President Bush called yesterday upon graduating midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy to help him build a "21st-century military" that is defined less by size and more by mobility, swiftness and the development of new technology and weaponry.
"We must build forces that draw upon the revolutionary advances in the technology of war that will allow us to keep the peace by redefining war on our terms," Bush told the 902 graduates, who were wearing their dress whites and seated in chairs spread across the field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
"Yet building a 21st-century military will require more than new weapons," the president added. "It will also require a renewed spirit of innovation in our officer corps."
The president's speech, though enthusiastically received, broke no new policy ground. For a time it was anticipated that Bush would use the occasion to unveil the conclusions of a sweeping review of the armed forces being carried out by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld said Thursday that the results of his review are months away. But apprehension is building among members of Congress and Pentagon officials, who anticipate personnel cutbacks, especially in the Army, and wonder what the review will mean for some weapons.
Steering away from such sensitive topics, Bush was short on detail yesterday, mostly reiterating his broader vision for a more technologically superior and mobile military force and repeating themes from speeches dating to the 2000 campaign. White House officials said the president was aiming to bring an audience of future military leaders in line with his ideas.
The president told the midshipmen that they were entering a "changing world" that demanded a new "forward strategy for freedom." And he said the Navy and the Marine Corps that the graduates were about to join would be vital in finding the best ways to implement his vision.
"We cannot transform our military using old weapons and old plans," Bush said. "Nor can we do it with an old bureaucratic mind-set that frustrates the creativity and entrepreneurship that a 21st-century military will need.
"As president, I am committed to fostering a military culture where intelligent risk-taking and forward thinking are rewarded, not dreaded. And I'm committed to ensuring that visionary leaders who take risks are recognized and promoted."
Standing on stage for more than two hours, Bush shook hands with every last graduate moments before they donned their ensign's shoulder boards or the gold bars of a Marine second lieutenant.
Bush also obliged several dozen graduates who wanted their commander-in-chief to pose with them on stage and wave until parents or friends snapped pictures.
He even received some bear hugs, the most animated coming from Bobby Rashad Jones, 22, who carried the dubious distinction of being the class Anchorman - the graduate with the lowest grade point average. To wild cheers from classmates, Jones scurried on stage, shook the president's hand, then jumped into his arms. A seemingly stunned naval officer pulled him away.
Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, on hand to swear in midshipmen being commissioned in the Navy, said he thought that many of the presidential greetings looked like "cross body blocks disguised as handshakes."
The afternoon was full of the traditional pomp and circumstance that has accompanied Naval Academy graduations for decades. The midshipmen rose to their feet to be sworn into either the Navy or the Marines, where they must serve a minimum of five years on active duty. They then gave three cheers for the 3,000 underclassmen "we leave behind," then hurled their caps into the air, a symbolic farewell that dates to 1912. Before then, graduates were obligated to serve two years in the Navy as midshipmen and still needed their headgear.
In recent years, the alumni from the class that graduated 50 years earlier have given the new officers a gift. The class of 1951, many of whom were at the ceremony yesterday, bestowed on the graduates gold officer bars inscribed with the Naval Academy motto, "From Knowledge, Sea Power" as they accepted their diplomas.
"No one made you come here," the president told the graduates, among whom 150 of the 902 were women. "No one made you stay. And no one made you subject yourself to a code of honor and a life of discipline. But you did. And your president and your country are so very grateful and proud that you have chosen to serve."
The ceremonies lacked one customary element. The Blue Angels, the Navy's precision flying team, were unable to perform their signature flyover because of low-hanging clouds.
Bush sprinkled his remarks with self-deprecating humor, as he did when he spoke at commencement last week at Yale University, his alma mater.
"When I accepted the invitation to speak here, I asked Admiral Clark, fine man that he is, if he had any thoughts on what I should talk about," Bush said. "He said, Mr. President, you should talk about 20 minutes. So we'll see how I do."
With his customary efficiency, he spoke for 17.
"I bring with me a small graduation present," Bush said at one point. "In keeping with long-standing tradition, I hereby absolve all midshipmen who are on restriction for minor conduct offenses." The president paused for some wild applause. "It seems a lot of you are cheering," he added. He said he would leave it up to Vice Adm. John Ryan, the academy superintendent, "to define exactly what 'minor' means."
Bush was treated with respect and deference - a wholly different scene from Yale, where he faced protests and boos. Not a single protester was spotted along his motorcade route through Annapolis. Curious residents lined the route, but the only sign-holder was a woman who smiled as Bush passed and held up a banner that read, simply, "W."
After the ceremony, the newly commissioned officers rushed to greet their parents and friends, waiting with their new caps and insignia of rank. By tradition, graduates choose someone who has been important to them over the past four years to affix the new shoulder boards and gold bars. Most seemed to pick their mothers.
Over the past four years, the Class of 2001 lost 273 students who either dropped out or were expelled. For those who made it, yesterday was a long time coming.
"Plebe year was extremely difficult for me," said newly commissioned Marine 2nd Lt. Justin Betz, flanked by a dozen family members. "Each year got easier, but there were times I never thought I was going to graduate. I really didn't. It didn't hit me until I got up on the platform and saw the president and took off my old uniform never to put it on again. It was very hard to control yourself."
Graduate Edward Culbreath said he had been waiting seven years to become an officer. Before his four years at the academy, he spent three years as an enlisted man, including time at nuclear power school and the Navy Academy Preparatory School.
His father, Moses Culbreath, had tears in his eyes as he snapped on his son's new officer shoulder boards. The senior Culbreath, a chief warrant officer who enlisted in the Marines 32 years ago and has served with them ever since, said he was full of joy. "I don't have a degree, and I come from a poor, uneducated family," he said, his voice breaking. "And now I have a son graduating from the Naval Academy. I am so proud."
Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.