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Passion and Perspective

Ambassador Karen Hughes is global vice chair at Burson-Marsteller in Austin, Texas. Prior to joining Burson-Marsteller, Ambassador Hughes served as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the U.S. Department of State. This is a transcript of her commencement address on May 9, 2009 to Texas Tech University in Lubbock.


Thank you so much to all of you and thank you to Chancellor Hance and President Bailey, members of the Board of Regents, faculty members and distinguished guests. It is really an honor for me to be here with you tonight. I want to congratulate all the families. I know you had a lot to do with this great accomplishment and made a lot of sacrifices along the way. I thank the faculty and the staff who inspired many of the students here, who mentored you and prodded you along occasionally. Most of all I want to congratulate each of you, the graduates of the Class of 2009.

I think I know a little bit about the excitement and emotion that you must be feeling tonight because my son will be getting his undergraduate degree two weeks from now at another one of our great Texas universities, the one whose National Championship hopes were dashed right here at Jones Stadium last fall.

Now, I know that I am the only thing standing between you and your degrees, so I am going to take some advice that I heard from a West Point officer earlier this week when I was at a West Point Board of Visitors meeting. He said that “good speakers know to be brief, be brilliant and then be gone.” Now, I’m not sure about the brilliant part but I think I can manage the other two.

I am going to talk tonight about just two things. Two things that I hope you will both follow and be guided by in the years ahead. Two things: passion and perspective. I have to tell you that when I attended my own college graduation I never dreamed – I could not have imagined – that I would one day end up working at the White House. I originally thought that I was going to go to law school. I never did, however get a graduate degree because during my college years I fell in love with journalism and the art of radio-television news writing. I started my career as a television reporter. I covered everything from tornadoes to the Texas Legislature, and it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two. It was pretty chaotic back then in Austin.

Ambassador Karen Hughes

As a reporter, I fell in love with politics and was inspired by the good men and women from both political parties who were willing to sacrifice so much and to give of themselves to try to make our communities and our country a better place. I realized the profound impact that decisions made in the political process have on all of our lives. I wanted to get involved in all that, so in 1984, I went to work for the Reagan/Bush Campaign. I was a total flunky. I never even met President Reagan. After that I did a series of odd jobs in politics. My husband called them my “Will Consult for Food” years. I remember handing out leaflets at the Park and Ride for a friend who was campaigning for county judge when I was five months pregnant. It was definitely not the fast track to the White House, but eventually I became executive director of the Texas Republican Party and in 1994, I went to work for a guy named George. Boy does it seem like a long time ago that any of us called him George. He says it was back when the motorcade was one car, and I remind people that sometimes he was the one driving the car. Of course that never happens, well I guess it happens now in Dallas or Crawford today, but it didn’t happen in Washington. Our political journey took him to the Texas Governor’s Office and then to the White House. This has all been such an incredible experience, and I think you can imagine that I have had quite a few of what I like to call “pinch me” moments – moments when I quite literally had to pinch myself to believe that this was all happening to me. I remember the very first time I heard the Marine Band play Hail to the Chief and the ruffles and flourishes sounded and the President came bounding up the stairs and I had this moment, even though I had been with him this whole way, where I remember thinking: that is the President and I know him and he knows me! We have had dinner together and I know how he takes his coffee. And he knows that I am tall, not big, because we have had that conversation.

Now, I tell you all that because I think it is important for you to know that standing at my own college graduation, I never could have planned or predicted my career. Although I always had to earn a living, I never took a job because of the money. In fact, I took several pay cuts along the way to do things that I felt particularly passionate about. Because I have moved around so many times, I have never yet fully vested in a retirement plan at any place I have ever worked. Now, your financial advisor will not recommend that, but I wouldn’t trade it. And I share that to give you my first piece of advice: follow your passions in keeping with your priorities. You are graduating at a challenging time, as you well know. The economy is tough and finding the exact job you want may be difficult. I urge you to not think you have to find the perfect job immediately. Be willing to think differently. Perhaps you want to look at a Peace Corps program in the area of your specialty or expertise, or go overseas and teach English. Find something you feel passionately about, even if it is not the perfect career path at this precise moment. Become a community organizer. That worked out pretty well for another graduate law student who is now the President of the United States. Don’t feel that you have to have a perfect plan but do what you feel passionate about and take opportunities as they come. Follow your passions in keeping with your priorities.

