William Jefferson Clinton


William Jefferson Clinton

William Jefferson Clinton
Commencement Address
May 14, 2017

President Gearan, Mary, your wonderful daughters, I thank you for bringing me here the first time in 2001. Back then you had only been president for a couple of years and you were on your average job tenure. When I was President, Mark was Director of Communications, Deputy Chief of Staff in the White House and then the head of the Peace Corp and he did it all in 6 years. He couldn't hold down a job to save his life.

And here he is the longest serving president in the history of these great institutions. I am very proud of him and very grateful to him and to Mary for their friendship to Hillary and to me, and to all of you. I love seeing them together and I do think when she got that degree it was the only act of nepotism I have ever observed in their long relationship. Which goes to show you, that even though nepotism today is getting a bad name in some quarters, every now and then a little of it is called for.

I want to thank the trustees, the faculty, the staff and the administration and congratulate the Classes of 2017 and your parents and friends. To everyone to whom it applies, I wish you a Happy Mother's Day. I think it is a great thing to have a Commencement on Mother's Day. I will never forget the relief on my own mother's face when I finally got my degree at Georgetown 49 years ago. Now the fact that I actually got my degree 49 years ago almost certifies me for becoming a mummy at the Museum of Natural History. But I bet you this, I bet I am the only person here who has been out of college for at least 10 years who remembers their commencement speaker's address verbatim. And I learned the best speeches are short and relevant.

We were at Georgetown on the front lawn. The speaker, the mayor of Washington D.C., Walter Washington, was introduced with great fanfare. A foreboding dark cloud came over the lawn immediately, lighting was seen, thunder was heard, you could see it raining right behind the campus as the cloud was moving. And here was Walter Washington's speech, "Congratulations. If we don't get out of here right now we're all going to drown. If you'd like a copy of my speech, contact my office and I'll send it to you. Good luck." And that was it. If we had had a race for president - it was 1968 - if the election had occurred in that moment, Walter Washington would have received the write-in votes of every member of our class.

I'm going to speak a little longer, but not that much. I recommend you take some time today to ask yourselves: what did I really get out of this anyway? What did I learn? What's more important, did I learn a lot of things I did not know? That I learned how to relate to people who were different from me that I never would have met had I not come here? Or that I learned how to think about things, in a world where economic, social and political developments often seem like the sociological equivalent of chaos theory in physics. How good am I after all at connecting the dots? Oh yeah, I got a university degree so I don't believe in all that alternative facts business. I still think it is important to be as accurate as possible and it really matters if you know anything, but can I connect the dots? Can I see the big picture? Can I see the patterns? And even if I can't, what's behind it? Am I a better version of who I was four years ago or have I changed in some fundamental way? And what difference will it make to anyone besides me? I recommend you take just a little time to think about those things today because you have all of these professors who worked hard, each in their own way, to get you to think about at least a piece of that. You got your families that help with their investment to give you a chance, to give you the space and support to grab a little piece of understanding of one of the most exciting and, I believe, interdependent and rapidly changing moments in human history. For whatever it's worth, I'll tell you what I think. I believe that this global interdependence in the end will turn out to be a good thing. But there's a lot of good and bad to it. You get on the internet and do all kinds of searches and find things that sometimes are true. But we also know that, like every other technological development, it is capable of bringing great good and great trouble. A lot of you I'm sure have followed as closely as I have all this whole global ransom over hacking files. Turns out it was perpetrated by a young person in the UK who was thwarted by another young person, so the damage done did not apparently reach any significant proportions in our own country. We know that this time of upheaval has thrown us together in different ways that benefit some people much more than others economically. We know that rapidly changing social and living patterns have been embraced by a lot of people and have mortified others, and at the very least left many dislocated. At the beginning of all this, there was (in theory) a more settled time, when a higher percentage of people knew exactly who they were and exactly where they belonged. And somehow that was better, although that all depends on where your forbearers were in that mythical time.

William Jefferson Clinton

When I was a boy I fell in love with the great humorous Will Rogers even though he was long dead by the time I was born. One of his greatest sayings, I thought, was, "Don't tell me about the good old days, they never was." You have to ask yourself that. What do I think about this? Who am I? How do I fit in this world? Do you believe that it is the most interdependent phase in human history? If so, is the primary object to have you and your crowd dominated, or do you want to create a world in which every single person has his or her shot at the fast lane? Do you believe constant combat works better to produce prosperity, harmony, peace? Or are diverse networks of people working together more likely to produce those good ends? There's lots of evidence on this, you know.

