Matthews urges graduates to grab hold of their place in history

Be a person of your times but also of your country, said Chris Matthews to the Class of 2008 during the 147th Commencement ceremony.

The journalist, political commentator and host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” wove in a message of self-creation and optimism for America, telling the audience of more than 14,500 that the future of this country lies sketched out in the minds and hearts of the 2,655 graduates sitting before him.

“”What you hope to do in your life is the first draft of what America is some day going to look like,” he said.

In between, he discussed themes he thought made America the country that it is: individualism, self-invention, rebelliousness, looking out for the little guy and an optimistic, pioneering spirit.

All of these, according to Matthews, “shield us from the ‘isms’ of the 20th century and led us to champion the wars, hot and cold, against them.”

He began his speech talking about the current political climate and the upcoming presidential election. “I cannot recall a time when there’s been so much excitement, so much passion for an American election,” he said, citing the polarities that exist in this country over the candidates.

“‘Us’ vs. ‘them’? Is this guy ‘one of us’? Is she ‘one of us’? Is that other guy ‘one of us’?” he asked. “Who is this ‘we’?”

He went on to define this “we,” quoting such figures as Adlai Stevenson — ” ‘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.'” — to F. Scott Fitzgerald — “‘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 become what and who you want to become. That is rare,” Matthews said.

“Every day in this country, this American story of self-creation has been driven by millions of individual stories of self-creation,” he said. “Some celebrated, many that should be celebrated.”

He went on to cite examples, such as the young acrobat named Archie Leach who wanted to be an actor, came to St. Louis to hone his skills at the Municipal Opera and eventually became Cary Grant. Or the story of the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who began selling ties from leftover fabric and made himself into fashion mogul Ralph Lauren.

“In no other country in the world … can a person do this,” Matthews said. “Every group that’s ever come here has done better here than where it came from.”

Matthews cited another personality of the American character: the constant rebel. Americans love rebels against the system, Matthews said, quoting newspaper editor William Allen White: “‘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 American people.'”

He lauded the optimistic pioneering spirit prevalent in Americans from the Founding Fathers to Daniel Boone to Bill Gates, putting it again into a political context. He said history reveals that the next president 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,” Matthews said.

Matthews then gave the assembly four reasons why his message of self-creation, rebelliousness, rooting for the underdog and pioneer spirit was important.

First, he said, Americanism is being defined in a narrow, nationalistic sense.

“In the years since our decision to go to war in Iraq … there’s been a chauvinistic stupidity about the value of other countries,” he said. “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, immigration: “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 demonstrably doable. It’s not a matter of ethnicity … but of attitude.”

Third, he said, the penchant for separating people by ethnicity or 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.'”

Fourth, an 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,” he said emphatically.

“I don’t like this fear of speaking out, this keeping our heads down and staying in line.”

Matthews characterized the arguing of politics and foreign policy as a matter of honest debate. “Arguing what’s good for this country isn’t unpatriotic,” he said. “Speaking up can be the very essence of patriotism.”

With that, the crowd erupted in applause.

He concluded his speech by speaking directly to the graduates.

“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 way to see ahead,” he said.

“I think it’s better and 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.”

Matthews then gave the Class of 2008 a challenge: “Young folks have never been asked to serve your country. Well, I’m asking.

“I don’t know how each of you can make things better in this country. 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.

“Demand your space, and of course, speak your minds. 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. … The reason this country works, the reason people come here, the reason they make it here is the love of individual freedom that’s in our cowboy souls. That and the optimism, yes, the audacity of hope, that rages here.”

He closed by encouraging the graduates to grab hold of their place in history.

“The most important facts about the future of this country lie in the plans, however sketchy, each of you out there has 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.”

To view the full transcript of Matthews’ speech, please click here.