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Text of 2013 Commencement Address
by former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

May 18, 2013

Thank you Gerald Turner for being a great president of a great university and thank you trustees and the people who are so supportive sitting back here. And congratulations graduates of 2013.

SMU does hold a special place in my heart. It is my husband Ray’s alma mater, both undergraduate and Law School. We love the SMU traditions and we both serve on advisory boards here. SMU contributes to the excellence of American higher education. I have been thinking and speaking a lot about America in the last few days and months. I have been remind that people look at our exceptional institutions of higher education as one of the hallmarks of our country. Exceptional research, innovation and academics are key factors in America’s success.

Of course, SMU is also special to me because my goddaughter Maverick Lezar is a junior here –an engineering major and Hilltop Scholar. When I told her I was receiving an honorary engineering degree, she looked at me and said, “I’m working so hard for mine and they just gave you one?!”

Of course, another big difference is that an honorary degree is free. Yours, not so much.

Well, yours is the best investment you’ll ever make.

So as you leave your halcyon SMU days – the football games, the parties, the friendships that will last a lifetime – I would ask: do you really want to go?

You know it’s not the same out there. There are no “incompletes” you can put off until after spring break in a business office. In fact, there is no spring break!

To quote Dave Barry, “You were prepared by your professors to go out into the real world. The first thing you’ll notice is that your professors are not going out there with you. They’re not stupid; that’s why they’re professors.”

But alas you must go and you are ready.

You all know this is not the easiest time to find a job. You are facing a more difficult environment than your parents or I did. In this weak economic period, our leaders are faced with a question: how do we ensure that we are taking the right path out? How do we make certain that when your children graduate from college, hopefully SMU, they can still say they live in the greatest nation on Earth?

Now for those of us out in the world already, it is on our shoulders to solve today’s immediate problems and it is our job to make sure you know what made America the greatest nation on Earth. The Cliff Notes for this answer are this: It is the can-do spirit of resilience and creativity, the great inventors, the great doctors, the great leaders and the great countries approach problems by saying not we can’t do that, no one’s ever done it before. They say, “If we can’t do it this way, we’ll try another way.” And when it matters they’ll never give up.

As I said, I’ve been speaking a lot about America and what makes us exceptional. Americans have a unique responsibility as citizens of the world’s lone super power. Each generation, including your parents and grandparents here with you today, have contributed to a country that impacts the whole globe. And your generation will play a role in whether we keep that mantle.

I often find it useful to look at this from a global perspective.

When I travel abroad, what people want to know is, will America continue to lead? In security, in business, in innovation.

When I spoke to business leaders in South Korea just last month, those were the questions that were asked. Will America get its fiscal house in order? Will you be a model for other countries to get their economies back on track?

They think we will but only if we stick to the path and values that made America unique.

I heard this again in comments by Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore and the father of their “economic miracle”. He took a tiny country of deep ethnic and religious diversity with virtually no natural resources, and turned it into the world’s second most free economy. He achieved this extraordinary vision by looking to other countries, and to history, to see what traits and circumstances had produced greatness elsewhere. His observations are meaningful.

He praises America’s creativity and entrepreneurship, and the role that has played in making us the country we are today. But he also recognizes that we have to keep that spirit of perseverance and our culture of hard work. We cannot become complacent, or allow disincentives to work, to creep into our governance.

It is easy to forget now, when we live in the world’s most powerful nation, that the American Experiment was not guaranteed success. It was the character of America and the values that defined our forbearers that led to enduring exceptionalism. Our leaders showed determination and ingenuity – from the taming of the frontier to the celebrated industrialists – and a country was born from a culture that encouraged and rewarded those traits.

Mr. Lee notes also that it is not just power and wealth that makes us great. He lauds our gracious leadership, in particular the “magnanimity and generosity” we used to “rebuild a more prosperous world” after World War II. He said that only the “elevating power” of our idealism can explain this and calls us “the most benign of all the great powers of history.” I would emphasize on my side and my experience that our military power is never used to conquer other cultures. It is used for defense, not offense. Defense of freedom, never territorial conquest. That, too, makes us unique. And I want to take one moment and ask: Those of you in this audience who have ever served in our military to stand and let us thank you for keeping the spirit of freedom alive in the world. If you’re in the graduating group or in the back, please let us thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Mr. Lee also sees the stumbling blocks in our path. He sees the obvious problem of political gridlock, of uncompromising dogma getting in the way of finding solutions.

He sees that we are in danger of losing our can-do spirit and work ethic. He sees political leaders letting costs outpace resources, racking up huge debts that future generations like you will be forced to pay. He warns that we must not lose the vitality that has made us distinctly American.

I just wrote a book about Texas in the 19th century. I was curious about the spirit of Texas that was produced over a century-and-a-half ago – and has been passed through our generations. What is special about it? Like early Americans, pioneer Texans faced enormous obstacles – the war for independence in 1836, forging a new nation, a republic for 10 years, taming the hard land in the west to make it productive – but through it all, there were lively gatherings: neighbors coming together, bringing food to share, clearing the furniture and dancing the night away.

Historian Mary Austin Holley wrote about her visit to Texas in 1831 after visiting her cousin Stephen F. Austin. She wrote:

“It is not uncommon for ladies to mount their mustangs and hunt with their husbands, to ride long distances on horseback, to attend a ball with their silk dresses in their saddlebags. Hardy, vigorous constitutions, free spirits, and spontaneous gaiety are thus induced, and continue a rich legacy to their children, who, it is to be hoped, will sufficiently value the blessing not to squander it away in their eager search for the luxuries and refinements of polite life.”

These settlers were determined to have a quality of society amidst the stark reality of pioneer life. They built the fun-loving, independent spirit that is with us today. This positive attitude is as important a lesson from history as the facts and issues that shaped our democracy – and has kept it alive.

If we ever lose the unique American spirit, we will lose what put us on top and set us apart.

SMU is an entrepreneurial university in an entrepreneurial city. It represents the can-do spirit, the we-can-do-anything mentality that has been your experience to take with you into your career and guide you through the mine-fields of life.

So you are ready. You can carry the can-do spirit with you as your strongest asset in the marketplace – and in the process, you will build American exceptionalism that has been fought for and preserved by our forefathers and mothers.

Class of 2013 the best of your life is yet to come and you are ready!

Thank you.