President Mark Gearan, members of the board of trustees, faculty, staff, my fellow honorees, and most importantly the people in front of me: the class of 2004 of Hobart and William Smith Colleges -
I've got good news for all of you this morning: I talk fast.
So as King Henry the VIII of England said to each of his seven wives: "I won't keep you long."
First, let me pay tribute to those who made today a reality: the parents of the class of 2004.
My message today, however, is for the graduates sitting in front of me. I've come here today with five bits of advice on how to get where you want to get, follow your dreams, keep your values and make good on the best hunch you ever had about yourself. William Butler Yeats once said "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire."
I'm here to light your fire.
Rule One: Get yourself in the game.
Ever watch a little kid standing along courtside while the big kids play basketball? When a ball goes out of bounds, he or she runs for it and passes it back in. As time goes on, when an older kid has to get home for dinner, somebody yells "Hey! Wanna play?"
That's it, the heart of it really: the first rule of building a life and a career. Whatever your ambitions, whatever the field you want to enter, if you want to play a game go to where it's played. If you want to be a lawyer, go to law school. If you can't get into the best law school, get into the best one you can. Same with medical or business school or whatever. If you want to get into TV, get yourself a job, any job in the business. The important thing is to get your seat at the table. Newspapers, same deal. Name your dream; there's a place people are pursuing it.
Three things happen when you get in the door:
You learn how the game is played but also how the players act with each other. You learn the game's manner, its cadence, its culture.
Second, you meet people. Let's face it, it's not who you know, it's who you get to know.
Third, and this is the big one, you're there when the lightning strikes!
When I came back from the Peace Corps in Africa thirty-three years ago, I knocked on 200 doors on Capitol Hill, looking for some Senator or Member of Congress who was ready to hire me.
One guy was a U.S. Congressman. He showed me the pen LBJ had used to sign the Peace Corps bill--it was mounted right there on his office wall.
He was about to hire me, even promised me a job.
Unfortunately for both of us, he was on his way to federal prison. Some guy had planted a body in his basement.
Nice fellow, though I always thought he did me a favor by not putting me on his payroll. It wouldn't have been a good way to start a career.
I kept looking. Got an interview with a fairly hardnosed senator from rural Texas. He didn't like my "hair style" - it was too long, this was the '60s - or my voice - too fast. Or where I'd been, for that matter. He said, "The people from home who visit the office might get the idea you'd become idealist over there in Africa."
He said the word "idealist" as if it were an infection.
But he gave me what I needed most: encouragement.
Politics, he said, is like selling insurance door to door, what he became a Congressman. You visit ten families. Three invite you back to make your pitch. One buys a policy.
You don't get the sale without the three pitches. You don't get to make the three pitches without first making the ten visits.
Keep trying, he said. "I'm sure somebody will like someone with your background."
Finally, I knocked on the magic door. A top aide to a Utah senator had worked for both Robert and Ted Kennedy. He loved the fact I'd been in the Peace Corps and had majored in economics because nobody else in the office had.
He offered me a job: working during the day in the office answering the complicated mail and writing short speeches, then working at night as an armed Capitol policeman.
"It'll pay for the groceries," he said trying to brighten the offer.
Though I ended up with some colorful assignments - I stood, armed with a .38 police special guarding the Pentagon Papers after they'd already been printed in The New York Times and Washington Post, it got me in the door.
Within three months, I asked for and was given a full-time job working as a United States senator's legislative assistant, the job I'd come looking for in the first place.
"If you knock long enough and loud enough at the gate you are bound to wake up somebody." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
I've had one helluva an apprenticeship for what I'm doing on television: fifteen years in politics, fifteen years writing for San Francisco newspapers. I wouldn't have any of this if I hadn't gone to Washington and gotten in the door. That's what you've got to do: get yourself in the game.
Rule Two: If you want something, ask for it!
Some people aren't going to like the cut of your jib. But those who do will change your life. They will open doors for you. If nine people will say "No" to you, then ask ten.
It's like dating.
But just as it takes only one strike to transform a prospector into a gold miner, it only takes one "Yes" to turn a proposal into a marriage.
There is magic that results when a person invests in you. He becomes a big-time investor in your success, a stockholder in your dreams.
Because, when you ask someone for help, you are implicitly asking him to place a bet on you. The more people you get to bet on you, the larger your network of investors and the shorter the odds.
This isn't Pollyanna I'm talking. It comes from the smartest man who ever wrote about politics, or human nature for that matter, Niccolò Machiavelli. "Men are by nature as much bound by the benefits they confer as by those they receive."
"If you want to make a friend," said Benjamin Franklin, a fellow who grows wiser the older I get, "let someone do you a favor."
Know that and you know an awful lot about life.
How did I get to be a Presidential speechwriter? First I got a no-big-deal job at the White House. I got the tip on that from someone I worked with in the Senate, an ex-girlfriend actually.
As for the speechwriting job? I had met a guy while working in a Congressional campaign in Brooklyn. We've been friends ever since. He introduced me to a Presidential speechwriter. When that fellow moved up to chief speechwriter, he put me up for his job.
There's a false assumption out there that talent will surely be recognized. Just get good at something and the world will beat a path to your door.
