By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 7, 2011 – U.S. public servants are the most dedicated, capable and honest in the world, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today during a commencement ceremony at Washington State University, in Pullman, Wash.
The secretary, on the eve of his own retirement, used the podium to urge the graduates to consider dedicating at least part of their careers to some type of public service.
Gates choked up briefly when recalling his most recent tenure as defense secretary, saying he will be forever thankful for the opportunity to lead today's military.
And he was still visibly emotional in his closing as he issued a challenge to the 2,350 graduates.
"And so I ask you ... will the wise and the honest among you come help us serve the American people?" Gates asked.
Gates’ plea came in contrast to earlier jokes about life within the Washington, D.C., beltway, as he often does in his speeches.
"It's a special pleasure to be with you here today, especially since it gives me an excuse to get about as far away from the other Washington as one can get within the continental Unites States," Gates joked.
Gates also joked about parents who will continue to shell out money even after their children graduate. And he acknowledged that he was the only obstacle between the graduates and their graduation parties.
So Gates kept his promise to keep his speech short.
But he packed the 15 minutes he spoke, with praise for the sacrifices of those who serve their country in and out of uniform.
He quoted billionaires and film directors, an opera star and an actress, presidents and their parents.
It was in his own words, however, based on a lifetime of leadership public service, that the seriousness of the message crept. Now, more than ever, the United States needs the talents of its best and brightest, he said.
"You are graduating in challenging times, of that there is no question," Gates said, citing a decade of war, a period of wrenching economic turbulence and a huge budget deficit and national debt.
Gates said it is no surprise that recent polls show a souring of the public mood, with many Americans pessimistic about the trajectory of our country. But, Gates said, he has lived through times when such pessimism was as prevalent.
In 1957, when Gates was a freshman in high school, the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik 1 into space, and Americans feared being left behind in the space race. Even more cause for worry was being left behind in the missile race, he said.
In the 1970s the nation went through another period of questioning its place in the world, brought about by the angst over the Vietnam War and the OPEC oil embargo, followed by sky-high inflation and equally high interest rates, he said.
And in the late 1980s America's growing fiscal and trade deficits left many worried that we would soon be taken over by Japan, Gates added.
"I lived through each of these periods of declinism when many were convinced America was stuck in a downward spiral," Gates said. "And yet, after meeting the many challenges we faced head on, our nation emerged from each of these periods stronger than before, and I am convinced we will do so again.
"Indeed today, as throughout our history, this country remains the world's most powerful force for good. The U.S. will, I am convinced, remain the indispensable nation, and our country will be able to adapt and overcome once again as it has in the past," he said.
However, especially in times of fiscal constraint, the United States must come up with innovative solutions to the challenges it faces.
"It is precisely during these trying times that America needs its best and brightest young people from all walks of life to step forward and bring their talents and fresh perspectives to bear on the challenges facing this country," Gates said.
"Because while the obligations of citizenship in any democracy are considerable, they're even more profound and more demanding as citizens of a nation with America's global challenges and responsibilities, and America's values and aspirations," he said.
Gates encouraged the graduates to find out what drives them, to find their passion and to pursue it with all of their energy and commitment. But he asked that they consider spending at least part of their careers in public service.
"You will have a chance to give back to the community, the state, or to the country that has already given you so much," he said.
Gates said that he understands that with today's political rhetoric, public service may not be appealing.
"I understand that it can be disheartening to hear today's often rancorous and even tawdry political discourse," he said. "Too often those who chose public service are dismissed as bureaucrats or worse. And in many cases politicians run for office running down the very government they hope to lead."
"Cynicism about the people and the institutions that govern and protect our country can be corrosive," he said.
The secretary said he worries that too many of brightest young Americans, normally engaged in volunteerism, turn aside careers in public service.
"There is another aspect of public service about which Americans hear very little," he said. "The idealism, the joy, the satisfaction and fulfillment."
Gates, who served under eight U.S. presidents, said he has worked with political appointees and career civil servants of the highest quality, acting with steadfast integrity and love of country and what it stands for.
The secretary applauded the efforts of today's all-volunteer military, saying that "over this past decade doing one’s duty has taken on a whole new meaning and required a whole new level of risk and sacrifice."
But, he added, "to serve our country you don't need to deploy to a war zone or a Third World country or be buried in a windowless cube in gothic structure by the Potomac River.
"You don't have to be a CIA spy, or an analyst, a Navy SEAL who tracked down and brought down the most notorious terrorist in the world," he said.
"Whatever the job, working in the public sector at some level offers the chance to serve your fellow citizens as well as learn the inner workings of our government and build skills that will stand you in good stead in facing other challenges in your career and in your life," he said.
Gates said the graduates live in a time of "great necessities" when the America cannot avoid the challenges of addressing its domestic problems, or the burdens of global leadership.
"The stakes are unimaginably high," Gates said. "If, in the 21st Century, America is to continue to be a force for good in the world, for freedom, justice, rule of law, and the inherent value of each person, then the most able and idealistic of our young people -- of you -- must step forward and accept the burden and the duty of public service.
"I promise you that you will find joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment," he said.
Gates’ wife, Becky, is a Washington State University graduate and member of the College of Liberal Arts Advisory Council. Their son, Brad, is a 2003 graduate of the university. Gates has plans to retire in the state.