I also want to mention that while your job is important, it is what you do – it is not who you are. You’ll spend a lot of hours at work, but it is not the complete “who” you are. It is somewhat ironic that I am best known not for any job that I had, but for my decision to leave a job. To leave what many viewed as the pinnacle of power, working at the White House. I left because I am also passionate about my role as a wife and mother. I hope that my life says that you can have a career and a family and meet your responsibilities to both. You’ll have to make choices along the way but you don’t have to choose one or the other. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s easy, because it’s frequently not, or that I am especially good at it. A few years ago I headlined a charity event and they sent out an invitation and they called it “An Evening with Karen Hughes.” My husband picked it up, looked at it and said: “I’d like an evening with Karen Hughes.” We all face demands on our time. We face that tug of war to be faithful in our different roles as parents or children, spouses or students, employers or employees. Some of the young people who worked for me at the White House spent so much time focusing on their careers that they are now in their late-twenties and early-thirties and a couple of them have called me. One of them said she and her friends have discovered that “Blackberries don’t make babies.” They are now starting to slow down and have children and think about starting families or adopting children. They are learning that life’s greatest joy is being a parent.

The truth is that life is a series of conflicting demands, and we make choices. I think the biggest challenge is to make sure that those choices are based on our true priorities. We all have to decide what is most important to us and use that to ground our decisions. St. Augustine used a beautiful phrase: Ordo Amorum, “The Order of the Loves.” The most important thing that you and I will do in life is to choose our loves and order them very, very carefully. Many of us act and work as if fame or power or money and all the stuff we collect are our true loves, yet if we drag ourselves away from that list that keeps us busy and focus on what is truly important, most of us would say that our family and friends and the people we care about are what we truly love.

People still ask me why I really left the White House back in 2002 to come back home to Texas. The simple fact was that my husband and I decided to reorder our loves. Working in the White House was conflicting in some basic ways with my priorities as a wife and mother, with having time to spend with my son as he was growing up, with having him grow up and attend high school in a place where I thought he would best succeed and thrive. I felt empowered to make the decision to leave the White House because I knew family was a priority for my boss as well. Ever since I had worked for President Bush, he has said that if you are a mom or dad then that is your number one responsibility in life.

That brings me to my second piece of advice: Choose your bosses and your associates very carefully. Now, I say that not only because mine went on to become the president, but because I have learned over the course of my career that your boss is really important. A lot of people think about the company or industry that they go to work for, but I urge you to think about the individual that you go to work for. Seek bosses that share your core values. Bosses who reinforce rather than undermine your priorities and who set a great example and encourage you to be your best.

May 2009 Commencement

I remember once President Bush had invented one of his words. This time it was not “strategery” or “subliminable.” This time it was “mis-underestimate.” He is quite creative that way. I joke that his brain “faster works” than his mouth does. The same morning he said this, he had called the terrorists “folks” and it fell to me to go in and say: “Mr. President, these are Al-Qaeda trained terrorists. I don’t think you ought to be calling them ‘folks.’” He told me: “There are a lot of bad folks in the world too, don’t you know?” And I said: “It just doesn’t sound right. It sounds so folksy.” He said: “Well, did anybody else not like anything I had to say today?” Later that day he gave a speech and it was a great speech. Afterwards he said to me: “Did I say anything wrong this time?” – kind of mocking me. I didn’t want to say it, because it had been a great speech but I promised always that I would tell him the truth. So I had to say, “Yes sir, you said ‘mis-underestimate.’” “I did not!” the president replied. Our chief of staff, Andy Card, was standing there and helpfully said: “Yes you did, Mr. President. Three times.” The president grumbled, “A guy goes out there and pours his heart into a speech and all you guys can talk about is three words. Three words!” But later that day, we were on our way home on Air Force One and I heard this rustling behind me and I looked up and a pair of hands landed on my shoulders and it was the President of the United States and he loudly announced that: “I am going to ‘mis-underestimate’ folks.” Then he leaned down and said: “I want you to always, always tell me whenever I screw up.” He had realized that he might have been a little sharp and I might be a little hesitant. The president had a healthy perspective. He may have been the most powerful man in the world but he knew he needed advice, and he made sure that we knew that he valued and wanted our honest opinions.

