Commencement 2006

Commencement Address by John King, CNN's Chief National Correspondent

May 14, 2006


This is even more of a treat and honor than you might suspect. But more on that in a minute.

Let me first say thank you.

To the classes of 2006, to the parents who supported all the dreams being launched here today, and to President Gearan, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff and special guests, and to the entire colleges community for allowing me to share in this wonderful moment at this breathtaking place. I am still not sure why I warranted this great privilege. Perhaps it is because brevity is highly valued on such occasions, and I work in a business where talking for three minutes is considered at least one minute too many.

I can't promise three minutes – but I won’t delay the celebration too long.

When people ask me what I do, I like to say I used to be a real reporter, now I play one on TV. It’s a joke; most days anyway. I do not consider myself a man of any great insight or wisdom, but I have been lucky to cross paths with many extraordinary people in my work, and I hope some of what I learned from them can be of some help to you as you begin this exciting new chapter. Most of all though, I simply wish each and every one of you has my good fortune; to find a career you love with genuine passion. In my case a job and a journey that has taken a kid from the streets of Dorchester, Massachusetts to all 50 states and more than 75 countries.

I have had more than my share of failure and frustration, but I have lived, I am living, an amazing dream. And if I can, so can you. I am 42, more than a little gray, at times more than a little grumpy…  Most of those graduating today I suspect are about half my age, yet we have more in common than you might think. Back when I was just about your age, just two years removed from campus, your president played a significant role in a defining chapter in my life, just as I know he has in this defining chapter in yours.

It was, hard to believe, almost 20 years ago. I was young and inexperienced, didn’t have the pedigree many of my colleagues and competitors had. Truth be told, I was in way over my head as I chased Michael Dukakis to Iowa and New Hampshire and beyond. Much of the senior campaign staff had no time for me, but Mark Gearan treated me with respect, treated me fairly, more than fairly. And the rest, of course, is history. Michael Dukakis is still called governor, but Mark is Mr. President. And by the close of that campaign, I had fooled some people into thinking I knew what I was doing and transferred to Washington for what the governor back in those days liked to call a good job at a good wage.

I mention that trademark Gearan kindness not just for the fond memory; his presence here, his leadership here, his emphasis on making Hobart and William Smith Colleges a community of civil discourse and public service is proof to me you already know the lessons that matter most.

So why is this such a treat for me? The first time I was awarded a degree, 21 years ago in a little place called Kingston, Rhode Island, I missed the commencement. I was working. I had been offered a full time job at the Associated Press. A big deal right out of school, but to get it, I had to start immediately. And, yes, weekends were part of the deal. It was hardly glamorous, being the new guy at the AP in Providence meant opening the office at 4 a.m. and writing the morning drive radio reports while carrying on a conversation with the coffee pot. But it was an opportunity to do something I was still learning but already loving, so I jumped at it.

On any given day I would bounce from cops and robbers to the mayor’s office to the legislature to the courthouse. I learned a lot, including this:  Don’t be afraid of starting at or near the bottom rung of the ladder. In fact, I highly recommend it. You learn more, and if you are good at what you do, you’ll move along just fine and end up not only better prepared, but a better person when you reach the top. Don’t be in too much of a hurry.

For me, moving along meant a journey from Providence to Boston to Washington, 12 years at the Associated Press, then nine years ago a move to CNN and the strange world of television. It has been a remarkable ride, five presidential campaigns, two wars, walks in the halls of the Kremlin and along the great wall of China; the good fortune to interview governors and senators, presidents and prime ministers. And also the numbing sadness of witnessing the toll of war in Kosovo, poverty in Haiti, the wreckage at the Pentagon and the panic at the White House of 9-11, and the shockingly destructive forces of the waters delivered here at home by hurricanes and faraway by tsunami.

Now some lessons I learned along the way, beginning with your president.

From Mark Gearan I learned politics can be passionate without being polarized and personal. That is a valuable lesson in the world you are about to enter. It can be great sport if you do what I do for a living, but our political culture and discourse are rarely something to take pride in these days.

Do your part to make it better. You have a fine example here to follow.

From Michael Dukakis I learned don’t try to hide who you are. Many here are too young to remember, but back in 1988 Governor Dukakis spent months and months trying to keep the Republicans from painting him as a liberal. One trademark line was that this election is not about ideology, it’s about competence. He was no dynamo on the campaign trail to begin with, but this effort to hide who he was, in my view, was tantamount to a straightjacket.

Then one day late in the campaign, I was way back in the crowd on a campus in California, only half listening to the same old speech again, when the Governor suddenly declared, yes, I am a liberal and proud of it. He didn’t win, but he was a much better candidate in those final days, at peace, it seemed, with the idea that win or lose, he was not going to hide who he was.

Four years later along came Bill Clinton, in my view the true pioneer of what we now call reality TV. I learned a lot covering Bill Clinton.  He calls me Johnny. It’s a southern thing. He’s also called me a few other names, but I promised Mark to keep this PG-13 at worst.

You know the old joke that people start to look like their pets. I spent a lot of time covering Bill Clinton, starting in the late 1980’s. By the time he left the White House in January, 2001, I had a head of gray hair, giant bags under my eyes and had experienced wild fluctuations in my weight. Is that just a coincidence?  I guess it depends on your definition of is. But the biggest lesson I learned from Bill Clinton is that success requires steely determination. He was going to be President of the United States. And he was going to survive Monica Lewinsky, Ken Starr and impeachment. Over and over again in those days people would tell me I was wrong, that he was going to have to give in to the Democrats urging him to resign. But he was telling close friends no way, never, and I had been around him long enough to know he meant it.

