Philip Murphy, former United States Ambassador to Germany
Members of the Board of Trustees,
Distinguished Members of the Faculty and Staff,
Fellow Honorary Doctoral Recipients,
Family and Friends, and
Most importantly, Members of the Hamilton College Graduating Class of 2015:
I cannot tell you how honored I am to be among you today. I am a huge admirer of Hamilton College. This is a day I will not forget. Nor will you, I suspect!
A friend reminded me recently that a commencement speaker’s role is the same as the corpse at an Irish wake – to get the party started! So let’s get going.
I have to acknowledge, before going further, how rocking the name Hamilton has become, everywhere from this great institution to Broadway! And, by the way, in both places, it’s hard to get in, but once you’re in, apparently it changes your life!
Alexander Hamilton spent much of his distinguished life in New York. I have been thinking a lot of late about another public figure who served New York, Robert Kennedy, no relation to Kevin. He represented the Empire State as a U.S. Senator from 1965 until his death in June of 1968.
My musings about him are less about his politics – although I have much sympathy for what he stood for.
I am drawn to him for two other compelling reasons, each of which has enormous relevance today: 1) his ability to connect with people of all shapes and sizes, even in desperate circumstances, and 2) his unwavering belief in the power of the individual to change the world, from the ground up.
Growing up middle class on a good day in greater Boston (by the way, are there any members of the Red Sox nation out there?), we chuckled at the fact that Bobby and his brothers were our “middle class heroes” and yet none of them spent one minute of their own lives in the middle class.
Forget about the Murphys, look at how Kennedy bonded with the likes of Cesar Chavez and migrant workers in California or coal miners and their families in Eastern Kentucky. On the outside, they didn’t share anything in common with him.
But as Reverend King famously reminded us almost 52 years ago, it is not the color of your skin or – if I may expand – the God you worship or the thing you wear on your head or your last name or your gender or your preference or your accent or anything – it is the content of your character that counts. Graduates, given the world that is awaiting you, that is a powerful lesson.
If none of you have studied it, please search for “Bobby Kennedy, Indianapolis, April 4, 1968” soon (not now). Kennedy was running for president. Before he boarded the plane, he was told that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot. When he landed, King was dead. The schedule in Indianapolis called for a large, downtown political rally in the city’s African American neighborhood. The Mayor, Richard Lugar, later a giant in the U.S. Senate and fierce advocate of student exchange programs, told Kennedy’s staff he could not provide security, as riots were breaking out in cities across the country.
Kennedy went ahead with no security. As it was in the pre-information age, he broke the news of King’s death to the thousands who had gathered and, for the first time in his life, he referred to his brother’s murder, also at the hands of a white man; by doing so, he instantly found common ground with the African American crowd.
He pulled out his worn copy of “The Greek Way” by Edith Hamilton (no relation to Alexander) and read from a favorite poem by Aeschylus that had been recommended to him by his brother’s widow, Jacqueline:
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
There was rioting all across urban America that night, but not in Indianapolis.
Thankfully, our country today is not torn apart by war and murder, including Bobby Kennedy’s own death two months after King’s, as it was in 1968 (even though some days it seems like it is); but the world awaiting you is fractured almost like never before. It is filled with chasms, voids, disagreements and conflict. The words “common” and “ground” have become oxymoronic. Shia, Sunni. China, Japan. Greece, Germany. Israelis, Palestinians. Our congress. Our political discourse. Our economic divisions. Immigration. Blacks, whites. The technology wedge. On and on.
While there are always nuances and skirmishes, the world that we graduated into was defined largely by ginormous plates that constantly rubbed and occasionally collided: communism and capitalism; war and anti-war; oppression and civil rights. That’s not to say all of these struggles are behind us: should you need evidence that racism is alive and well in America, check out some of the responses to President Obama’s twitter post from this week! But, the world into which you are graduating is not defined, for the most part, by neat divisions, but lies in a million little pieces.
Our generation has either created many of the fractures, or, at a minimum, has failed to mend them. The challenge of your generation is akin to piecing together a giant jigsaw puzzle that’s been dropped out of the box onto the floor.
The voids need to be filled. The dissent brooked, but compromise achieved. The fractures mended. The common ground found.
There is no question it can be done. There is also no question that the world will continue to change. President Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life.” The questions are: what is the path to a better place, who will lead us there, and how will you fit in? Will you lead…or will you follow?
