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Vice President Joe Biden's Commencement speech at WFU

By Joe Biden, Winston Salem Journal - May 21, 2009

Thank you. Thank you very much. I say to all the faculty, this will be painless. They have felt like "” I suspect they've heard a hundred "” all the commencements since the beginning of the school.

But I'm honored to be here. It was a long trip from that end of your mall to this end. Last time I was here you were kind enough, many of you students, to listen to the case I was making. And I am honored that notwithstanding the fact you've heard me once, you've invited me back a second time. I thank you.

Mr. President, you were suggesting that you arrived at the same year as this graduating class. Well, if I'm not mistaken, you rode into the ceremony on the famous Demon Deacon gold motorcycle, and they drew up in vans with their parents moving furniture.

So I thought I should try to replicate something along the lines that you did when you arrived, and I had planned on driving my '67 Corvette up the middle of this area here. But the Secret Service said they wouldn't let me do it. But notwithstanding the fact that my ride's been slightly different, I'm delighted to be here.

And I congratulate all those graduating in the class of 2009. What a great day for you all. You deserve a round of applause.

And being the father of three children, all of whom unfortunately listened to me when I said early on when they were in high school, any school you can get into, I'll help you get there. Well, undergraduate and graduate schools later, for three of them, you know understand why I was listed as the second poorest man in the Congress, literally.

So I say to all you parents, today is payday. You get a raise today. Don't encourage them to go to graduate school, because it keeps up. To all the parents, I know your sons and daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, husbands, wives "” I know that your student understands they would not be sitting here today but for your support.

And it's a real honor for me to be here today. But in a sense, it's a bittersweet honor, tempered by the sadness that I feel about a man who was originally scheduled to be your commencement speaker, a friend of mine, Tim Russert.

You see, Tim and I came to Washington four years apart, but from similar backgrounds "” he came from a blue collar neighborhood in Buffalo, and I came from a working-class neighborhood in Scranton, Pa. But we shared something in common "” even though we didn't know each other at the time "” we grew up in neighborhoods where we never had to wonder whether or not we were loved.

We were both raised by parents who had an absolute conviction, an absolute belief in the promise of this country, and that even two kids from similar backgrounds could do anything they wanted. We grew up in a time when our parents told us, and meant it and believed it, even though they were of modest means, that if we worked hard, played by the rules, did what we were supposed to, loved our country, there wasn't a single thing we couldn't do.

One of the reasons why Barack and I set off on this journey was to sort of re-instill that confidence in a new generation of parents who played by the rules, but it didn't quite work out for them. It didn't quite work out.

I remember leaving for Washington as a 29-year-old United States Senator. I was elected before I was eligible to take office. And having run and won with an absolute certitude that I was capable of doing the job, never doubting "” because of the way I was raised "” that I could do this. And I remember when I first got there, the people who became my friends, because my colleagues, the average age if I'm not mistaken, Mr. President, was about 64 years of age. And although I had very good relationships with my colleagues, I was the kid.

And so I literally became friends with, socialized with, the staffs of my colleagues "” in a literal sense "” I had just lost my wife and daughter. I was single. I had very little in common with the men and women with whom I was serving. And four years into my time there, I had met Tim Russert. And we worked for a man who came four years after me, but nonetheless was still my mentor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senator from New York.

And we were talking one day in the Senate about our backgrounds and how we were so certain that we were raised thinking we could do anything "” until we each got to Washington. And I shared a story with him about how, when I got here, how, for the first time in my life, I was somewhat intimidated by the depth and scope and the background of the people I was working with "” people like William J. Fulbright and Jacob Javits and former governor Averell Harriman, who was sort of the intellectual dean of the "” Al Hunt will remember this "” Katharine Graham, who was sort of the Grand Dame of Washington. And I remember going to these functions early on and thinking, I'm not sure I belong here.

And Tim related a similar story, which has subsequently been told many times, that he wrote about in his book. He said when he first got to Washington, working for Sen. Moynihan, he thought that things weren't going quite the way he thought. He said, when I first got to D.C. and I walked into Sen. Moynihan's office, I was completely overwhelmed by the intellectual firepower of the people he had working for him, as well as his intellectual firepower "” Rhodes scholars, Marshall scholars, professors, people with Ivy League degrees, people with significant backgrounds.

And he said one day after attending a staff meeting, he walked into Sen. Moynihan's office, and he told him "” he said, "Senator, maybe I don't belong here. Maybe I should leave." And you know what the senator said to him, according to Tim? And it sounds like Pat. He said, "Tim, what they know, you can learn. What you know they can never learn. So he stayed. And he went on to host "Meet the Press" and head up NBC's political coverage. He changed the nature of the way major events and major figures were covered. His integrity, his toughness, his fairness was legendary.

Eventually he became a vitally independent, nationally respected and universally beloved voice in Washington, trusted by everyone who went before him. You knew you had to be prepared. You knew you had to have your A game on. But you also knew he'd never belittle you, he'd never take a cheap shot. He was completely contrary to some of the culture that prevails "” and still prevails "” in the town I work.

And along the way, Tim Russert, enlivened and enriched our debate. He gave it meaning. He gave it substance. Along the way he made all of our lives richer. And Tim's wife, Maureen, is here today at the appropriate moment to accept an honorary degree in Tim's stead. And I know Tim is looking down, Maureen, smiling at you with that pride that his face lit up with every time he talked about you. And he's likely sitting on a big gold motorcycle while he's watching.

So folks, I know how proud he'd be as well of you, both for what you have already accomplished and the expectations we have of all of you as to what you're going to accomplish.

At the turn of the 20th century, William Allen White "” a writer, a politician, a national spokesman for middle class values "” summed up perfectly the optimism I feel for the future. He said, "I'm not afraid of tomorrow, for I've seen yesterday, and I love today."

Well, I love today and one of the reasons I do is because of all of you. I believe so strongly, as you may recall when I was here in October, not in you particularly but your generation, that I don't have a single doubt in my mind we're on the cusp not only of a new century but a new day for this country and the world. I know what you do "” there's not a single thing you're going to be unable to accomplish.

Your generation is off fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Your generation is volunteering in record numbers. Your generation voted and turned out in a way that you literally dictated the outcome of this last election. Your generation gives such strong hope that we'll not only survive today as some pundits argue we may not, but that we will thrive tomorrow. And I believe you believe as I do "” that this is all within our grasp.

I know one other thing for certain as well. No graduating class gets to choose the world they graduate into. Every class has its own unique challenges. Every class enters a history that up to that point has been written for them. And your generation is no different. But what is different about your generation is the chance that each of you has to take history into your own hands and write it larger.

If anyone gets to choose the circumstances in which they graduate, I suspect almost all of us would choose your present circumstance. Your generation's opportunities are greater than any generation in modern history "” not because you're about to graduate into a nation of ease and luxury, but because you're about to graduate into a point in history where everything is going to change no matter what you do, but you can affect the change.

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