bicentennial celebration demonstrates the character and commitment of this principled institution. It also emphasizes an invaluable message about giving back to your community. Service is not something you do just while in school, while in uniform, or when you have free time to give. Service is a lifelong commitment. And I can tell you from experience…Dedicating yourself to serving others is the most rewarding way to live your life.

Now, I appreciate that after four demanding years, some of you might feel like you need a break. I noted that the Cadet Handbook instructs Cadets who feel sleepy in class to stand in the back of the room rather than risk nodding off. Needless to say, I’ve been watching that back wall since I stepped up to this podium.

However, I will grant each of you a graduation gift by saying right here, in front of your parents, that you do deserve a rest. But don’t wait long to reengage with the world around you! We have a lot of work to do and we need your help.

In addition to the wonderful skills, traits and knowledge you have learned at Norwich, the time in which you came of age has shaped your perspective in a unique and profound way.

The world the rest of us are still working to understand is the world in which you have grown.

For you, there was no time before cell phones, or the Internet. There was no time before constant connectivity. There was barely any time before the attacks of September 11, 2001, which, for the rest of us, completely challenged every notion we had about the concept of borders, boundaries and the size of our world. Whether you know it or not, these experiences have had a powerful effect on your worldview.

Consider that one hundred fifty years ago, a photographer from Washington, D.C. named Alexander Gardner sparked outrage and concern over the Civil War when he produced and distributed some of the first examples of combat photography after the Battle of Gettysburg. Forty years ago, the conflict in Vietnam was dubbed “The Living Room War” as it marked the first time Americans witnessed nightly reports of the war, broadcast from field journalists. And nearly 25 years ago, CNN redefined war coverage once again, enabling Americans to watch Operation Desert Storm unfold in real time.

Today, we each carry a device in our pockets that opens this window to the world, and thankfully the content we see is broader than just war coverage. Each of us now has the ability to engage in real-time discussions about global events with people from every nation. Through video and social media, average citizens from countries on the other side of the world can bring us into their homes and show us what everyday life is like for them. Even something as simple as playing an online video game against someone in another state shapes how we think of the world and our place in it.

Your generation is the most comfortable and the savviest operating in this connected world. Where most of us see problems, you will see solutions. Where we encounter obstacles, you’ll find opportunities. It’s a unique strength that only your generation can bring to the table.

But before you text mom and dad that smiley face emoji with the smug little grin, let me caution you about the challenges presented by this constant connectivity.

A wonderful book, “Hope is Not a Method,” co-authored by Norwich’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees, General Gordon Sullivan, warned leaders not to mistake our easy access to information as true knowledge. Knowledge requires us to occasionally brace ourselves against the tide of information to pause for reflection to ask “What is happening?” “What is not happening?” and “What can I do to influence the action?”

Finding high ground among the flood of headlines, emails, texts and phone calls is a challenge that seems to get harder by the day. In his book, General Sullivan reminded us that, “in the seventeenth century, it took the better part of two years to turn around a message concerning European interests in India or the Far East.” And during World War II, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were able to take time to meet in the middle of the North Atlantic, isolated from the distractions of their everyday lives, to discuss the war. I’ll add to these examples by noting that when General Sullivan wrote this book less than 20 years ago, you could just about cook Thanksgiving dinner in the amount of time it took for your computer to connect to the Internet.

Removing ourselves from constant connectivity can be a challenge. Our smart phones have a tendency to whisper, “Check me. Check me.” The consequences of our technology obsession remind me of the tale of two Vermont lumberjacks – one younger and one older. On a cool fall morning, the two lumberjacks began their day chopping wood. The younger of the two men barely broke a sweat, chopping wood for eight straight hours. The older lumberjack, on the other hand, stepped away from his work every hour or so, disappearing for 15 minutes at a time. At the end of the day, the lumberjacks stacked their wood, and the young man was astounded to find that the older lumberjack’s pile rose higher than his. “How could you have chopped more wood while taking all those breaks?” asked the young man. The older lumberjack replied, “Because each time I took a break, I sharpened my axe.”

There is one other lesson on leadership that I want to share with you today. It is the lesson that has always stood out to me during my years in public service, and it comes in the form of words written by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a distinguished leader who also received an honorary degree from your university.

On the eve of the D-day invasion, General Eisenhower drafted a message to be released to the press and the world if the invasion was a failure.

