Good morning, and thank you, President Falk.
Everyone has been telling me what a great job you’re doing – and I’m not surprised, because you came from another great American academic institution: Johns Hopkins University, my alma mater.
But today, I’m honored to be an “Eph!”
Friends, families, faculty – let me begin by offering a big congratulations to every member of the amazingly talented, brilliant, and distinguished class of 2014!
I’ve heard from many people that you are truly an outstanding group – including from Queen Bolton, herself!
I’ve also heard that you’ve spent four years grappling with life’s toughest questions:
What is the nature of the universe?
What should be done about climate change?
Where does Dean Dave get his white track suits?
And what should the President’s House be used for since President Falk doesn’t live there?
I’ve heard some crazy ideas about that – and if it does become the new location of First Fridays, count me in.
Whatever happens going forward – whatever obstacles and adventures you encounter in your lives – you can always take great pride that you hold a degree that says Williams College and not Amherst!
Let me also offer my congratulations to another very important group here today – the men and women who are beaming with pride, without even thinking about all the tuition bills they paid and the prospect of you moving back into their basement: Your parents!
They deserve a big round of applause!
I also want to give a special salute to all the parents and families who didn’t make hotel reservations early enough, and who stayed last night in Montreal.
But today is about the graduates, and all of you have overcome no shortage of challenges to get here:
You survived an 8:30 AM class in the Science Quad when you lived in Tyler House (which is somewhere in Vermont, I hear).
You survived the intense rivalry between Mission and Frosh Quad, as well as the wild and crazy nightlife of Williamstown.
I actually wanted to enjoy some of that last night, but I arrived after 6PM.
However, while I was in town I did go to The Herring and had a few Dark and Stormies.
Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to write my speech after that, but who doesn’t cram in college?!
So I went over to the Sawyer library, where I stayed until the 2 A.M. nerd bell.
At that point, I still had more work to do, but I went to sleep hoping that President Falk would declare one last Mountain Day. (Oh well.)
Standing here today, I can’t help but think back to my own college graduation – 50 years ago tomorrow.
Things were a little different back then.
If you had uttered the phrase “social media,” people would have thought you were a communist.
Here at Williams, no women were permitted to enroll as students.
A high school graduate could get a job at the local factory – like the ones in North Adams and Pittsfield – which offered a ticket into the middle class.
Vietnam was hardly even a topic of conversation yet.
In much of the country, racial segregation was still legal.
Our immigration laws effectively kept out Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans, along with Jews, Italians, and others deemed undesirable.
Abortion was illegal in all 50 states. Even contraception was illegal in some states.
Here in Massachusetts, giving contraception to an unmarried person was a felony that could get you five years in prison. (As best I can remember, the law was not strictly enforced.)
My graduating class had no idea that the world we were entering was about to change radically, even as it remained stubbornly the same.
That May, President Lyndon Johnson gave a commencement address at the University of Michigan, where he outlined a new vision for the country’s future, which he called, “The Great Society.”
That idealistic vision became the basis for the most sweeping domestic policy agenda since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
There is no doubt that Johnson’s agenda moved the country forward in major ways, but 50 years later, it’s equally clear that the promise of the Great Society remains unfulfilled.
Today – despite landmark civil rights legislation that created a more equal society – black and Latino children are twice as likely as white children to drop out of high school, twice as likely to end up out of work, and far more likely to be the victim – or perpetrator – of a violent crime.
Despite the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, more than 30 million Americans still have no health insurance, even after the implementation of Obamacare.
Despite the federal money poured into public schools beginning with Title One in 1965, high school graduation rates remain virtually unchanged, and our students went from leading the developed world to finishing toward the back of the pack.
Despite the immigration reform bill passed in 1965, our immigration system is stifling our economy and locking too many people out of it.
Despite a 1968 law that banned felons and the mentally ill from owning guns, both groups can buy them with ease and murder at will.
Finally, despite an unconditional War on Poverty, the national poverty rate is now higher than it was when Johnson left office.
Fifty years later, the work of building a Great Society is far from finished.
