What a day! It’s cold up here, by the way. It’s what my friend Larry King calls Roshashana weather up in the shade. Out there, it’s almost summertime. Chancellor Mark Wrighton, thank you for your comments.
Members of the board, faculty, distinguished guests, parents and friends of the graduating class, and Kate McGinnis, Joy Mancini and all the rest of the proud university class of 2008. I want to thank you for the great honor to be here. I’m thinking as I walked up here, I wrote this speech, but I was thinking what Woody Allen once said. He said that every morning he gets up and hugs his pillow hard, he’s so happy he doesn’t have to go to school.
I want to thank you for this great honor, and with it the chance to address one of this country’s great universities, which is on a clear trajectory to becoming one of the country’s very few greatest universities.
Washington University has been, as you also know well, singled out for another distinction. It has been chosen once again this year for an unprecedented fourth time to host a national debate on this November’s election for president and vice president. So, since this is what I do for a living, argue politics, I want to say a couple things about that.
I cannot recall a time when there’s been so much excitement, so much passion, for an American election. And I have no idea how it’s going to end up. Or where this fight for the democratic nomination is ever going to end up!
The campaign, however, has kicked up a lot of talk about “us” versus “them.” Is this guy “one of us?” Is she “one of us?” Is that other guy “one of us?”
So, who is this, “We?” Since we’re buzzing about it so much that, we call, “We”? Adlai Stevenson, who lost this state in 1952 to General Eisenhower and then won it against General Eisenhower in 1956 — this is the kind of thing I love to know — who lost the presidential election but never lost his honor, put it this way: When an American says he loves his country, he means he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives. And in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect.
I like that. If you think about it, maybe you will. F. Scott Fitzgerald had a more hopeful note. He said, “France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter. It was a willingness of the heart.”
In this country, we still believe you can really try to become what and who you want to become. That is rare.
We’re talking about self creation here in this country. That’s a pretty daring idea that’s still foreign to much of the highly stratified world where many of us came from: Europe, Asia, Africa, even in the rest of the Americas. But I think this legacy of self-creation is a key to being this “us” we talk about, certainly the “us” I care about. Certainly it’s the attitude that got this country started.
As someone who’s lived in Washington most of my life, I love the idea that on a June afternoon in 1791 two gentlemen on horseback looked down from Jenkins Hill over a stretch of swampy Maryland flatland banking the Potomac River. One was a French architect who had just designed a new national capitol for the spot. The other, a trained surveyor, was the man for whom this university was named.
The new government’s first president, Pierre L’Enfant and George Washington were men of vision and optimism. Talk about the audacity of hope. This is like a scene from “The Producers.” These two guys thought they were gonna have a grand, huge country, in their minds, and even back then, they were laying out a capitol city, worthy of that great country that didn’t yet exist.
And if it seemed precocious for this guy L’Enfant and George Washington, who had never done anything like it before, to design a national capital, it was more precocious still for Jefferson, and then Madison, who had never done anything like it, to confect the country, to guarantee 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, and I love these words “happiness.” That was their idea. A country that had dared to design itself would become a place where a person could be who he or she wanted to be, could be.
A place where people could think big, and just as this new republic would, in Thomas Paine’s words, “begin the world all over again,” America would be a country where you could grab a second chance. Every day in this country, this American story of self creation has been driven by millions of individual stories of self creation, some celebrated, many that should be celebrated.
Back in the Twenties, a young acrobat from England, came here to St. Louis to work in local theater at the Muny – the Municipal Opera Association of St. Louis. He had started out in New York as a stilt walker, on Coney Island, $5 a day, $10 a weekend as a stilt walker. Archie Leach had a dream of becoming an American actor, and he was starting out here in St. Louis. He would soon be known as Cary Grant, perhaps the most popular movie actor in history.
“I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person,” he once confessed. “Or he became me. Or we met at some point.” And later in life, he said, “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant!”
It’s a personal case of what the Founding Fathers did themselves. They had a vision of a country and a government they wanted. They then very consciously, like Archibald Leach, turned that vision into reality.
I love the story of the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who started out selling gloves, ties, and perfume up in the Bronx.
