“A Warrior in Your Own Way”
By Martha Raddatz, Chief Global Affairs Correspondent, ABC News
May 19, 2013
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Correspondent and moderator of the 2012 Vice
Presidential Debate, delivers the 2013 Commencement
Address on Sunday, May 19.
Thank you to President Roush and Susie Roush, and thank you to Centre College. It is great to be back here.
Hats off to all the graduating students of 2013 and especially to all of the parents and families here today. It is truly an honor to be asked to be your commencement speaker.
And even more of an honor to be given this degree. My mother will be very proud. There has sadly been only one college graduate on my mother’s side of my family, and it is not me, which has led to some embarrassing incidents. Several years ago after giving a speech to a small graduate school class in Washington about my career, one of the young graduates raised her hand and seemingly impressed by my resume, she said, “Miss Raddatz, how could I follow in your footsteps?” I was forced to say, “I’m sorry, it’s too late for you, you would have had to drop out of college, drink a lot of beer, and shoot a lot pool.”
So unfortunately teachers and parents, if you were looking for a good example for your children in terms of a graduation speaker, I have failed you. But I guarantee I would not tell that story to a bunch of undergraduates. In my early years, I was a terrible example; on the other hand, I am a pretty darn good example of someone who overcame some really stupid mistakes through hard work.
I will admit my memories of your beautiful campus last October are limited. It was fall, I was at an Inn, I was in a car, I was here in beautiful Newlin Hall but it looked very different. And I was crazy, catatonically nervous until I took the stage. Then there was a debate, a bit of yelling, a lot of water, then I was happy, then I had several glasses of wine and was even happier.
But one thing I remember clearly, throughout my entire visit to Centre College, I have never felt so welcome, or so well taken care of. And that goes for this trip, too.
The first students I met here were smart and kind and so confident. Ben Boone, who played Joe Biden, in the debate rehearsals, Tommy Munoz, who played Paul Ryan, and Alex Birmingham who played the debate moderator, yours truly. And believe me in the last few weeks, with all that is going on in the world, I was a bit worried that Alex would have to give this commencement address. So a special thanks today to Alex, for letting me fill in for HER.
And I will admit, great things happened for me after that debate. Who else here had the rapper Chamillionaire tweeting about them that night?
When I first came out on stage before the network coverage began, I was told to remind the audience to silence their cell phones, so to drive home that point I told them what had happened to me several years before when I forgot to do that during a White House briefing. Unbeknownst to me, my son had changed my ringtone to Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty.” Needless to say, I told the Centre College crowd, it went off during the briefing, leaving me rather red-faced. Well, who would have guessed that watching that pre-debate warm-up—on C-SPAN no less—was Chamillionaire himself! And what a thrill to later see a tweet from Chamillionaire that said, “I must admit that made my night, keep it gangsta, Martha.”
I have also never received a better memento from a place than I did from this college. I have a pretty interesting office, with reminders of my world travels: a hand-beaded walking stick from Rwanda, an empty tank shell from Bosnia, the American flag that was onboard the F-15 fighter jet that I flew in on a combat mission over Afghanistan, and a military coin collection that rivals the best of them. But judging by what people who enter my office say, there is nothing more jaw dropping in my collection than what the college gave me to commemorate the Vice Presidential Debate—a Louisville Slugger with my name on it. I know I have Dr. Richard Trollinger and Dr. Clarence Wyatt to thank for arranging that; in fact, for arranging the entire debate.
To say that moderating the debate was an assignment out of my comfort zone is putting it mildly. I had spent most of the previous decade traveling back and forth to conflict zones, and I had stayed as far away from the campaign as possible.
But last August, my boss warned me on a Sunday afternoon that I should make sure to carry my cell phone at all times, because I would be getting a call and “I had to say yes.”
I had no idea what that call would be. Was it a secret presidential trip to Afghanistan? Doubtful with the election so close. Some new opportunity at work? I was already very happy with what I was doing. But whatever it was, I assumed it was good news because my boss seemed pretty darn excited.
Then the call came from Janet Brown, from the Commission on Presidential Debates. She asked me if I would consider moderating the VP Debate, and then she talked for five more minutes about rules, dates, location, and other things, none of which I was processing. It was like getting a call that I had a terminal illness. Once they tell you that, you have no idea what the doctor says next.
