Pepperdine School of Public Policy Commencement Address

Thank you President Benton, Dean Peterson, professors, parents and friends – my family. Most importantly, congratulations graduates! Thank you for inviting me to speak to you on this important day.  I am honored, actually shocked, to be here today.

While I appreciate the kind and generous introduction, I’m really just a guy who grew up in Rock Island, Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi.  I never thought I would be blessed with this honor and receive a doctorate degree.  Thank you for not checking my transcripts before inviting me here today.

But I do have a long history with Pepperdine. When I first met President Benton, he and I were the number two to our bosses, former President David Davenport and former Supervisor Dean Dana.  We met over the big issues facing the County and Pepperdine at the time – toilets.  Seriously.

There was a big fight over the land that Pepperdine is on.  The University wanted to remain part of the unincorporated County to keep the services they had.  The City wanted Pepperdine for the obvious prestige it brings.  But in the end, it all came down to septic tanks vs. sewers.  Yes graduates, welcome to politics!  Flush a toilet, go to jail!

It was ugly.  I was actually hung in effigy on Malibu Canyon Road … over toilets. Later, I gave the invocation at President Benton’s inauguration in 2000.  He gave the invocation at my swearing-in as County Supervisor in 1996.

My two sons graduated from Pepperdine – one played on the golf team, the other on the baseball team.  As I told them when they came here, everything in life comes down to choices and consequences.  You make good choices, good things happen.  You make bad choices, like skipping convocation boys,  and your GPA takes a hit.

Yes, my family and I have a long history with Pepperdine, which also just tells you that I’ve been around awhile.  But any time I think about wanting to go back to my youth…   I remember … Algebra…

I was just in DC earlier this week and I’ll tell you what.  Forget the Botox and the antioxidants.  If we really wanted to slow down old age, we should just have it work its way through Congress.

I give speeches nearly every day of my life and as you might have noticed, that means I’ve given about 10,950 of them – at that same number of chicken dinners.  But I’ve been a bit nervous about today’s speech.  It has felt like such a huge responsibility.

In looking for inspiration, I found what is widely considered to be the greatest commencement speech of all time.  Winston Churchill.  1941.  The Harrow School for Boys in London.  A man of great eloquence distilled his message down to three words: “Never. Give.  In.”

He repeated it a few times and that was it.  Can you imagine how psyched those graduates were?  Ok, while it is an urban legend and he did in fact speak for a few minutes, it is a speech I’m sure most attendees remembered for the rest of their lives. I am always inspired by Churchill.  So with that model, I hope you will indulge me and instead of three words, I would like to, instead, ask you three questions.  And these are three questions that I do hope you will remember and take with you for the rest of your life.

Today, on the day of your graduation – a day of great celebration – I’m going to ask you to have a  mid-life crisis.  Or for most of you, perhaps it should be called a quarter-life crisis.  But have one.  And then have another one in again in five years.  And keep having a mid-life crisis ’til the day you are my age. And then you can call that a mid-geezer crisis.

You see, I think the mid-life crisis is wasted on the middle-aged.  Everybody should be having a mid-life crisis – all the time throughout their lives. If you aren’t, you’re probably not thinking about your life.  You’re just going through the motions.

Then you wake up one day and you wonder where your life went.  It’s easy for that to happen with how busy people get.  Suddenly you wake up and — ahh! – you’re 40! Boy, I wish I were still having that nightmare…

I’m not talking the mid-life crisis that is about getting a Corvette and some hair plugs.  But what a midlife crisis should be about is stepping back and asking yourself my first question: “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”

If you are sitting in a chair wearing a robe right now, you’ve clearly got some idea.  Maybe you want to run for office.  Maybe you want to manage a city.  Perhaps you are thinking about starting a non-profit. Your options are virtually endless.

Hey, I’m a Republican and we’re still looking for a Presidential nominee!

But seriously, whatever it is, I want to pause for a moment and thank you.  Perhaps my biggest concern right now about all these political shenanigans isn’t about the short-term.

It’s about the generation of young people we will lose in the public sector because they threw their arms up in frustration and thought, this is nuts!  Why would I put myself through this? Why would I put my family through this?  What can I possibly accomplish in a time of finger-pointing and name-calling and endless gridlock.

So again, thank you.  For being able to look beyond some of the foolishness we are seeing today and deciding that you still want to serve.

There are many ways that you can serve and you may have some idea of what you want to do now.

I know a lot of people would stand up here and tell you to be focused on that goal.  Work hard, never take your eye off of it. I’m going to suggest something slightly different.  I say: “Be open.”  Having goals and working towards them is great – but don’t be so focused that you miss out on opportunities that you never expected.

Deane Dana, who was as I said, the Supervisor before me, asked me to come work for him for 90 days in 1982.  He said he needed some help with relationships with the cities in our district.  I was the Mayor of Cerritos then and knew a lot of the other mayors and city councilmembers across the district.

I also had a business at the time, but I liked him, so I thought I’d help him out for a few months.  Well, that three months turned into almost 35 years.  It evolved from a 90-day opportunity into my being elected County Supervisor for 20 years of the largest county in the nation, representing 2 million people and 27 cities.

