DEE DEE MYERS
And congratulations, graduates!
Today, you will step over a threshold; you will cross an invisible line in modern American life. By finishing college, you now have access to the kinds of opportunities reserved only for those with degrees. Today, you have options you simply didn’t have yesterday.
And for the rest of your lives, when people ask – and they will – “Where’d you go to school?” you’ll say, “William Smith and Hobart.” And you’ll remember something: the “ferociously and totally” liberal arts curriculum; the first day you spent on campus or the year you spent abroad; the Colleges’ commitment to equity and to service. I know you’ll remember President Gearan.
But most of all, I hope you remember how your four years here changed you. How it took all of your expectations and turned them on their heads. How it surprised you. How it re-ordered your assumptions and challenged everything you thought you knew…or knew that you wanted. I hope you feel like you’ve grown…and maybe even grown up.
Father Timothy Healy, the late, great president of Georgetown University, once said “maturity is sometimes defined as a tolerance for ambiguity; and ambiguity is a voyage into the unknown, in a leaky boat, under a lowering sky, for a haul that may not bear examination.”
How does it feel to be a grown up so far?
I graduated from the University of Santa Clara, a Jesuit college in California, in 1983. Graduation weekend was also Reunion Weekend at Santa Clara, and I remember walking by the tent set up for the Class of ’63 – there to celebrate its 20th reunion – and thinking: those people are so old. Their lives are virtually over. What could they possibly have to look forward to?
Well, as I stand before you today nearly, two years past my own 20th college reunion, I realize: I’m not that old. My life is not totally over. And I have some stuff to look forward to. Still, it’s been an interesting journey from where you sit to where I stand. I’ve had some success, and I’ve had my share of failures. I’ve had some great luck and some bad breaks. I’ve known happiness and heartache.
And today, I want to share with you some of the stuff that I know now, but I didn’t know then. Not exactly the keys to eternal salvation, but a few of my life’s most valuable lessons.
First, follow your heart.
The most important ingredient in a successful career – and more importantly, a happy life – is to do something you love. It may not be the thing that pays you the most. In fact, it probably won’t be the thing that pays you the most. But you’ll like what you do. And you’ll be good at it. And the rest will take care of itself.
I majored in political science at Santa Clara, and I had no idea what I would do when I graduated. I applied to grad school because I didn’t know what else to do, but I didn’t get in. I was 0 for 5 in the application process. So I moved back to Los Angeles, where I had mostly grown up, and went to work selling china in a department store. I knew I loved politics, but didn’t know anyone could make a living at it.
By now, it was 1984, and President Reagan was running for re-election. But I was a Democrat. So I called the Democratic Party Headquarters to ask how I could volunteer for the other guy, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale.
Pretty soon, I started showing up at the headquarters. One thing led to another, and I ended up getting a full-time job that paid all of $900 a month. It wasn’t much, but I could live on it. And I loved what I was doing.
Now, keep in mind that I came from a conservative family. My poor parents were appalled that they had scraped and saved to send me to a nice, private, Catholic college -- and not only had I come out a Democrat, but I was working for a liberal for next to no money.
I didn’t care too much; I was happy. Of course, Walter Mondale lost in one of the biggest landslides of all time. But I had found something I loved to do. And that’s what I did for most of the next decade.
Second, be prepared to start at the bottom.
Almost everyone does. And you’ll learn things that will serve you well in the future. My first job on that ill-fated Mondale campaign was “office manager and volunteer coordinator.” It wasn’t glamorous, but I got to know everyone in the office and I got to know what all the different departments did. I found the press office to be the most interesting and exciting, so I started doing all kinds of favors for the press secretary in the hopes that she might eventually hire me. She did. And so I went to work writing press releases and calling reporters to tell them about upcoming events.
That wasn’t brain surgery, either, but I learned things about the business that would serve me for years to come.
Third, don’t be afraid to take risks; as you get older, it only gets harder.
When I went to work for the Mondale campaign, my friends would often ask: What will you do if he loses? Won’t you be out of a job? First, I have to confess that it never occurred to me that Mondale would lose, even though poll after poll showed him running 20 points behind. But I didn’t expect to get a job at the White House even if he won. I guess I figured I could always go back to the department store.
