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ANDREA MITCHELL

MitchellThank you so much, President Gearan, and that call to move inside - boy, does that look smarter and smarter by the minute. I thank you for welcoming me to the Colleges, President Gearan. Graduates, congratulations, faculty, parents, happy mothers day all of you moms, spouses, friends, special guests. As I say, I am truly honored to join the ranks of your graduates today. Thank you for welcoming me to this family.

In the time I've been on this campus I've been so impressed with the warmth and hospitality and the beauty and obviously from all your achievements with the scholarship that takes place in these beautiful grounds. This degree from the Colleges means a great deal to me as someone who spent her undergraduate years at the college radio station instead of the library, just like those of you at WEOS. I can echo what a President who I used to cover used to say on occasions such as this, "Well, I thought the first one was honorary."

I am especially proud to be here with Lib White and Thomas Tighe for all that they have contributed. The sound effects are certainly in honor of Lib and Thomas, who are extraordinary in their own professions. We should all have lives as fulfilling and as committed as Lib to her community, her family, her friends.

I've been thinking long and hard about how to properly send all of you graduates on your way with a message both original and uplifting, and I've read a lot of commencement speeches, not all of them given with the thunder coming from the skies. I've read some speeches even given on this beautiful campus and I've concluded actually that the best sendoff that I could give you is what Woodrow Wilson, who besides being a former President was also president of Princeton almost a century ago. He had always said the best advice he could give would be, "Don't go. The world will never be safer or better for you than it is today."

As that great philosopher and humanist Bill Cosby said, "Some of you are graduating cum laude, others are graduating magna cum laude and then there are those of you who are just graduating thank you laude."

Now I know my job today is to be inspirational, but above all to be brief. I can't really promise the former but I'd sure better do it quickly. In spite of the challenge at hand it is appropriate that we make today's business into something of a ceremony because when you think about it there aren't that many times in your lives when you gather together for this kind of observation. There is your wedding or a big anniversary or a birthday or your retirement, as far off as that may seem, but it is a measure of how truly important this day is to all of you that we don't just e-mail your diplomas. We hand them to you as your friends and your family and your community watch to applaud your achievements.

There is a story about a man named Charles Elliott who was president of Harvard for 40 years. He hosted some faculty members at his house one night and they were all competing with each other to make elegant and eloquent toasts to him. One of them said, "Since you became president, President Elliott, Harvard has become a storehouse of knowledge." Elliott replied, "What you say is true, but I can't claim much credit for it. Harvard had become a great storehouse of knowledge because the freshmen bring in so much and the seniors take away so little."

We know that's not true of the class of 2003 of the Colleges. You take away a great tradition in hockey and lacrosse, and we hope the women's lacrosse is holding that up today in the finals. You have devoted faculty mentors, community service projects performed by more than 75 percent of you here in this graduating class. So, on a special day like today, there is a lot to take away, to think about how to appropriately thank your professors and your parents for the extraordinary gift of a college education. Perhaps four years in which you've been thinking deep thoughts and examining your souls and finding your mission in life. Or, perhaps worrying about how to pay for those student loans and find your first job and finally take a break after the grind of the last few semesters.

Despite the excitement of graduating today, I'm sure you're feeling a little bit wistful about the endings that come with all commencements, separations from roommates and other friends and moving to an unfamiliar city and establishing new connections. As you swing between moods of exhilaration and high anxiety, a few thoughts today from someone who, I hate to admit it, still twists every day between fear and excitement with every new assignment. The more you focus understandable on the challenges of a new career, or graduate school or the loneliness of making new friends, try to remember a few things that are even more important, like living your lives enthusiastically, with curiosity about the unexplored person or idea or place. Try to be passionate about what you do and compassionate about the people whom you meet.

When asked about his beliefs, the Dalai Lama had said, "My religion is kindness." That is something you have surely learned here on this campus, where service learning is an integral part of the liberal arts education. It can be in the form of public service for those inspired to go into politics or government, but also service in the broader context, of being part of something bigger than yourselves. Those connections, in fact, can prove more rewarding than the pursuit of financial riches or post-graduate degrees.

I learned that many, many years ago when I graduated during the struggles over civil rights and Vietnam and a tumultuous period, the 1960s. Frankly, it has never been more important than now as we still recover from the events of September 11, 2001. On that day we realized, all of us, that America is vulnerable. No matter how independent or powerful any of us could possibly be, none of us is immune from forces of entirely outside our control. On that day we learned something. We confronted the essence of pure evil.

We also discovered the limitless courage and humanity of ordinary people. With our loss of innocence came another burden, and that is the price of living in a free country with open borders, because now we live with a rainbow of security alerts-sometimes more confusing than illuminating-duct tape, high tech intrusions into our personal privacy, and, trust me, it isn't only the young who've felt infallible before 9/11. We all felt we could live forever. In the past year and a half we've suffered many losses, not just the loss of our innocence.

Just this past Friday I want to share with you the loss of another extraordinary mentor and role model, a brilliant journalist from the Boston Globe named Elizabeth Neuffer. She was on the road from Tikrit to Baghdad. She'd been reporting on policy issues in this country, domestic policy health care, but that was just too limiting for her, so she ventured into war zones and found personal stories in Bosnia and Kosovo and other places that helped to illustrate larger truths. A few years ago a group called the International Women's Media Foundation, which salutes courageous journalists around the world, mostly working in third-world countries, gave Elizabeth Neuffer their courage and journalism award. The judges noted that she'd been menaced by gun-toting rebels, subjected to death threats, abducted by soldiers, robbed and threatened with rape. In accepting her award she said the truth may be hazardous to those who tell it, but the truth is not dangerous, misinformation is. It is propaganda that fans the flames of hatred.

