The oppressively hot weather did not tamp the spirits of the graduating cadets of the United States Merchant Marine Academy who were the first class to ever be figuratively and literally patted on their collective backs by their Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush. The thrilled young men, 174 of them, and 28 women burst into cheers as President Bush acknowledged their hard work and the excellence and rigor of the Academy's training. It was their day to shine.
George W. Bush, the first sitting president to visit the United States Merchant Marine Academy, delivers commencement address to 204 graduating midshipmen. Photo by Carol Frank
Preparations for the day had been intense and in the works for months. Scouting helicopters had been buzzing the peninsula from early morning. Invitees to the event had been told to arrive early, as everyone was required to be sitting in the stands long before Bush's arrival.
And so it was that by 9 a.m., approximately 5,000 people were basted with sunscreen and roasting in Brooks Stadium waiting. The midshipmen's white uniforms were dazzling in the sun as they marched onto the field, Old Glory was waving in the all too occasional and listless breeze and under the director of Captain Ken Force the Regimental Band was playing a medley of tunes, I'll Take Manhattan, Stormy Weather and the theme from The Wizard of Oz. Solemn Secret Service men and women in black suits eyed the crowd, bottles of water were distributed and snipers were spotted patrolling the rooftops.
From the south came the whirr of Marine helicopters, their bulk and shape making the earlier helicopters look like toys. Five landed on adjacent Brook Field partly shielded from view by tall trees. Bush was greeted there and brought to the viewing stand in one of a parade of black SUVs with heavily tinted windows. Streaming along behind him were members of Congress from Long Island, Gary Ackerman, Peter King and Carolyn McCarthy.
As Hail to the Chief filled the still air, Bush marched center stage. Superintendent of the Academy, Vice Admiral Joseph Stewart officially welcomed everyone and the ceremonies began.
With a brave and exceedingly loud and persistent mockingbird improvising in the background, the President began his speech first thanking everyone for "the warm welcome" acknowledging with his much-parodied chuckle, the extreme heat. Referring to the fact that since the founding of the academy in 1943, his was the first presidential visit, he said, "Admiral, I hope it's worth the wait." He also quickly got a laugh from the midshipmen with references to inside jokes such as "braving the Jamaican beef patties ... survived restriction musters from missing the train back from Manhattan" and got cheers by mentioning the academy's victory over the Coast Guard football team this past fall. He had evidently been coached by his former White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, who attended the academy back in the '60s and had " as a plebe been stuffed in a duffle bag and run up the flag pole." The cheers grew in volume with his "graduation gift" as he said he would, as Commander-in-Chief, "lift all demerits by absolving midshipmen of all minor infractions ... leaving it to Admiral Stewart to define 'minor.'"
After thanking the young people for choosing "to serve the United States of America," he delved into the importance of the merchant marines "the lifeline of our troops overseas ... carrying critical supplies and personnel." The academy is the only one of the nation's five federal service academies in which cadets serve in war theatres during their training period giving them the right to fly the battle standard. During World War II, 142 cadets lost their lives in defending against German warships.
This graduating class was acknowledged by the President for having played a vital role in Iraq, Afghanistan, rescue efforts after the tsunami, keeping commercial shipping lanes safe, port security and bringing critical supplies to Ground Zero in "the terrible days after 9-11."
He then transitioned to familiar words about the "global war on terror." Although that morning, headlines in national papers were highlighting the missiles of North Korea aimed at American shores, the President focused on "establishing a thriving democracy in the heart of the Middle East."
The president referred to his upcoming trip to Europe noting his intention to "strengthen the ties with our allies" by attending the annual summit between the U.S. and the European Union and by visiting Budapest for the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.
And he drew applause by stating that during his recent five-hour visit to Iraq, he had pledged to the new prime minister "when America gives a commitment, America will keep its word." He added that the international community has pledged "about 13 billion dollars" to help in the recovery of Iraq with only 3.5 million dollars paid. It did not sound as if "the check is in the mail" would satisfy President Bush.
He addressed the right of the people of Iran to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes and discussed international diplomatic efforts to negotiate with the Iranian regime once they have proven that they have suspended nuclear activities for weaponry. He warned that if Iran continues on its path, its isolation from the world will increase and stronger economic sanctions will be imposed. He appealed directly to the Iranian people noting their rich history and culture and their distinctions in "medicine, science, philosophy, and poetry." He said he thinks the people would "thrive if they studied abroad and were able to advance their economy." He said that our government will provide $75 million this year to the Iranian people to promote "openness with the Iranian people by expanded and improved radio and TV broadcasts, supporting human rights advocates and civil society organizations, student and faculty exchanges and by creating bridges of understanding between our people...The future of Iran will be solved by the people of Iran and they will play a leading role to establish peace in our world."
Meanwhile, outside Victory Gate, in time-honored fashion, 300 war protesters had marched up the hill from the 9-11 Bridge with signs denoting their support of the graduates, but their pleas to support them by ending the "occupation of Iraq." The Nassau County Sixth Precinct officers were on hand to keep things peaceful between the protestors and the parents, students, graduates and guests and aside from a few verbal taunts, there were no confrontations.
After the ceremony, the audience stayed seated, the President was whisked away without seeing any negative signs and the band played on.