Former teacher Bush gives grads a hint: public service

Times Staff Writer

First Lady Laura Bush had a hard act to follow Saturday when she delivered the commencement speech at Pepperdine University’s graduation ceremony.

Preceding her was a student speaker -- graduating senior Christine E. Li, an intercultural communication major from Santa Monica -- who cried, and moved parents and fellow grads to tears, as she lauded classmates’ “incredible capacity to love.” Li brought the audience of nearly 10,000 to its feet with a stirring rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” that had the crowd clapping and singing and gave the ceremony the feel of an old-fashioned church revival.

The reception for Bush was polite and enthusiastic, but emotionally restrained. The audience stood and applauded as she received an honorary doctor of laws degree, and was introduced by Pepperdine regent Eff W. Martin as “our nation’s comforter in chief.”

Bush’s background and bearing as a teacher were on display as she ticked off the Malibu university’s accomplishments, drawing on anecdotes and statistics to praise Pepperdine as “a vibrant community of faith” whose students “are blessed with tremendous energy and enthusiasm” and taught to “freely give in service to others.”


She used her speech to nudge graduates toward humanitarian projects and careers in public service, drawing cheers from the crowd when she praised several graduates by name for their involvement in volunteer campaigns helping inner-city students, Hurricane Katrina victims and Africans with AIDS and HIV.

Her advice reflected her own interests as she encouraged graduates to consider becoming public school teachers, spend their summer helping rebuild flood-ravaged New Orleans, and join volunteer campaigns to bring clean water and better healthcare to African nations.

Bush has emerged as an accomplished speaker in recent years, standing in for her husband during his last presidential campaign at media events and political rallies. Then -- as now -- she was considerably more popular than the president; more than 70% of voters surveyed, including 55% of Democrats, had a positive opinion of the first lady in 2004, while half approved of her husband. Recent polls show her approval rating virtually unchanged, while the president’s has dropped.

On Saturday, Laura Bush largely steered clear of politics. She lauded her husband’s efforts to improve healthcare in Africa and applauded the courage of soldiers fighting in Iraq -- mentioning, by name, a former Pepperdine student now among them.


That reference prompted a man in the audience to shout, “Bring him home!” The comment resounded through the outdoor arena but Bush didn’t miss a beat. The crowd did not acknowledge the heckler, and the ceremony went on.

Pepperdine, with its conservative atmosphere and Christian legacy, was the perfect backdrop for Bush’s speech. The 70-year-old university’s motto -- “Freely ye received, freely give” -- is drawn from the Bible (Matthew 10:8) and it has maintained a strong affiliation with the Churches of Christ traditions of its founder, George Pepperdine.

This is not the first time a Bush family member has headlined its commencement event. Her husband spoke in 1996, when he was governor of Texas, and her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, in 1992.