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Commencement 2010

Dan Glickman
President of Refugees International
May 16, 2010

 

Thanks, Mark. I’m honored to be here today.

Congratulations! I’m sure many of you wondered if this day would ever come.

Yet here you are in this final rite of passage.

Garry Trudeau, the “Doonesbury” cartoonist, once said “commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they’ve been properly sedated.”

Hopefully I won’t be commencing you in that sense today.

Truth be told I’m more partial to the words of faux newsman Stephen Colbert. “Children are our future,” he said. “But does that not also mean we are their past? You are here to replace us. I don't understand why we're helping and honoring you. You don’t see union workers holding benefits for robots.”

It sort of makes me see comedian Bob Hope’s famous commencement speech in a whole new light. His is the shortest on record. He walked to the podium, said “don’t go.” Then he sat back down. That’s all he had to say.

It’s hard to argue with him. It’s been said that, “college is the best time of your life. When else are your parents going to spend several thousand dollars a year for you to go to a strange town and get drunk every night?”

But I’m here today to tell you that there’s a heck of a lot to look forward to today.

Looking out at all of you…all of this potential…I see a wide open road…a future that is yours for the making. That’s what I’d like to talk to you about today.

I’ve known the president of your colleges, Mark Gearan, for years. We worked together in the Clinton Administration. And, as I learned more about your school in preparation to come here, I saw his imprint everywhere...nowhere more so than in the public service ethic that is so closely tied to your identity as Hobart and William Smith graduates.

I understand that nearly every student we honor and celebrate today leaves this institution having been involved in a service project. What a meaningful piece of your education.
And, what a lesson to take out into the world.

Too often they say college is a time for ideals and idealism—and, then, the party’s over. It’s time to ‘get real…grow up…get a job.’ Of course, the job part is probably a good thing. But this prevailing notion that you have to choose between your ideals and your professional life…making your way through the adult world with all the responsibilities that eventually come with it…careers…kids…mortgages. It’s a myth that it takes compromising your hopes and dreams, ambitions and beliefs.

No matter what path we choose in life, each of us can find a way to answer that calling that I believe is within each of us to find a way to make a difference in the world.

You’ve done it here at Hobart & William Smith. Why stop now?

Those folks I mentioned at the start of my remarks today all found the time.

Sandwiched between Marmaduke and Family Circle for decades, Gary Trudeau found a way to turn the lowly comic strip into a compelling commentary on a wide array of social issues, including the extraordinary human cost of war.

Bob Hope spent more than five decades entertaining our troops from World War II to the Persian Gulf. Watching in awe in 1943, the novelist John Steinbeck—then a war correspondent—said Hope kept “a pace that would kill most people.” The gallows humor of the time was the quip, “where there’s death, there’s Hope.” He was the first American to be named an “honorary veteran” for his service to his country.

Last year, Stephen Colbert made his own USO Tour. Each night in Iraq, he carried a golf club on stage as an homage to Hope. His news may be fake, but he finds a way to engage young people in the issues of the day…pulling back the curtain on some of the theater of American politics…exposing hypocrisy…making people think and question and—so greatly underestimated in modern society—share a knowing laugh together.

With all due respect to Bob Hope, my advice to you today is the opposite of his. It is ‘go,’ but take your idealism…the best of what you’ve learned here…intellectually in the classroom…collectively from this community all around you celebrating your achievements today. Take it with you out into the world. Cherish it. Nurture it. Never let it go.

This world could use a whole lot less cynicism…and a lot more idealism…a whole lot less hot air and empty rhetoric…and a whole lot more pragmatic and public-spirited action.

Change the World
In your generation, I see parallels to my own college experience in the 1960s. There was a collective spirit…a passionate communal belief that we really could “change the world.”

It was our version of ‘yes we can.’

It’s almost an embarrassing ambition…so idealistic…so naked in its lack of cynicism.

In my time, it was JFK imploring the nation “ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.”

It was the Reverend Martin Luther King sharing his dream that his children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It was Bobby Kennedy declaring that “the world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life,” he said, “but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity.”

Our heroes were taken from us, but not our hopes and our ideals.

Today, a new generation has been inspired and called upon to engage the world. We saw it in the historic election of our current President and his positive and inclusive message.

It’s been a trying two years for the nation…for our political system…for the world. Partisanship…sharp divisions…caustic rhetoric have too often been allowed to prevail.

It’s important not to retreat in the face of setbacks.

Don’t take yourself too seriously

I worry that we as a society take ourselves far too seriously. We get set in our ways. We surround ourselves too often only with people with whom we agree.

It seems at times bipartisanship has become a four-letter word…the act of sell-outs…a betrayal of ‘the team.’ But at the end of the day, it is the fine art of compromise and the essential act of getting things done.

