“The Reform Generation and History’s Mysterious Cycle”

Commencement address by E. J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post columnist
May 19, 2008

Full text as prepared.

Columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.
Columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.

President Hatch, distinguished faculty and staff, families, friends, and above all, members of the very accomplished Class of 2008:

It is both an honor and a joy to be able to join you today. This is an extraordinary institution, you are an extraordinary generation, as I’ll be insisting today, and you have at this university an extraordinary president.

I first began reading Nathan Hatch’s work with admiration and to great profit almost 20 years ago. And then I had the opportunity to get to know him. It is one of life’s great events to get to meet a writer and a thinker you admire – and it’s even better to learn that the person in question is as warm, thoughtful and delightful in person as he or she is in print. It doesn’t always happen that way. President Hatch is a scholar, a thinker and a doer, about the best combination in a college president I can imagine. You’re lucky to have him.

As you all probably know, the worst kind of speech to give is a commencement address. The people in the room who matter are absolutely everyone — parents, graduates, teachers — except the person giving this speech. Careful academic studies have shown how speeches of this sort are remembered. Four percent of commencement speeches are remembered because they were really good. Twenty-two percent of commencement speeches are remembered because they were really bad. Forty-six percent of commencement speeches are remembered because they were way too long. The rest of the respondents said they couldn’t remember a single word of what was said when they earned their degree.

This study I just cited was made up out of whole cloth, and if you ever do such a thing, you will be hauled before a disciplinary body or a Congressional committee. But the spirit of those numbers is certainly right, and I’ll try hard to bear them in mind today.

The folks most likely to remember today are your parents. Can we offer a hand for them? I thought being a parent was easy until I became one. It is one of the flaws in the way we’re built that it is not possible for a son or a daughter to know how much love, pride, anxiety, concern, interest and joy that a child brings a parent until the child in question has kids of his or her own. At that moment, we understand what our parents went through—but our kids don’t have a clue as to how we are feeling or what we are going through.

It keeps going on like that, but, somehow, we have survived as a species. And this explains why grandparents and grandchildren are so close. What do they have in common? A common enemy.

I learned from my friend Samantha Power, the great writer, human rights activist and fellow Red Sox fan, that no address of this sort is complete without the classic baseball lesson, my first lesson of this speech. And since Wake is such a fine baseball school, that is a great place to begin. I quote here the version offered a few years back by Samantha: “One of the reasons I love baseball is that the best players in the game hit .300. That means that seven out of ten trips to the plate, they grab the bat eagerly, step into the batters’ box, fail at their task, and return to their dugouts, shoulders drooped in despair.” (My baseball-playing son would note that this leaves out walks and the on-base-percentage, but never mind.)

“You never know, in failing, what you are inspiring in others,” Samantha concludes. “Are you legitimating a way of seeing? A way of behaving? [To switch sports metaphors] are you moving the ball down the field just an inch?”

So it may seem strange to start off with this lesson, but daring to fail is the only way to succeed. It’s essential to accept that life will always hand you defeats as well as victories, and what matters is what you do with both of them. Being prepared to lose is the only way to win. Being willing to strike out is the only way to hit .300. And, when it comes to politics and public life, remember that, thank God, in a democracy, just as there are no final victories, there also are no final defeats.

I would also commend to you another lesson, which is to please cultivate a sense of humor, especially a sense of humor about yourself. If you write a newspaper column, you hear a lot from those critics now, thanks to e-mail. They are even tougher than the very toughest teachers you had here at Wake, and some of what they write me can even be repeated in polite company. My favorite critic once wrote: “Dear Mr. Dionne: Are you as dumb in person?” If nothing else comes of this talk, you’ll at least be able to answer that question for yourself.

Most of our very best public servants have cherished wit, irony and laughter. They needed it to survive in the work that they did. The late Texas Governor Ann Richards is a prime example. Richards once observed that the price of gasoline had gotten so high that Texas women who wanted to run over their husbands had to carpool. She also regularly cited a gentleman called Carl Parker who said: “If you took all the fools out of the Legislature, it would not be a representative body anymore.”

