Marlboro College

NewsCommencement Address

John D. Podesta

Thank you so much.

I want to thank my good friend and your wonderful new president Ellen McCulloch-Lovell for inviting me to share this great occasion with the class of 2004.

This is, of course, your day - and I'm proud to be part of it.

But today belongs to some other people, too: your parents, your grandparents and all the other people who supported you along the way.

They have every reason in the world to be proud.

There are so many reasons why a parent would want their daughter or son to go to Marlboro.

I'm sure that, for many of them, it had to do with the fact that 60 percent of Marlboro grads go on to med. school, law school or some other graduate training.

60 percent!

I have to tell you that's pretty impressive.

Of course, speaking as a parent, that's a little bit of a bad news / good news story.

The bad news is that those check writing days may not be over after all.

But the good news is that at least three out of five of you won't be moving back home any time soon.

As you know, we're now at the peak of college graduation season.

A little earlier this week I was reading that Condoleeza Rice gave the commencement address at Michigan State. Vice President Cheney gave the commencement speech at Florida State and that President Bush just gave one in Wisconsin and now he is slated to give another at Louisiana State.

You might be wondering why they're not coming to Vermont.

I guess they must figure that any state that would vote for Bernie Sanders isn't really Bush country.

Of course, those big commencements aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Thousands of graduates packed into football stadiums and auditoriums.

They go on stage and they're handed something that looks like a diploma -- but it's really a rolled-up memo saying their diplomas will be mailed to them after they return their caps and gowns.

And the majors at those schools are all pretty predictable, too: accounting.... computer science....business administration...etc.

In fact, after reading through the Plans of Concentration of last year's Marlboro graduates, it's interesting to contemplate what President Bush or Dick Cheney would have to say if they came here.

What sage advice would the Vice President have to offer someone who spent much of the last two years studying:

"The relationship between dance and poetry with an emphasis on adapting ideas from poetry into the dance medium?"

Or, what would President Bush say to someone whose Plan of Concentration was:

"An analysis of American films from 1950 to present using new historicist, poststructuralist, postcolonial, and Marxist and neo-Marxist criticism?"

Could you imagine being the staff member briefing President Bush before coming here?

"Marlboro? No sir, it's not in Winston-Salem. I think that's Wake Forest, sir."

"You're right sir, a lonesome cowboy would make a good mascot for Marlboro's football team, but I don't believe they have a football team, sir. It might not work as well for the cross-country ski or ultimate Frisbee teams, sir.

Of course, you and I know that the ways Marlboro is different from other colleges and universities are also the reasons why you excel.

Like Marlboro, the school I went to -- Knox College in Illinois -- has been described as one of the 40 American colleges that change lives.

And I'm certain that just as my years at Knox changed my life, the education you received at Marlboro will change yours.

Since this school was founded by returning World War II veterans in 1946, Marlboro has represented a unique vision of how learning can happen - and how it should happen.

It's the idea that education isn't only something that takes place in the classroom - and that individual experience is often the best teacher of all.

Mark Twain may have summed it up best when he said "the man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way."

Now, if there are any returning students in the crowd: Don't incorporate that into your Plan of Concentration!

But there's a catch to the kind of education offered here at Marlboro: it's that you have to be honest. Really honest.

Intellectually honest as you pursue your Plan.

Honest in your art.

Honest in your thinking.

And honest as a member of a community of scholars.

I can't tell you how impressed I was to learn that your library operates on the honor system.

You know, these days it's almost as tough to get a book out of most big university libraries as it is to get a radioactive fuel rod out of Vermont Yankee.

Then again, from what I read, it may not be all that difficult to get a radioactive fuel rod out of Vermont Yankee.

The point is that to succeed at Marlboro you have to be intellectually honest -- and that's one character trait that seems to be in dangerously short supply in our country these days.

All you have to do is open the newspaper:

What is it about the Baby Boom generation that's made the concept of telling the truth so difficult to grasp?

I sometimes think that a lot of it has to do with television.

After all, when I was younger, the behavior modeled for us on TV didn't exactly reward honesty.

There was Mr. Ed . A whole generation thought that horse could talk.

But, you know something? It was a lie .

Then there was Star Trek.

You've seen the reruns.

Oh, sure, they said they were on a five-year mission to boldly go where no man has ever gone before.

But NBC cancelled it after only three!

No wonder so many people in my generation became so cynical.

We would have been so much better off had we been exposed to the kind of wholesome, honest television your generation grew up with.

I'm talking about television that promotes integrity, decency, family values and honesty.

The Simpsons, Married With Children, South Park, Fear Factor, American Idol.

Maybe that's why TV is banned at Marlboro.

But the truth is that people were prevaricating, double-crossing, double-dealing, equivocating, falsifying, fibbing, misleading, misrepresenting, and flat-out lying long before TV ever came around.

Dishonesty has been a recurrent theme throughout civilization.

For instance, in Medieval England, someone suspected of lying had a choice: he could carry a red-hot iron bar for nine paces... or opt to walk across nine red-hot ploughshares.