If we could take the person in this graduating class with the highest IQ, if you could be identified, and we could miraculously spirit you off to one of these rooms, and say you're going to be here for two days, tell us what you want and we'll get it for you. And the rest of us were compelled to spend the next two days under the elements hoping we didn't get rained on, drinking increasingly cold coffee and increasingly stale rolls. And the genius and we were fed 10 questions over two days. Over two days, you'd make better decisions. And, your diversity would guarantee you better decisions than a homogenous group of geniuses. We should relish our differences. And we should feel self-confident in doing so because from a strictly biological point of view, gnomically we are about 99.5 the same. All of us on planet earth. There is every difference evidenced in this crowd today: gender, race, body-type, hair color, eye color, every single solitary thing we can see that is different is lodged in 1.5 percent of one percent of our genome. Otherwise we are kind of carbon copies. Now that half of one percent, since there are 3.6 billion of them in your body, is a substantial number and it makes life much more interesting and much more important. But the point I am trying to make here is you can't nourish that diversity without first a bedrock acceptance in our common humanity.

And yet we know in times of upheaval when people are unsettled and their identities are not clear - that sounds like just pap - and tough talking realism is all about how this group is a threat, that group is a threat, another group is a threat. I'll give you an example…. Nine-tenths of one percent of America's population are Muslims. 210,000 people have been killed in gun violence since 9/11. The percentage of them killed by Muslims is less than three-tenths of one percent. In other words, their murder rate is one third the national average. But we've all heard about it. Does that mean we shouldn't be tough on terrorism committed by Islamic radicals? Of course not. But it means we shouldn't go around in a blind stupor mixing apples and oranges and terrifying some of the most talented, devoted people in this country, who want to make their contribution, who help make us better, because diverse groups make better decisions and make a more interesting life.

I'll give you another example. Are there are too many undocumented people? Yes. Why? Because we've let over 30 years pass without adopting an immigration update. You can't change as much as we do without constantly revising your laws. If you want to protect your border and have standards for citizenship. and the underlying facts are changing all the time, you have to be prepared to update your laws - in the best case every five years but certainly every 10. And we know the reason we haven't passed immigration reform. Because there's been a lot of bipartisan support for it. Economically, it's easy to make the bipartisan case. But politically it's not because immigrants tend to be more communitarian in their voting, more familiar, and have more belief that governments should do their part to create better life chances for everybody. So now we have these crazy results, where a guy does two combat tours in Afghanistan, risks his life for the rest of us. Whether you approve of what we're doing over there or not, he did things that most Americans don't do. And he got taken off the street and sent home the other day. Two combat tours. It kind of embarrasses me that we let someone risk their life for us and then kicked him out.

William Jefferson Clinton

A little town in West Virginia was convinced the immigrants were bad. A man who ran the local Mexican restaurant was sent home. The town was in an uproar. "I thought we were only sending bad people back?" He'd just been there for 15 years paying taxes, employing people, feeding people. Was it the right decision? Whether you think it was right or wrong, the point is this: A) you have to decide whether you think our common humanity is more important than our interesting differences, and a pre-condition for making most of them, and B) we have an invested interest in diversity. Now if you're a native born American, you also have to face the fact that like every other prosperous country in the world, our birth right among the native born goes down every year. And we are barely at replacement population levels. So without immigrants, our future growth rate will be much lower, and the tax burden that will be on those of us left will be much higher because those of us who are older are America's fastest growing part of the population and we consume more health care costs, for example. I'm not asking to resolve this today. I'm not even trying to make a political point exactly. The point I am trying to make is: you have a precious resource in this country. It has given us among other things the best system of higher education, especially for undergrad, in the world and in the history of the world. This is a special place.

I'm looking out at my proud friends James Carville and Mary Matalin, I don't want to embarrass their daughter, Matty, who is in this class, but I actually recommended she come here. And I said, this place [Hobart and William Smith Colleges] is great. They love community service. Its service oriented. We all have to expand our definition of citizenship to include that.

