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Tom Brokaw's Commencement remarks

  • Tom BrokawTom Brokaw provided the address at the College of William and Mary's 2009 Commencement Ceremony.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    Tom Brokaw

The following is a transcription of the 2009 Commencement address given by Tom Brokaw at the College of William and Mary - Ed.

To those of you who are family and friends, I know how important this moment means to you. To those of you who are parents, think of this not as losing a son or a daughter, but as regaining a checkbook now, if you will.

I want to say at the outset, to the graduating class, it's not only a privilege to be your commencement speaker here today, but it's also a great relief because it dawned on me as I arrived that if I were speaking at UVA, I would have to speak much more slowly and use much shorter words.

And I must say that it is a very emotional experience for me to stand before you at this institution, that has such a rich history-the long line of your distinguished graduates. And as I reviewed them I thought of how so many of them have ensured their place in history by just a few words. Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident." George Washington: "The father of our country." Chief Justice John Marshall: "The rule of law."

So I called on another distinguished graduate of William & Mary, a historic figure in his own right, my friend Jon Stewart. And I said, "Jon, what are the words that will linger with your association of William & Mary for the rest of your life and beyond?"
He thought for a moment and he said: "Just four words. Paul's Delly cheese fries."

I must tell those of you who are graduating without honors today that you have lots of company, including your commencement speaker. In fact, after I left the University of South Dakota with my degree in political science, the department there, headed by a legendary figure who served that university for 60 years and turned out a record number of Rhodes Scholars and governors and senators and some journalists. When I began to achieve some prominence in my field, Washington University in St. Louis decided it would be appropriate to award me an honorary degree, the university called my department head, Bill Farber, and said, "We'd like to check on Tom Brokaw. Is there something we should know about him as we prepare to give him this honorary degree?"

And Bill said to the president of Washington University, "To be perfectly candid, we thought the first degree we gave him was honorary."

I wish all of you could have the vantage point that I have here now. I want you to savor this moment; this is a portrait of the American dream. The richness and the diversity of this audience and what we come here to celebrate today-these ceremonies are unfolding across America and they are unique to this <inaudible> place that we call home. You find here, the working class and the privileged. You find a prosperous <inaudible>. You find the recent immigrant and the long-standing American. You find ethnic, racial and cultural diversity, the likes of which you would not have found in these occasions just 20 years ago.

So we know that these are difficult times, but these occasions are reaffirmation of the American dream. And for all the graduates and families and those of us who are privileged to be guests, this is a sense of renewal.

My friend, the late and exceptionally gifted humor columnist Art Buchwald, liked to conclude his commencement addresses by saying to graduates, "We have given you a perfect world; don't screw it up."

It was always good for a laugh, whatever the circumstances at the time.

But of course, in these times it is a little difficult for me to issue the same order to the class of 2009, even in jest.

You are leaving this sanctuary of learning and innocence in a season of uncertainty and anxiety. Daily there are painful reminders that the economic model that has defined your lives in too many ways has proven to be a house of cards. Indeed, it is a shambles that will not be easily repaired, and even then, it will have a far different shape and evoke far different expectations.

Somehow, we lost our way and allowed greed and excess to become the twin pillars of too much of the financial culture. We became a society utterly absorbed and addicted to consumption, and dismissive of moderation. A friend, a very successful businessman who nonetheless lives a temperate life, says appropriately that in the future, we have to replace want with need. It's not what we want that should rule our lives but what we need. And, it goes without saying, what we can afford.

Something fundamental has happened and there will be long-term consequences when it comes to risk and debt and economic assumptions. That does not mean you will be consigned to a life of deprivation and struggle. America remains a land of economic opportunity with a standard of living that even in the most constricted circumstances, that standard of living is well beyond the hope of hundreds of millions of people in less developed countries.

You can still become wealthy, but how-and what you do with that wealth-that is viewed as success.

It is not a perfect world well beyond the economic conditions, of course. America remains engaged in two wars with no tidy end in sight. Rogue nations with nuclear arms, or the potential for acquiring them, show no signs of immediate good behavior.

The vital signs of your mother-Mother Earth-have taken a turn the worse and the prescribed treatment is at once complex and controversial.

How we fuel our fundament appetite for energy-for consumer, industrial and technological and electrical power, for vehicular power-without exacerbating global climate change, is an urgent question for your time.

In short, how we all live now on a smaller planet with many more people, is a reality that will test your generation for decades to come the rest of your lives.

What more could a generation ask?

We may not have given you a perfect world, but we have given you dynamic opportunities for leaving a lasting legacy as a generation that was fearless and imaginative, tireless and selfless in pursuit of solutions to these monumental problems, a generation that emerged from this financial tsunami and re-built the financial landscape of their lives with an underpinning of sound values and an eye for proportion, knowing in fact that on some occasions, less can be more.

It will not be easy but I promise you it will be rewarding in ways that a Wall Street bonus or a shot on American Idol cannot compete.
These, after all, are the tests that imprint a generation for the long curve of history's judgment.

Those who take an inventory of our time a hundred years from now-or a thousand-will not measure our success or failure by the actions of President Barack Obama alone. We're all on the scorecard now, and we cannot escape that judgment by evasion or prevarication.