“Our landings have failed,” he wrote. “And I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the navy did all that bravery and devotion could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine, and mine alone.”

“If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine, and mine alone.” There, in one simple sentence, is true leadership. How many of our societal problems would vanish overnight if we could just get those words right: The responsibility is mine alone.

In the final analysis, that is what great leaders do – not just in Washington, D.C., but in cities and communities all across America. They don’t pass the responsibility or blame to someone else. They stand ready to make the hard decisions, and to live with failure or success.

On that same night before the Allies took the beaches at Normandy, General Eisenhower wrote a second message. This one was sent to the troops. I think his words carried symbolic importance for you today. He wrote:

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The Eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty – loving people everywhere march with you.”

The world is indeed watching and eager to see how you will choose to serve. By reaching this moment – by making it this far – you have already demonstrated your capacity to dedicate yourselves to a cause greater than yourselves. Thanks to the tremendous faculty, staff and leadership at this magnificent institution, there is no doubt you are prepared for what is to come. So head confidently into the future. We look forward to the remarkable good you will do in this world.

Congratulations Class of 2015. May God bless each and every one of you – and God bless this great land of the free – America.

Baccalaureate: “Cootie Girl & the Construction of Moral Character,” Prof. Randall Balmer’s 2015 Norwich Address

An ordained minister, PhD, and chair of the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College, Prof. Randall Balmer gave the 2015 Norwich University Baccalaureate address in White Chapel on Friday, May 8, 2015. He came at the invitation of his friend, Norwich University Chaplain William Wick. A copy of Reverend Balmer’s prepared remarks follow.

Cootie Girl & the Construction of Moral Character

John 8:2-10

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’

I remember the eyes as though it were yesterday. They were pretty. Blue. Expectant, yet afraid. “This is Diane,” one of my new fourth-grade classmates said, pointing in her direction. “Don’t let her touch you. She’s the Cootie Girl.”

I did not know then – and I’m not entirely sure today – what a cootie is, but I could tell from the context that it wasn’t a good thing. Cooties – and, by extension, Diane herself – should be avoided at all costs.

I was the new kid at Wenona School. My family had just moved to Bay City, Michigan, from the farm country of southern Minnesota. I was fearful myself in this alien environment, and insecure. I had never seen a one-way street until that summer of 1963, yet there I was living on DeWitt Street, which was bracketed at both ends by three-lane, one-way streets, each headed in the opposite direction. I was fearful every night when I crawled into bed; I tried to stay awake and listen for an inevitable intruder so I could warn my family and summon the police. Once I finally did succumb to sleep, sirens, another new phenomenon, woke me nearly every night. By the time of the first day of school, I was desperate for a friendly face amid these city kids everywhere around me.

There was, I could tell, something different about Diane. My family was hardly affluent – not by any stretch of the imagination – nor were the kids at Wenona School. But the dress she wore was tattered. Her shoes appeared to have been repaired crudely and by hand. Someone whispered that she and her mother lived alone. At lunchtime, she ate alone. Although she had a pleasant smile, Diane looked slightly disheveled and unkempt. Waiflike. A wisp of dishwater-blonde hair fell awkwardly across her forehead and into her eyes.

Occasionally, the Cootie Girl would play along. After listening to taunts on the macadam that passed for a playground in this strange new world, Diane would chase her tormenters, who would shriek in horror and run away. Anyone she tagged, boy or girl, had cooties, which, although it appeared to have no long-term effect, was not considered a good thing by the fourth-grade cohort at Wenona School.

Like a pack of wolves taunting a moose, children of that age can devise ingenious ways to belittle anyone they choose to ostracize. I recall one day standing in a queue across the hallway from a janitor’s closet. One of my classmates had apparently been musing on the word “custodian” painted on the door. “Hey, look,” he shouted, moving his hands across the letters and articulating the syllables slowly: “CUS-TO-DIAN.”

Everyone chortled at the brilliance of the put-down, of course, but I caught the wounded look in Diane’s eyes. Yet another insult, yet another wound to carry home that night. “And where do you stand?” the eyes asked. Would the new kid become just another tormenter, or maybe, hoping against hope, a friend?

I think I recognized even then that it was a defining moment. It was a kind of test. Are you with us, my new classmates were asking, or are you going to be a geek, a loser, an outcast like the Cootie Girl? In the words of the Pharisees in the Gospel reading, “What do you say?”

