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Tom Brokaw’s Commencement Address


Tom Brokaw’s address at Fordham University’s 164th Commencement on 16 May, 2009:

Thank you very much Mr. President, Mayor Bloomberg, my fellow honorary degree recipients, faculty and administrators, graduates of the Class of 2009 and especially to your family members. It is such a privilege to be here today and dare I say it, it’s also a relief, because if I were giving these remarks at Columbia, I’d have to speak much more slowly and use shorter words for the class at Columbia.

I want to act with some dispatch this morning before my own alma mater and some of my fellow graduates from my class at the University of South Dakota find out that I’m getting an honorary degree. When this first began to happen in my career, one of the institutions that was giving me the honorary degree called the head of the political science department at the University of South Dakota to check on my resume and my credentials. And Bill Farber, Doc Farber as he was known to all of us, was kind of legendary professor who turned down a record number of Rhodes Scholars, governors, senators, and the occasional journalist, and he said, as God as my witness, he said to the university that had inquired about me, “Well quite honestly, I thought the first one we gave him was an honorary degree.”

Tom Brokaw Photo by Chris Taggart

I must tell you I checked a little bit on Fordham this morning before I came here. I went to a website called the (college) prowler. So that I can find out what Fordham students think about their institution and I learned a couple of things. You gave on-campus dining  a “D.” You gave nightlife an “A.” And under the category of guys and gals, the grade was “C+.” Now I asked a co-ed on the way in how that was possible and she said, ‘Oh, it’s easy. It was an average. The girls were A+ and the guys were D- and that’s how we got the C+.’

I’ve also been reading your student newspaper and I’m well aware of the fact that while many of you were very generous with your remarks about me, a number of you said as well that you really hoped that Stephen Colbert would be your speaker this year. I don’t blame for that but there’s an explanation. It turns out that Stephen has to spend his weekends in rehab so he couldn’t be here today.

But he’s a friend of mine and a great man and so I asked him if he had any kind of a message for the Class of 2009 and I’m here to tell you this morning, here it is:

“Greetings Fordham. I’ve asked my personal assistant, Tom Brokaw, to deliver this message from me, Stephen Colbert. While I am pleased that many of you would rather have me speak at your commencement than a man who represents journalism, please don’t tell Tom. It would really hurt his feelings. Plus, if you kiss up to him, he might name you the next “greatest generation.” After all, you already got the person and two wars going on, what’s holding you back? Sincerely yours, Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, doctor of fine arts.”

It is always sense of renewal for me to come to an institution such as this on these occasions and look out from this vantage point and see what I think of as a portrait of the American dream. A richly diverse population of faculty members and administrators, of family members and friends, and of students as well, gathered to celebrate the achievements of these students today at an institution rooted in faith but dedicated to the proposition that it will serve the society well. And, thus, in an enduring way, as a highly educated class of young people prepared to take your place in the world. So I’ll spend a few moments, If I can, today sharing with you some of my thoughts that I hope may be helpful.

My late, and exceptionally witty friend, the columnist Art Buchwald, would like to say on these occasions to graduating students, “We have given you a perfect world; don’t screw it up.” It was always good for a laugh, whatever the circumstances at the time.

Obviously, it is a little difficult for me to issue the same order to the class of  2009, even in jest. You are leaving this sanctuary of learning and innocence in a season of uncertainty and anxiety. Daily there are painful reminders that the economic model that has defined your lives was, in too many ways, a house of cards. Indeed, it is a shambles that will not be easily repaired, and even then, it will have a far different shape and evoke far different expectations.

We did, on too many occasions, lose our way and allowed greed and excess to become the twin pillars of too much of the financial culture. We became a society utterly absorbed in consumption and dismissive of moderation. A friend, a very successful businessman who nonetheless lives a temperate life, says appropriately we have to replace want with need. It’s not what we want that should rule our lives but what we need. And, it goes without saying, what we can afford.

Something fundamental has happened and there will be long term consequences when it comes to risk and debt and economic assumptions. That does not mean, however, that you will be consigned to a life of deprivation and struggle. America remains a land of unparalleled economic opportunities with a standard of living that even in these constricted circumstances is well beyond the hope of hundreds of millions in less developed countries.

It is not a perfect world well beyond the economic conditions, of course. America remains engaged in two wars with no tidy end in sight. Rogue nations with nuclear arms, or the potential for acquiring them, show no signs of good behavior. The vital signs of  your mother – Mother Earth – have taken a turn for the worse and the prescribed treatment is complex and controversial.

How we fuel our vast appetite for energy – for consumer, industrial and technological  electrical power, for vehicular power – without exacerbating global climate change is an urgent question for your time. In short, how we live on a smaller planet with many more people is a reality that will define your generation for the rest of your lives.