People often ask me how I managed to maintain perspective in that often heady world of Washington politics where they seat you by rank and call you the “Honorable” and “Ambassador,” and I have a favorite story about that. This one is not chronicled in the New York Times or Newsweek, but it is my all-time favorite story about a political power play. It is found in the New Testament in Matthew 20. The mother of two of Jesus’ twelve disciples basically pulls an “end run.” She goes behind the back of the other disciples and goes to Jesus with a little request. She wants her two sons to be able to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes into His Kingdom. Now, I love that story and the moms in this room can identify, first of all because it’s a mom, and how typical of a mom. She thinks it’s important because she bothers to ask but she’s not asking for herself, she is asking for her children. She wants the best seats in the house for her boys for eternity. After all, it’s just a small favor. It’s really not the question but the answer that is the important part of the story. Jesus doesn’t say yes or no. He basically tells her: you’ve got the wrong perspective. That’s not the way to look at things. “Whoever wishes to be great among you, must be a servant.” Now, I found in that story a lesson for how to approach my high powered jobs and remind myself every day in the midst of meetings with presidents and prime ministers that I was there to serve: to serve the president, to serve my fellow citizens, and always to try to serve in keeping with my faith.

One thing that might help you graduates to keep your perspective in the months and years ahead and as you go forward in life is to call home. It may come as a surprise to you, but you are probably learning that your parents are a lot smarter now than they were when you were an undergraduate student. My son now tells me that I’m not always as right as I think I am; and he occasionally admits that I know a little more than he thought I did. It won’t undermine your independence to maintain close connections. Your families love you and want what is best for you. They can provide valuable perspective if you will let them.

This university has enlarged your perspective and I hope in the years ahead that you will continue to broaden it. I told the undergraduates today to go to graduate school. Many of you have already made that commitment but you could study something else. Become a student of the world. Travel, learn another language. You are entering a global economy with both more competition and more opportunity than ever before. During my time at the White House and the State Department, I traveled to more than fifty countries and I believe overseas travel, perhaps more than anything else, vastly broadens one’s perspective. I studied the history of the countries and read about their cultures. I asked people about their lives. I tried to visit local historical and cultural sights to learn and show respect.

I found that little things can sometimes communicate and change people’s perspectives in often profound ways. On my very first trip to Egypt I bought this necklace. You probably can’t see it from where you are sitting but it is made by a famous Egyptian jeweler Azza Fahmy. It is inscribed with a phrase in Arabic that speaks of sincerity, trust and friendship. I thought that it was a good symbol, a good signal for me to send as I traveled to Arab countries. I told my husband that I wasn’t just buying beautiful jewelry but I was engaged in cultural outreach. But I can’t tell you how many people as I have traveled around the world, have appreciated that. I have had hundreds of people who speak Arabic who have commented on this necklace. I landed in Bahrain and I was greeted by an official from the Foreign Ministry. He didn’t say anything then, but the next day after he had gotten to know me a little bit better he told me, “You cannot imagine what it means to see an American government official get off an airplane with Arabic on her necklace.” I was at the White House for a reception for the State of the Union and Mrs. Bush had invited some Iraqi soldiers to come to the White House. One of them had spotted me from across the room. He grabbed the translator and came over to me and the translator said, “Your necklace, he can’t believe it, he wants to see it. He never thought he would see Arabic at the White House.” Small gestures of respect can make a big impact and can change people’s perspectives about our country.

My final piece of advice and the best way to gain perspective is to serve a cause, a calling or a commission that is bigger than you. Find something large that you really care about. Start something and get involved with it. There is a great story from ancient Greece told by Pericles who was himself known as a great speaker. He paid perhaps the ultimate compliment to another speaker. He said, “When Pericles speaks the people say, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes speaks, the people say, ‘Let us march!’” That is the kind of person we all want to follow: someone who sees a cause that is so exciting and so grand and noble; someone whose passion seeks to involve all of us in his or her larger perspective.

Congratulations to you, Class of 2009! Follow your passions. Expand your perspective. Get out there and make us proud. And GET YOUR GUNS UP!

Thank you and God bless each of you!