A friend trying to help me work through a problem once told me the story of life is competition: Everyone’s trying to beat everyone else, and I should give more weight to this fact. There’s some truth in what he said, yet I thought his comment contained more autobiography than wisdom: He was the most competitive person I’d ever known, and he usually won. I lean toward the idea a lot of us are running our own races, trying to rise to the occasion and beat some past and limited conception of ourselves by doing something great. The paradox is that you’re running your own race alongside others running theirs, and in the same direction. You’re doing something great together.
This holiday weekend I find myself reflecting again on the boys who seized back the continent of Europe, and the boys and girls now graduating college and trying to figure out what history asks of them.
The week after next marks the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. People will be thinking of D-Day and seeing old clips of the speechifying that marked its anniversaries. I will think of two things. One is what most impressed Ronald Reagan. He spoke at the 40th anniversary, on June 6, 1984, at the U.S. Ranger Monument, and seated in the front rows as he spoke were the boys of Pointe du Hoc.
“Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here,” he told them. “You were young the day you took those cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys.” Many were old now and some wept to remember what they had done, almost as if they were seeing their feat clearly for the first time.
Reagan spoke with each of them afterward, and what moved him most wasn’t all the ceremonies. It was that a bunch of young U.S. Army Rangers had, the day before, re-enacted the taking of the cliffs, up there with ropes and daggers, climbing—and one of the old Rangers who’d been there on D-Day and taken those cliffs 40 years before got so excited he jumped in and climbed along with the 20-year-olds.
“He made it to the top with those kids,” Reagan later told me. “Boy, that was something.” His eyes were still gleaming. Doesn’t matter your age, if you really want to do it you can do it.
A second thing I think of: My friend John Whitehead once told me, in describing that day, of a moment when, as a U.S. Navy ensign, he was piloting his packed landing craft toward Dog Red sector on Omaha Beach. They’d cast off in darkness, and when dawn broke they saw they were in the middle of a magnificent armada. Nearby some light British craft had gone down. Suddenly a landing craft came close by, and an Englishman called out: “I say, fellows, which way to Pointe du Hoc?”
Jaunty, as if he were saying “Which way to the cricket match?”
On John’s ship they pointed to the right. “Very good,” said the Englishman, who touched his cap and sped on.
John remembered the moment with an air of “Life is haphazard, a mess, and you’re in the middle of a great endeavor and it’s haphazard, a mess. But you maintain your composure, keep your spirit. You yell to the Yank, ‘Which way to Pointe du Hoc?’ and you tip your hat and go.’ ”
He would think of the Englishman for the rest of his life, and wonder if he’d survived. But of course he survived in John’s memory, then in mine, and now, as you read, in yours.
Now to the young today, the college graduates beginning heir hazardous climbs. I was with some of them last weekend, at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. They were so impressive. They have grown up in a fairly strange country in a fairly strange era, yet their personal joy and optimism were almost palpable. The students of architecture wore on top of their graduation hats foot-high buildings, rockets and what looked like a cathedral; when their school was called they shot off sparkling confetti, and everyone cheered.
The young men were vibrant, smart. The young women have a 4.0 in neuroscience, are on their way to Cambridge, and look like movie stars.
But they’re earnest, all of them, like people who can surprise you—can surprise themselves—by meeting a historical test. And surely they’ll be given one, given many.
I’d been invited to give the commencement address, and for me this had a certain weight. I had never been to Notre Dame, but it has lived in my head since I was a child watching on television the movies of the 1930s and ’40s. And so in my mind Notre Dame is Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen, it’s the Hail Mary pass and Touchdown Jesus. It is the Golden Dome.
The day before commencement I went over to see the intended stage, and walked through the shadowed Rockne Tunnel with the banners above marking the championship years. To emerge from that tunnel and walk out onto that field—all I could say was: Wow.
In the unseen circularity of life, Notre Dame is a place deeply associated with my old boss, who early in his career played George Gipp, and ever after was called the Gipper. It is the first school he visited, in May 1981, after he was shot in March. Notre Dame that day, having a sophisticated sense of what he’d been through, wore its heart on its sleeve.
In his speech he had touched on great themes of 20th-century conservatism—America was economically bound down and needed unleashing. I would speak on 21st-century conservatism—America is culturally damaged and needs undergirding.
Before I spoke a friend teased me: Reagan would be proud. I said I thought so but actually I thought of Nancy, who would have given me a look with three layers in it and said: “Good.”
The day before commencement I met with scholars at the university’s Center for Ethics and Culture, which is devoted to the Catholic intellectual tradition within all disciplines. The students and teachers were learned, steeped in the meaning of things. I told the students the most important thing to remember as they enter the rough old world: Keep your faith. If you lose it, get it back. It is the thing you will need most, the thing without which nothing is real. “Everything good in your life will spring from it.”
“You were born into a counterculture. It is the great gift of your life. The world needs this counterculture because even the world knows it needs something to counter itself.” Halfway through I realized I didn’t have to say this, because they already knew.
Now they push off, into whatever challenges history gives them. And what’s inside them, from sheer attitude to mere style, will affect all outcomes.
Which way to Pointe du Hoc? It’s the question for them and for all, isn’t it? What will our great achievement be? And who will be there with us, climbing alongside, as we seize crucial terrain together?