Jesus fashioned an entire career out of his association with outcasts. He spent his time with harlots and tax collectors rather than the hoi polloi of his day. He healed gimps and paralytics and those we would call neurotics and schizophrenics today. Fishermen were hardly the élite of Palestinian culture in the first century. And when the Jewish equivalent of a lynch mob was collecting rocks to execute the adulterous woman, Jesus crouched down, scratched a few letters in the sand, and, with a few well-chosen words, dispersed the mob.

The Gospels don’t record what he wrote there in the dust, but my guess would be that it had something to do with who we are, all of us, in the divine economy. Perhaps Jesus listed the names of her accusers, and perhaps he added the names of every man who had ever slept with the accused woman, and – who knows? – there may have been a name or two that appeared in both columns. The bearded men packing stones were no better than the woman caught in someone’s bedroom. We are all sad and pitiable, the dusty letters read. We have terrible secrets and overwhelming fears, and one of the signs of our wretchedness is that we organize into packs to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are somehow not as lost or as desperate or as hopeless as we know we really are. There is safety in numbers, and one of the timeless ways we congratulate ourselves is to draw lines and boundaries, marking off who is good and bad, righteous and unrighteous, saved and damned, cool and not cool – careful, of course, to locate ourselves on the right side of those lines.

That’s what the Pharisees were doing with the woman caught in adultery. They had formed into a pack and, armed with their impeccable understanding of the law, what was right and what was wrong, they determined that she was on the wrong side of their lines. Women had a tough enough life in first-century Palestine, but this woman had violated their rules, and she must die! Anything short of death would have upset their system, would have skewed their precious lines.

Perhaps her real crime was not love or even passion. Perhaps her real crime lay in the fact that she had exposed the shallowness, the pettiness of her accusers, for when Jesus finally confronts them with their own peccadilloes, they slink away in silence.

When my daughter entered high school, she expended a great deal of energy worrying about whether or not she was part of what she called the “high group” – meaning, I gather, those who were considered the social élite. I’ve never been part of the “high group,” nor have I aspired to be. But pecking orders can be fearsome, and if you run afoul of the established order or find yourself on the wrong side of social convention, the consequences can be devastating, as my daughter learned. As the woman caught in adultery learned. And as Diane, the Cootie Girl, knew every day of her life at Wenona School.

I’ve been musing a lot in recent months about the notion of honor. Honor is not a word you hear very much any more. Many schools, including my own, have what they call an honor code, which is meant as a hedge against cheating. As nearly as I can tell, many schools adopted honor codes in the years following World War II, after honor had been forged among soldiers on the battlefields of Normandy and Corregidor and Iwo Jima. But the notion of honor took a hit during the Vietnam War – through no fault of the soldiers themselves, but because of the perfidy of the Johnson administration and the Pentagon. Honor suffered irreparable damage during the Nixon years. Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday-school teacher, sought to restore honor to the presidency, but by then betrayal had given way to cynicism, and we have never fully recovered.

Today, the notion of honor ranks far below such “values” as ambition and affluence. But I invite you to consider with me what honor might look like today – and if we might reappropriate it for the twenty-first century.

I suggest that the enterprise of recovering honor in the twenty-first century could do far worse than look back to the first century. In the text at hand, the passage from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus refuses to take the easy course, which would have been to join the chorus of the woman’s accusers. Jesus was already suspect in the eyes of the religious leaders; he had healed on the Sabbath, and he had suggested that simply adhering to the letter of the law somehow fell short of the mark. Jesus could have saved himself a lot of trouble and even earned some credibility in their eyes that could have saved him a lot of grief later on. He might even have picked up a stone himself. It was just one woman, after all, and not a very worthy one at that. Why not simply blend into the crowd for once? What’s the harm?

Jesus chose a different path, the path of compassion and identification with the downtrodden, with those on the margins. There was no obvious payoff for doing so, no award or citation or entry on a résumé. No one in that crowd would congratulate him for his courage or commend him for his compassion. For Jesus, the path of honor was a lonely one, one that led ultimately to the long walk up Golgotha, the place of the skull.

But Jesus did more than simply stand up to the crowd and defend an embattled individual. He also called all of them to account and rebuked them for their hypocrisy.

