Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for that warm welcome. I am so grateful to be here today. I also want to thank Lieutenant General [Robert] Caslen and Brigadier General [Diana] Holland for their tremendous leadership here at West Point, and for their gracious invitation to address the Cow Class of the Corps of Cadets. And I want to acknowledge my colleague, Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General [Bill] Baer, who is here with me today. Bill does a tremendous job of leading the Justice Department’s Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative, which is our most important program to secure the rights of our men and women in uniform.
What an honor it is to stand before you today in this venerable place. This campus is unlike any other in the United States – and not just because it’s the only one that Benedict Arnold once tried to sell to the British. Few institutions have had a greater hand in molding the United States into the nation it is today than West Point. Your fellow alumni include two distinguished presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, who I believe said that failing to make the West Point baseball team was one of his life’s greatest disappointments, and Ulysses S. Grant, who wrote in his memoirs that each year at West Point “seemed about five times as long” as a year back home. They may have grumbled about their time here by the Hudson – something I am sure you have never done – but this much is clear: the path that led them to the highest office in public service began right here at West Point.
There is no doubt that this institution has a proud and rich history. But West Point is not simply a monument to the past. It is a gateway to our future. And that is why I look on each of you with such great pride and excitement. Because each of you has taken that future into your hands. When you were not yet 18, you made a choice. You chose to embark on an education that demands more of you than almost any other institution demands of students your age. You made a choice to forego many of the traditional comforts of college for a more challenging path. Before you could even vote, you made a choice that for at least the next nine years, the watchwords of your life would be “Duty, Honor, Country.” That is an enormous testament to your character. And that is a tremendous gift to our nation.
I am moved by the sacrifices that you have made, and that you will make. The conflict of my childhood was Vietnam, a place that meant nothing to me until it reached into my world and took my family members away. It’s a history lesson now, but I still vividly remember my cousins and uncle going off to Vietnam, when I was a young girl. My father, a minister, had a family prayer service for them the night before they left. I remember being struck by the magnitude of their sacrifice. It was the first time I ever really knew someone who was prepared to give his or her life for an ideal – for someone else’s freedom. Their country had called and they had answered, and that was more important than their own comfort or safety. Over the years I watched as other family members, including my own brother, made the choice to serve their country in the armed forces. Their example has stayed with me throughout my life, and it has never been far from my mind during my years with the Department of Justice. That sense of sacrifice and devotion to a greater mission – which was instinctive to my family members who served, and which has brought all of you to West Point – is perhaps the most important ingredient I can think of in the creation of a leader. As a famous graduate of this school, General [Norman] Schwarzkopf, once said: “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.”
And that is what I want to talk to you about today: why we need your character more than ever. It seems that our news cycles too frequently feature stories of rancor and division. Many of those stories give voice to those raising the question of what kind of leadership we want for our nation. I believe the answer to that question can be found here at West Point. And not simply because of your substantive knowledge, or your training to lead one of our most vital institutions in the most difficult of situations. Rather, it is because a West Point education is concerned not only with what you know, but with who you are. It is concerned not only with your mastery of strategy, but with your empathy and ability to understand those who are starkly different from you – whether they serve in your platoon or sit across from you at the negotiation table. It is concerned not only with your physical prowess, but with the resilience of your moral core. It is concerned not just with your sterling credentials, but your resolve to use those abilities to serve others. In short, I believe that your West Point education is giving you the very tools we need in all walks of life, military and civilian alike: the ability – and the responsibility – to bridge the gap among our fellow Americans.
