Biden tells Wake Forest graduates they will shape history

May 18, 2009

Vice President Joe Biden told the 2009 graduating class at Wake Forest University today that their generation enjoys greater opportunities to shape the future than any in modern history.

Reeling off a litany of challenges facing the country, including a “global recession, a planet in peril and a world in flux,” Biden, the first sitting vice president to deliver a commencement address at Wake Forest, said fundamental changes are inevitable on many fronts.  He likened the pace and importance of current events to the political and social turmoil in 1965, when he himself graduated, calling such moments in history “inflection points.”

“This really is your moment,” Biden said.  “History is yours to bend.”

A crowd of invited relatives and guests estimated at nearly 12,000 listened to the speech during an outdoor ceremony on Hearn Plaza under clear skies and a chilly breeze.  Taking part in the ceremony were 1,001 students receiving bachelor’s degrees and 620 students receiving advanced degrees from Wake Forest’s graduate and professional schools.

Biden asked his audience to “imagine a country brought together by powerful ideas, not torn apart by petty ideologies” and to “imagine a country that leads by the power of our example and not by the example of our power.”

“It’s time to steel our spines and embrace the promise of change,” he said.

Citing several individual graduates for performing exceptional volunteer service, surviving genocide in Rwanda and earning a diploma at almost 77 years of age, Biden said such examples illustrate why he is even more optimistic about the future now than he was when he was younger.

“In so many ways, you’re already bending history,” he said.  “You are emblems of the sense of possibility that is going to define our age.”

Biden wove into his speech references from the poetry of William Butler Yeats and Wake Forest’s own Maya Angelou, Reynolds Professor of American History.

After his speech, the university awarded Biden an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

The vice president called his commencement appearance a “bittersweet honor” because he was filling in for the man originally scheduled to be this year’s commencement speaker, the late broadcast journalist Tim Russert, whom Biden called “a friend of mine.”  Russert died in June 2008.  His widow, Maureen Orth accepted a posthumous honorary Doctor of Humane Letters for him during the ceremony.

In bestowing the award to Russert, Wake Forest graduate and trustee Al Hunt noted that Biden and Russert shared similar backgrounds, rising from working-class backgrounds to prominent careers in Washington.

“He (Russert) never forgot his roots, and we are more firmly grounded in our own for his example.”