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 someday going to look like,” he said.

In between, he wove in 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, “shielded us from the ‘isms’ of the 20th century and led us to champion 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 loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw a breath of self respect.'” — to F. Scott Fitzgerald — “‘England is a people, France is a land but America having about it still that quality of an idea is harder to utter. It’s 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, then 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 make yourself who you want to be,” 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, forest 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 has the sun in his face,” Mattthews 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 Iraq, there’s been a 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 we’ve got some really good stuff going for us — I think then, we wouldn’t constantly be 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’ so easily used. People are having their votes counted on the basis of race, gender or economics before they even walk into the voting booth. We are becoming categories, a country of ‘we’s’ against ‘theys.'”

Fourth, an attack on freedom of expression. “Ever since 9/11 there’s been an attack on freedom of expression. There’s a sense of national vulnerability, nervousness about who’s being patriotic or who’s not, who said something you’re not supposed to say this week, whether it’s Bill Maher or the Dixie Chicks.

“You ought to be able to assert yourself and speak your mind,” he said emphatically.

“I don’t like this fear of speaking out.”

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 today are heading into life with a kind of tunnel, me-first vision. That’s a pretty dark and narrow way to see ahead.

“I think it’s better and more lively to take a 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 much each of you can make things better. Maybe it’s just rooting for this country and what it stands for, or maybe it’s in the government or in the Peace Corps or making great movies. But I 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 is the love of individual freedom that’s in our cowboy souls, that and the optimism, I know this. Yes, the audacity of hope that brings us here.”

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

“The most important fact about the future of this country lie in the plans, however sketched, each of you has in your minds and hearts this morning. What you hope to do in your life is the first draft of what America is someday going to look like:

“A willingness of the heart. Hold it dear.”