Today, the responsibility for that work passes to you – the class of 2014 – and I wanted to share a few thoughts with you on what I think is the most important lesson we’ve learned since I was in your shoes, and the promise of the Great Society filled America with hope.
The most important lesson we’ve learned since then is not that government did too little – as liberals tend to argue.
Or that government tried to do too much – as conservatives tend to argue.
It’s that both liberals and conservatives walked away from the spirit that gave rise to the Great Society.
Let me explain.
In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt gave a commencement address in which he offered a simple idea that would save America from ruin.
“The country needs, and the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
Roosevelt understood what all entrepreneurs and scientists understand: Not every idea works, and failure is part of success.
What we learn from failure – and what we do with that knowledge – is what matters.
And to his great credit, Johnson did.
But in the decades that followed, those in Washington – especially Democrats – refused to hold programs accountable when they failed to produce results, preferring to throw good money after bad.
Others in Washington – especially Republicans – attacked government spending without offering solutions to problems that free markets could not solve on their own.
Ideology blinded both sides – and the bold, persistent experimentation that defined the Great Society agenda slowly disappeared.
We have not seen much of it since – not in Washington, anyway. And the country has suffered as a result.
But more and more, we have seen bold experimentation in the places that President Johnson put at the center of his Great Society vision: cities.
In his address at Michigan, Johnson said: “Over the next 40 years, we must rebuild the entire urban United States.”
Instead, in the decades that followed, urban areas across America collapsed.
Race riots. Factory closures. Violent crime. Dysfunctional schools. Abandoned neighborhoods. Rusting infrastructure. Welfare dependency.
Cities became a symbol of a failed society. And the federal government basically gave up on them.
The future – everyone believed – belonged to the suburbs.
But history has a habit of proving the conventional wisdom wrong.
Over time, cities began clawing their way back. Not with help from the federal government – but through bold, persistent experimentation at the local level.
And a perfect example of that is North Adams, where the old electronics plant is now MASS MoCA, thanks to Mayor John Barrett and local leaders who rallied around the idea.
Today, if you want to see the most innovative experiments in promoting economic growth, fighting poverty, battling climate change, transforming education, and improving public health – you don’t go to Washington.
You go to cities and towns – large and small – where the spirit of experimentation is flourishing.
And it is flourishing because – by and large – local leaders are not blinded by ideology.
They are pragmatic problem-solvers, who are not afraid to try something.
Most mayors don’t ask if an idea is liberal or conservative. They ask: Will it improve people’s lives?
Because they know that a great city – and a Great Society – is built on innovation, not ideology.
Across the country, mayors are turning city halls into laboratories and the experiments they are conducting are moving us closer to fulfilling Johnson’s vision.
Just take one of the most important issues facing the planet: climate change.
Congress has been AWOL, because in Washington, climate change is largely an ideological issue.
But in cities, climate change is a health and economic issue.
People want to breathe clean air, and they wanted to be protected from natural disasters that threaten their homes and businesses.
That’s why mayors – Democrats and Republicans – have taken action to mitigate, and adapt to, climate change.
In New York City, we reduced our carbon footprint by 19% in just six years and as a result, our air is cleaner than it’s been in 50 years.
We did it the only way we knew how: through bold, persistent experimentation.
And we took the same approach to attacking other major problems, including smoking, obesity, and poverty.
As a result, life expectancy for New Yorkers is now almost three years longer than the national average, and New York was the only big city to experience no increase in poverty – zero – since the 2000 Census.
While Washington is making excuses, local governments are conducting experiments.
On no issue is that difference more obvious – with more deadly consequences – than gun violence, and let me explain why.
One of the toughest parts of being mayor is the call you get in the middle of the night when a police officer has been shot.
You rush to the hospital, and when the family arrives, sometimes you have to deliver news that no parent and no spouse should ever have to hear.
It is heartbreaking, and it never gets any easier.
Members of Congress don’t have those moments because they don’t get those calls in the middle of the night.
And they don’t get asked to speak at the funerals.