I'm not arguing for any specific position. I am just trying to say, you don't need a world that will put America's experiment in peril by saying "us and them" is a better model than expanding the definition of "us" and shrinking the definition of "them." You know, I do a lot of work now with the second president Bush. We have fought like cats and dogs in our life. We have disagreed over all kinds of things. But he is not afraid of immigrants. He would happily go with me to South Texas and have a political debate on any issue. And he knows we need them. If you look at his beautiful portraits of wounded veterans, it's obvious that some of them are first generation Americans. This doesn't have to be a party issue. You have to decide and your generation will determine, whether we view diversity as a strength or a problem. Whether we think our common humanity is more important or our differences matter more. Everything else is going to be background music. And I promise you, much as I hate it, Russia's cyber warfare doesn't bother me. Not if America keeps being America. They beat us into space too, and look where we are today with our space programs. Life's always going to have problems. We have a serious challenge today to create more jobs in places where jobs have been left behind. But if we quit playing politics with it and think of the best way to do it, it would be fairly straight forward and simple to do. I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about what's in your mind and what's in your heart. As long as we believe that our common humanity is what's important; as long as we understand that diverse groups make better decisions than homogenous ones or lone geniuses; as long as we realize the great thing about life is not final victories and the great tragedy is not final defeats, that there's no final victories or final defeats. It's the journey, it's the deal. You stand up and do the best you can in the moments you have. And then you go on and live the next moment. It's going to be fine. I'd give anything to be your age again just to see what's going to happen.

In the last 20 years, 20 planets have been identified outside our solar system that seem to have sufficient distance from their sun, and sufficient density that they might be able to contain life. Now that's the only thing that'll eventually finally unify us.

It doesn't matter if you don't have to have ultimate answers. It's the attitude, the approach. Do you believe that when the founders said, "We have to make a more perfect union" they meant, "There needs to be more of us and less of them. Every year more of us, fewer of them." Every year believing that we can do better. You heard Mark [Gearan] say my professor of ancient civilization, Carol Quigley, said that our civilization was the greatest because it believed that the future could always be better than the present, and that people had a personal and moral responsibility to make it so. Which translated into my 1992 speak, "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow."

You can decide what it means for you, but believe me, whether you're a conservative or a liberal or a republican or a democrat, it doesn't matter as long as you believe that our common humanity matters most; as long as you welcome the opportunity to cooperate with people who don't look like you and always agree with you, but make up this vast teeming sea of humanity that is breaking down all kinds of barriers and knowledge.

Don't choke the future, lift it up.

And don't ever be under the illusion that power can ever be the end of life and that there are permanent victories: there aren't. Except in systems that choke themselves off and die on the vine. America is a work in progress, always becoming. And don't forget that there is a reason this great institution [Hobart and William Smith Colleges] is ranked 4th in America in the importance of community service and public service. You don't have to hold a political office to advance the public good.

So, that's about all I have to say. What we have in common is more important than our interesting differences and it makes it possible for those differences to flourish. Diverse groups cooperating do better than homogenous ones trying to jam things down our throat. And they are capable of morphing and meeting new challenges. No one should be left behind and no one should be denied the chance to exercise a responsible role. The future is full of challenges, but there are even more opportunities. You're supposed to work all of that out. And there's a reason you are sitting on this lawn today. Think about what people were like the first time your first forebears of homo-sapiens stood up on the East African savanna 150 to 200,000 years ago. From that day to this, most people who have ever lived had no choice about how they would spend their waking hours. They had to struggle to put food on the table and support their children. And yet here you are, in one of the greatest institutions of higher education in a country that has 400 world class institutions of higher education.

The great microbiologist Theo Wilson says that it's because we, along with ants, termites and bees, are the greatest cooperative species in the history of life on our planet and we have more potential, and present more peril to the future because we have a conscience and consciousness so we're prone to arrogance but full of unlimited potential. I would love to be your age just to see what's going to happen.

So remember that: no permanent victories; no permanent defeats…. but a life of permanent possibility. As long as you remember those simple things. And the most important of all is every single day we should each find a way to expand the definition of "us" and shrink the definition of "them." Because in the end there is not enough difference to spend our life threatened about it.

Good luck and God bless you.


Commencement 2017


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