It is clear why you are receiving this important and rigorous education. You will lead men and women through the most trying of circumstances. It will be up to you to show those in your command that their common goals transcend their individual differences. It will be up to you to ask them to do things they may not believe themselves capable of doing. It will be up to you to bring out the best in those you lead. And you will only be able to convince them to do those things if you do them yourself – exactly as you are learning to do here. And when you do that – when you realize that leadership is the ultimate form of service to and for others – then those in your command will surprise you, and themselves, with their selflessness, with their decency, and with their ability to join in a common cause. This is precisely the leadership that we also need, at this moment, in our national discourse, in our communities, and in our homes. Because as challenging as your military career will be, some of your greatest leadership challenges will come when you are out of uniform, in a world that doesn’t always exemplify the lessons you have learned here. How will you lead when a child you know is being bullied for being of a different race or religion? How will you lead when someone with whom you disagree needs your help? How will you lead when someone feels ignored or even targeted by the very government we are all sworn to serve? People will listen and look up to you. What will you say to them? Those are the times when you will truly lean on the lessons of this great institution – that true leaders speak up for those whose voice cannot be heard, protect the weak from the strong, and always focus on the common goals and principles that overcome our differences.
Being a leader often brings fulfillment, recognition and rewards. But it also brings unexpected moments. People once your peers may surprise themselves and you by not being completely happy for you, and that will hurt. Along with the acclaim you will also receive criticism, questioning your decisions, your motives, even your integrity, and that will sting. And, although it may be hard to believe – especially for you engineers out there – there will come a time when you will make mistakes, and disappoint others and yourself. We all fall down. It’s how you get up that tells the world who you are, even more than the rank on your sleeve. And how you respond to these challenges will confirm or deny everything that you have said about leadership in less fraught times. Because these are the times you show the content of your character. These are the times you must summon what is best in you – your courage, your integrity and your honor. These are the moments that count. These are the moments when you realize that true leadership focuses not on you, but on the institution you lead and the mission it serves.
In my life, I have been fortunate that that institution is the Department of Justice, and the mission is the protection of the American people and the upholding of the rule of law. And in my most difficult moments, first as a U.S. Attorney, and now as Attorney General of the United States, I have always been well served by reminding myself that my first responsibility is not to what others think of me, but to what my institution can do for others.
You have also committed to serving an institution: the U.S. military. I have no doubt that you will use your talents to uphold its proud traditions and to leave it an even stronger institution than you found it. We will be a safer and better people for your service defending our country and its values. But I also ask you to consider yourselves servants of these United States. The motto of this institution is not “Duty, Honor, Army” – although it will be, for a brief moment, on December 10. The motto is “Duty, Honor, Country.” And I want you to take that motto seriously. Because the division and disunity that we now see too often is symptomatic of a deeper pain in our people – pain that we must learn to heal. At a time when rhetoric and ideology divide us, and bitterness and mistrust tear at the fabric of our democracy, we need you to model service to a larger cause. We need you to remind us that our responsibility as Americans is to promote the welfare of all our people; to protect the vulnerable and the weak; and to ensure that the nation we leave for our children is better than the one our parents inherited. We need you to bring us back to the heart of our greatness, the beauty of our different voices, paths and faces coming together as one people. We need you to remind us of what we have achieved together, in the early motto of this great country: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
That is my challenge to you today: be leaders not just of our military, but of our country. Wherever life takes you beyond West Point – whether you stay in the armed forces for life, or whether you choose a different path – I challenge you to continue to be servant leaders. Inspire others to serve causes larger than themselves. Bring the lessons of sacrifice and selflessness that you have learned to our boardrooms, our classrooms, to the halls of Congress. Show the American people that “Duty, Honor, Country,” is a motto not only for the proud few who pass through West Point, but for every person, in every community. You are uniquely positioned to perform this essential work, and as I look out over this exemplary group of men and women, I am filled with hope: hope that we will continue marching together toward a brighter future; hope that we will transcend our divisions and bridge our divides; and hope that our nation’s best days still lie ahead.
I want to thank you all for having me here. I look forward to seeing everything you will achieve as you assume the heavy – and honorable – mantle of leadership.
May God bless you all, and shelter your dreams with his everlasting grace. May God bless all of our men and women in uniform, and hold their safety in the palm of his hand. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.