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Remarks by James A. Baker III--Spring Commencement 2004

Presented May 15, 2004 in Johnson Coliseum, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas

James Baker III

James A. Baker III

--Photo by Joshua R. Quinn

Graduates of the Class of '04, families, and distinguished guests:

I'm honored to be part of this very special ceremony today. My family's association with Huntsville and with General Sam Houston makes it an occasion of particular pride and pleasure for me.

Judge James Baker, my great-grandfather, called Huntsville home when Sam Houston lived here as the town's most famous citizen. Indeed, Houston and my great-grandfather are buried right here in the same cemetery. The two men were friends and shared a keen interest in the community, especially education. Both had been schoolteachers as young men and both ended up serving together, here in Huntsville, as founding trustees of Austin College.

Sam Houston and James Baker were also enthusiastic Masons. But here, it seems, "Judge" Baker definitely outranked "General" Houston. A lodge report from 1853 lists Houston as an ordinary member, but Judge Baker (I'm proud to say) as something called a "Worshipful Master." Now, I'm not exactly sure what a "Worshipful Master" was or is. But it does sound a heck of a lot more impressive than one of those mundane, everyday positions like Secretary of State.

We're here today to honor you, the graduates of Sam Houston State University, Class of '04 and your families. But as we do so, I think it's right to pause--(briefly, I promise)--and remember Old Sam.

Today, of course, he's a historical icon. But some historians have discovered something that everyone in Huntsville knew first-hand about 150 years ago--that he was not a giant standing out beside the highway and waving to passers-by. He was made of flesh and blood, and he had some fairly obvious faults. His critics say he had "feet of clay."

Well, ladies and gentlemen, from 1981 until 1983, I moved in what passed for the corridors of power in America, and I can tell you that they could get pretty muddy sometimes too!

Not that Sam Houston would have minded a little controversy. He thrived on it. He's one of those historical figures we call "larger than life," meaning he lived the sort of life most of us dream of--a life of adventure, risk, and high drama.

As a schoolteacher, soldier, Congressman, Governor of Tennessee and Texas, Ambassador of the Cherokee Nation, U. S. Senator, and President of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston assembled quite a résumé. And, apparently, had a helluva good time along the way!

I think Sam Houston would have enjoyed the festivities that surround this graduation. During his prime, he was what you'd call today a "party animal." As a young man, he learned dancing from the Cherokee and enjoyed it the rest of his life.

And he was known to take a drink or two, at least before he married a good Baptist woman in 1840.
Sometimes, truth be told, Sam Houston's sense of fun may have gone a little too far. There was, for instance, the time he and some friends played strip poker, but with a twist: the loser not only had to take off his clothes, he had to throw them into a fire.

Now, graduation speakers are supposed to give advice, so let me give you three tips. First, don't play strip poker! Second, don't play with fire! And, third, never, ever, under any circumstances try to do both at the same time!

But the story does suggest that Sam Houston might feel just as much at home at the Jolly Fox as he would handing out diplomas here today.

There are dozens of stories about Sam Houston, of course. Each comprises a vivid history in itself. Indeed, his life was so full of incident that Sam Houston, the man, can sometimes be lost in the detail of Sam Houston, the figure from history.

Get beyond that detail, however, and you can see what an extraordinary human being Sam Houston really was. We all know about his grand achievements: it's all because of those achievements, after all, that this university and the great city I call my home bear his name.

But I think we can also learn from Sam Houston's "failures." During his life, Houston knew personal ruin, political disaster, and financial embarrassment. But he always rose from the ashes, dusted himself off, and moved on. And by doing this, he accomplished great things.

In this, Sam Houston truly exemplified what we call the "frontier spirit." That spirit, I believe, reflected a great deal more than just the vast economic possibilities offered by the 19th century American West.

More fundamentally, it embodied an abiding optimism in the individual's ability to master his or her own destiny--an optimism that found expression in America's deep-felt faith in freedom.

