David Gergen L.H.D. '15
Commencement Address
May 17, 2015

President Gearan, Trustees, Faculty, Families, Guests …and most of all, Graduates of Hobart and William Smith Colleges!

A rousing cheer, 590 strong!

This is my first visit to the Colleges and what a delightful experience it has been.  After walking through this idyllic campus – a little piece of paradise – and hearing stories about your lives here, I am thrilled to be an honorary member of this class.

Mark Gearan, now in the 16th year of his presidency, along with his family who have lived here on campus deserve a huge round of applause for their progress in building up both colleges.

It a special privilege, too,  to be among the illustrious men and women who are honorands today. All have won distinction; one, Alan Khazei, is also a dear friend.

Last year’s commencement speaker was, of course, your alumnus Brad Falchuk.  He talked about one of his television products that won him fame, American Horror Story.  Standing here today with my background, I am tempted to talk about Washington, D.C. – entitled American Horror Story: Part Two.

Let me go instead in a different direction – one you may initially find odd but please bear with me.

For a long time, I shied away from visiting friends who were visibly dying or seemed moribund – it was just too saddening.  But eventually I screwed my courage to a post and started to ask if I could come by or call on the phone.

What I discovered was that those visits were among the most rewarding I have had.  People who sense the end is near often like to talk in a different way: to open up to their innermost thoughts, reflecting upon what was meaningful in their lives and what was not, separating the essential from the trivial.  And time and again, our conversations have shared a similar theme.

A couple of examples:

Years ago, I worked in the White House under President Richard Nixon.  He was extraordinarily complex – on the surface, one of the best strategists about American foreign policy I have ever known, but roiling with anger and resentments underneath.  He had inner demons that he had never learned to control and they eventually brought him down.  I was there, wrote his resignation letter – one sentence – and waved him off as his helicopter lifted off the South Lawn.

At the time, like so many around him, I felt betrayed. But wounds healed and toward the end of his life, we talked several times.

In our last phone call, shortly before he died, Nixon told me that one of the proudest moments in his life came early in his political career.  He had come home from the War, ran for Congress and was swept into office by a Republican tide in 1946.

A year later, a beleaguered Democratic president, Harry Truman, asked the Republican Congress to pass the Marshall Plan, then highly controversial.  In today’s Washington, Congress would probably have said no.

But those days were different.  Nixon told me one of his proudest moments came when the Marshall Plan was put to a vote in the Republican House of Representatives, and he rose to vote aye. There on the other side of the aisle, standing to say aye, was another member of the freshman class, John F. Kennedy.

Nixon’s point was that when the chips are down in this country, we should all stand up together – putting nation first, above party, above self.  As young men, he and Jack Kennedy fought under the same flag and now they were proud to serve their country again.  

More recently, as he was dying, I had the privilege of visiting a man who originally drew me into public life.  In the 1960s, Terry Sanford was the Jack Kennedy of my native state, North Carolina.  He was a courageous governor who later went on to serve in the U.S. Senate, then as president of Duke University.  He was a huge figure in transforming the South from old to new.

As we sat down to talk for an hour, I thought he would want to reflect upon his days of official power and glory.  Instead, he talked about his pride in becoming an Eagle Scout and then joining up for World War II.  He talked about parachuting into Normandy just after D-Day and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.  What he learned in the woods as a scout, he was convinced, had helped him survive as a soldier.  Strikingly, those early years of service – when he was unknown – seemingly meant so much more to him than the honors showered upon him as an adult.

Reflecting back on my own life, I am starting to get it.  Let me assure you, I don’t think I am anywhere close to the edge – knock on wood.  But I have been around a long time, so much so that I increasingly identify with an old fellow who was walking through the woods one day and heard a sound.  He couldn’t see anything, but then heard the sound again, looked down and there was a frog by the side of the path.  “If you kiss me,” the frog said, “I will turn into a beautiful princess.”

“Wow,” the old fellow said, and he stuffed the frog in his coat pocket – no kiss.  The frog was surprised, crawled up his coat and said, “Didn’t you hear me?  If you kiss me, I will turn into a beautiful princess.”

“Year, I heard you all right,” the old fella said, “but at my age, I would rather have a talking frog!”

Well, as I look back now, I remain grateful that I had an opportunity to work for four presidents in the White House from both parties.  Those years were tough but good.

Still, the years that give me greatest pride were early on, during school and just after.  Between junior and senior years in college, I went to work for Governor Terry Sanford as an intern.  And then I went back for two more summers.  Why?  Because the South was then engulfed in the civil rights struggles of the 60s, and Terry was bravely moving the state to embrace equal rights.  I worked for a much older man who had grown up as a farmer and segregationist; now he had changed his mind, was on the side of marchers, and headed up Terry’s civil rights team. I was his only staff person so that by day, I wrote policy memos for him and by night, often drove him around the state.

We didn’t change our beloved state overnight -- far from it – but I look back upon those summers as the most satisfying of all my years in government.  It was service in the trenches and for a righteous cause.  It is a privilege to work in the White House but you can find some of the most important work you will ever do right there in your home town.
And so it is that we come to this moment when you close one chapter in your life with celebration and open another wondering what comes next.  After all the parties are over and you are sober, I urge you to reflect upon what you have learned about service here at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and to find your own answer to the call of service on behalf of others.