Another truly amusing politician—not for what he did, but what he said in rather dire circumstances—is former Governor Edwin Edwards of Lousiana. He was indicted so often that he once told voters that they had to know he was honest—because no one had been acquitted as often as he had been. He eventually went to the slammer, but he still had an unusual sense of self-awareness. Running in the middle of a deep recession against an incumbent, he said: if you re-elect my opponent, there will be nothing left for me to steal. He also said: my opponent is so dumb that it takes him two hours to watch 60 Minutes.

And watching this campaign has occasionally brought to mind Mark Shields’ story about a political consultant for a less than inspiring candidate who advised as follows: “You can fool some of the people all of the time. And those are the ones you should concentrate on.”

But Shields can laugh at politicians easily because he believes in democracy so much. Therefore, a third lesson: no matter how well-educated you feel yourself to be, never, ever treat with contempt or disrespect those who have less formal education than you do. No matter how much you think you know, please don’t fall into the trap of ignoring the insights and the wisdom of those who are often described as “ordinary people” but are anything but ordinary.

If you believe in democracy, you must believe in the judgments of those extraordinary ordinary people. The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr offered the finest aphorism I know on behalf of democracy. “Man’s capacity for good makes democracy possible,” he said. “Man’s capacity for evil makes democracy necessary.” We need democracy because it allows us to aspire to the joys of self-rule. We also need democracy because it accepts the need to give the people the opportunity to check the powerful — especially when the powerful abuse their power.

In his fine book, “The Democratization of American Christianity,” your president Hatch noted that the American Revolution “dramatically expanded the circle of people who considered themselves capable of thinking for themselves about issues of freedom, equality, sovereignty and representation.” If we have an aristocracy in the United States, it is an aristocracy of everyone, as a friend of mine likes to say. You earn respect by respecting others and you learn by remembering that every single person on this earth — rich or poor, formally educated or self-educated—knows things you don’t know and can teach you things you need to know.

Which leads to another rule: To be effective in life, you really need to know something. You can’t give up on the need to keep learning—ever. Remember, the word “commencement” means “beginning” not “end.”

You can have good intentions. You can have the best goals in the world. But if you don’t take the time to learn specific skills, specific facts, to know what you’re doing and what you’re talking about, you won’t ever be able to change or fix anything.

My friend Bill Galston is a philosopher of a very practical bent. He once wrote: “There’s a big distinction between embracing the proposition that man does not live by bread alone and not bothering to learn how a bakery operates in the modern world. There are new and improved ways of baking bread that make bread more available, more cheaply to more people.”

I love what Bill said because (A.) Bill takes what has become a cliché, even if it is a very noble one, and makes it fresh, and (B.) He shows that a philosopher can be practical. Bread may not be the most important thing, but it surely is important and you’d better know how it’s made. Not a bad metaphor for life. Practicality should not be made the enemy of the moral and the idealistic, just as idealism is not the enemy of practicality.

And that gets me to the one big point I want to make today. It is a point about you and your generation.

Your generation is poised to become one of the great reforming generations in our country’s history – if you decide to take on this challenge.

I drew the title of this talk from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s great 1936 speech at the Democratic National Convention. Since Ronald Reagan loved FDR, consider it a bi-partisan reference. There were many lines in that speech I love and I will give just a tad of political content to these remarks by citing one of my favorites: “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” I do think that’s true.

But what’s most relevant for today is this moment in Roosevelt’s speech: “There is a mysterious cycle in human events,” Roosevelt said. “To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

I believe those words apply more truly to your generation than to any other since FDR addressed them to what came to be known as the Greatest Generation. Of course the Greatest Generation—tested and tempered by Depression and war — didn’t know at the time that they would become The Greatest Generation, and you don’t know yet whether you will be the next Great Generation. But I believe that you can be and, if I may be so bold, I believe you will be.

