Senator John Kerry today delivered the commencement address to the graduating class of Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts. Senator Kerry offered a lot of lighthearted "advice" to the graduating class, as well as one serious challenge: to be active, engaged citizens making America's democracy work better. Kerry also acknowledged a special friend in Mt. Ida's faculty, Dean Nunez, the mother of his staffer, Brookline native Alexandra Nunez. Kerry also received a honorary degree from the college.
"Our democracy is at risk unless we reclaim legitimate debate and accountability. In the 1960's teenage kids risked and some even lost their lives to ride down south on buses to march and protest so other Americans could finally win the right to vote. Here we are fifty years later and in the last election 60 percent of our citizens decided it wasn't even worth exercising that right. Believe me it matters," said Senator Kerry. "We all sit here in Newton on this beautiful Friday -- but on Monday we'll go back to work against a backdrop of growing debt and a gridlocked Washington. There isn't one problem we face today that doesn't have a fairly simple and achievable solution. Not one. The deficit, energy, education, Medicare, social security. We can fix each of them. It's a matter of willpower, not capacity. But politicians won't find the willpower to make those tough choices until and unless more Americans are holding them accountable. It may sound corny, but that's why we need you to be public citizens who make the public sector make better decisions. I know a lot of you want to someday invest in a company of your own, but we need you to invest in being a citizen too, because the privilege of an education comes with the responsibility of building a community."
The full text of his speech, as prepared, is below:
President Carluccio, incoming President Brown, Members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, parents, and of course members of Mt. Ida's great graduating Class of 2012-- thank you.
When Dr. Carluccio called to invite me he said, "Senator, for this year's commencement the graduates want a speaker who is dynamic and entertaining." Well, Lady Gaga couldn't be here. So here I am.
I want to extend a huge congratulations to Dr. Carluccio for the job he's done as President -- revitalizing the campus, from the new turf field for the athletic program to the new and revamped master's and bachelor's programs. He and I were classmates in college and I wish him well in his retirement, but for the record, let me state unequivocally--he's way too young to retire! In the United States Senate, he'd be one of the "Young Turks."
I know we all join in sharing our highest hopes for his successor, Professor Barry Brown. I'm as confident as all of you that Professor Brown will keep Mount Ida College moving forward into a second great century -- as your founding principles demand: building community, instilling character, and sharing in service.
Mount Ida's founding principles are also the guiding principles of the two people you are honoring here today -- Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Barbara Lenk and Gerald Chertavian, founder and chief executive officer of Year Up.
Justice Lenk not only is a member of our state's highest court, she has been a leader of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, which honors the rights guaranteed in the Constitution by providing free legal services for the poor.
And Gerald Chertavian -- after he made a fortune in technology, he devoted himself to preparing "disconnected youths" for careers in major corporations, fighting to guarantee they're never denied opportunities because of their race, their bank balance, or their zip code. I congratulate both of them today for their great service.
If I can, I'd like to ask for what we Senators call "a point of personal privilege," because in the Senate I'm privileged to have on my team a phenomenal staffer named Alexandra Nunez -- and here at Mount Ida you are lucky to have Alex's mother, or as you call her, Dean Nunez. So Dean Nunez, Mount Ida's parents thank you for helping educate their kids, and I can thank you for raising an extraordinary kid of your own who happens to be one of my best staffers.
I also want to acknowledge someone else here today -- Newton Mayor Setti Warren. Setti was by my side every day on my presidential campaign and then he was my deputy state director here in Massachusetts. I've seen him go off to serve in war as an officer, and return home to serve as a Mayor. And today, as your Mayor, he's doing a superb job serving with the same sense of duty and commitment as he did during his own real-life tour of duty.
So here I stand with more power than I've ever had in the United States Senate for one simple reason-- I'm all that stands between you and your degree.
Now I've ruminated a lot about how to handle that power. On one hand, I thought about giving an hour and 20 minute speech on foreign policy, global warming, and the European debt crisis.
Then on the other hand, I thought if I keep this to 10 minutes we'd all have a lot more time to have a beer together.
Let's see: hour 20 versus 10 minutes. Hour 20 10 minutes and a beer. Besides you guys can vote! I'll tell you what; let's go with the short one. And if I see anybody opening up a Red Bull midway through, I'll finish even sooner.