I remember standing with James Carvile in the back of the room in a town hall in New Hampshire when many people thought then Governor Clinton was about to keel over – physically and politically. He could barely speak but delivered what to me was his defining line: “If you stay with me, I’ll fight for you 'til the last dog dies.” Love him or hate him, you cannot help but admire Bill Clinton’s toughness, his tenacity. An ounce of his determination would serve you well.

I also have learned a lot from George W. Bush, perhaps most of all this: We discount the role of faith in our public life and in the political choices people make at our peril. This is not an observation about the political power of what I call the Christian conservative movement or some label the religious right. This is about everyday Americans who do not consider themselves part of any political movement. You find them on Main Street in small town USA or at the diners of Iowa and Wisconsin and North Carolina and Ohio. I met dozens of people in the last two presidential elections who spoke of being genuinely torn about their choice but who would say in the end, probably Bush, “because he is a man of faith. ”

Some Democrats, especially from the coasts, can be remarkably dismissive of this. As a kid from Boston covering Michael Dukakis long ago, I know I was. But the role of God in politics is now a mini-obsession. This is a big country. Everyone’s vote counts equal. Maybe faith guides your politics, maybe it doesn’t. In either case, respect those who might think a little differently than you, and if you want to sell them a product, or a candidate, my advice is to spend a little time trying to understand them.

From General Colin Powell I learned to place a premium on training and preparation, but also understand everything can change overnight. I first encountered General Powell covering the first Gulf War back in what I guess we now call the first Bush administration. He tells a wonderful story of being at the table when Mikhail Gorbachev matter of factly said the cold war was over. He was going to allow the Soviet Union to splinter. General Powell recalls sitting there at this historic moment thinking, “No, no you can’t do this. My whole life is built around this enemy – these rules.” Today you enter a world with fewer lines and fewer rules. Don’t be surprised if you get a decent stretch down the road and decide – or have it decided for you – that it’s time to rip up the map and start over.

Just a few more, these from people whose names you will never find in a history book. It was from my mother I first learned that dignity is quiet. I was reminded of this lesson a year ago by men named John Dyer and Tom Titus. John Dyer is from Ohio; Tom Titus from Idaho. I met them not long after they had done what no parent should ever have to do: bury a child. I was traveling across the country to understand why public opinion about the war was suddenly shifting – they opened their homes and hearts to me and shared the stories of their sons. John and Tom were very different, but they share this concern: that the names and faces, the sacrifice, seemed too often forgotten in a war debate that to them was too loud and too partisan. They made their points quietly, respectfully. We should learn from those who have paid the highest price.

I learned the lesson of Sam Burton under a magnolia tree in Pearlington, Mississippi. As he put it, don’t ask until you really need. Six months after Katrina, his house was still in shambles; his church too. Yet there was Reverend Burton, 82 years young, sitting and smiling, and singing, teaching young church volunteers from New Jersey the verses of "Amazing Grace," mesmerizing them with stories about the KKK, the civil rights movement and riding out Katrina in the tree, clutching his grandson. He had been a preacher for 50 years and as the waters kept rising said he finally looked up and said, "Lord, I’ve been helping you down here for a long time, and now it is your turn to help me."

Don’t ask until you really need.

From a man named Sabri, I learned the frustrating limits of our language, the limits even of the pictures we are told can be worth a thousand words. I met him in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after the tsunami.  I could not find a way to tell his story the way it deserved to be told and it still haunts me. I met him in a crowded camp, carrying a wrinkled photo of a little girl with brown hair and big brown eyes. Her name was Deira, two years and seven months old. Sabri kept saying it was his fault. He grabbed his infant daughter when everything started to move, but couldn’t make it across the room in time. Deira and her mother were swept away by the water. He recovered his wife’s body and buried her. And for 16 days walked camp to camp looking for his little girl. He kept approaching people and unfolding the wrinkled picture, kept saying she was wearing a yellow dress. That she liked fruit. Kept saying it was his fault. I could see the pain of thousands in the eyes of this one man, but I couldn’t find the words to do it justice. I guess another lesson there is no matter how hard you try, some days – at work and in life – you will fail. Those days hurt.

I am a very private person. That may sound odd coming from someone you can see most days on television. But that is what I do – not who I am. And there is one last lesson there. There was a time when I forgot to separate the two – and I paid a high price. Work became so important I was missing tee-ball, dance class, the joy of a child’s laughter at the dinner table – the gift of "goodnight, daddy," said in a quiet yawn. I was failing the simple test my dad once set for me. Look in the mirror. If you can’t look that guy in the eye and hold the stare, then fix the reason why. I still miss too much. But my children are my best friends now, and I learn from them so much more than they learn from me. Don’t be in too much of a hurry. And know, whatever your speed, you are going to make your share of bad choices. But I believe you will make fewer of them because you made this choice – to learn at the Colleges with a conscience, a place that values tradition, the classics, community and public service.

As you know, there are some who think otherwise: that narrow specialization is the key to success in a world moving so fast to them, the traditional liberal arts education is a dinosaur. I believe, and I know you believe, they are wrong.

Beginning today, you get to prove it.