Speech by Former President William J. Clinton
Remarks by former President William J. Clinton
at Milton Academy’s Commencement
June 6, 2003
I used to say when I was President that I always had the privilege of speaking last and the burden of knowing that everything that really needed to be said had already been said. I never felt it so strongly as I do today. I would be very proud if I were the parents of Anna Elliot and Luke Harris. I would be very proud if I were the parents of the classmates that they discussed, and I feel a whole lot better about the future of my country after I heard these speeches by these two young people.Thank you very much. Mr. Silbaugh, Dr. Robertson, Members of the Board, faculty, parents, friends and students and graduates of this Class of 2003.
Some of you may know I’m here because of a friendship that goes back over 30 years, when I was barely older than you, with Ira Magaziner whose son John is a member of your class and who won a prize for dramatic performance at the National Forensics Championship. I have known John and his brother, Seth, who took his shirt off at graduation last year, and his sister, Sarah, who is also a student here and their mother Suzanne for a long time. I think John could have won a national award for dramatic performance when he was 5. And I’m very honored to be here and to be part of his graduation today, too.
I want to congratulate the speech and debate team for winning the tournament sweepstakes a few weeks ago. I could have used you in the White House, and I hope that you will keep debating. That’s a big part of what I want to say today.
Some of you know I am in the process of writing my memoirs. It is really a process of rediscovery, of recovery of lost memories, and it is remarkable when you get to be my age and you think about things that happened to you when you were your age. The most remarkable thing, which is a good argument for your keeping diaries now, is that I find that I can quite often remember with great clarity things that happened to me, but I’m not entirely sure how I felt about them at the time.
There’s a difference in remembering an occurrence, an encounter, a friend, an experience and remembering how you felt about it. But in all the archeological digs in my psyche, the biggest find I keep running across is the rich debt I owe to my teachers. My editor said that I may have more about my teachers in my memoirs than anybody who has ever written oneóunless he makes me cut some of it outóbut I realize now what a profound impact they had on me
from the beginning to the end of my educational experience, and how they made me hunger to learn for a lifetime; how they walked the fine line of making me believe that I was smart enough to learn anything that I needed to learn and keeping me humble enough to know that I had better keep on learning.
And so one thing I would like to say to you today is that everybody extols teachers at commencement. Most of them are grossly underpaid, most of them do what they do out of love and belief in the integrity and importance of their mission. And before you leave here today I hope you find a way to find and thank at least one of them for making your life better and stronger.
I have been touched in many ways by Milton Academy. From the time I was a young man I read and loved the poems of T.S. Elliot, Class of 1906. When I was President I gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to one of my public service heroes, Elliot Richardson, Class of 1937. I worked closely for eight years with Senator Edward Kennedy, Class of 1950, surely one of the dozen most effective United States Senators in either party in the last 100 years. And I worked side by side with Deval Patrick, Class of 1974, to advance the cause of civil rights.
I really first learned about Milton Academy from Deval, who grew up on Chicago’s rough south side. His father left home when Deval was 4. He was in elementary school next to one of the toughest housing projects in America, and then he applied to Milton and got in. And when the officials here told him to bring a jacket to campus, his grandmother bought him a windbreaker. They didn’t know what was meant.
He was terrified when he came, but one day in front of an assembly he was reading a Kipling poem and one of your great teachers, Mr. Millet, was in the audience. When Deval finished, when he told me this story, I’ll never forget this, he saw that Mr. Millet had tears in his eyes, and he realized, and I quote, “That’s the kind of thing that made a kid like me believe that things are going to work out.”
Things worked out pretty well for Deval Patrick. So again I say to Mr. Millet and all the other teachers here, I thank you. I thank you for taking in those who have been left out and for
challenging the privileged to reach beyond comfort to service to others.
