October 6, 1997
Volume 50, No. 7
When she stepped up to the lectern Saturday, Sept. 27, in Glenn Auditorium, Cokie Roberts said she'd been asked to talk about the "American experience" for Alumni Weekend. With a humble tribute to the Emory Medal presentation ceremony and a humorous depiction of life in Washington, she did just that.
Roberts, an ABC correspondent who hosts the weekly news program "This Week" and also regularly contributes to National Public Radio, immediately followed President Bill Chace's presentation of Emory Medals to eight distinguished alumni. Gesturing toward the medal recipients seated behind her on the stage, Roberts said, "I was asked to talk about the American experience, but we've had that right here. These people embody the American experience with their storytelling, with their memories kept alive and fresh, by looking to the future."
She then launched into a lighthearted tour of the recent foibles and fumbles of Washington's most prominent figures, right up to the president and vice president themselves. "Washington is a different world. It is just odd there-now Bill Clinton is decrying fundraising on his way to fundraisers," she quipped. "And poor Al Gore is longing for the days of 'stiff Al Gore' jokes. You know: 'He's so boring his Secret Service code name is "Al Gore."'
"Newt Gingrich is going through the interesting experience of being attacked from the right. But it's such a relief to have a few constants: Thank God for [94-year-old South Carolina Republican senator] Strom Thurmond. I do love having him there for all kinds of reasons. He ran on a term limits platform last time-believe it, I don't make this stuff up."
Roberts said Washington is going through an odd time where "nobody except those on the extreme far right and extreme far left think they have the answers." She said politicians are wading through a "figuring-it-out process" in which they are experimenting with what works and what doesn't work, regardless of ideology.
"And that is exactly what our founding fathers had in mind," she said. "They understood even then that this was a very diverse country, and there had to be institutions to try to bring it all together. They had an idea of what the country was to become."
The United States is about to become even more diverse, Roberts said. Citing Census Bureau statistics, she said the white population will increase from 190 million to 202 million in the next 40 years, the African-American population will double, the Hispanic-American population will quadruple, and the Asian-American population will increase fivefold.
"This is a fabulous blessing, an opportunity," Roberts said. "How do we deal with it? Messily, slowly, sometimes hatefully, but we do it. We're all in this room together in Atlanta, Ga., today-that would have been illegal 30 years ago. Think of what we would have missed. We would have missed Voices of Inner Strength," she said, referring to Emory's African-American student gospel choir, which performed two songs to open the Emory Medal ceremony.
"We have always come together as a country-with the horrendous exception of the Civil War-because we have something that brings us together and gives us definition: the U.S. Constitution. That document gives us our only reason for being a country because without it we have no common tie. That's what created the American experience, that and the institutions it created.
"Denigration of those institutions is the most dangerous thing in our country," Roberts concluded. "That is our glue. Those are the places where we can come together, and I would call on each of you to honor those institutions and the people who serve in them so America can continue this fabulous experience."
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