May I say to you, what more could a generation ask? We have not have given you a perfect world but we have given you dynamic opportunities for leaving a lasting legacy as a generation fearless and imaginative, tireless and selfless in pursuit of solutions to these monumental problems, a generation that emerged from this financial tsunami and re-built the landscape of their lives with an underpinning of sound values and an eye for proportion, knowing that in fact less can be more.

It will not be easy but I promise you it will be rewarding in ways that a Wall Street bonus or a shot onAmerican Idol cannot compete. These are the tests that imprint generations for the long curve of history’s judgment. Those who take an inventory of our time a hundred years from now or a thousand years from now will not measure success or failure by the actions of Mayor Bloomberg or President Obama alone. We’re all on the scorecard now, and we cannot escape that judgment by evasion or prevarication.

So where to begin?

That is a decision you are best prepared to make. And it will be the most rewarding of your decisions if it is rooted in a personal passion and carried out with purpose even when the first steps are small. You have at your disposal an assortment of nimble and powerful tools that can assist you – the vast universe of cyberspace – the internet with its vast universe of information and capacity for research and communication and comments played out on ever smaller devices across an ever wider spectrum of choices. It is a transformative technology It is a force for good and the ultimate end that have still to be resolved.

But those are tools that you have in your hands, they are not oracles; they complement your mind and your heart. They do not replace them.

You’ll not solve global warming by hitting the delete button; you’ll not eliminate reckless avarice by hitting backspace; you’ll not make society more just by cutting and pasting. And do not surrender the essence of the human experience to 146 characters on a Twitter or a Facebook, however seductive the temptation.

You’ll not get a Google alert when you fall in love. You may be guided  by the unending effort of  poets and artists, biologists and psychiatrists to describe that irreplaceable and still mysterious emotion so essential to the human condition but all the search engines in the universe cannot replace the first kiss.

In short, it will do us little good to wire the world, if we short circuit our souls.

And remember, too, that somehow before BlackBerries and iPhones, lap tops and video games, great, enduring and welcome change was achieved.

In so many ways, President Obama is a child of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who when he was just a few years older than you began a historic moral crusade again racial injustice armed with eloquence and passion, courage and conviction. He moved this nation and liberated it, black and white and all colors, from the unconscionable weight of segregation. Somehow he managed without a cell phone or lap top, without a cell phone or web site, without a Facebook or MySpace.

In 1989 a lone and still anonymous Chinese student stood unarmed in front of a Chinese tank and gave the world an enduring image of  the determination of China’s young to change their nation. He didn’t text message the tank or share a YouTube. He put his feet on the ground and his life on the line.

In my travels in this country and abroad, to the inner cities and rural backwaters, to the worst neighborhoods in the most impoverished countries, to war zones and sites of natural disasters the most impressive people I meet are not the governors, and with all due respect, not the mayors, the warlords and prime ministers, the generals and ambassadors.

The people I remember are the idealistic young, the courageous and gifted members of your age group who are the foot soldiers in the long march to ease human suffering. They put their boots on the ground and their hands in the dirt; they spend their nights in scary places and they are never more alive than when they are doing this work not for riches or personal glory but because it is the right thing to do.

Those kinds of commitments need not consume your life but they will enrich it if you make a conscientious effort to dedicate some of your time on this precious planet to helping your fellow men and women who are not as fortunate.

I have some other slightly less weighty observations that may be helpful. You’ve been told recently you’re about to enter the real world. That, in fact, is misleading. Your parents and I do not represent the real world. Neither does this institution, for all of its obvious qualities.

I can speak with some experience when I say to you, and this may be a revelation, the real world was junior high. You’ll be astonished by how much of the rest of your life will be consumed by the same petty jealousies you encountered in adolescence, the same irrational juvenile behavior, the cliques, the dumb jokes and hurt feelings.

To the women of the class of 2009, I want you to be forewarned: Boys who become men take their inner boy with them and also their baseball caps and sports teams and they’ll never completely understand you.

To the male members of this class, remember this: Girls who become women will continue to spend an inordinate amount of time and  money on their hair and shoes. And, guys, you will continue to underestimate their abilities and their ambitions and that’s just the way they want it.

Most of all, remember this – you cannot get through this world alone. You need each other – and we need you to celebrate one another in a common cause of restoring economic justice and true value, advancing racial and religious tolerance, creating a healthier planet. No remarks of mine or parental advice will be adequate substitute for your own determination and commitment to excellence. We’re not your GPS system; at best, as commentators and parents, we’re merely road signs. You must find your own way and I have little doubt you will.

On these occasions in the past I have said, “It’s easy to make a buck; it’s tough to make a difference.” Then a parent suggested a re-wording: “It’s tough to make a buck but if you make a lot of bucks, you can make a real difference.” So for a time I offered both observations as a final word.

This year and these times required still another revision: “It is a lot tougher to make a make a buck these days, but making a difference has its own rich reward.” So go forth from here and make sure that all the riches that you accumulate are rewarding to your heart and mind and to your fellow men and fellow women. I wish you good luck and Godspeed and thank you all very much.


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