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