Thank you. Thank you very much. I am honored to be a member of the Class of 2002. President Mark Gearan, I am honored by your invitation and grateful to be with all of you on this most special day.
President Gearan and I were chatting just before the ceremony began backstage about how a single event can change the direction of history. Just speculating, if in 1963 instead of President John Kennedy having been assassinated, Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union had been assassinated instead. With that laser-like insight that I've come to expect from President Gearan, he said, "Mark, there's one thing we could be absolutely sure of if in 1963 Nikita Khrushchev had been assassinated and not John Kennedy." And I said, "What is that?" He said, "Aristotle Onassis would not have married Mrs. Khrushchev."
I have been fortunate enough to do "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" for the past 15 years, first with David Gergen, then with Paul Gigot, and now with David Brooks and every Saturday night we do the "Capital Gang" with Kate O'Beirne of the "National Review," Margaret Carlson of "Time" magazine, Al Hunt of the "Wall Street Journal" and the prince of darkness himself, Robert D. Novak. You've all seen Mr. Novak with that sort of satanic scowl affixed to his otherwise human-like features and perfect strangers stop me in airports and say, "is Bob Novak as angry as he seems?" I assure them that Bob Novak is a devoted husband, a loving father, a good friend, all of which he is. However, after being on the same panel with him for 14 years, I'm forced to conclude that Novak's personality and philosophy, taken together constitute conclusive proof that Calvin Coolidge and Ma Barker were more than good friends.
I am here as an apologist and defender of my hometown of Washington, D.C. We're constantly ridiculed on the late-night monologues about our political scandals in Washington. I want to assure you that not all political scandals take place in Washington, by any means. Not that far from here, last week in a state prison, one convict turned to his cellmate and said, "You know the food was a lot better here when you were governor."
I confess I miss covering Bill Clinton, who was always colorful, controversial, and great copy. I miss covering Newt Gingrich, who was sort of the architect and engineer of the Republican takeover of the House in 1994, Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1995. And yet after the showdown with the White House over the closing of the Federal government, he plummeted in popular support to the point where in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll he was 18 percent favorable. To give you an idea what 18 percent favorable means, Robert Blake is 11 percent favorable. This bothered Newt Gingrich. He's a sensitive, vulnerable, nurturing sort of man so he decided to seek the advice of General Colin Powell who in the very same survey was at 81 percent favorable. He called Colin Powell, asked him to have lunch, Colin Powell agreed to do so. The two of them met for lunch, Newt Gingrich turned to him in an almost plaintive fashion and said, "Colin, why is it that people take such an instant dislike to me?" And Colin Powell said, "Newt, because it saves them time."
So, in the interest of saving some time, let me try and give a few words of encouragement and acknowledgement to the Class of 2002. Four years ago when you arrived on this beautiful campus you wrestled. Wrestled with the most vexing and profound of all questions. Questions of human existence. Nature vs. nurture. Freewill or determinist. Community or individualism. Through struggle and perseverance, you managed to boil all of these questions down to a single one. And that question was-the Side Show or the Holiday? As you prepare to depart this beautiful place, these hallowed halls, these fountains of inspiration and encouragement, I have only two words for you. "Don't Go!"
On a more serious note, you have made Hobart and William Smith Colleges truly a community. A community that gives of its time, its talents and its energy to America Reads, Day of Service, Geneva Heroes, the Community Lunch program, and special efforts organized by fraternities, athletic teams, and individuals. In that same spirit, members in your own class will next serve in the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and Teach for America. You should all be proud and you should know how proud you make your alma mater.
It is customary and traditional at graduation for the speaker to order and to offer what passes for distilled wisdom. Rules are maxims for life.
Because I am a traditionalist, let me begin with Rule No.1: Call your mother. Call her tomorrow and then call her the next day, too.
Rule No. 2: If and when you do become a mother or father please promise to spend more time with your children than you judge to be reasonable. You will never regret that time. And please remember that nobody in recorded history on his or her deathbed has ever said, "Gee, I just wish I had spent more time at the office."
Rule No. 3: Please pay off your student loans. If you don't, the only people you will hurt are the kids coming after you. The loan money has been there because those who went before you paid off their own loans.
Rule No. 4: Something you have already learned, I'm sure. I know. Ideas have no gender. Ideas have no race or nationality, nor do character and integrity.