Let me say one other thing to the Class of 2003. I am well aware I am now the only thing standing between you and your diploma. Almost 35 years ago to the day I graduated from Georgetown University on what started out to be a beautiful day like this in a great open space like this. My commencement speaker was the mayor of Washington, D.C., Walter Washington. And just as Mayor Washington was about to speak, this huge storm cloud rolled over and the thunder began, and it was obvious an enormous downpour was about to occur.
Therefore, I’m the only person present here today who remembers verbatim the commencement address given at his college graduation. The Mayor said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, if we don’t get out of here, we are all going to drown. I will send you a printed copy of my remarks, congratulations, good luck and God bless you.” My class would have voted for Mayor Washington for president that day. Since there aren’t any clouds, I won’t be that brief, but I will try to remember how popular he was with all of us.
I just want to make a couple of points to you today. First, the world that you enter today may seem quite different from the world that you found when you started Milton Academy. For during the last decade of the 20th century prospects seemed rosier, our economy was strong, poverty and inequality was down, the world was making progress toward peace from Northern Ireland to Bosnia and Kosovo to the Middle East to Africa. Science and technology seemed to offer limitless prospects for prosperity and progress and environmental protection.
In the last two and a half years you have seen a terrorist attack on the United States, the anthrax scare, terrorist attacks elsewhere, the collapse of the telecommunications industry, and the dot-com stocks, the reversal of economic progress and the rise of poverty, accompanied by, I must say regretfully, ever-bitter partisanship in the nation’s capital.
Here is the first point I want to make. You should be very concerned about the challenges we face today, but you have to understand them in the broader context, and you should also remember that sometimes there is a big difference between what’s in the headlines and the trend lines. The headlines are today’s news; the trend lines are the direction in which we are going.
And what I want to argue to you is that the trend lines in 2003 are not very different from the trend lines in 1999, good and bad. And they tell you what you should care about and do. In 1999 most Americans didn’t think we were vulnerable to terror but all of us who were paying attention did, and we tried to do something about it. There have been terrorist attacks on Americans for 20 years, then going all the way back to the late ’70s. They were just by and large in other countries, although the first World Trade Center attack was in ’93.
The dangers of unsecured chemical and biological and nuclear stocks were apparent then, and we were spending a lot of your tax money actually trying to secure them. On the other hand, in 2003 even though the economy is down, the telecommunications sector, which was devastated believe it or not, is still increasing at 50 to 75 percent a year and will help to lead us in the end to a brighter future.
We continue to have breathtaking scientific discoveries. Because of our ability to sequence the human genome, we have already analyzed the SARS virus in greater detail in a matter of weeks than we had in the first few years of the AIDS virus. So a lot of the good things that were more apparent four years ago are still a part of our reality today.
Think of all the good things that have happened since you have been here. The genome was
sequenced. And let me just mention what I think the relevance of that will be. When most of you have children you will bring your babies home from the hospital with a gene card that will tell you your child’s strengths and weaknesses. We have already identified the two main variances that are a high predictor of breast cancer, close on Alzheimer’s, close on Parkinson’s.
It will be frightening to some extent, but it will be encouraging because you can do these things and you can dramatically increase the quality and length of your children’s lives. I believe your children will have life expectancies well in excess of 90 years. Nanotechnology will help us develop diagnostic tools to find tumors at submicroscopic levels which may virtually make 100 percent of them curable which will dramatically change the meaning of middle age and late life in America and throughout the world.
While you worry about terror, there has never been an example in all of human history which terrorism has caused the collapse of a nation. When I was your age we were still worrying about nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union and China had nuclear weapons, too. Now we are largely reconciled to our former adversaries.
Even though I don’t think the rich countries of the world are doing near enough for the poor, they are sending more aid than ever before with more promise to come as the Congress just unanimously adopted the President’s recommendation to go to $3 billion a year in spending on AIDS. All these good things happened while you were here, too.
Here is the point I want to make. In the trend lines there are good and bad long-term developments, but they all reflect the fundamental nature of the world you will live in. And that is the world is growing more interdependent. It’s getting harder and harder for people to escape each other. You have people here from, what, 18 foreign countries in this class. After September 11, Hillary and I went down to one elementary school in Lower Manhattan that had beenóthe building had been damagedóand they were going somewhere else, and we went to encourage the kids. In this one elementary school there were children from over 80 different national and ethnic groups.