Forty years ago he convinced a neckware company to carry a line of ties he’d just designed from leftover fabrics he found left behind in old warehouses. Americans love those ties. And a fellow with a new name, Ralph Lauren, strode onto the stage of fashion, defining what “new money” should dress like, if it wanted to look like “old money!”
Is there any doubt why so many of us consider The Great Gatsby the great American novel? The story of the young man who comes back from World War I, makes his fortune, buys a big mansion on Long Island in hopes of luring back the lost girl of his dreams.
“Gatsby was not a character,” the critic Alfred Kazin wrote, “but an idea of the everlasting self creation that Americans have mastered.”
In no other country in the world can a person do this. Our country is where you have the greatest possibility to make yourself who you want to be. You come here, learn English, change your name if you want, and follow your dream. That’s the reason why every group, every group that’s ever come here has done better here than where it came from.
Listen to Barack Obama tell his American story. “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather and a white grandmother. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and hue and for as long as I live I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
Just as we Americans are the land of the self invented, we’re also home to another personality of our character, the constant rebel.
The most popular movie ever made about American politics, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” which came out just as World War II was starting is the story not of a bigshot, but of a young guy who takes on the bigshots, who spots the rot at the top in our government, and risks all to save the country from it.
The young hero played by Jimmy Stewart is named Jefferson Smith, a direct heir to Thomas Jefferson who said, “A little revolution now and then was a good thing.
“You think I’m licked. You think I’m licked,” the movie’s hero yells from the senate floor. “I’m going to stay right here and fight this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies.”
It’s no wonder that the powers in Washington hated that movie, that Joe Kennedy, the movie mogul and the father of a president, and not the greatest Democrat in the world — I’m talking about Joe — tried to get Columbia Pictures to pull it. It’s not surprising either, that the American people, suspicious of power in high place, loved it. Kennedy said it would harm our image in those early days of World War II. On the contrary. When the Nazis declared a ban on all American movies in occupied France, theaters chose “Mr. Smith” as the last movie to be shown. Those French played it again and again, cheering this lonely young man’s struggle against tyranny.
We Americans love rebels against the system. It explains why John McCain managed to come out on top this year. He bucked the Republican Party and ended up looking better than the party. I don’t doubt his feistiness is what got him through those years of torture and solitary confinement in Hanoi. If he wins, it will be because he manages to still look like a rebel come election day.
As the great Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White put it, “In no other country in the world is aspiration so definite a part of life as it is in America. The most precious gift God has given to this land is not its riches of soil and forest and land, but the divine dissatisfaction planted deeply in the hearts of the American people.”
And, at our best, we root for the underdog. I know why Hillary Clinton identified with the beaten up prizefighter from the streets of Philadelphia. When she fought back in the Pennsylvania primary, we did see in her a lot of Rocky Balboa.
It was this individualism, this self invention, this rebelliousness, this looking out at our best for the little guy that shield us, we Americans, from the “isms” of the 20th Century and led us to champion the wars, hot and cold, against them.
There are a couple other traits we share, good traits.
An optimistic pioneer spirit that goes back to the expiration of this country itself. Daniel Boone and all the rest. It carries well into the future with Bill Gates. Look at the No. 1 movie at the box office these last two weeks: “Iron Man.” It’s about a wildly powerful inventor, and ultimately critic and enemy of state of the art weaponry.
When you go to Washington and you look up at that tiny Spirit of St. Louis hanging high in the air at the Air and Space Museum, you think, “wow.” However troubling his politics got later, Charles Lindbergh flew that little thing across the Atlantic Ocean.
Toward the end of World War II, and also Franklin Roosevelt’s life, a young sailor who was about to be sent off to the Aleutians, was allowed in to see the president. He was stunned by the president’s site, of a president of the United States sitting in a wheelchair. He was totally unprepared for it, and he started mumbling something about how the war was going with the president of the United States, the leader of the allies. And Roosevelt said this to him. “Don’t talk to me about the war. Tell me what you’re going to do after we’ve won.”