That wasn’t at all my goal, not something I was focused on… trust me, there are days I still can’t believe it!  But once I landed there, I was open to the opportunities before me. I’m not saying you should be impulsive.  But don’t reject a possibility because your mind is already made up.  Do your homework and be smart about your decisions.  But it’s ok if your dreams change.  It’s ok if an opportunity presents itself and you end up on a different path.

It’s also OK not to reach it.  I know there are a thousand clichés about failure being good and learning from failure.  Come on.  Let’s be honest.  Failure sucks.  Losing hurts. I like winning a whole lot better than losing! It started for me in high school.  I ran for Class President.  The election was on a Monday.  On Friday, my opponent caught a touchdown pass with no time left on the clock to win the game.  I got two votes.  Mine and my girlfriend’s.  And to be honest, I’m not sure if she really voted for me. A few years down the road, in 1988, I ran for State Senate. I lost … by less than 2%. You wanna talk hurt? But as the Dalia Lama once said, “Not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.”

Wow, was that ever true in my life!  I have been blessed with the greatest political job in the nation.  A place where you can actually get things done.  It would not have been fun playing partisan games for the last 30 years.  I know I would not have been happy.

Which brings me to my second question.  It backs up the first.  When you ask yourself what you want to do with the rest of your life, start with asking yourself, “What makes me happy?”  That can sound so trite… even selfish. But what you want to do for the rest of your life should make YOU happy.  You shouldn’t choose that path because someone else wants you to, or because you should.  Or it’s the right thing to do.

What you choose to do for the rest of your life should be a journey, not a grind.

I have generally found that people enjoy doing what they are good at.  Be excited about going to work every day, or look for something else!  I love my job.  And I’m not saying that every day is a picnic.  It’s not very much fun being yelled at, cursed at by gadflies, criticized by the press and always second-guessed.

But that is just part of my job.

As you embark on your own journey there will be times where you won’t love what you are doing.  But if it is a step in the right direction of where you want to go, take it.  And seize every opportunity to learn.

One skill I would highly suggest that you work on is communications.  It doesn’t matter what you do – lawyer, nurse, politician, public administrator, teacher –

Building bridges and forging friendships will have a huge impact on your life and may open doors you never expected.

I learned about communications early in life.  This may come as a surprise to some of you, but when I was young, my goal was to have my own rock ‘n roll band or be a disc jockey. True story. Unfortunately my Dad didn’t share my dream and thought I should go to college instead…That was around the time the Beatles invaded America and I looked terrible with a bowl cut.

While I was in college, I continued to play my saxophone at local events and bars.  I would never have realized how the lessons of that time in my life would apply today. Hey, I know how to deal with drunks at 2am.  That’s where I really learned about Choices and Consequences – trust me, nothing good happens after midnight!  Right boys?

But it also taught me how to bring people together, make friends, be up in front of a crowd.  And one day, those relationships that I had built over the years led me to being appointed by President Bush to the Homeland Security Commission.  I ended up taking Mitt Romney’s place on the national level. … Frankly, I was stunned I made it through the Secret Service interview!

The final question I suggest you ask yourselves during your on-going mid-life crises is: “Are the things I am doing making a difference in anyone’s life?”

As I go through my own mid-geezer crisis and look at life after the Board of Supervisors, I realize that the thing I will miss the most about this job – not the power or the prestige, but what I will truly miss is the ability to pick up the phone and make a difference in someone’s life.  There is simply no greater feeling.

The most rewarding programs I have worked on as Supervisor often don’t get the big headlines, but they help those who have nowhere else to go.

I started the Safe Surrender program in Los Angeles County in 2001. Through the program, a mother is able to surrender her baby within 72 hours at any Fire Station or hospital.  No Shame. No Blame.  No Names.

Since 2001, 145 lives have been saved.  That’s 145 brave mothers.  145 families created. The other issue that has had a profound impact on me is that of child sex trafficking. Girls as young as 10 being bought and sold in our streets.  It has been the most horrific issue I have worked on. But with both Safe Surrender and child sex trafficking I have met families, victims, survivors – incredibly brave people.  I have been taught that the job of a public servant is not to judge a desperate mother or a girl walking the streets.

It’s to provide them options, to give them resources, to wrap our arms around them and give those who need us most – those with no voice – the services they need to move on to a better life. I think Mark Twain summed up question three the best: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born …and the day you found out why.”

Graduates, congratulations on the incredible accomplishment you have achieved today.   As you embark on your own careers and move into this next phase of your life, be thoughtful about what you are doing and ask yourself why.

Embrace the mid-life crisis, no matter your age.

Ask yourself: “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”

Ask yourself:  “What makes me happy?” – and allow for that to change and evolve.

Ask yourself: “Is what I am doing making a difference in anyone’s life?

If you aren’t liking your answer to any of those questions, be open and find a path to get where you want to be.  Take action, strive, move forward and remember:

If you can’t outsmart them:


Congratulations graduates!  Thank you for the honor of being with you today.