For good or ill, we cannot escape each other. That is the huge trend line. And, therefore, the major job of citizenship for the next 20 years will be to spread the benefits and reduce the risks of interdependence, to try to build a world community of shared benefits, shared responsibility and shared values. This is work you have already begun, believe it or not. Half of you serve in your community managing blood drives, hosting Special Olympics, helping the elderly, sorting food at neighborhood food banks. That’s an important part of it.
When Alexis de Tocqueville came here in the early part of the 19th century he said, citizen service was one of the defining national characteristics of America. I hope you will continue to do that; perhaps later in the Peace Corps or in AmeriCorps. I hope when you grow up, and some of you are going to get very wealthy, I hope you will take some of your time and money in service.
I’m very grateful that Ira Magaziner today is working with my foundation to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean. We are going out there trying to get cheaper AIDS drugs to all the 16 Caribbean countries and three in Africa that have 16 percent of the cases there. I hope you will continue to do this. It matters. One person’s service matters.
Second thing I want to say is I hope more of you will vote and feel comfortable thinking and debating out loud. Your generation has gotten a little bit of a bum rap as being selfish. That’s not true. You do any more community service than any generation before, much more than my generation did, but you are less likely to vote than any generation since the 18-year-old vote was granted.
I’m not quite sure why that is. Maybe it’s because you think there’s too much partisanship, maybe it’s because of the really mindless nature of a lot of the political debate that fills the television airways. But your vote clearly matters as you see in the last election. It’s better if it’s counted but in a close election it matters.
But I don’t think it’s enough. I was so glad to hear what you said about debate. I supported the resolution in Congress to give the President the authority to go forward in Iraq. I did not agree with the position that the French government took, but I was stunned at the level of demonization of France simply because they disagreed with us on how the UN inspection process should play out. Then it was almost as if no one could debate it.
So I went around America like a lost boy in the dark with a lantern. I’d go to crowds and say, ìNow, how many of you know that we are not going to Canada and we are condemning the Germans and condemning the French? how many of you know that Canadian, German and French soldiers are serving side by side with us in Afghanistan today looking for Osama Bin Laden. He’s the guy that caused September 11.” And I found out not many people did. I said, “How many of you know that this new Afghan army, which is very important to the long-term stability of Afhganistan, not having a resurgence of the Taliban, not having a resurgence of Al Qaidaóhow many of you know it’s being trained in a joint effort by only two militaries; the French and the Americans working together, while we’re saying we ought to rename french fries, for goodness sake.
I was stunned that in the last election cycle anybody who wasn’t for that Homeland Security Bill, which on balance I thought would probably do more good than harm so I wasn’t against it, but it was no panacea. I was stunned that anybody that wasn’t for it right then just the way it was written was all of a sudden someone that didn’t care about America and a traitor to his country. And because we stopped thinking, Max Cleland lost his Senate seat in Georgia.
Now, Max Cleland lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam, and he was defeated by a man like me who had deferments and didn’t go. Three deferrments. Max lost three limbs and the guy that beat him had three deferrments, and he convinced the voters Max wasn’t an patriot because he didn’t want to vote for the bill just exactly the way it was written. He wasn’t even against the Homeland Security Bill. That is evidence that when people get scared or discouraged or cynical or under stress, that’s when you need most to think; but that’s when it’s hardest to think.
So what I want to say to you is we may have another terrorist attack that succeeds in America, but we will not be destroyed by it. Look at what the Israelis have done. Look at what they lived with. We can only be destroyed or permanently scarred if we react to the present moment in a way that changes the character of our nation or compromises the future of our children. It is our reaction that is at issue here.
So I say to you, I want you to serve, I want you to vote, but most important I want you to think and talk and debate. There are three questions that will shape your future, and I’m not going into it today except to say here are what the questions are and you need to have your answer. What is the nature of the modern world? Global interdependence. I have
already covered that.
