Thomas Cole ’71, Doctor of Law

Thomas Cole ’71 received an honorary Doctor of Laws at Grinnell College Commencement 2016.

About Thomas Cole ’71

Cole has served as U.S. Representative for Oklahoma’s 4th District since 2002. Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, he is the fourth-ranking Republican leader in the House. Cole is one of only two Native Americans now serving in Congress and was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in 2004. He received an honorary doctor of laws degree.

Acceptance Speech


Okay. I must admit when that term sharpest mind in the house was applied to me, I actually called the journalist who was clearly a friend and said, "Gosh, thanks a lot." He said, "Don't get carried away, Tom. Look at the guys I'm comparing you with."

Before I was in office, I used to be a pollster, so I keep a track of what the numbers are. I saw a poll recently. I looked at the rating for Congress, and the approval rating was 6%. You take out blood relatives and paid staff, there's not a lot left for you out there if you're in my business these days.

My remarks will be appropriately modest and short given the unpopularity of the institution that I represent. I want to begin by a little bit of nostalgia. I sat where the students sit, almost 45 years ago to the day. At the end of that day, I left here with a degree and a wife who's here today and absolute certainty as to what my future was going to be. I still have the degree. I'm still fortunate enough to have the wife, but nothing worked out like I intended it to be.

I want to begin by thanking Grinnell in particular, not just for the honor, which of course is a wonderful thing to receive, but much more profoundly and importantly for me for the Grinnell experience itself. I learned a lot of things in the four years that I was privileged to be here. The first one was tolerance. Grinnell didn't change the way I thought, but it deepened my values and matured my judgment a great deal. I needed tolerance. If you were a conservative on a liberal campus in the 1960s, believe me, you begged for tolerance. Fortunately, I got it. I got it from my classmates. I got it from my professors. I got it from wonderful staff.

The second thing I learned here was diversity. Frankly, by being a conservative I was sort of part of diversity myself. By being a Native American where there were very few I was part of diversity in that regard. Finally, most importantly for me, by being the first person in my family that had the privilege of a college education, that, too, was part of diversity at Grinnell.

I have two pieces of relatively modest advice for those of you who are graduating today. The first one's personal, the second one is political. Now that I am entering what the great philosopher of football coach, Barry Switzer, likes to call the the fourth quarter of my life I look back a little bit and I think about the mistakes that I have made. The regrets that I have are almost all for things I didn't do rather than things I did. The opportunities I didn't seize, the chances I didn't take, frankly the service in many cases I didn't render.

I will tell you almost all of those mistakes came in one or two forms,. Either first, I was afraid to take a risk, or second, I wouldn't take the time that it took to complete some worthwhile task. I would urge you when you confront something be willing to run a risk. Frankly, be willing to take the time to see it through all the way to the end.

The political advice is a little more complex. We live in an era of great political turmoil. We live in an era where frankly our electorate is highly polarized. We live in divided government, and we live in a period frankly where there's a great deal of debate and chaos and uncertainty. We also live in a free society and a society that allows choices. The current environment that we're in is the kind of environment that zealots, ideologues, and demagogues can thrive in. Those kinds of people almost never get anything worthwhile done.

While there's a lot inflection points in American history, my own experience in public life has taught me that most lasting change, most progress, is incremental and cumulative. As President Obama said recently in a wonderful commencement address at Howard University which I would commend to you, in our system you have to compromise even when you're 100% right. That is true to make it work.

When you choose a leader, doesn't matter if they're on the left or the right, look for three qualities. First, choose an institutionalist. By that, I mean simply somebody who believes in the institutions of the country, who believes in fair play, who believes in open elections, who believes in the public process, and who understands something about the institutions that they're going to try and lead.

Second, pick a traditionalist. Not a traditionalist in the sense of traditional values, but somebody who understands the traditional values of the American people, which again is openness, fair play, free elections, full debate, popular decision.

Finally, and it's terrible to say in this age, pick a pragmatist. In an era of divided government, I can assure you nobody is going to get everything that they want. Every political deal or personal deal or professional deal I was ever part of usually involved some sort of negotiation. At the end of that negotiation, I always gave up more than I wanted and got less than I liked. It was always true for the person on the other side as well.

With that, I just simply wish you good luck. God speed. May your journey be interesting as I'm sure it will, but more importantly will you find the peace and the happiness at the end of this that I know each and every one deserves, and I hope each and every one of you achieves. Thank you.

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