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Jim Lehrer P'85, anchor of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, delivered the commencement address during ceremonies May 27. (Photo by Bill Burkhart)
Posted 05.27.07

Jim Lehrer Delivers Commencement Address

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I am honored to be so honored, in such great company, by this great university.

It means so much to me personally because I am the devoted father of a Wesleyan graduate, Lucy Lehrer, class of 1985. And she's sitting right over there.

My first encounter with Wesleyan was because of Lucy and it was a most memorable one. My wife Kate and I had come here to take Lucy to school as a freshman. And we took her to her room in the dorm at Foss 6.

Anybody here from Foss 6?

Well, there came a time and occasion for me to go to the men's room. I inquired of someone about where one might be and I was told it was just down the hallway. There was a big swinging door, and I went to the door, swung it open and entered and there before me was a young woman. I quickly apologized and turned to run out and away.

"Oh don't worry, sir," said the young woman, "The rest rooms here are co-ed."

And I said to myself silently, and later less silently to Lucy and to Lucy's mother, "Welcome to the new world of Wesleyan." And I thought, "At least they don't have co-ed dorms." But then I realized, no way will that ever happen.

I have personal Wesleyan connections also to two of the principal players in today's commencement, both of them here on the stage: one of them a former president of Wesleyan, the other about to become a former president.

Colin Campbell, as was said, was president here for eighteen years; his reign including Lucy Lehrer's splendid time as a student. We became close friends later through our association with Colonial Williamsburg and when he served as chairman of the board of PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service.

Doug Bennet, about the stand down as president, and I have know each other since his days as assistant secretary of state, and then president of National Public Radio. And that's when I met Midge.

It is these two gentlemen that are included in what I said at the beginning about my pleasure in the company I am keeping here today.

It is in my capacity as commencement speaker that I acknowledge this honor for all of them. We are indeed honored.

You can relax about the speaker part of this assignment; commencement speakers should be mostly seen rather than heard and usually are. I have been present during the delivery of hundreds of commencement speeches as a graduate, proud parent, reporter, friend. I not only cannot remember what any of the speakers said, I can't remember what most of them looked like. I have no doubt that this will be the case again now. Nobody comes to commencement to hear a speech, only to cheer and applaud a happy graduate. With that in mind, I promise not to keep you long.

There is one thing I am going to do however, right now, to at least increase the chances of your remembering today's commencement speaker. I am going to call a bus to Houston, something I have been doing off and on regularly since the 1950's. That's because I worked as a ticket agent at the Trailways bus depot while going to a small junior college in Victoria, a small Texas city on the Gulf coast. One of my duties was to do this:

"May I have your attention please!
(Lehrer then went on to make his bus call, taking nearly half a minute and naming several small towns along the route) All aboard! Don't forget your baggage please!"

Now, you may wonder, "Why in the world is he doing this?" I have done this in just about every commencement address I have given, and countless other speeches. It's my good luck charm. It also proves: learn something early, well, and totally irrelevant, and you'll never forget it.

But most importantly, I think I can count on the fact that there are no other commencement speakers, at Wesleyan or anywhere else, who have the skills needed to include a bus call in their remarks. So in other words, when you think of bus calls, think of me, your commencement speaker.

I have only a couple of real commencement-like messages to deliver, and then I will leave you be. First and foremost, graduates of the class of 2007, keep in mind that this is 2007 and next year is 2008, which in my professional opinion, may be the most important presidential election year of your, my, and several other generations.

We have a war going on, a conflict that has aroused passions that go to the heart and soul of what we are about as the United States of America. Sores and minds have been opened, as have mouths and wounds, about how we exercise the enormous power we have as Americans: political and economic and cultural power, as well as military. The debates, among pairs of people, one on one, and among thousands and millions, about it all must be raised. And I would strongly urge that every one of you, participate in those debates.

On the war.

I'm sure you've noticed the ages of most of the young Americans who are doing the fighting and dying in Iraq - 18, 19. 20, 21, 22 - your age, in other words, your generation. Whatever your opinion going into the war or now, four years later, I would urge each of you, as well as everyone else in this audience, and everywhere else, to keep in mind that each of us makes decisions about what to do with our lives. Those men and women chose a career in the military - that makes them no better, no worse than you or anyone else who chooses to do something else.

But they are in fact risking, some are giving, their lives and they do so in your name, my name, our names, in the name of our country. So, bottom line, please cheer them when they come home, no matter what your view on Iraq. Support what's happening or hate what's happening - cheer them when they come home.

And I would also urge each of you graduates of the class of 2007 to find ways to also serve. I don't mean necessarily joining the Marines, to fight in Iraq or in the next war or two. I mean, no matter what you decide to do with your life, also serve.

Be rich or poor. Draw pictures, write novels, make movies, be single, be married, make babies, raise babies, try cases, treat sick people, teach people, drive buses, play baseball, play football, act, sing, play an instrument, bank, invest, invent, manufacture, experiment, compute, cook, research, pray. Whatever, wherever. But also find a way to serve - serve your neighborhood, town, city, county, state and country. To serve a common purpose beyond yourself and your immediate family and/or interests.

I happen to personally favor some form of mandatory national service. Not a draft, but a system for creating the shared experience of service for everyone, for us all. Service that could include civilian service - the Peace Corps, teacher corps, police corps and all kinds of corps besides the Marine corps.