You know through the years I've been to quite a few of these ceremonies-- as a student, as a parent, as a Senator. Commencement addresses are dangerous--usually filled with clichés and quickly forgotten: you know deep admonitions like "work hard and your future is bright" or "figure out what makes you happy in life" or "respect your elders -- they have a wealth of knowledge to share."
Now of course all of that is true, especially the stuff about respecting elders, like parents and teachers, college presidents and Senators.
So let me try to spare you the clichés and just give you some really practical advice.
FIRST -- Never borrow money from a guy named Lefty.
SECOND -- When March rolls around next year, do not ask your bosses if they want to go to Cancun for a week.
THIRD -- Be really careful with "Reply To All."
FOURTH -- If you find yourself in a Las Vegas wedding chapel marrying someone you met an hour before, think twice.
FIFTH - In case the ancient Mayan calendar is right about the world ending this December, wait until January to start paying back your student loans.
SIXTH - When filling out your profile on eharmony.com, it's never good to list your life goal as moving out of your parent's basement by the time you turn 40.
And LUCKY NUMBER SEVEN: when you celebrate tonight, enjoy the parties, live it up, maybe do things you've never done before. Just don't put the footage on YouTube.
I figure that's really about all the advice you'll ever need.
Now, not in the form of advice, I want to share one serious thought before we liberate you from this commencement.
Certainly, today of all days, you don't need a lecture. You're ready to celebrate. Or maybe you're thinking about the jobs you're going into -- or the jobs you're still looking for. And if you were a part of one particular program in the veterinary science department, you may be asking -- man, what am I going to do with this beagle?
But -- take just a minute to think about a revolution in America that hadn't even begun when your parents were kids, and which was barely visible 26 years ago when I came to the Senate -- but which you've seen explode between your high school and college years.
It's a revolution in the way we communicate and it has profoundly changed every aspect of life--but particularly our politics.
It's a revolution that no one except maybe Steve Jobs -- or a few nerds on a campus forty years ago carrying around huge green sheaves of computer paper --would have ever had the capacity to imagine.
What began as a Department of Defense experiment for communications in the event of a nuclear war, became the Internet.
And 50 years ago, before Congress passed a law to break up a monopoly, there was literally only one phone company in America. If you wanted to keep in touch with someone far away, generally you had to write these things called letters because long distance calls were an expensive luxury. You could walk around with your phone only as far as the cord would let you. And at most, making a phone call was the only thing that phone was capable of doing.
Now we all carry around little computers -- wherever we want. We call them phones --but they connect not just our voices and video, but they connect each of us to billions of people and their ideas around the world on the Internet.
And who could've imagined that a year ago this spring, tens of thousands of young people your age, millions of miles away in Egypt, would put down their books and leave their cafes and pour into Tahrir Square with those same Smartphones, download Twitter and InstaGram and Facebook, and share with the entire world a real time view of how you start and carry out a peaceful revolution.
The news media jumped to label it the Twitter Revolution. But the truth is, the technological revolution that gave us Smartphones didn't really come from just a data chip; it came from a lot of peoples' creative spirit. And the revolution in the Middle East didn't really just come from someone's Smartphone -- it too came from someone's spirit. It reflected peoples'--particularly a generations'-- deepest aspirations.
Average people. Everyday people -- with extraordinary aspirations. It was a fruit vendor in Tunisia -- illiterate, uneducated-- he'd never had the privilege of studying at a place like Mt. Ida -- just another fruit vendor in an impoverished country who couldn't afford a license from the government -- and he got up one day and he was tired of being harassed by the government's thugs in the marketplace -- and so he set himself on fire and that fire lit a revolution that's still blazing across the greater Middle East.
Frankly we don't know where it'll end. But we know it's a fire that began because on a very fundamental level, someone somewhere wanted to be like us - they wanted to be free. They wanted to decide things for themselves instead of being told what to do.
One of the blessings of living in the modern United States is, for the moment, nothing like that is demanded of most of us in order to secure our freedom. We've already got that inheritance.
Relative to millions upon millions of people around the globe, we all lead comparably comfortable lives. We don't have a military draft -- so very few are called on to risk life and limb for our country, and when we are at war we're blessed by the service and sacrifice of those in our military who take those risks on our behalf.