Not everything in life can be done by consensus. We disagree. We dissent. That’s the nature of democracy. But we also need to get over it and move on…for everyone’s sake.

As Ronald Reagan used to say, “if you are 80% my friend, then you are not 20% my enemy.”

If I had my way, we’d carve into the Capitol dome the words of Hubert Humphrey. When I was a freshman in Congress, he was the first sitting Senator to address the House.  He was late in life…dying of cancer. He said: Fight every battle as if the world depended on victory.  But after all is said and done, shake everyone’s hand.  Your enemy today may be your ally tomorrow.

One of the most underestimated tools in politics…in leadership…in life is a sense of humor…the ability to laugh not just at others, but at ourselves.

A few years ago, I gave a speech at a National Nutrition Summit. Just as I began, a young woman came tearing down the aisle and hurled a pie at me (she missed by the way).
She was an animal rights activist, and she shouted: “Shame on you, Dan Glickman, you meat pimp!” Rather than lashing out, I simply pointed out that it wasn’t a very nutritious meal.
I’ll admit it was less funny when there was a similar incident that swapped the pie for bison guts. But the European protest against genetically modified food made up for it. Young women took off their clothes and had things written on their bodies like “no gene bean”…at least that’s what I was told by my staff who looked. I, of course, averted my eyes.
When life hands you lemons…or tosses lemon meringue pies in your face…you have to laugh. You have to find the joy…make it part of your life…and share it with others.
My dad was in the scrap-iron business back in Kansas. Growing up, he’d always say—there are two songs you can sing in the morning: “Oh, how I hate to get up” or “oh, what a beautiful morning.” We need to look to the bright side of life…not by putting on blinders…but by insisting that we can leave this world a little better for our time here.
Many Paths to Service
There is a famous [Hebrew] saying—‘may you live in interesting times.’ I’ve never been quite sure if it’s a blessing or a curse. I suspect, like most things, it’s a little of both. But it’s certainly an apt description of my own professional path.
I loved my 18 years in Congress. It’s a job I probably never would have left—if I hadn’t been fired. As the old saying goes, ‘the people had spoken—the bastards.’ I lost in 1996. In the famous “Contract with America’ mid-term election two years into President Clinton’s first term. Many are drawing parallels to this coming November, but I’m not so sure.
Did I fail that year at the ballot box? You bet. But I did so standing by my principles…voting my conscience on a woman’s right to choose…support a ban on assault weapons…favoring greater economic engagement with the world.

It was devastating at the time, but I’ll never regret those votes. And you learn with time that you’ll live to fight another day. Had I not lost the election, who knows if I would have joined President Clinton’s cabinet…and beyond?

I went on to be U.S. agriculture secretary…to work for a time in higher education teaching politics at some other educational institution over in Cambridge…and then I got what had to have been my dream job as a kid…I got paid to go to the movies and talk about American movies with people all around the world. What a gig.

I’ll never forget my first trip to Mumbai in my job as Chairman of MPAA. We decided to swing by a local movie theater, and there was a line all around the building. I stopped and asked what wonderful Bollywood film was creating such excitement. The answer that came back caught me short. They were all waiting to see the great American film…”Meet the Fockers.”

Now I’m sitting there thinking: American movie…Jewish family….Hindu country. It’s just not adding up. So I ask, why everyone is so excited, and the answer I get back is: “Mr. Glickman, this movie is about families and joy and laughter. These are universal themes.”

He’s right, and these themes also are the quintessential signature DNA of American film…guy gets girl…underdog carries the day…David slays Goliath. This notion that the little guy can stand up to the system and win is central to our cinema and our democracy.

My former Harvard colleague Joe Nye calls this “soft power.” It is the notion that America’s abiding influence is not exclusively the domain of our military and economic clout…but also the timeless appeal of our enduring values— democracy, freedom, opportunity—celebrated and advanced by legions of Americans…from academics to artists…political leaders to philanthropists to community activists.

I see it every day now in my new role with Refugees International…the extraordinary outpouring of volunteerism and funds…people texting in what they could afford…adding up to over half a billion dollars in earthquake relief for Haiti.

Philosophers for generations have said: If you change one life, you change the world. I believe that. And, I believe it’s just as true in the arts, in education, in community volunteerism as it is in religion or politics or any path to public service.

Conclusion

Like my dad, I do believe that today is a beautiful day—and tomorrow can be even better.

As Frank Sinatra sang in his great song about life: “Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race.”

We have our challenges as a nation—that’s certainly been true from day one. But I wouldn’t bet against America. As President Clinton used to say, ‘there’s nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America.’

I believe that. And, looking out at all of you today, I see what is right with America.

Congratulations classes of 2010! It’s your turn now. Make the most of it.