As promised, V.P. shuns Iraq, political hot buttons at BYU commencement
PROVO - Vice President Dick Cheney told Brigham Young University's 2007 graduating class Thursday to take pride in their character and achievements, but not to lose sight of gratitude and second chances.
The vice president, far from the political battles of Washington, even offered a little humility and humor:
"I started at Yale, but didn't finish," Cheney admitted to the graduates and their families who packed the Marriott Center, adding his departure was involuntary. ''I was asked to leave. Twice. The second time, they said, 'Don't come back.' ''
His speech was the climax - some would say anti-climax - of a Utah visit that most of Republican-stronghold Utah took as an honor.
But it also produced almost unheard of dissent on the restrained campus of BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Organizers of an online petition drive collected 4,000 signatures of BYU students and alumni who opposed Cheney's selection as a speaker.
And whether protesting the Iraq war and Cheney's choice of a speaker, or countering with messages in support of President Bush's No. 2, about 300 well-behaved protesters surrounded the campus entrance in advance of Cheney's visit.
Michael Rogers, an electrical engineering graduate who heard Cheney speak, said the demonstrations had little effect on his graduation. "I thought they were stupid."
If Cheney is the president's attack dog, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., alleges, the muzzle was securely in place during his trip to Utah.
He told BYU graduates he later earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Wyoming.
And though he earned the classroom credit, he failed to get his doctorate because he never wrote a dissertation.
"I'll get started as soon as I come up with a topic," joked Cheney, who received an honorary doctorate in public service from BYU.
"One of the things I like most about our country is that we have such opportunities. America is still the country of a second chance," he joked. "Most of us end up needing one."
But the usually feisty and occasionally caustic Cheney failed to deliver fireworks or even make reference to his recent feud with Reid, the new Democratic majority or even the Iraq War.
He congratulated BYU's ROTC graduates who are accepting commissions in the armed forces. "They join the ranks of a great force for justice, freedom and security and we are proud of them."
He told the students and their families that BYU's strength of character was evident last Friday at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre. "More than a place of learning, BYU is a community of kindness, faith and compassion."
BYU's values are "a guide for future generations," he said.
To the graduates' cheers, he reminded them that BYU was named the No. 1 "stone-cold sober" college by the Princeton Review.
Even given Thursday's subdued demonstrations, America likely offers no friendlier pulpit for Cheney to have made his case against the Democratic drive for a troop pull-out deadline in Iraq. Utah County, is the beating heart of the reddest state in the nation, where more than 70 percent of voters supported the Bush/Cheney ticket in 2004. Only recently has the president's approval rating started dipping in Utah, and Cheney had to pause for cheers and clapping after he passed on the president's good wishes.
The vice president, in fact, received louder and longer applause than the church's President Gordon B. Hinckley when they entered the Marriott Center together.
His 15-minute speech drew a standing ovation.
"I appreciated that he talked about having gratitude in life," said Emily Sego, who received a master's of business administration. "It's a good concept that we all share and agree with."
Before speaking at BYU, Cheney stopped at the LDS Church's Administration Building in Salt Lake City, where he paid a courtesy call on Hinckley and his two counselors in the governing First Presidency, Thomas S. Monson and James E. Faust. Hinckley's secretary, F. Michael Watson was also present, LDS spokesman Scott Trotter said.
Neither the White House nor Trotter would discuss any details of the nearly 30-minute meeting.
Hinckley has never commented publicly on demonstrations opposing Cheney's visit to BYU.