What I found out was: good work creates opportunity, and one job always seemed to lead to another.
After the Mondale campaign, I went to work for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and in 1986, he ran for Governor of California. Sadly, he lost that race in a landslide. So from there, I went to the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Michael, and he lost in a landslide. Next, I got a job working for former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, and in 1990, she ran for governor. And you guessed it--she lost. At least that one was close!
Given that track record, it’s easy to understand why Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton called me in the fall of 1991. He was getting ready to run for president, and he needed a press secretary. At the time, everyone expected then-President George Bush (the first) to coast to re-election. But I liked what Clinton had to say, so when I was offered the job as his campaign press secretary, I took it.
My friends though I was nuts. They thought the campaign would self-destruct in a couple of weeks. But I thought Clinton was a great candidate. I didn’t know if he could win, but I thought: what’s the worst thing that can happen to me? I’ll come back to Los Angeles and find another job.
Of course, the campaign didn’t self-destruct. I mean, it almost did. More than once. But somehow, we won. Bill Clinton was elected president, and I was named White House press secretary.
Finally, plan for success – but expect failure. And know that you learn invaluable lessons from both.
As you now know, I worked on a lot of losing campaigns. But I learned something from every new job: I kept the faith, worked hard and gained responsibility. And as I went along, I learned from the things I did right – and even more from the things I did wrong.
I’ll never forget the first time a dumb thing appeared in quotes next to my name. At the time, I was working on Tom Bradley’s gubernatorial campaign, and I said some things to a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that I thought were very clever. The next morning when I read my words in the paper, I sounded like an idiot. I was horrified. Moments later, the phone rang and, sure enough, it was the campaign manager. He said, “I assume you saw this morning’s Times?” I said I had. “I assume you’ll never say anything like that again?” I promised I wouldn’t. And that was that.
I learned two things. One, I was forever more careful when talking to reporters. And two, I was forever more forgiving of people who made mistakes and said the wrong things.
Of course, that wasn’t my first public mistake, nor would it be my last. I made plenty more, even – or perhaps especially – when I got to the White House.
One of the most absurd episodes erupted when the President got his hair cut aboard Air Force One. At the time, the press reported that air traffic around the nation was tied up, as the president sat on his 747, having his locks trimmed by a high priced Beverly Hills coiffeur. Of course, the part about getting his locks trimmed on his 747 by a high priced Beverly Hills coiffeur was true. But the part about tying up air traffic – the really damaging part of the story – was never true.
But I blew it. I didn’t realize that the story was irresistible – and that the public would be angered by such a seeming act of arrogance by a new president. I didn’t take it seriously, and the story spun out of control. The public never really learned the truth. And it was my fault.
That was just one of many mistakes I made during my tenure as White House press secretary; and it was by no means the worst. But the truth is, every mistake made me better at my job. I learned through painful experience to be more careful, less likely to rush to conclusions, tougher. Still, my mistakes bruised my credibility, a press secretary’s stock in trade, and I had to spend time trying to repair the damage. It was hard, and it was humbling.
Since leaving the White House, I’ve gone on to do a lot of interesting things. Most importantly to me, I married a wonderful man and we have two great kids. No professional accomplishment will ever match the joy and satisfaction that my personal life gives me. But I’m grateful to have a professional life that is interesting and challenging as well.
So as each of you starts your voyage into the unknown, in your leaky boats, under those uncertain skies, don’t let the fear that your haul may not bear examining dampen your enthusiasm, or narrow your horizons. Follow your hearts. Take risks. Hope for the best, but expect the unexpected. And learn from your mistakes.
Today, you’re making a wonderful start. Already, you have much to be proud of. And when you gather here in 2025 for your 20th reunion, yes, you’ll be older – but I promise you won’t be that old. You’ll still have tough questions left to answer, life’s mysteries left to solve – and many, many dreams left to dream.
Congratulations. Good luck. And God bless.
Commencement Address to the Classes of 2005, Dee Dee Myers
May 15, 2005