Class Day Speech by Tim Russert

So, this is Harvard. Look at all those scholars sitting out there...

by Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press


So, this is Harvard. Look at all those scholars sitting out there. The greatest gathering of intellects since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Thank you for inviting me. I guess Ali G. wouldn’t come back. Or you couldn’t find Dave Chappelle.

You know, I’m often asked my favorite Meet the Press stories. There are several. The first involves Ross Perot. In 1992 he was running for president of the United States. He was ahead of Bill Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush in the polls. He came on Meet the Press. He said he was going to balance the budget without breaking a sweat, get under the hood, and find all the answers. And so I said, “Mr. Perot, let’s go under that hood together. What’s your solution? What taxes are you going to raise, what programs are you going to cut?” He got furious: “Now then, if ….told me you were going to ask questions like this, I wouldn’t have shown up.” I said, “ Mr. Perot, you’re running for President of the United States. These are questions that you have to answer.” So the program ended, I went to the airport, caught a shuttle flight to New York, and the flight attendant ran down the aisle. She said, “That Ross Perot was unbelievable. What do you think of him?” I said, “Ma’am, I never comment about my guest and his or her position on the issues, but as a voter, as a viewer, as a flight attendant, I’m endlessly curious – what do you think of Ross Perot?” She said, “He strikes me as the kind of guy that would never return his tray table to the upright position.”

Meet the Press, in its 58-year tradition, is non-partisan. My favorite show involved a Democrat by the name of James Carville and his very Republican wife, Mary Matalin. They had a robust and full discussion. The channel […] went off, the program was over, and their conversation continued in the hallway, in the parking lot, in the automobile. I saw them careening down the grassy avenue. I called them the next day. I said, “Politics and TV are one thing, but marriage is much more important. Are you two OK?” James said, “Let me tell you what happened. I was so furious with my wife, I threw in the keys, I said, ‘You drive,’ and she put the pedal to the metal, and a police officer came over and said, ‘You’re going 40 in a 25. License and registration.’ Mary said, ‘Officer, I would never violate the laws of the nation’s capital. I’m a conservative Republican. You don’t understand, I’m a law-abiding citizen, God-fearing –” He said, “Ma’am, 40 in a 25. License and registration.” “Officer, you don’t seem to –.” “Ma’am, 40 in a 25.” James leaned over and said, “Officer, she’s a Republican, she’s lying.”

Barbara Bush. Barbara Bush, the revered first lady, in the White House. John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, from neighboring New Hampshire. He approached her; he said, “Barbara, I need your wisdom, your guidance, your counsel. Your advice. Why is it that everyone here in Washington and here in the White House seems to take such an instant dislike to me?” She looked at him and said, “Because it saves time, John.” He resigned six weeks later. And memo to Larry Summers: Larry, women are not only good at math, they also have a sense of humor.

I am leaving after this speech to go to New York for a Boys and Girls Club dinner. I’m interviewing Whitey “Chair” Ford and Yogi Berra, the great philosopher king of life and baseball. You know Yogi, you’ve read all the things they say he said, and I actually sat with him one time, and I said, “Yogi, did you really say all the things they say you said?” He said, “For example?” I said, “That you won’t go to his funeral if he doesn’t go to yours?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Yogi, you walked in the pizzeria. The waiter said, ‘What do you want?’ and you said, ‘Pepperoni and mushroom pizza,’ and then he said, ‘You want that in six or eight slices?’ and you said, ‘Six, I can’t eat eight.’” And Yogi said, “Yeah.” So I called Whitey Ford – true – and I said, “Whitey, did he really say all these things?” And he said, “Worse than you think. We were playing the Chicago White Sox and I was pitching board seven. The first pitch, Nellie Fox singled to right field. Second pitch, Louie Aparicio singled to left field. Third pitch …hit Minnie Menoso. Fourth pitch, Ted Kluszewski, big power hitter, grand slam home run. Four pitches, 4-0 White Sox. Casey Stengel, Yankee manager, came out to the dugout. Yogi came behind the mound and took off his mask. Casey turned to Yogi and said, “Yogi, does Whitey have his stuff tonight?” Yogi said, “How the hell do I know, I haven’t caught a ball yet!”

And you wanted Ali G., eh? Now you understand the strong nexus between Hollywood and Washington. Politics is show business for ugly people! My favorite sign this year in Boston was when Jason Giambi of the Yankees made his first visit to Fenway, and a kid stood up on the third-base line and said, “Hey, Jason, Mickey Mantle hit it on beer!”

In that humble spirit, let me share what other wisdom I have, as Justice Frankfurter admonished, “Wisdom, too often, never comes, so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.” Before you can move on to the next phase in your lives, you must undergo the last grilling hurdle here at your career at Harvard: the Class Day Address. Let me be honest with you about my experiences with class day or commencement addresses. I’ve been through several of my own, sat through dozens of others, and I can’t recall a single word or phrase from any of those informed, inspirational, and interminable speeches. But others wiser and more learned than I have decided there’s a virtue in this tradition. I will not try to delay you very long, but I want to make conversation, if I could, with the class of 2005.