Don't believe it. The world is not checking in with us to see what skills we've picked up, what idea we've concocted, what dreams we carry in our hearts.
When a job opens up, whether it's in the chorus line or on the assembly line, it goes to the person standing there. It goes to the eager beaver the boss sees when he looks up from his work: the pint-sized kid standing at the basketball court in the playground waiting for one of the older boys to head home for supper. "Hey, kid, wanna play?" That's life.
Rule Three: Follow your Hunch
When I was in college one of my nicknames was "Arguing Matthews."
Amazing what you can make a living off of!
Each evening I would go up to the cafeteria, buy a Coke, hang out and talk politics. Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey, who went to rival Boston College, says that I still do. I make a living, he says, "just going down to the Holy Cross cafeteria."
Actually, it's just about the same time, too: 7 PM Eastern.
We, all of us, are lucky to live in a country where such things are possible. I mean that quite literally. America is a self-invented country filled with rebellious, self-invented people.
I broadcast Hardball every night from a studio right near Capitol Hill. It's where George Washington rode out on horseback one June day in 1791 with his architect Pierre L'Enfant to lay out the final plans for the city of Washington.
Just think of that: two guys on horseback looking down over a marshland and imagining a national capital for a great continental nation. It's an amazing notion, outrageous if you think about, like a scene out of The Producers.
And if it seemed precocious for a French-born architect and a former surveyor who'd never done anything like it before to design a national capital, it was more precocious still for a group of men in Philadelphia who had never done anything like it before to confect a country that guarantees as "unalienable" a set of rights the world had never before recognized, to ensure not only its citizens' lives and liberty but also their right to "pursue happiness."
All that started, as so much does, as it will for you in your life, with a notion. I urge you to make it a worthy one. I have seen how most campaigns for political office start: in a cheap, unwanted storefront on the wrong street with a phone sitting on the floor and take-out tray with some coffee cups, that and an ambition, a notion.
Fifteen years ago - it seems like longer - I was in East Berlin that drizzly night the Berlin Wall was about to open. I stood in a crowd of people waiting at the Brandenburg Gate and organized a little rump session of "Hardball." I decided to ask the crowd of East Germans who had lived their whole lives without it - what "freedom" meant to them. "Was ist Freiheit?" What is freedom? I kept asking. It was an early version of "Hardball." Finally, a young man in his twenties looked me solemnly in the eye and said, "Talking to you."
Ten years ago, I was in South Africa the day of the first-ever all-races election. I watched lines of voters stretching from one horizon to the next. Waiting in one was a young South African white woman. She said: "This is the day I've waited for my whole life." I will never forget the way she said that word: her whole life.
I want to salute your president, Mark Gearan, who devoted a portion of his life to leading the Peace Corps, which carries on the best traditions of America and which gives each of its volunteers far more than most could give to a distant country. It honors the grand themes that are nurtured here at Hobart and William Smith Colleges: volunteerism, service and internationalism. I mean that about the Peace Corps doing more for the man or woman who serves than what he or she can do in two years for their assigned country. I would never have been able to knock on those doors on Capitol Hill if I hadn't spent two years on a Suzuki 120 visiting total strangers in rural Swaziland in Africa helping them learn how to better run their businesses.
I promised five bits of advice. I've given you three: get in the game you want to get in; don't be afraid to ask for help; follow your dream.
Here are the last two.
Hang on to your ideals. Most of all, the ideal you have of yourself. I don't have to tell you, warn you, that you will meet people out there - you've met them already - who aren't honest, who don't deal in truth. They will lie and cheat to get what they want. Their only code is what will get them what they want.
How can they live with themselves, you'll ask. Don't they know they're giving away the one thing that matters from the start - that will always matter - their integrity? Don't they know that is who they are?
The hardest things in life, you'll soon learn, are the small things. The big decisions are the easy ones. It's the day- to-day trouble of having to choose between confronting the petty corruption around you or letting things slide, going with the flow. That's the tough stuff. And how you decide will show whether you have the right stuff.
Finally: this is a competitive world. You're going to face rivals out there, somebody who wants pretty much what you want. You've got to learn how to compete - passionately - without making it personal.
That's one of the good things I learned from the best of the politicians. And I'm not talking about the most famous ones.
I recall watching a heated debate on the house floor, then watching a Congressman cross the aisle that separates the two parties, walk over to the man he'd just been debating, both with red faces, and say, "What are you doing this weekend?" And then as he was leaving, "Say hello to your wife for me."
That's how you have to do it. It makes you feel better about your rival. It makes you feel much better about yourself.
Besides, as my hero Winston Churchill liked to say, "I like a man who grins when he fights."
So today is your day. But don't worry. There will be time to dream, to think, to try, to fail, to learn, to carry on, and then to dream some more. You leave one of the nation's finest liberal arts colleges - Hobart and William Smith - with two gems for which men and women have long to America:
A rebellious spirit that keeps government in check and people free;
An only-in-America attitude that anything is possible.
They are this country's crown jewels and today, through the grace of God, hard work and hope, they are yours.
Commencement Address by Christopher Matthews
May 16, 2004