So what's expected of the rest of us? Well, that's the one thing I'd like you to take away with you today. The truth is we rely on the quality of your education to make a difference. And my plea to you is to use some of it -- not all of it -- but some of it - to be the kind of citizens who help us make a better country.
Most of you won't have to leave home to nation-build in Afghanistan, but all of you can help us do a little more nation-building here at home. And I tell you today with all the experience and insight I can draw on, we need you more than ever to take a moment in your lives to make sure you are living out the privilege and responsibility of just plain old fashioned citizenship. We need you to help make our democracy work again in America.
Today, you can sit around with your friends, debate an issue, and Google an answer to bolster your argument or give you the facts to settle one. You can have that instant information at your fingertips. But here's some news for you -- all the facts in the world, available in real time, won't matter if it all ends up getting distorted in a political process where facts are ignored or facts are made up -- or facts just don't matter.
My great colleague, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York used to remind people: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but they're not entitled to their own facts."
And -- sadly --today facts are constantly ignored, or distorted or made up out of whole cloth every day in what is supposed to pass as a national dialogue because today we've got a political system absent of accountability, a system bought and paid for by vast sums of powerful interest money.
In the plainest terms I say to you that our democracy is at risk unless we reclaim legitimate debate and accountability. In the 1960's teenage kids risked and some even lost their lives to ride down south on buses to march and protest so other Americans could finally win the right to vote. Here we are fifty years later and in the last election 60% of our citizens decided it wasn't even worth exercising that right -- if they thought about it at all.
Believe me it matters. We all sit here in Newton on this beautiful Friday -- but on Monday we'll go back to work against a backdrop of growing debt and a gridlocked Washington.
There isn't one problem we face today that doesn't have a fairly simple and achievable solution. Not one. The deficit, energy, education, Medicare, social security. We can fix each of them. It's a matter of willpower, not capacity.
But politicians won't find the willpower to make those tough choices until and unless more Americans are holding them accountable.
It may sound corny, but that's why we need you to be public citizens who make the public sector make better decisions. I know a lot of you want to someday invest in a company of your own, or a house, or stocks and retirement funds-- but we need you to invest in being a citizen too, because the privilege of an education comes with the responsibility of building a community.
And you know something: It's really not that hard compared to what other people from Massachusetts once had to do. This is the place that the Revolution for Independence began--and the Industrial revolution--and the technology revolution. Just think back to Quincy's own John Adams who had to get on a horse in the dead of winter, wrapped in wool blankets to stay warm, risk getting small pox, and ride to Philadelphia to help write the Constitution. 225 years later, we don't need you to make that kind of trek for a political idea.
But we do need you to help us. We need you to go to a PTA meeting if you care about education. We need you to ask questions at a town hall meeting if you care about the air you breathe. We need you to call into radio and TV shows if you care about fiscal sanity.
And instead of just assuming that politics doesn't interest you, we need you to start demanding politicians say and do some things that are interesting.
Sound like a tall order? Not compared to what John Adams did. Not compared to what George Washington endured that freezing winter at Valley Forge when the Army was starving and they weren't getting paid and Thomas Paine wrote about the "summertime soldiers and sunshine patriots" who abandoned the cause.
Class of 2012: It's time we got back in touch with a little of the guts and grit that gave birth to our nation.
It's still there. My old friend John Glenn who served in the Senate with me went to war, he went into space and was the first American to orbit the Earth, and then he went to Washington and fought again for his country. He used to say that citizenship is the personnel department of the Constitution, and more than ever if you don't like the way the business is going, then force your way into the boardroom and take the reins.
My friends-- you can actually still do that in America. You can transform your sense of right and wrong into action. All you have to do is remember and act on the words of Ben Franklin. When they were finished their work at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, late at night, Dr. Franklin walked down those steps at Independence Hall. A woman came up to him and said, 'Tell us Dr. Franklin, what do we have -- a monarchy or a republic?' And he looked at her and he said, 'A republic, if you can keep it.'
The challenge of "if you can keep it" is more real today than at any time I can remember.
Our job is to keep it. Graduating Class of 2012 -- Your job is to keep it. And we're counting on you.
Good luck and God bless you.