Second question is: What should we do about it? We talked a little bit about that. We need a security strategy, we need a strategy for more friends and fewer enemies, we need a strategy for more cooperation. We have got to keep making America better.
Third question is: How should we do it? Should we act on our own? Should we cooperate with others when it suits us, or should we strive to build international cooperation whenever possible. Now I favor the latter, though you can’t give up the other options.
But my point is, you don’t have to agree with me, but you have got to be able to answer those questions. You have to be able to think and talk and debate and discuss and answer those questions. What is the world like into which you will bring your children? What should you do about it to make it better and how should you do it?
No matter what your background, no matter whether you are in music or science or the humanities, you need to be able to ask and answer those questions, and I hope it will lead you to intelligent debate and to voting and to service. Let me say this in closing. I can honestly tell you that in spite of all the fights I was in as President, all the battles I fought, the ones I won and the ones I didn’t, on the day I walked out of the White House I was more idealistic about the possibilities of free men and woman to solve their problems, meet new challenges, and make changes, than I was on the day I walked in.
I believe–look, there is a reason that we have been around here for over 200 years. More than half the time on the big questions, more than half the people will do the right thing if they have the information and they have the context. You have an unbelievable gift in the education you have here. It’s going to propel you into further education that will give you greater gifts. But just remember, there is always going to be some difference between the headlines and the trend lines. You have to see the big things and keep your eyes on the big picture. And you have to yearn down deep inside to make the world different, and you have to be willing to serve and devote, yes, but first to think and to discuss.
Freedom requires thought and then action, and if you give both those things to your future, you will live in the most interesting, diverse period of discovery, peace and prosperity the world has ever known.
All of human history is a race between the builders and the wreckers. You’re just dealing with the latest chapter. And every single time–before it was too late–the builders have prevailed, the forces of hope have prevailed over the forces of fear, the forces of unity and community have prevailed over the forces of those who thought our differences were more important than our common humanity. It will come out that way again if only you do your part.
Thank you. God bless us and good luck.
Speech by Luke Harris, Class of 2003
Mr. President, members of the Board of Trustees, Doctor Robertson, members of the faculty, and administration, parents, family and friends, students and members of the Class of 2003. Like any nice Jewish boy I shall begin with my mother; my mother who by the time I was born in 1984 had already practiced the male-dominated profession of law for thirteen years and had already read every famous feminist treatise from The Second Sex to Sisterhood is Powerful. She wanted me to grow up without the slightest speck of male chauvinism.
Instead of feeding me a healthy diet of baseball cards and Sports Illustrated, she left me in front of the VCR to watch her entire collection of Broadway musicals. So by the time I reached first grade while all the other boys were singing “Take me out to the ballgame, take me out to the crowd,” I was signing “The sun will come out tomorrow”; “Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset”; “Don’t cry for me Argentina.”
I followed my mother’s idea of trying to be individualistic so I took up short track speed skating. The sport where you race around the link for ten laps in tights looking at the butt of the person in front of you. So at the age of 9 I was given skates with 14-inch blades and a suffocating tight suit. Let me paint a mental mixture for you. Have you ever seen how a hot dog is packed in the frozen food section of the supermarket? Picture 5 feet of that on ice skates.
Now, I remember that I was invited to Lennie Bergerson’s older brother’s bar mitzvah, and we celebrated by having a skating party. And while the other boys showed up in their hockey garb, I showed up in my skating outfit; knee pads, a helmet, skates, and the tights. So while the girls were pirouetting and the boys were passing pucks, I was doing laps around the rink. To say the least I was an individual.
Once I started down the path of individuality, I thought I would never look back; but lately I have been worrying that I have lost my way. I feel controlled by a force stronger than gravity, a force that’s pushed me to abandon my neatness for SAT vocabulary words and sanctioned extracurricular activities. The force is the push on all of us not to make any career mistakes, to be perfect adolescents on the way to college.