That optimism, that faith, explains a lot about Sam Houston, a lot about Texas--and a lot about America, even today. Because while America's physical frontier may have closed since Houston's time, its spiritual frontier is still very much open.

We are still a society of opportunity, where an individual's potential is bound only by his or her ambition, character, and willingness to work hard. When Americans call someone a "self-made" man or woman--and Sam Houston is surely one of history's great examples--we do so in admiration, because ours is in many ways a "self-made" nation.

And if you think the frontier spirit is dead in our country, think back to September 11, 2001. Think back to the police officers, fire fighters, and ordinary Americans who rushed into the Twin Towers, not away from them, to try to rescue others.

Think of the passengers on United Flight 93 who rose from their seats, said, "Let's roll!" and sacrificed their own lives to save lives in Washington, D. C. Think of the men and women in our military who make sacrifices every day--in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the glove--to help others.

I used to think that this frontier spirit was a uniquely "American" phenomenon. But I've learned otherwise.
My years as Secretary of State coincided with an era of dramatic change around the world: the Berlin Wall came down, Germany was reunited, and the captive nations of Eastern Europe and Central Asia were set free. In a few breathless years, the forces of democracy swept even into Moscow, the heart of totalitarianism, destroying Communism and the Soviet Empire.

It was a historic moment of great emotion--not just for those who seized their freedom, but for us, who watched and cheered them on. Those were busy years for me.

Months passed in a blur of meetings, motorcades, press conferences, and more meetings. I witnessed more history than I would ever have thought possible. But no event more moved me than my visit to Albania, a once cruel communist dictatorship tucked away in the southeast corner of Europe.

I arrived just after the people there had seized power from their oppressive government. Hundreds of thousands of cheering Albanians welcomed me in the streets, stopping my motorcade and mobbing the platform where I spoke.

Now, I have as much vanity as the next man, but I know this: the citizens of Albania didn't fill the streets because of who I was, or even because of the office I held. They were there because, for that brief intoxicating moment, I symbolized, as an American, something Albanians had not forgotten during the long dark years of Communist rule. And that something was--"freedom."

It was, as I said, a moving moment for me. But it was also an educational one, because in Albania, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, I saw that the American dream was really a universal dream, that people everywhere want a chance to raise their children, worship their God, and build a better life for themselves by their own values--not those of some petty central planner or brutal secret policeman.

From Sam Houston, to Albania, to you (the graduates of '04) may seem like a circuitous route, but it isn't, really. A single straight road runs through all three: a road called "freedom."

It was the call of freedom that sent the people of Eastern Europe into the streets to seize their destiny. It's the call of freedom that we're trying, however imperfectly, to introduce into Afghanistan and Iraq. And it's the call of "freedom" that beckons you, the graduates of '04, today.

I realize how daunting, as well as exhilarating, that new-found freedom can be. An uncertain job market, the challenges of a new career, the responsibilities of family--all can give a person pause, even on an occasion as happy as this.

Well, as today's spokesman for the older generation, I can tell you that we have full confidence that most of you--whether as educators, law enforcement officers, parents, or practitioners of other high professions--will meet the challenges of independence and become respectable, productive members of society.

(The rest will go into politics.)

It's traditional at ceremonies like this for the speaker to conclude with a string of solemn admonitions to the graduating class. I've sat--(and snored)--through enough commencements to know.

And I've given and gotten a lot of advice in my time and I've discovered this: it's only as good as the goodwill behind it. That's why the lessons we learn from those we love are so precious and so powerful. And that's why I'll leave today's advice to the real experts--the families in the audience--and conclude, simply:

W ith my congratulations to the graduates, their families, faculty and guests on this joyous occasion; and with my heart-felt best wishes to all the members of the Class of '04. May your lives be long and rich, and may you, (like Sam Houston), have a lot of fun along the way.

Thank you.

- END -

SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
May 18, 2004 (posted)
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