That's something to think about today. Elizabeth died in a car crash. She was 46 years old. Now after 9/11 and Afghanistan and Iraq, most Americans, including journalists, feel that the world is just not as safe a place as it used to be. But, if we've learned anything from this, anything of value, perhaps it is to have a new respect for the fragility of life. 9/11 was clearly a transformant for my profession, for journalism. Until then perhaps the widely discussed and covered story on cable talk involved a missing intern and her congressman friend. But after watching the twin towers and the attack on the Pentagon I think many of us rediscovered our sense of purpose. Suddenly people in our audiences who had never even thought about foreign countries before were learning about the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. News organizations that had not focused on foreign policy and were saving money by closing their overseas bureaus began to realize that Americans wanted answers. They wanted to somehow understand the nature of the threat.

That meant reconnecting to the rest of the world. Instead of turning inward, people reached out to total strangers who needed support at a time of unbearable loss. And, now almost two years later, there are other lessons. As we preach democracy as the anecdote to tribal brutality in Iraq, it is time to think about the responsibility of citizenship in our own democracy.

How can we hold elections in which only a fraction of those eligible even bother to vote, in presidential campaigns every four years where candidates are never even asked to address a foreign policy questions? As the Iraqis are digging up the bones of their murdered relatives, even as we speak, what inspiration do we really offer to build a civil society from scratch?

As we gather today a new team of American officials is arriving this morning in Iraq to take on the challenge of creating a nation out of multiple and conflicting tribal and religious and political groups. Iraq will not, we know, be the last of these crises. So if we've learned anything it is that we really ignore the rest of the world at our peril.

For you graduates setting out now on your own there are other personal lessons. You've already learned about service to community here and in faraway places and that it simply makes life more interesting. You have a remarkable example among many of your faculty who were in the Peace Corps and, of course, Thomas Tighe, and above all Mark Gearan, who took the Peace Corps and reshaped it and re-energized it so that it does such wonderful work still today.

In the future you'll discover the benefits of living a committed life and that they cannot really be measured in wage statements or signing bonuses or stock options. They will not help you climb the career ladder or navigate the politics of graduate faculties, but these intangibles will make the long hours and the canceled vacations worth the sacrifice. They'll help you be at peace with yourself when you occasionally stumble or face disappointments and rejection, because I can tell you that happens even in the most successful of lives.

Often for people and for governments, well-intentioned journeys end in failure. I think of the people I met in Haiti when our government was promising a better life through democracy-people who were virtually abandoned when it became politically difficult-or in Afghanistan. Let me share with you what it was like to be on the dusty streets in Kabul. In 1998 I was sent to do a story on what women were living entrapped like ghosts in their burqas. Two teenage boys took the great risk of coming out to talk to me even though there were enforcers, Taliban enforcers in pickup trucks with AK47s cruising the streets to make sure no man would speak to a woman. They wanted to get their story out - the story of the women who were trapped behind curtains inside, particularly of their mother who had been the headmistress of a school and their teenage sister who were no longer permitted to study or teach. They both remarkably told me that someday they too wanted to be journalists in a free society, and perhaps they are. I went back, and of course it was impossible to find them, but little by little perhaps Afghanistan can reclaim its soul, and now Havana, where the wives and husbands of recently jailed dissidents who could still be arrested for even speaking to us have been doing interviews this past week for NBC so that I can do a report next week. Even though the world has barely noticed that their democracy movement has been crushed in just the last month by arrests and long prison sentences.

So what I've learned over the years is that people around the world want to know more about us despite their political differences and personal histories. Years ago in Vietnam, long before diplomatic relations were reestablished people were so eager to practice their self-taught English they literally chased after us down the streets looking to see us to find us in Hanoi because they wanted to know more about us and to make sure that we knew about them.

Living and interesting committed life also brings risks with the joy. No one embodied that more than my late friend and colleague, David Bloom of NBC, who brought unparalleled energy and enthusiasm to his final assignment in Iraq. Through the fog of dessert sandstorms he spent his final days painting vivid word pictures so the rest of us could experience at least a piece of the ground war in real time. His tragic experiment and the contributions of nearly 1,000 other men and women embedded with our troops left us with a lasting legacy.

Their mission was to help us better understand the real costs of war, the human cost beyond the defense budget debate. The men and women who defend this nation and those who tell their stories have more than done their part. Now it is our turn to take up this tradition and to be better citizens. We have to question ourselves and our political leaders and our journalists. Those of us who are journalists have to ask how well are we informing our readers and viewers. When we cover a political campaign, how much of what we see is real? How much is imagined? Every White House wants to create perfect little videos to help project American power abroad and create politically useful images at home and until recently I thought no one had done it better than the Ronald Reagan White House, which I covered for two terms. But, it is the job of the journalist to pierce that White House video and to communicate something much more meaningful and analytical and deeper.

As you leave Hobart and William Smith Colleges, your challenge now is to pierce these false facades wherever you find them. Get to the heart of the truths you are told. Demand more from the media, from your government, from your employers and ultimately from yourselves. In the end, it is the only way to experience life fully and with honor, and as Dr. Seuss would say, "Be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray, or Mordecai, Ali, Van Allen, O'Shea, you're off to great places - today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!"

And if I may, one last word of warning to the parents, as Bill Cosby would say, "Lock the doors, don't let them back." You've done your job, although we all know that job is never done. Thank you so much for welcoming me into the HWS family and when someone says some day, "Well who spoke at your commencement?" If you can't remember, at least tell them she had a great time!

 

INFORMATION

Commencement Address by Andrea Mitchell, Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, NBC News

May 11, 2003