The push has become stronger than the pole to experiment, create, explore, and be oneself. It is a force of conformity. It is a force that blocks risk-taking. And with each passing generation it exerts its push earlier in chapters of our biographies. Maybe it’s a generation thing. My grandfather’s generation saved the world when the stakes were high. My father’s generation were rebels at our age. They were the beatniks, the hipsters, the yuppies, the groupies. They were the civil rights workers, the Peace Corps volunteers, the war protesters. They hitchhiked cross country from Selma, Alabama, to Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, to Woodstock.
They grew up in an era more forgiving to young people when the stakes did not seem so high. My generation is becoming the yuppies that my parents scorned. We are the most over-protected, over-monitored, and over-scrutinized on record. We were the babies of “baby on board”. We were the babies for whom living rooms were baby-proofed. We were the babies who were monitored by baby monitors. We were the children who benefited from parental advisory labels. We are the adolescents who, by almost never making the mistakes our parents made, are doing them proud.
Modern high school is a strange hybrid. A cross between an institution of higher learning and a daycare center. We are entrusted with the revolutionist teachings of Mao, Che and Marx, yet every time we have to visit a member of the opposite sex in a dorm we have to put a shoe in the door. We are getting ready to change the world while the deans are setting the limits.
A subtle manifestation of this limiting setting is the need not to hurt anyone’s feelings. Our fear of offending literally anyone has gone so far as to endanger our collective sense of humor. Through humor we can laugh at ourselves, but if everything and everyone is off limits, then there will be no controversy, there will be no humor. Woody Allen will be gone; Richard Prior, gone; Jerry Seinfeld, gone; Saturday Night Live, gone; Oscar Wilde, gone; Moliere, gone; Shakespeare, gone.
Maybe it isn’t a generation thing. Maybe it’s just the fear of the moment, of Columbine, of the Twin Towers, microscopic poisoned powders in the mail. This fear, however, has been morphed into a cold sweat about being different from others. In our politically correct zeal to tolerate each other’s individuality, we have ironically become more homogenized. Our mass media concentrated in a smaller and smaller number of outlets has reinforced this homogeneity.
We are so bombarded by commercials that we cannot help but internalize the billboard norms. We are told subliminally to dress the same, act the same, and essentially be the same so we all buy the same products. The powerful media ads pressure us to tune out politically. Rather than to protest or advocate, we are bombarded with messages to consume. Even the music industry, which in the 20th century was one of the best mediums to express social awareness, rebellion, and social change, has now been co-opted into a big money grubbing business.
Pop culture has gone from the Beatles singing about “giving peace a chance” to many modern pop stars advertising their favorite products in their songs. My hope is that a few, brave graduates from Milton Academy will fight the forces that block their individuality, their passion, their humor. In the words of the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, “They become themselves before someone else does.” And for their courage they will be rewarded as masters of their craft, beacons for their own children’s generation, and dreamers of the impossible dream. Thank you.
Speech by Anna Elliot, Class of 2003
Good morning. Thank you. Mr. President, Doctor Robertson, trustees, faculty, family, friends, students and the Class of ’03. As some of you may already know I grew up in France. In France they have this wonderful technique for teaching us called humiliation. When my math teacher would give the test back, she would give them out in order from highest to lowest grade and, of course, I was always the last kid to get the test back. And she stood in front of the class and cackled, ha-ha-ha, guess what the engineer got this time. Oo-la-la, maybe she will be a mathematician one day. 3 out of 20. Quel improvement. Up from zero from last week. Idiote.
And I had this other teacher who was always screaming at me. Get your head out of the clouds, and also throwing chalk in my face whenever I was daydreaming. He called me useless butterfly brain. I was always such a space cadet. I still am. And then one fine day I arrived at Milton. And like Mr. Fitz said, I walked into that first class with Miss Neely and she said, All right, kids. Let’s take our shoes off. And I said, What is this place? And she gave us this big paper and paint brushes and she said, Okay, now let’s have a conversation with the paint. I said, Yes. I’m in my element, another butterfly brain.