The most important question before you is not how to make a living but how to make a life.  Certainly, these colleges have provided you with splendid examples and encouragement for a life well lived.  Your own president is a walking example: in the two plus decades that I have had the pleasure of knowing him, Mark has held forth a torch beckoning young men and women to service, nowhere more so than when he was a splendid director of the Peace Corps.

Parents and friends, please know just how distinguished HWS has become.  For five straight years, Hobart and William Smith Colleges have been on the higher education honor roll selected by the White House for commitment to volunteering, service learning, and civic engagement.  Annually, students generate more than 80,000 hours of service here in Geneva, across the nation and across the world.  A third of those hours are part of an academic program rooted in service learning.  This past December, HWS competed with 800 colleges and universities for the President’s award for education community service; there were four winners and one was Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

These colleges have long been known for academic excellence, and your graduates this May are again living up to your reputation.  Six have been awarded Fulbrights, an all time record for the Colleges.  As Fulbright scholars, they will study in France, India, Greece, Malaysia, Ecuador and Argentina.  Would you please stand and be recognized?

But this is a school that not only cultivates the mind but also body and soul.  Just listen to what these graduates are doing next year.  (As I talk about you please stand; we will hold applause until all of you have been named… and there are a lot!)

  • Four have joined the Peace Corps, and will work in Rwanda, Kosovo and Tanzania – some of the toughest parts of the world.
  • Five have been accepted to Teach for America, where only 1 in 10 college graduates around the country make it;
  • Four have been accepted to City Year, the organization co-founded by Alan Khazei and is having a significant impact on high school dropout rates;
  • One has been named a 2015 Newman Civic Fellow, a prestigious honor for those working in community service.
  • Two are going into the Army and one into the Marines’ Officer Candidate School at a time when military service overseas remains highly dangerous.
  • And to remind us that HWS honors athletic prowess, would you believe that a Hobart College offensive lineman, Ali Marpet, has been drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the highest Division III selection in NFL history?

Ladies and Gentlemen,  many of these graduates this spring are answering the call to service, and I believe that more and more will in the years ahead.

They will show that service can come in many forms.  One can still work nobly in Washington, D.C., as Louise Slaughter – our honorand – does year in, year out in Congress.  Her work in putting an end to violence against women is especially welcome here.

One can commit to a more just and diverse society in your adopted hometown, as Lucile Mallard has done in her 30 years with the NAACP here in Geneva.

Or serve as God’s instrument in working with students year after year as Lesley Adams has done with such great effect on this campus.

Or become a social entrepreneur, as Alan Khazei has done so remarkably well.  City Year not only sparked the creation of Americorps under President Clinton but has been at the forefront of the most important movement in America since civil rights days:  tens of thousands of young Americans are rising up across America to join non-profits in seeking to transform our society so that every child has a fair chance in life.  Through Alan’s work, the day is coming when, hopefully, millions of young people between 18 and 24 will volunteer for a year of service to the country – a small price to pay for the preservation of our life and liberty.

This is a remarkable commencement: I cannot remember any other college or university that has decided that every single honorary degree should be given on the basis of service.  You recognize, as David Brooks writes in best-selling new book on the road to personal character, that it is less important to build a resume that will please your employer than to  build a resume by which people will remember you in eulogies.

A word of warning to those of you who answer this call to service:  your path ahead won’t be strewn with rose petals.  As those of you have been accepted by Teach for America will soon find,  teaching in an inner city school can be one of the toughest jobs anywhere.   Just like the Marine Corps, some TFA corps members don’t make it either.

If you choose a life of service, you will find as well that your income could be a good deal lower than your friends in business; it will be more difficult to pay your student loans; if you are living in urban America, you could have trouble finding decent schools for your kids.  The world is already a hardened place for new college grads; a life of service can make it harder still.

Over time, as Machiavelli recognized five centuries ago, you will start running into walls.  Those who like the status quo will fight you because they have it good; those who will benefit from change may drag their feet out of fear.  Just look how tenaciously teachers unions are fighting back against charters – and how tenaciously some police unions are fighting back against much needed reforms.  Change is damn hard.

And then there is the profound observation of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung.  In his development theory, people go through four stages of development. When we are young, we are in the "warrior stage." We think we can conquer the world on our own, and change it. As we move through life, we realize we cannot, and move to the "statement stage," in which we feel unfulfilled and start looking for ways to make a difference in the world. It seems that many 2015 Hobart and William Smith graduates have gotten a head start on this second stage, despite inevitable frustration and despair.

So, why do it?  Why sign up?  Because, my friends, you will find that serving others beyond yourself will provide something that money can’t buy: a deep sense of joy and inner peace.  As human beings, all of us are badly flawed but we also have within us a powerful drive to protect and help others.  Unleashing that inner drive will carry you places you have never been before, even if accompanied by severe hardships.

If you haven’t already, I hope that one day soon you will discover Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. – a superb writer, Supreme Court Justice and inspiration. As a young man, he signed up in the civil war in a Massachusetts Regiment.  Three times he was wounded, once grievously.  Yet years later, he told a younger audience much like this one, "But, nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing." Holmes learned as you will that service to others is a noble calling.

Members of the class of 2015 -

One day a friend or grand child will ask you to look back upon a long life and reflect on what has been meaningful.  I hope that you can say that while you have had many accomplishments, you found your greatest joy in family and in service to others...

that when you were young, your heart was touched with fire...

and that, as Hobart and William Smith have taught, you have lived a life of consequence.

Good luck.... and God Speed.