I mentioned Bobby Kennedy’s belief in the power of the individual to ignite change. He spoke at Cape Town University in the teeth of South’s Africa’s apartheid in 1966 and said something you need to remember: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
For all of the time and energy we focus on top-down leadership, from presidents to popes, history will tell you that the most profound and lasting change comes from individuals, from the streets. Rosa Parks wasn’t an elected official when she stood her ground on the bus in Montgomery on December 1, 1955. The East Germans who gathered on October 9, 1989 in Leipzig had no idea that 70,000 would march that night. The fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia who took his own life on December 17, 2010 out of frustration with the authorities, never expected he would set a new course in the Arab world. And, by the way, most of history’s change agents don’t get their own chapter in the textbooks. For instance, those citizens of East Germany who brought the Berlin Wall down are known largely only to family and friends.
And so, while your world today is very different from our world then, the power of the individual to change the world is undiminished. If you accept the premise that: 1) the world is in pieces and 2) the strength of the individual rages on, there are leadership opportunities for your class and generation as never before! They are almost endless.
So, after you celebrate this weekend, instead of shrinking from a world in crisis, pulling the covers up and staying in bed, view this moment in history – and your ability to shape a better outcome – as the chance of a lifetime, and rise up.
If the challenge is reconstituting what has become an atomized world, I suggest you start leading in practical, local and tangible ways. I’d focus less on battling high flying ideology and far more on “walking in the other guy’s shoes.” And remember, most big movements start small before they get big and most great leaders start as nobodies who turn into somebodies. And, who’s to say that a future leader of the free world is not among you today? No one can say that, so you shouldn’t assume otherwise. Get out there and get going.
I recommend that you start with some decisions that are completely within your control. Think about trying one or more of the following:
- Live in a neighborhood or a town with people who don’t look like you.
- If you go to church, visit a mosque this quarter and a temple the next. Or vice versa.
- If you’re liberal, watch Fox News once a week. If you’re conservative, watch MSNBC.
- What is your work place like? What activities do you pursue?
- Can you find a way to live internationally?
- Consider serving your country in either the military or diplomatic corps.
One of the biggest mistakes I made in life was hanging around too many people for too long who were too much like me. If your life revolves around the same old posse, you’re going to have a hard time leading the change we need. Be safe, but don’t be timid. Take some risk.
You also have a unique challenge that we didn’t have. Technology. It can be your biggest ally and your most potent enemy. Please hear me out and pretend I am your age for a moment. Your access and reach dwarf what came before. But beware the void that technology has created. How many times have you been in a car, on a bus, in a room with no conversation at all? We’ve all become like the New York Yankees of the late 1970’s: After the game, 25 guys, 25 taxis.
Be clear eyed about when technology is your friend and when it is your foe. Force yourself to interact, human-to-human. Pick up the phone. Pay a visit. Write a hand-written letter. As the journalist, Edward R. Murrow, said decades ago when referring to successful diplomacy, “The real crucial link in the international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.”
I will update Murrow’s plea. If you are to seize the great opportunity before you to mend our world, know when to put the machine down and pick the man up.
In whatever way you choose to lead, keep King and Ghandi as your north stars. March relentlessly toward finding common ground, committed always to: 1) understanding the inside, the character, of others, including your foes; and 2) to standing, no matter how great the pressure, for peaceful change, as they did.
But in all of our lives, from time-to-time, in ways big and small, we are presented with moments of truth. And, once every few generations, we as a nation – or as societies with common values – run out of diplomatic options; the pursuit of common ground is exhausted and the stakes are too high to walk away. Please God it doesn’t happen, but if your generation is presented with such a moment, may you have the individual and collective wisdom to differentiate a “shades of gray” dilemma from one which is black and white, good versus evil.
When you finish searching for and learning from the events of April 4, 1968 in Indianapolis I want you to study a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you understand the lessons of his life, you will be better women and men, and better leaders.
Bonhoeffer was a German, Christian minister who embraced a life of God and peace but increasingly became an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. He studied for awhile in New York City and was greatly influenced by his time at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he became a student of social justice.
He returned to a Germany falling toward an abyss. He became a vocal critic not only of Hitler but of Christian leaders who were doing too little – if anything at all – to stand up for Jews and a range of minorities. Bonhoeffer became more and more strident, and more public, in his outcry against the Nazis and their epic persecutions. With others, he was involved ultimately in an unsuccessful plot to kill Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was arrested in April, 1943 and was hanged in the Flossenbürg concentration camp in April, 1945 just days before the allies liberated it.