We have no way of knowing what Jesus scribbled there in the Palestinian sand. John is maddeningly silent on that score. I guess I’d like to think that he scratched out a few choice words for the Pharisees – “You sorry bastards are really trying my patience,” or something like that – but then Jesus thinks better of it and rubs out the curses. He stands up and surveys the scene. His eyes meet each of the accusers and then take in the woman. Back to the Pharisees and back again to the woman. Then Jesus steps back several paces, crouches down, and with his index finger traces a large circle – a circle big enough to take in the whole crowd, the Pharisees and the woman and maybe even a few bystanders, the accusers and the accused.

A circle. The quintessential symbol of femininity. A metaphor for eternity. A circle large enough to encompass everyone entangled in the web of our shared humanity, our wretchedness, our loneliness and suffering.

By now in your education – a process only begun and that will continue far beyond this day – you’ve been introduced to Aristotle’s concept of Nichomachean Ethics. This notion, which was adapted to Christian theology by St. Thomas Aquinas, holds that individuals can cultivate virtuous behavior by means of discipline and repetition. That is to say that the more we comport ourselves with honor, the more honorable we become.

I’m not interested for the moment in whether or not this is good theology. But it seems to me that honor is a noble pursuit. For most of us, the cultivation of moral character and virtuous habits is a lifelong enterprise, but every time we defend the helpless or decry the powerful, we build moral character. Therein lies the noble tradition of honor.

I wish I could tell you that you that I did the right thing back there on the macadam playground at Wenona School. We all like to be the heroes of our own stories. But I’m afraid that I’m not very good at this hero business, and I lost that opportunity for moral formation. It takes guts to stand up to peers, to resist the pressures of conformity, to choose the honorable course – and I have come to admire those with the courage to take up the cause of those less fortunate, those on the margins. And those who do summon that courage – Angelina Grimké, Elijah Lovejoy, William Wilberforce, Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King Jr. – occasionally alter the course of history. Lord knows it’s not easy to face down a mob, be they armed with legal codes or truncheons, insults or self-righteousness.

I don’t pretend that history would have been different if I had been kind to Diane, the Cootie Girl, back in Michigan more than four decades ago. But I would have been different. And perhaps she as well, if only for a moment. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was beaten and slumped over a barbed-wire fence on a cold Wyoming night; you wrapped me in a blanket and tried to revive me. I was sad and lonely, and I was wearing a ratty dress because my mother couldn’t afford anything better. But you stood up to the crowd and became my friend.

If only it were so.

I lost track of Diane long ago, although I remember her from time to time in my prayers, even all these decades later. She never made the transition from elementary to junior high school with the rest of us. Perhaps her mother found a new boyfriend or a new job. Or perhaps they decided to try a new city, to take their chances in a different school and a different community – a place where the Cootie Girl could simply be Diane, and she could start over.

What I failed to recognize those many years ago is that Diane’s tormenters were just as wretched as we thought she was. We had our own bundle of fears and anxieties. We sought to mask our own insecurities by lashing out at someone else, by drawing lines.

But the gospel draws circles. Jesus comes along and disrupts our childish games, our taunts and our sarcasm. He visits the playground and reminds us that he, the Crucified One, the Man of Sorrows, was the ultimate outcast, facing the ridicule of everyone, deserted even by those who had claimed to be his friends. He reminds us that he was suspended naked between earth and heaven for the benefit not only of the righteous or even the self-righteous but for the outcast, the person of color, for the hungry child, for Matthew Shepard, lashed to a fencepost in the cold Wyoming night, for the Muslim woman trembling with fear these days beneath her head scarf, for John Lewis and Rosa Parks – for Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, for the girl in the tattered dress, searching the crowd desperately for a friendly face.

Jesus visits our playground with a thin piece of chalk and draws a large circle. He straightens up, surveys his fellow sufferers, and gently suggests that if we have the courage somehow to see Jesus in the Cootie Girl’s wounded blue eyes, then we will have grasped something very important about the gospel, something crucial to the notion of honor.

I was naked, and you gave me a shirt. I was thirsty, dangling there from that cruel wooden tower. You came with water. I was hungry, and you brought me a slice of pie at the lunch counter, even though your boss said you would be fired for serving me. I was cold on that Wyoming night – and unconscious. You wrapped me in a blanket, hoisted me over your shoulder, and carried me home.

I was the Cootie Girl. You were my friend.

– Randall Balmer