Now the surest indication of creeping middle age is a proclivity toward whiny speeches about what’s wrong with the new generation. Perhaps because I don’t want to have anything to do with creeping middle age, I have a very positive and entirely uncranky view of your generation.

Your generation has been exceptional in its devotion to service—in tutoring and mentoring, at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, in environmental programs and community organizing. You combine the idealism of the sixties with the practical concerns of the generations of the 1980s and the 1990s. It’s wrong to stereotype generations, but since I’m praising you, I didn’t think you would mind. You’re more practical than many who came out of the 1960s and more idealistic than many who came out of the 1980s. You want to do good, but you want the good you do to last. You’re willing to take risks, but you are not foolhardy. You have doubts about politics, but you’re willing to give politics a chance. You have no illusions, but you do have hopes.

The healthy balance I see in your approach to the world was nicely captured exactly 100 years ago by Theodore Roosevelt when he said: “A blind and ignorant resistance to every effort for the reform of abuses and the readjustment of society … represents not true conservatism, but an incitement to the wildest radicalism; for wise radicalism and wise conservatism go hand in hand, one bent on progress, the other bent on seeing that no change is made unless in the right direction.” That, I think, is your approach.

In our nation’s history, the great reforming generations are the ones that marry their aspirations to service with the possibilities of politics. They harness the good work done one-on-one, in local communities, to larger movements for change in our nation and our world. They remember what the philosopher Michael Sandel has taught us, that “when politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.”

Your generation has the opportunity to restore a faith in public life that began eroding before you were born, in the divisions bred by the Vietnam War and in the ashes of public trust left by the fires of the Watergate scandal. Your generation has a chance to get us past the wreckage of the old culture wars, past the debris of prejudice on the grounds of race, gender, class and sexual preference, past the disappointments of government failures and our loss of faith in our collective capacities.

Nearly half a century ago, John F. Kennedy declared: “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or with any other generation.” I do not envy your generation the problems you are inheriting, but I do envy the opportunity you have to break with failure, with flawed ideas, and with old arrangements.

The great historian Arthur Schlesinger sensed an opening such as this one when he wrote in 1960: “At periodic moments in our history, our country has paused on the threshold of a new epoch in our national life, unable for a moment to open the door, but aware that it must advance if it is to preserve its national vitality and identity. One feels that we are approaching such a moment now—that the mood which has dominated the nation for a decade is beginning to seem thin and irrelevant; that it no longer interprets our desires and needs as a people; that new forces, new energies, new values are straining for expression and for release.”

You are special because you are daring to hope again. Do not believe that hope is naïve. If hope for social change and inventiveness were naïve, then the Exodus would never have happened, and the disciples would never have left the upper room. The pilgrims would have stayed home. Our Founders would have paid their tea taxes and saluted the king. The abolitionists would have given up. Eisenhower, Churchill and Roosevelt would have called off D-Day. Rosa Parks would have gone to the back of the bus. If hope were naïve, our air and water would still be dirty, our elderly would lack health insurance, and you’d be communicating by telegraph instead of IM-ing and texting each other. Although as the father of teenagers, I can tell you there’s a lot to be said for the old telegraph.

No, hope is not naïve. Hope accepts the human tendency to sin, but also our capacity for transcendence. Hope is realistic about what is, but imagines what might be. Hope sees through empty cynicism and sees around the corners of our current difficulties. Hope is the virtue on which faith and love depend.

Yes, I am laying upon you a heavy burden, but that is because I believe you are a very special generation. I am not just asking you, as commencement speakers always do, to work hard, to lead happy and successful lives, to love your families, and to be good to your own kids—although I want you to do all those things, too. I am calling upon you to be the generation that transforms charity into justice, cynicism into hope, division into dialogue, selfishness into generosity, impatience with politicians into a belief in the possibilities of politics and public life.

Fifty years from now, I want the person standing in my place, talking to the class of 2058, to be able to say that you, the class of 2008, were part of the Greatest Generation that transformed a time of peril and confusion into an era of reform and renewal. And I actually believe you’ll do it.

Thank you, and Godspeed.