What I did think was, are they nuts? I haven’t covered the campaign, I don’t know political lingo, probably wouldn’t recognize half the people on Capitol Hill and most of all I am not George Stephanopoulos. George was the first to congratulate me on being chosen, but all I could think about for the next week was, “I’m not George,” and “How am I going to do this?” I’m not as smart as he is, not as politically savvy, and there’s even the issue of our names. We have always thought it kind of funny when we are on the air as that famous first couple George and Martha. But my name elicits thoughts of an ancient, rather matronly first lady, and his, a beloved first president, a commander-in-chief. And George Stephanopoulos has much better hair than I do. Although I think I win against George Washington.
But I figured with the debate fast approaching, I only had a week to enjoy the self-doubt and anxiety, and then I had to get to work. So instead of “I’m not George,” I decided to embrace my own discomfort. To use that anxiety in a positive way, reaching for my inner warrior, which has gotten me through so much in life. My “thrill in the ‘ville” would be pushing my limits.
My colleague, friend, and anchor goddess at ABC News, Diane Sawyer, a Kentucky girl as you probably know, said it best in a recent interview. Great experience takes place at the edge of your competence. “Being safe,” she said, “is the enemy of everything. Because in that beautiful anxiety is an air pocket of what you’ve always done and what you might do; that is your creative life.”
So for the next few months I journeyed to the edge of my competence, ready to cross the line. I studied all my waking hours, even while traveling back and forth to my son’s college football games each weekend, since I believe that no matter what your challenges, you must try to maintain a balance in your life, between work and family or friends.
You all know what the SATs were like. It was kind of like that, but then having to take them in front of more than 50 million people. But in the end, if you have prepared, you are confident and you are a warrior—and you really don’t care how many people are watching.
From that example I turn to the part of the commencement speech where the speaker tries to impart some wisdom or practical advice. Let’s get the practical advice out of the way first. Don’t wear ear buds when you get your first big job, unless you work at NPR, where they all seem to wear ear buds all the time. Other than that, adults will be irritated that you can listen to music, or whatever it is you listen to, and work at the same time. And none of us believe you when you say you work better that way.
Now for the wisdom. I thought long and hard about this speech. I know this is an extraordinary college and the graduates go on to do great things. You are so lucky to have had this experience.
More than 83 percent of those of you who started in fall of 2009 will graduate today, and this places your four-year graduation rate among the best in America.
And especially dear to my heart, your class and the College continue to set the national standard for study abroad, with a #1 national ranking in study abroad by the Institute of International Education, based on phenomenal participation rates that have averaged 85 percent for the last decade.
The study-abroad statistics, which included 29 countries for the Class of 2013, are incredibly impressive:
- 86% (255 students) studied abroad at least once
- 24% (76 students) studied abroad two times or more
- 6% (17 students) studied abroad three times or more
- 1.6% (5 students) studied abroad four or more times
And, setting a new Centre record, Natalie Pope not only spent a semester off-campus in Washington, D.C., but also studied in foreign countries five times through Centre: Turkey, China, Vietnam, Spain, and Israel.
Natalie must have more frequent flyer miles than I do. And I am sure you can expect the State Department recruiter to be calling you any minute.
And some of those travelers, like Ibrahim Jadoon, came a long way even to begin their study abroad. Ibby was born in Abbottabad Pakistan, which may sound familiar to you as the place they found Osama Bin Laden. But Ibby and his parents left there when he was three and he has thrived here, to say the least. A Fulbright scholar, he has said that the U.S. unequivocally houses the best institutes of higher learning in the world. And he chose Centre College.
Your class has come of age during a turbulent time for this nation. More than half your life we have been at war. When I look out over this sea of black robes and bright eyes, I imagine all of you as ten- or eleven-year-old children, huddled with your parents on 9/11, terrified or just confused. Your parents surely thinking, as I did, that our lives would never be the same, your lives would never be the same. But that seems a long time ago. We have come so far in our healing, and so much opportunity has come our way, your way. But today there are young people your age who are still fighting the war and millions more who fought before them. And in that decade plus, while you grew and studied and became the promising young people you are today, more than 6,500 young men and women died in those wars, more than 5,000 children lost a parent or sibling, and tens of thousands have life-altering injuries.