For them, the issue of gun violence is political. For mayors, it is personal.
Now, the Supreme Court has ruled that nothing in the Second Amendment prevents Congress from regulating gun sales and ownership to protect public safety.
Given that 33 Americans are murdered with guns every single day, and another 50 Americans use guns to commit suicide every single day, you might think that members of Congress would engage in bold, persistent experimentation to change that situation.
But they don’t, because they fear the gun lobby will come after them.
Mayors see it differently.
Mayors understand that this issue is not about the Second Amendment; it’s about their first responsibility to the public: protecting lives.
And so mayors have experimented with new programs and laws to crack down on the illegal gun market.
In New York City, we were able to cut the number of murders in half, which saved thousands of lives, most of them black and Hispanic young men in poor neighborhoods.
That work was not always popular. And we listened carefully to concerns and made changes to address them.
But the bottom line is: Government’s obligation to protect each individual’s civil liberties includes protecting everyone’s right to walk down the street without taking a bullet.
I will never stop trying to help those who are most at risk of gun violence.
And that is why I’m so committed to convincing Congress and state legislatures to take action.
Until they do, innocent people will continue to be killed in our streets every day, and mass shootings will continue to occur on an almost regular basis.
After the recent tragedy in Santa Barbara, California, and the one a few days ago in Seattle, you can’t help but wonder:
How many more tragedies will it take for Congress to act?
I think Richard Martinez, the grieving father of a young man killed in Santa Barbara, said it best:
“Not one more.”
Not one more child. Not one more college student.
Not one more police officer. Not one more American!
We must demand that Congress try something!
More experimentation – fewer excuses.
More problem-solving – less partisanship.
That is the biggest challenge facing our political system today, and it is the most fundamental lesson of the struggle to build a Great Society.
Fifty years after President Johnson challenged the graduating class of 1964 – my class – to imagine a better America and bring it to life, the challenge still stands. And it is now your challenge, too.
The issues are not exactly the same as they were in 1964, but the work is just as urgent.
Because as long as children can be murdered in our schools and streets with illegal guns, the work of building a safe society must continue.
As long as two people can be denied a government marriage license based on their gender, the work of building an equal society must continue.
As long as families live in poverty, and as long as the children of immigrants are denied opportunities to participate fully in our economy, the work of building a compassionate society must continue.
As long as our air and water continue to be polluted, and the risks of climate change are ignored, the work of building a healthy society must continue.
And as long as there is a United States of America, the work of building a Great Society must continue.
In the years ahead, more and more of this work will occur in cities – both big and small.
But wherever you live, I urge all of you to be part of it.
It won’t be easy, but I firmly believe you can make even more progress over the next 50 years than we made over the past 50, if you always carry Roosevelt’s words with you:
If it fails, learn from it – and try something else.
That is the key to success in public policy, in scientific discovery, and also, I can tell you, in developing your careers.
When I was 39 years old, I was fired from a job I’d had for 15 years.
I loved that job, but getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me, other than the birth of my two daughters, because it gave me the opportunity to try something else.
Setbacks are only setbacks if you allow them to be.
And if you never fail, you’re not aiming high enough.
Show me a person who has never failed, and I will show you a failure of a person.
If you never let the fear of failure stop you from pursuing a goal, you are destined for great things – just like so many other Williams grads before you.
Just take a look around you today. That College Council leader could follow in James Garfield’s footsteps all the way to the White House.
The person you know who writes for “The Record” could be a future Erin Burnett.
And the guy who took charge of your entry’s Broom Ball team and then fired everyone could be the next George Steinbrenner.
There is no limit on what you can achieve in your life, if you just remember Roosevelt’s words and follow the motto on the Hopkins gate:
“Climb High, Climb Far; Your Goal the Sky, Your Aim the Star.”
(I was going to recite a line from the alma mater, but I could only remember: “The Mountains, The Mountains, we greet them with a song.”)
So tonight, have one more Dark and Stormy at the Herring.
And tomorrow, get to work building a truly Great Society.
Good luck, and God bless.