But that suggestion isn't going anywhere at the moment politically. Service is a voluntary act, so be it. You are graduating at a time when there are enormous opportunities to do great things, voluntarily. But also to do terrible things. The possibilities for good and evil have seldom been so limitless. We have, at the personal and political levels in our society, wrenching conflicts right now over race, health care, poverty, violence, as well as how we employ our military and diplomatic muscle.

Yes, those conflicts and others like it have always been there. But the difference now is that we - you and me and our respective peers - have a chance to solve them. If we are willing to simply accept that as a given and get on with it.

One way to serve of course, is by staying informed, by forming and expressing opinions, by questioning the opinions of others particularly those other people who hold public office or who otherwise exercise public power - including those who write and edit the newspapers and magazines and blogs you read; report on and produce the radio and television programs you listen to and watch. Complain about the things you do not like, praise those you do.

Ask questions about matters you do not understand. Be part of the dialogue, the debate, the decision making in our democracy. They are decisions that could literally set the course for our nation and our society for centuries to come. They are too important to be left to the experts, as smart as they are; to our public officials, as dedicated and honest as most are. We must all serve, with our minds and our voices and our hearts. I hereby implore you to do so.

Not just between now and election day, 2008, for now and ever more.

But as you do it, please, please be civil, be fair. One of the most serious losses we as a society have suffered in recent years, in my opinion, is that of civil discourse. There is a meanness of communication alive in the land right now. I see it in the mail and the e-mail we get at our program. I hear it on television and the radio, read it in the newspapers and magazines and on the blogs and elsewhere on the internet.

The controversies involving Iraq and the 2008 presidential election have and will continue to definitely heighten[ed] the passion of the rhetoric and the discourse at the moment. But there will always be differences because there must always be differences in a free and open democratic society. We are civilized people, we should disagree in a civilized manner. We should acknowledge the right of others to disagree with us. We should acknowledge the possibility that sometimes, some very rare times, we might be wrong. And strange as it may seem, we might learn more from listening than from talking, and more from talking than from shouting.

And speaking of being informed, let me say something about journalism, my life's work, and the reason - aside from my skill at calling buses - that I have been awarded an honorary degree today.

I want you to know that I know that the honor is not so much personal as it is the kind of journalism I have and have continued to have the opportunity to practice on PBS. And for the record, a few years ago, I was asked by the sponsors of an Aspen seminar on journalism if I had guidelines I used in my own practice of journalism. I was not the only one they asked. Many journalists were asked. And they wondered if we would mind sharing them. Here is part of what I said then:

* Do nothing I cannot defend.
* Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
* Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
* Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.
* Assume the same about all people whom I report on.
* Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
* Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label everything.
* Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
* And finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

And now, let me tell you what I tell all graduates of every college or university I have had the pleasure of addressing. Do not make a mistake about what is happening here today. The fact that you are receiving a diploma from one of America's finest institutions of higher learning does not mean you are educated. Some of the dumbest people I know received diplomas from great institutions of higher learning. They took their diploma in their hot little hands, pronounced themselves educated and proceeded to never read another book, entertain another fresh or new idea. And most tragically for their society and country, never again paid attention to much of anything other than themselves, to much of anything that was happening around them or to others.

Please, please do not do that. It goes back to what I said about serving.

I'm going to take a pass on giving you any further advice. Mainly because I read what my friend, the famed humorist, playwright, cartoonist Jules Feiffer said once about advice: "Be warned against all 'good' advice because 'good' advice is necessarily 'safe' advice, and though it will undoubtedly follow a sane pattern, it will very likely lead one into total sterility - one of the crushing problems of our time."

I felt it was important to quote Jules is on this particular day; a most important person. He's a parent, with his wife Jenny, of Halley Feiffer, a member of today's graduating class of 2007.

And finally I have something similar to pass on that comes in the form of the ultimate recycled quote. It is what a fictional lieutenant governor of Oklahoma said in a commencement speech to a fictional graduating class at a fictional state college in the fictional town of Hugotown, Oklahoma. He said:

"As you search for your place in life, I hereby advise you to take risks. Be willing to put your mind and your spirit, your time and your energy, your stomach and your emotions, on the line.

"To search for a safe place is to search for an end to a rainbow that you will hate once you find it.

"Take charge of you own life. Create your own risks by setting your own standards, satisfying your own standards. Take charge.

"Congratulations to you all. It is unlikely that any of you will have occasion to remember either me or my commencement address and I don't blame you. But if by chance, something does linger, I hope it's just that there was a lieutenant governor guy up here who kept saying 'Risk, risk.' The way to happiness is to risk it, risk it."

It is the ultimate recycled quote because it is from a novel published in 1990 called The Sooner Spy. I wrote that novel. I stole those lines verbatim from a commencement speech I made myself in 1984 to the graduating class of our oldest daughter, Lucy's sister Jamie. So it's a quote of a fictional quote that began as a real quote. Like I say, the ultimate recycled quote.

But I mean it as much today as the day I said it the first time in 1984. My fictional lieutenant governor of Oklahoma - I spoke to him recently - asked me to tell you he still feels that way too. He also joins me in congratulating each and every member of the Wesleyan University class of 2007. He also joins me in adding the word "serve" to the work "risk."

Serve, risk.

I'll see you at our reunions - class of 2007. And please remember, those two important points I made at the beginning: Don't forget your baggage, please. And the restrooms at Wesleyan are co-ed.

Thank you for the honor you have given me today, and congratulations to all.