Here’s President John F. Kennedy speaking at American University in June of 1963. He was pushing for a limited nuclear test ban treaty but his words were larger still. “Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the unseemingly unsolvable and we believe they can do it again.”
Reagan was like that in a way. There really was a lot of “morning in America” spirit back then.
I cannot say who will be our next president. But history says it will be the candidate who comes across as the most gleamingly optimistic about this country, the one who, as I like to say, has the sun in his face.
I brought all these thoughts to you today about our self creation, about our rebellious spirit, about our rooting for the underdog, about our pioneer spirit, about our optimism for some very good reasons.
One, because there’s a push out there to define Americanism these days in a narrow, nationalistic sense.
In the years since our decision to go to war in Iraq, resisted by our old allies, there’s been a chauvinistic stupidity about the value of other countries. You know, the French fries, the freedom fries, the attacks on old Europe. If we were more confident of our own identity, if we “got it” about our own country, not that we’re better than them, but that we have some really good stuff going for us — I think then we wouldn’t be constantly knocking other countries.
Second, there’s been and certainly will be a lot of fighting on the radio especially about immigration these days, the fear that people cannot become Americans when they come here, which is what people have been doing for centuries, becoming Americans.
We need to keep in our minds that becoming an American is not only doable, but it’s demonstrably doable. Why? Because it’s not a matter of ethnicity, though speaking a common language makes sense, but of attitude.
The third thing that started in this very presidential campaign, is this penchant for separating people, quite openly, on the basis of ethnicity and race. I have never heard the use of the term “white” used so easily. So that people are now having their votes counted on the basis of race, gender and economics before they even walk into the voting booth.
We are becoming categories. A country of “we’s” against “they’s.” I fear at the end of this presidential election we may hear that phrase “hard working white Americans” still hanging in the air.
Fourth, there’s something else, this attack on freedom of expression. Ever since 9/11 there is a sense of national vulnerability, a nervousness about who’s being patriotic and who is not, Who said something you’re not supposed to say this week, whether it’s Bill Maher or the Dixie Chicks.
This is a country where you ought to be able to assert yourself. You ought to be able to speak your mind. I don’t like this fear of speaking out, this keeping our heads down and staying in line.
Arguing politics, arguing about the politics of foreign policy, whether the decision was right to invade and occupy Iraq was a smart move or it wasn’t; whether it’s right to keep our forces there, all this is a matter of honest debate. Arguing what’s good for this country isn’t unpatriotic. Speaking up can be the very essence of patriotism.
Finally, and this is really about you folks right out in front of me here, and I do envy you for what you’ve gotten through and you can only say to yourself, “Thank God I won’t have to get into this school!” Because it’s getting harder every year. You want your kids here though, that’s the other problem. You’ll get to there.
But finally I think a lot of people are heading into life right now with a kind of tunnel, me first vision=. That’s a pretty dark and narrow path to see ahead, I think. I think it’s better, more lively, to take a little wider view, look out the sides of the window as well as the windshield as you’re moving ahead. And you’re all going to be moving ahead.
You know, somebody said to me recently, a poll was taken that you young folks have never been asked to serve your country. Well, I’m asking. I don’t know how much each of you has it figured out yet. I don’t know how each of you can make things better in this country. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just rooting for this country, and what it stands for. Maybe it’s in the government or Peace Corps or making great movies. But I do think it’s good to be a person of your times but also of your country.
I’ve talked this morning about the latitude we have to live our lives in this country, to push away conformity, to demand your space, and of course, to speak your minds. I know this. If you don’t use it, you lose it. If you don’t do what you can to create your own life in this country, you’ll find your life being formed by others. I know that if you only think about your own course in life, and pay no attention to the world around you, you make it far too easy for those who want to run your life.
And I know this: the reason this country works, the reason people come here, the reason they make it here when they do is the love of individual freedom that’s in our cowboy souls. That and the optimism, yes, the audacity of hope, that rages here.
And I know because of all this that the most important facts about the future of this country lie in the plans, however sketchy, each of you out there have in your minds and hearts this morning. What you hope to do in your life is the first draft of what America is some day going to look like: A willingness of the heart, hold it dear.
I thank you for this honor, to share with you this glorious day. Thank you.