If he was burned then it was obvious that he was a liar...and he was hanged.

Actually, I think Attorney General Ashcroft may be considering something similar for the next version of the Patriot Act.

And if lying is one of humanity's great dilemmas, there is no profession more associated with it than politics.

Many years ago, when I worked in Washington for Senator Leahy, he told me a story which summed up the attitude Americans have about politics and honesty.

It seems that a busload of politicians were driving down a Vermont country road when, all of a sudden, the bus ran off the road, and crashed into a tree in an old farmer's field.

The farmer, seeing what happened, went over to investigate.

He then proceeded to dig a hole to bury all the politicians.

The next day the local sheriff came out, saw the crashed bus, and asked the farmer where all the politicians had gone.

The farmer said he had buried them.

The sheriff asked: "Were they all dead?"

The old farmer answered, "Well, some of them said they weren't, but you know how politicians lie."

Now, as President Clinton's former Chief of Staff, most people assume I'm something of an expert on the topic of lying and politics.

Believe me, I became very familiar with it.

We all know that Bill Clinton lied to his wife, to his friends and to the public about an affair.

And we know that he paid a staggeringly high price for it.

But will history only remember him only for that lie?

I don't think so.

In fact, I think history will remember him as a president who told some hard truths.

And because he did have the courage to tell those hard truths:

And President Clinton had the courage to tell our nation another hard truth: It was that building strong alliances mattered and that being respected in the world was important.

And, because he did, Bill Clinton strengthened America's standing and influence on every continent.

We owe it to ourselves to distinguish between the shortcomings of individuals and the duplicities of public officials engaged in public acts.

And when we're confronted by the latter we owe it to our country to take action.

Sidney Hook once pointed out that what distinguishes a democracy from totalitarianism is that "a democracy can live with the truth about itself."

I think he was right - even in a democracy, the truth doesn't always come easy.

Especially during times of fear and upheaval.

Today, in Washington, the truth doesn't come easy at the White House, at the Pentagon or on Capitol Hill.

And the truth they are denying is that America's current course in Iraq is failing.

It's not failing because of the women and men of our armed forces.

God knows they're the best anywhere.

Remember when you are watching the news that more than 200,000 of this country's bravest men and women have served in Iraq.

They've served with honor and incredible courage.

And 782 of them have died for their country and to give the Iraqis a chance for a better life.

No. The problem isn't that our troops aren't up to their jobs. The tragedy is that we have leaders in Washington who have let us down.

They told us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

They didn't.

They told us that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat to our nation's security.

He wasn't.

They told us that the Geneva Convention didn't matter.

It did.

They promised us that Americans would be welcome and thought of as Iraq's liberators.

We aren't.

In fact, according to an opinion poll conducted for the Coalition Provisional Authority, 82 per cent of Iraqis disapprove of US forces being in their country.

And now with the images of the torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib branded into the memories of every man, woman and child in Iraq, what began as ambivalence and became fear has grown into hatred.

And when Americans ask who's responsible - when our own Congress asks who's responsible - the Vice President tells us in so many words to sit down... shut up and let Donald Rumsfeld do his job.

As a country we need to be honest about our situation in Iraq. We also need to confront what went wrong at Abu Ghraib.

I know there are some people look at the horrors of the last few weeks and say, 'it's wrong that America's taking so much heat. Other countries, especially in other parts of the world, do this all the time.'

Well, that's the point: America's supposed to have a different standard.

A higher standard.

We're supposed to be decent.

We're supposed to be just.

We're supposed to be fair.

We're supposed to abide by the rule of law.

We're supposed to be honest.

And I think we are.

I know we are when I talk to young people in places like Boston and New York and Chicago... and Marlboro, Vermont.

When I listen to young people, I hear them saying that they want to put this country back on track.

They want an America that's admired again.

An America that's respected again.

They want an America that tells the truth.

And I'm convinced that, together, that's the kind of nation you can build.

It won't happen in a month, or a year, or five years. But, believe me, it can happen.

Tomorrow will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Brown vs. the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education.

It was the ruling that banned the racial segregation of public schools.

The court didn't take up that case because President Eisenhower or Congress wanted it to.

There's only one reason: because a black man named Oliver Brown refused to take "no" for an answer when he was told he couldn't register his daughter in an all-white school near his home.

Because one man armed with only the truth stood up, the court had to honestly confront the injustice of racial segregation, and the entire legal framework for segregation fell crashing to the ground.

People like Oliver Brown and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King changed America.

They told the truth -- and challenged us all to do the same.

That's why, regardless of your Plan of Concentration, I want to urge you to concentrate and to plan and to dedicate some of these coming months and years to making our country what it ought to be.

To reclaim it... and renew it... and to show the world again that we're a moral nation... a principled nation... a truthful nation

You've just earned your degree from one of the best colleges in this country.

This is your day to relax and to celebrate.

But tomorrow -- and in all the days that follow -- use the outstanding education you've received here to fulfill the promise of America.

Because of you, I'm convinced that our country's best years are yet to come.

Thank you.

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