And then I saw this assembly with this skit. I had never seen a skit before. It was the first time I had ever seen a skit, and it was hilarious, and then someone showed me this independent student newspaper. Milton was simply overflowing with student energy and creativity and talent. I was in total culture shock but also in total bliss. And once I grew accustomed to my life at Milton, I started learning more about what it’s like to be 18 years old in America.
And it’s really a funny thing because our parents have done everything they can to give us the best lives possible, and I can’t even begin to imagine the sacrifices and the amount of work that our parents have gone through in order for us to go to a school like Milton, but if you read in between the lines I honestly sometimes feel like my parents are saying, You know, what, kid, I sent to you this school because, well, I had all these ideals and we made a few flaky mistakes along the way. Now we have given you everything so you can save the world.Talk about high expectations.
Just a few days ago for graduation rehearsal we were told “don’t wear anything too creative, don’t fidget, look interested even though you may not be.” Miss Brewer. The eyes of the world are watching. You would think this was France or something. “Don’t fidget.”
The problem is our whole generation has had everything given to us so, yes, on the one hand we are extremely grateful, but on the other we are sometimes passive and sometimes apathetic, and we don’t know what to do about it. Martin Luther King said, “It’s that creative minority that always changes history.” That creative minority that always changes history. Milton’s legacy is just that. Creative and daring leaders.
If Milton is to be true to its motto, it mustn’t follow the trends of society towards conformity and sterility. Milton must dare to be a place that attracts this creative minority of thinkers and activists who will gather here to change history, reject the status quo, and improve our world. We don’t know what the best voice is to use for change. We don’t know how to stop a war, challenge an administration, or reclaim our media.
We don’t know because we were told don’t make the same mistakes we did, behave. And we feel powerless like we can’t make a difference, like it is completely out of our control so we clamp the blinders on and keep going on with our daily lives. We don’t vote. We don’t know how to change anything because it is all so complicated, and it is so much easier to worry about homework and not deal with this chaotic outside world. Amidst this overwhelming confusion there also lies a kind of inner sadness. A certain kind of hollowness that I don’t really know what to call, and I can’t really put my finger on it, but I really believe that there is something calling out within all of us and we are not listening to it. I’m talking about that voice that you hear sometimes right before you go to sleep after you stop thinking about all those tests you have and the fight you just had and the meetings you have tomorrow, after all that kind of calms down and goes away you are left with a silence and a voice that’s kind of saying, “Hey, psst, Anna, what is the meaning in your life?” And it’s so easy to kind of just do a U-turn whenever you see this trouble part of you and so easy to say, “Whoa, I do not want to go there right now.”
And yet, yet I have found that if I truly listen to this little voice and nurture it and let it sing a little, when I surrender my philosophical, analytical, academic self, that is when I find this overwhelming light spirit within me, and I begin to see so much enchanting beauty everywhere. It’s that elated feeling you get sometimes in sports when you are in the zone of giving everything up and just letting your body make that perfectly effortlessly. It is about listening more to that part of you that speaks through improvised jazz, freestyle poetry, and abstract painting. It’s like pure bliss is just entering yourself and allowing you to you release all the joy you have inside.
And it is difficult. It takes courage to confront what is deepest within us. But I’m convinced if we can do this, if we can cultivate a peaceful center to our lives and combine that with the intelligence and confidence that Milton has given us, if we can put our education to the best of its use and nourish that awareness, we will be able to accomplish anything. And this may sound hopeful, but I really don’t think it is naive, we will be able to look at the problems of the world in the eye and take a deep, compassionate breath and say, Okay, I am ready.
Milton and our parents have given this extraordinary gift and tremendous burden, and when I look at the eclectic brilliance and talent that is unique to this class, I’m confident that we can let our intellect and our inner strength guide us to take on the challenges of our generation. I can’t think of a better gift for the world. Thank you.