I know some of your graduates have gone on to serve, and many families here have a history of service. I would like to take a moment to ask our veterans or those who have family members who have served to stand and all of us to recognize them.
You should remember them every single day. I have seen those wars up close—the service, the sacrifice. I have learned so many lessons from that experience, and I am a better person because of it.
One Easter Sunday some years ago when I was flying out of Baghdad during a particularly violent period, I wrote my family and close friends an email.
This day ends poignantly a long way from home. I wanted to share it with you. I started my morning at a sunrise service at “Camp Victory,” the main military base in Baghdad. It was held in the magnificent Water Palace, one of Saddam Hussein’s old favorites. There was a group of soldiers who had formed a gospel choir that practically blew the roof off that palace. It was a lovely service … and put everyone in an upbeat mood. I kept thinking … if Saddam Hussein could see this place now.
This afternoon I flew out of Baghdad on a C-130—the big cargo plane. When we walked on the plane, without any advance warning, we saw in the middle, four flag draped coffins, stacked side by side. On their way home on Easter Sunday. The passengers, mostly soldiers, were guided to seats on the sides of coffins. Rucksacks and luggage was piled next to them.
People quickly fell silent, talking only in whispers during the 90-minute flight. A few of the soldiers slept. The General I was with walked back and gently touched the flags. I cannot describe how emotional it was to have these coffins so close to us, inches away, not knowing who they were, but knowing how they probably died. I did find out that three were soldiers—and one was a civilian. The soldiers were all very young … and had probably only been in Iraq for a month. That cargo plane, despite the smell of sweat and fuel and weapons stacked on the sides, became sacred space.
When we arrived in Kuwait, the General said he wanted to go back and “present arms and render honors” with the soldiers who were picking up the coffins. So we stood at the back of the plane as the coffins came off … again close enough to touch them. There were probably thirty soldiers waiting on both sides … just random soldiers and Marines who happened to be on base. Our young pilots also came back. They saluted slowly as each coffin was taken off the plane and placed in a big truck. Their next flight was probably headed to Dover … and then to their hometowns their families.
It is not an Easter I will forget.
Love to all …
I tell you that story to give you perspective, to let you know how lucky we all are. General John Allen, who commanded U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, said at his recent retirement, “When America sleeps tonight, it will not know what was done this day, in 100 un-named places by our precious young men and women who protected us while we slept.”
Very few of you or anyone in the nation will serve in the military. You don’t have to; it is the miracle of a volunteer military. You will all excel in your own ways. But looking back at the sacrifice of those who have served this nation, over this decade and so many before it, is something we should all think about. It should give you pause, it should make you proud, it should give you hope. It should wipe out the notion that you are somehow entitled. None of us should ever take our precious lives and our precious gifts for granted.
It should make you chose a path in life where you understand that you must give back in some way. To me success means simply that you have found your gifts, found your passion. You may be a teacher, a writer, a drummer, a coach, or a doctor. But once you find those gifts, you must share them and get better at them every day. I love my job because I learn something every day, and I get to share it. Do not settle. I know I never will. I am a warrior in my own way. You must be warriors in your own way. Warriors for creativity, for change, for hope. Warriors for your family and for your country. Warriors for kindness and respect. Warriors to fight ignorance and to wake every day and try to push yourself to the edge of your competence. You will be scared along the way, you will make mistakes, sometimes big ones, you will all have someone you think must be smarter or better, but you have gifts they do not have. Use them and use them well. Just look at me, and my perseverance—it took me 42 years, but I finally got my college degree. You are all so far ahead of me today. I am thrilled to be an honorary member of the class of 2013. We are in this together, and I am so proud to be part of this great school and its history. Thank you, and be good to your parents. They are so proud.
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Centre College, founded in 1819, is a nationally ranked liberal arts college in Danville, Ky. Centre hosted its second Vice Presidential Debate on 10.11.12, and remains the smallest college in the smallest town ever to host a general election debate. For more, click here.