Rule No.5: Life is not like college. How many times have you been told life is not like college? It is true. Life is not like college. It's a lot more like high school.
No. 6: When eating breakfast at any restaurant and being served by a waitress or a waiter, please know that for breakfast it is mathematically impossible to over tip.
No. 7: If you remember nothing else, please recall the genuine wisdom of the great American writer, Walker Percy, who warned us, "Do not be the kind of person who gets all A's and flunks ordinary living."
No. 8: In every political debate or campaign I hope you'll ever be involved there will always inevitably be somebody on your side you wish devoutly was on the other side.
Finally, remember that the fear of failure is the most paralyzing of all human emotions. The fear of failure stops us from trying, from daring, from succeeding. It must be confronted. Don't grow old saying, "I wish I had. I should have. Why didn't I?" Failure is not to be dreaded, but to confront, reject and overcome.
Will Rogers, a wise American, once said, "It's a great country, but you can't live in it for nothing." Which brings us briefly to the subject of politics. Politics is nothing less than the peaceable resolution of conflict among legitimate competing interests. It is an urgent public activity and it is every citizen's responsibility.
Permit me a word of what has become the mindless demonizing of government. Government at its best has always been and can be a crucial instrument of helping people to help themselves. After all, it was the national government that affirmed the Bill of Rights. Our precious natural resources have been protected, preserved against the shortsighted and the greedy, not by local government but by the national government.
The national government has been accused of diminishing freedom, and that is true. Yes, "the freedom" of the privileged and the powerful to work 11-year-old children in mills and mines and in factories was abolished. Abolished by the government, the national government. "The freedom" of powerless workers to endure squalid conditions for near starvation wages was abolished by the national government. The freedom of the majority to impose racial segregation to deprive African-Americans, Latino-Americans, even those who had fought for their country and spilled their own blood to buy their own child a hamburger, a Coke and fries, or to use a public restroom. Yes, those "freedoms" were proudly abolished. Not by states' rights, not by local government or privatization or Dow Jones, but our national government.
Just 30 years ago in the United States, 34 of every 100 Americans over the age of 65 lived in poverty. Today, largely because of what other Americans have done through their own national government the percentage of seniors living in poverty has been cut by three-quarters.
Government can and does make mistakes. Government is not perfect. It is flawed and it can be terminally frustrating in its unresponsiveness.
But it is important to our national community and confidence that we celebrate our successes. In the very lifetime of the members of the Class of 2002, think of what we have achieved in this nation for the environment. At the beginning of the decade in which many of you were born, three out of four rivers in the United States were unswimable and unfishable. The Great Lakes, the greatest fresh water gift any people had been blessed with by a generous Providence, were actually dying. So polluted and infected was the Cuyahoga River running through the city of Cleveland that it actually caught fire. And this nation committed itself under a Republican president, Richard Nixon, and a Democratic Congress to end our abuse of nature. Just in your own lifetimes, we have gone from three out of four rivers being unswimable and unfishable, to four out of five being swimable and fishable, to 99 percent of the lead being removed from the air, to the Great Lakes now alive and vibrant and vital, spiritually, economically, recreationally because of what those who went before you did, and cared to do and committed to do. Your lungs are healthier, your lives are longer and better, and so will be your children's. And it is important to celebrate.
It was a great Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, who said, "The government is us. We are the government, you and I."
If there is one place in Washington I would urge you to visit, and please do visit Washington, it is the man whom former speaker Newt Gingrich called the greatest president of the 20th century, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt. On the memorial are inscribed these words, "The measure of our progress is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide for those who have too little." This means those who take the early bus, those who raise other people's children, for those who clean our buildings after we go home at night, those who park our cars and clear our tables, who change the sheets at the hotels where we sleep and in the hospitals where we get well. Those who bathe and feed the sick and the dying and who so often, when they themselves get sick, have no coverage to allow them to lay in the very hospital beds they have made.
Too often in recent American politics the question asked is-Are you better off than you were four years ago? That's the wrong question. The question we must ask is-Are we better off? Are the strong among us more just? Are the weak among us more secure?
Because in the final analysis everyone lives with an immutable truth and that is that each and every one of you, and each and every one of us, has been warmed by fires we did not build, we have all drunk from wells we did not dig. We can do no less for those who come after us. And together, I am confident, the Classes of 2002 can do much more.
Thank you all and congratulations.
Commencement Speaker Mark Shields
May 12, 2002