The more than 2,000 graduates of Tulane University in New Orleans heard from not one, but two former U.S. presidents at their graduation commencement ceremony Saturday. Former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton both spoke at the ceremony, which also included live jazz performances and other celebrity appearances.
The mood was festive at the Tulane commencement, in large part because of the special circumstances surrounding this year's graduation. The university was closed down when Hurricane Katrina approached the city in late August of last year and remained closed for the entire first semester because of the massive flooding in the city. But when administrators managed to reopen Tulane in January, students flocked back by the thousands.
In his speech, former President Bush hailed the perseverance and dedication of the Tulane students and the city in general. "The flood waters may have breached the levees that surround this city, they may have destroyed home after home, block after block, but today we also know they could not break the spirit of the people who call this remarkable, improbable city home. The courage of the people of New Orleans is just fantastic!," he said.
Bush went on to praise students and faculty who devoted time and effort to the recovery. He said the self sacrifice and charity shown here refutes the notion that people have grown selfish and unconcerned about their neighbors.
"A lot of people out there like to talk about the cynical times in which we live, but as I look around this room and bask in the warmth of your welcome, I still believe there are people out there who care, who are willing to open their hearts to the pain and the need around them and do the hard work that makes a positive difference in our world," he said.
In his speech, former President Clinton also praised the city of New Orleans and those who have worked to help it recover. He noted that people around the world contributed money to help the city and its people following Katrina. He called on the Tulane graduates to continue their involvement in efforts to build better communities and a better world.
"As President Bush said, a lot of these decisions about building a more inter-dependent, integrated world, where you have shared benefits and responsibilities and values, has to be done by government, but an enormous amount can be done by people as private citizens. From the time our country was founded we have believed this," he said.
Clinton noted that, around the time Tulane was founded in the 1830's, French writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed the American propensity for citizen initiative. He said this idea is now spreading around the world.
President Clinton called on the graduates to embrace the increasing interdependence of nations and work to enhance its positive effects. "You live in the most globally interdependent time in history and it can be good, bad or both. Interdependence means that we cannot escape each other. We are all in the same boat, whether we like it or not. It is, therefore, quite clear that the major work of all citizens, but especially those who have good degrees and good potential, is to build the positive and reduce the negative forces of interdependence," he said.
Among the other celebrities on hand was Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira, Brazil's Minister of Culture, who is also a world renowned singer/songwriter and author. He received an honorary doctorate degree in Humane Letters.
The commencement was closed by a well-known comedian and New Orleans native Ellen DeGeneres, who arrived on stage in a white bathrobe. She explained that she had been told everyone would be wearing a robe to the event. Her advice to the students, in their formal black graduation robes involved personal hygiene and cosmetics. She told them to remember to exfoliate, moisturize, exercise and floss. To howls of laughter and applause, she then danced off the stage with Tulane president Scott Cowan and a Dixieland Jazz band.