So please remember the lessons of Bonhoeffer and of the greatest generation of Americans from that same era, some of whom are with us today. Know when to compromise, know when to pursue diplomacy at all costs, but also know when to stand your ground. A great American once said: “If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Ghandi. But if your enemy has no conscience, like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer.” That American was Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hamilton graduates, you are at the front edge of what could be the most consequential decade of your lives. Some of you will make your marks before you turn 30, many of you will take longer to flower. Both roads are fine, as are all the roads in between. Just as Leo Messi is 27 and G Eazy turns 26 today; and Paul McCartney was 27 when the Beatles broke up and Rev. King was 26 when he became a leader in Montgomery; so is it that Ronald Reagan and Nelson Mandela were 69 and 75, respectively, when they became president; and Pope Francis is 78 today and Harper Lee’s next book is coming out in July and she’s 89. While it is true that you have all taken this four year journey together and you have so much in common, as a result, it is also true that you will each follow your own distinct path from here on out, and that is what is meant to be.
You are only young once so enjoy the ride. But also be careful. You feel a certain invincibility in your 20’s and early 30’s. It’s human nature. You convince yourself that you can run 100 miles an hour all the time and not pay any price. You come to believe that while life is a marathon, it needs to be run at sprint speed.
Don’t make the same mistakes so many of us made in our young adult years – watch your health, tend to your friendships and, make time for your family, particularly for your parents and grandparents, who too many of us think of as if they are a vacation rental that we will get to when we have more time. They are not always there when you get around to it. Take the time.
I leave you with a prediction: you may think, on this last day at Hamilton, that your bouts of immaturity and spasms of boneheaded behavior have run their course, that you have embarrassed yourselves in countless ways, but have also fulfilled your quota, and that you are entering the mature phase of your life. That all the gaffes and goofiness are out of your system.
You are wrong. I am here to tell you that many boneheaded moments are awaiting you. You will stun yourself by how stupid you continue to be as adults. To wit and to give you a taste of what lies ahead of you, I present to you actual bonehead moments from my adult years:
- ”You look wonderful. When is the baby due?” “I had the baby. She’s five years old.” Ouch.
- “Jeff, you were great to bring your mother to the cookout.” “Actually Phil, this is Martha, my wife.”
- I once confused the ambassadors of South and North Korea and Serbia and Slovakia at the same dinner!
- I berated a client in Chicago because they were one hour late to a meeting. Only in mid-sentence did I realize that I had just flown from New York and failed to adjust my watch. Did I say former client?
- You know the TV commercial for Hotels.com where the naked guy gets locked out of his hotel room? Kevin and I have a dear friend who pushed the room service tray out into the hall, caught his hand on it, went with it, and the door slammed behind him. Rich found no potted plant for protection and spent some rather chilly moments in the halls of a London hotel looking for help. He now eats religiously in hotel restaurants.
- And, between the funeral mass for a family friend and the interment, members of my family got confused at a traffic light and unknowingly followed the wrong funeral procession, ending up at a graveside service attended by total strangers praying over someone they had never met. The loved ones of the deceased were quite moved that my family made such an effort.
Catalog your own boneheaded moments because some day you could be up here!
And so, may your adult years be filled with a richness of diversity and good judgment. That you stay healthy and happy and that you make time for those dear to you. That all your dreams come true and, if they don’t, then celebrate the ones that do. That you drop the word ‘like’ from your vocabulary; never again. That you lead and always find the common ground, vigorously filling the voids and putting that grand puzzle back together. That you never forget the lessons of King and Ghandi, on the one hand, and Bonhoeffer, on the other; and that you always know the difference and act accordingly. And, if it comes to it, may you answer the call and become the generation by which history will then measure greatness. May you be so lucky and curious as to carry your own book of Greek poetry with you, just in case. And may you always retain in adult life, some of the innocent, lovable, unabashed bonehead Hamilton college kid that you are today! The world is awaiting you!
If I go on much longer, I will evoke Frank Sinatra, who used to say, “May you live to be 100 and may the last voice you hear be mine.” Today, I rather prefer Wiz Khalifa, who would want us to chant, “We gon party all night, no sleep.”
Thank you very much and God bless you all!