Like each of you, my life changed on September 11, 2001, at 8:46 a.m. You had just begun your freshman year. I don’t believe the English language does yet include the words we need to express our sorrow for what happened on that day, and only in our hearts can we get full and complete expression of our grief and shocking sense of personal loss, the agony of seeing our nation so violated.  You have chosen for your Class Day speaker the son of a man who never finished high school. My dad was a truck driver and a sanitation man. He worked two full-time jobs for 30 years, and he never complained. And that was after he nearly lost his life when his B-24 Liberator crashed in World War II. That is the story of his generation, but he taught me more by his example, by his basic decency, by his intense love of family and country, by the quiet eloquence of his hard work, he taught me the true lessons of life. And those lessons have sustained me after September 11, and my entire life.

The education you received at Harvard isn’t meant to be the same as you could have received at scores of colleges public and private across this country. You’ve been given an education that says it’s not enough to have read all the books or know all the facts. You have been blessed with extraordinary opportunities, indeed. To whom much is given, much is expected. There hasn’t been a president with an undergraduate degree from Harvard elected since 1960. Forty-five years ago. In that same period, we’ve had two from Yale. Surprised by that? If you think you have it bad, you should try being a Buffalo Bills fan in Washington, D.C. I actually took the Bills to the Super Bowl – four times. At the end of the program, I looked into the camera. I said, “Now it’s in God’s hands, and God is good and God is just. Please God, one time, go Bills!” My colleague Tom Brokaw jumped up and said, “You Irish-Catholics from south Buffalo are shameless. You can’t pray on the public airwaves!” I said, “You’ll see the power of prayer, Brokaw!” Well, I moped back to the hotel after the Dallas Cowboys slipped by the Bills 52 to 10. The first person I of course saw was Brokaw, who yelled across the room, “Hey, Russy! I guess God’s a Southern Baptist!”

I was on The Tonight Show a few weeks ago. Jay Leno asked a member of the audience, “What is the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution?” She replied, “Is that the one that says you have to be 21 to drink?” This is no joke. And so I began to find out more and more. There actually is a survey that shows that more Americans can name the Three Stooges than identify the three branches of government. The challenges, war, dependence on foreign oil, terrorism, poverty, AIDS, are enormous. We need America’s best minds in the arena. Of the 22 people most prominently mentioned as presidential candidates in 2008, not one went to Harvard. It is now your turn. I do not suggest that everyone is made for politics. But you can be doctors and scientists, lawyers and bankers and accountants; moviemakers and social workers and entrepreneurs and soldiers and businesspeople; teachers, …television journalists, and more. Television journalists. I must concede television has a very hard time today in complicated issues. It’s a medium that’s sometimes seen to seek out emotion and conflict over nuance. In fact, my late colleague David Brinkley once reminisced that the way television news would cover Moses because of time restraints would be as follows: Moses came down from the mountain top today with the Ten Commandments. Here’s Sam Donaldson with the three most important.

In a vital profession you choose to pursue, you will be a foot soldier on the front lines of our society. Your contribution really can be enormous. You can save lives and protect plaintiffs and defendants, and prevent disease and train young minds. Your previous speakers have demonstrated a passion and a conviction, and there’s nothing more important in life. Mother Teresa lost her father at age eight, went to India as a teenager, dedicated, believing, proving that works of mercy are works of peace. She’s a modern-day saint. Nelson Mandela, a brave black man who spent 28 years in prison. Twenty-eight years? Worked his way through law school as a police officer. Why? To prove one central point: we, indeed, are all created equal. Lech Walesa, an electrician, the son of a carpenter, who transformed a nation from communism to democracy. Every generation is tested and given the opportunity to be the greatest generation. And so, too, with the Harvard graduates of 2005. You were born and educated… in this extraordinary blessing called life. You will live in comfort; you’ve earned it, but you must do this world one small favor. There are people struggling alongside you and below you, people who don’t have the same opportunities, the same blessings, the same Harvard education. Eight children today shot dead in the United States of America, 25 percent of eighth-graders never graduating from high school. If we are serious about being the premier economic, military, and moral force in the world, we have no choice. We need all of our children contributing and prospering. We must teach our children they are never, never entitled, but they are always, always loved. No matter what your political philosophy, reach out and see if there isn’t a child you can help. Some are sick, some are lonely, some are uneducated, most have little control over their fate. Give them a hand; give them a chance. Give them their dignity. Every child needs an adult in his and her life. A parent, a teacher, a coach, a mentor, a friend. The best speech I ever heard was all of 17 words: No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to lift up another human being. That is your charge. That is your challenge. That is your opportunity. That’s what I believe it means to be a member of the class of 2005 of Harvard University. For the good of all of us, build a future we can all, all be proud of. You can do it, but please get busy. You only have 2,300 weeks before you’ll be eligible for Social Security. Have a wonderful life. Take care of one another, and for the rest of your life, work hard, laugh often, and keep your honor. Go Crimson!

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