So, where to begin?

That's a decision you are best prepared to make. And it will be the most rewarding for you if it is rooted in a personal passion and carried out with purpose, even if the first steps are small.

You have at your disposal an assortment of nimble and powerful tools that can assist you-cyberspace, the Internet with its vast universe of information and capacity for research and communication played out on ever-smaller devices across an ever wider spectrum of choices.

But those are tools not oracles; they complement your mind and your heart. They do not replace them.

You'll not solve global warning by hitting the delete button; you'll not be able to eliminate reckless avarice by hitting backspace; you'll not make society more just by cutting and pasting.

You should not as well surrender the essence of the human experience to 146 characters in Twitter or a Facebook, however seductive the temptation.

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but you'll not get a Google alert when you fall in love. You may be guided by the unending effort of poets and artists, biologists and psychiatrists to describe that irreplaceable and still mysterious emotion so essential to the human condition, but all the search engines in the universe cannot compete with the first kiss.

It will do us little good, in other words, to wire the world, if we short-circuit our souls.

And remember, as well, that somehow, before BlackBerries and IPhones, laptops and video games, great and welcome change was achieved.

Some of you know that I have written about what I call the "greatest generation," young men and women, who, in their formative years, came of age in the greatest depression the world has ever known. And then just when they were beginning to emerge from it, the commander in chief asked them to go thousands of miles across the Atlantic and thousands of miles across the Pacific and fight the two greatest military machines that had ever been assembled, while at home, enormous sacrifices were made and women went to the shipyards to become welders and into the laboratories to become technicians and scientists and farmers grew more and civilians were paid less to that the troops could have what they wanted.

And in a surprisingly short period of time, America prevailed and saved the world. It would have been easy enough for that generation to come home and say "I've done my share. I'm going to put down my arms and go back to my home and just worry about me." But instead, they got married in record numbers and went to college in record numbers and got involved in science and industry and gave us the life that we have today and they did not whine and they did not whimper. They didn't ask for credit, because they thought that this was their responsibility as American citizens.

In so many ways, President Obama is a child of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was just a few years older than those of you who are graduating when he began a historic moral and nonviolent crusade against racial injustice, armed with his eloquence and passion, courage and conviction. He moved the nation and liberated all of us from the unconscionable weight of racial inequality and segregation. And somehow he managed to do that without a cell phone or laptop, without a web site or a social network.

In 1989 a lone and still anonymous Chinese student stood unarmed in front of a Chinese tank and gave us all an enduring image of the determination of China's young to change their nation. He didn't text message the tank or share a YouTube.

He put his feet on the ground and his life on the line.

In my travels in this country and abroad, to the inner cities and rural backwaters, to the worst neighborhoods and the most hateful killing fields, to the most impoverished countries, to war zones and sites of natural disasters, the most impressive people that I meet are not the kings and presidents, the prime ministers and the governors, the warlords and the generals and the ambassadors.

The people who I will carry with me the rest of my years are the idealistically young, the courageous and gifted members of your age group who are the foot soldiers in the long march to ease human suffering. They put their boots on the ground and their hands in the dirt; they spend their nights in scary places and they are never more alive than when they are doing this work not for riches or personal glory but because it is the right thing to do.

Those kinds of commitments need not take up every day of your life, but they will enrich it if you make a conscientious effort to dedicate some of your time on this precious planet to helping your fellow men and women who are not as fortunate as you are.
I have as well some other slightly less weighty observations that may be helpful.

You've been told recently you're about to enter the real world. That, in fact, is misleading. Your parents and I do not represent the real world. Neither does this institution, for all of its obvious qualities.

This may come as a surprise to you, but in fact, the real world was junior high.

You'll be astonished by how much of the rest of your life will be consumed by the same petty jealousies you encountered in adolescence, the same irrational juvenile behavior, the cliques, the dumb jokes and the hurt feelings.

And to the women of the class of 2009, be forewarned:
These boys sitting beside you who are about to become men will take their inner boy-and their baseball caps and their sports teams-with them and they will never completely understand you.

To the male members of this class, remember this:
These girls beside you who will become women will continue to spend what you believe is an inordinate amount of time and money on their hair and on their shoes. And guys, I promise you, you will continue to underestimate their abilities and their ambitions-and that's just the way they want it.

And men and women alike, remember this:
You can't go through this world alone. You need each other-you to need to celebrate one another in a common cause of restoring economic justice and true value, in advancing racial and religious tolerance, in creating a healthier planet, in leaving a legacy.

No remarks of mine or parental advice will be adequate substitute for your own determination and your commitment to excellence. We cannot be your GPS system; at best, as commentators and parents, we're merely road signs. You must find your own way and I have no doubt you will.

On these occasions in the past I have said, "It's easy to make a buck; it's tough to make difference." Then a parent at one of these commencements said to me, "I think there's a re-wording: ‘It's tough to make a buck, but if you make a lot of bucks, you can make a real difference.'" So for a time I offered both observations as a final word.

These times require still another revision: "It's a lot tougher to make a make a buck these days, but making a difference has its own rich reward."

So go forth, make some bucks, but most of all make a difference, and you'll find how rewarding this life can be. God knows we need your help. Good luck to the class of 2009.