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Headlines at Hopkins
Commencement 2001

Remarks by Al Hunt, Executive Washington Editor,
The Wall Street Journal

Undergraduate Diploma Ceremony
Thursday, May 24, 2001

[Prepared text; not checked against delivery.]

President Brody, Distinguished Deans, Faculty, Trustees, Honored Guests, friends, and above all family and graduates of the Johns Hopkins Class of 2001. Congratulations.

To paraphrase Churchill, this is not the end for you graduates. This is not even the beginning of the end. It is the end of your beginning.

There are many reasons Johns Hopkins is a special place. There is your president, Bill Brody: Ph.D. in electrical engineering, M.D., successful inventor and CEO, distinguished radiologist, medical school chief and now president of one of the world's great research institutions. Even more striking is that he took up golf in his 40s, and as he was moving to a single-digit handicap switched his priority to flying airplanes. Bill, you make the rest of our mid-life crises seem so pedestrian!

My wife and I are fortunate that Michael Bloomberg, chairman of your trustees, is a friend. Michael sat in one of these same seats thirty-seven years ago. He is a role model. You too can become one of the country's most successful entrepreneurs, a prominent journalist, one who sets the gold standard for generosity and vision in philanthropy and, perhaps, one of America's leading politicians--if, like Michael, you get fired from your first job.

For me this is an extraordinary honor. I have a deep affection for Johns Hopkins. It was at this hospital and the affiliated Kennedy Krieger Institute that our son was brought back from the valley of medical despair and given a chance at a good life.

My father was a graduate of this college, class of 1934, and the medical school four years later. My Dad passed away some years ago but when I received this marvelous invitation we checked to see if his gravesite was spinning.

My brother is a graduate of the class of 1968. This afternoon, my nephew, Noah, is a graduate of this class. Noah, I am almost as proud as your parents and not nearly as financially depleted.

This history makes today a more daunting task. I sought advice from friends wiser in the ways of these celebrations. No one, they noted, ever complained about a commencement address being too short. Indeed, research shows that the longest commencement speech was six hours at Harvard in the 19th century. The first half was in Latin, the final three hours in Greek. Then the graduates were given a test. With that in mind, you may conclude it could have been worse than having ol' Hunt.

The inspiration for my message is not Cardinal Newman or other patron saints of commencement occasions. It is Woody Allen, who once counseled graduates: "More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

You are the best and the brightest; you are entering a wide, wonderful world with unparalleled challenges and opportunities. It is very exciting. But you will face many choices, or as Woody Allen said, crossroads. In measuring your aspirations, you will be told:

--Hard work is essential. Those who strive to catch the 6 o'clock bus home will never achieve their potential. Go to work early, stay late.

--Take risks; don't fear failure. You will fail and you will bounce back.

--Seize opportunities aggressively. Life is a marathon, not a sprint, but there is little premium on pacing.

--Value excellence. Remember, however, the wisdom of John Gardner who wrote: "An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because it is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."

Simultaneously, you are counseled:

--Take time to smell the flowers, revere beauty. --Family and friends should be the first priority. My wife, the mother of our two teenage sons and pre-teenage daughter, is a CNN anchorperson. Often she is asked by young women about combining career and family. Women have done that for ages, she replies, but there is one constant: you're always tired.

--Value diversity, building on your experiences at this University. You are a far more eclectic class than my father or brother ever envisioned; 12% of you hail from thirty- three countries around the world. Margaret Richards, from a small hamlet in upstate New York, told me as well as all the great education in the classroom she leaves Hopkins with a deep appreciation of what she learned about different cultures, different people and different ways of doing things.

--Never forget the importance of humor, the ability to laugh, particularly at yourself.

These are all platitudes. They also are all true. Yet they entail tough tradeoffs: work hard or take more time with family and friends. I won't pretend to offer special insights on how to choose the best path for you.

I will, however, suggest two lodestars. Avoid unearned cynicism, or the implicit assumption that people and institutions are not on the level; most are. And always try to be an optimist, or as psychologist Martin Seligman suggests, a flexible optimist. The triumph of hope and faith is central to the American experience and success.

To be sure, the two professions that have dominated my life -- journalism and government -- engender pervasive cynicism these days.

Many of you, I realize, turn more to the Internet for your information; some of your disdain for newspapers and television is understandable. There is a rush to be first, not to be right. There is too much focus on the sensational or the salacious at the expense of the substantive. While the proliferation of competition is good, too often it results in a Gresham's law: If the bad or scandalous doesn't drive out the good and responsible, it frequently overwhelms it. Journalists and politicians are not interchangeable but when the media treats them as such, it sows confusion and cynicism with viewers and readers.

Attitudes about government are even worse. Almost half of eligible voters chose not to exercise their franchise in the last presidential race. Fewer than 40% of college-age men and women voted. There's a decided negativity about political institutions and politicians, much of it self- inflicted. Too many political leaders seem incapable of practicing the simple virtue of telling the truth. Too many political campaigns are light on vision and meaning and heavy on vitriol and money. Both parties and philosophies too often honor selfishness, one that too frequently finesses personal responsibilities, the other with a slavish devotion to a market that, for all of its strengths, leaves too many behind.

In the wealthiest country on the planet, one in five children lives in poverty and in this great city, more than 70% of babies are born to single parents. How many political leaders of either party spend much of their precious capital to proclaim this is not acceptable? But it is always darkest before the dawn. Whatever our problems, there is far more cause for optimism. Never has there been more and more accessible information. As with the advent of radio and then television, my profession needs to adjust better to new realities. We will.

In politics, slash and burn may carry the day in the short term. But in this country the most successful political leaders invariably are the genuine optimists. Ronald Reagan, for whom I did not vote, is epitomized by his favorite story about two children, one a dour pessimist, the other a congenital optimist. The pessimist goes into a room full of shiny toys and weeps, worried they all will break. The optimist goes into a room full of horse manure and starts cheerfully digging proclaiming: "There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!"

A visit to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial in Washington is a tutorial on the optimistic, can-do American spirit, starting with the most unforgettable of inspirational callings: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Let the economists debate whether the New Deal ended the Depression; FDR did something more important: He restored the hopes and confidence of a people. Never accept the canard that government doesn't matter. When some of your parents and I were in college, there were places in this great land where African-Americans couldn't vote or even go to the same public restrooms as whites; government changed that. The poverty rate among senior citizens is 12% today, down from 30% in 1965; government changed that. The genesis of the Internet was the Defense Department; the great medical researchers at Johns Hopkins will tell you the National Institutes of Health are a treasure.

And there are exceptional men and women engaged in important fights in politics. This week Congressman John Lewis received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Lifetime Achievement award. In the 1960s John Lewis rode the civil rights freedom buses into Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma and was beaten and bloodied unmercifully on countless occasions. What lessons did he learn? "Never be bitter. Don't become hateful." Your commencement speaker of two years ago, John McCain, after five and a half years of savage torture in a Vietnamese POW camp, led the effort to normalize relations with our former enemy and today is persistently seeking to reform the corrupting influence of money in politics.

We love to romanticize the larger-than-life figures of yesteryear. When your children are sitting where you are today, someone will regale them with the golden era of public service: the Alan Greenspans, Colin Powells and Ted Kennedys as well as the John Lewises and John McCains.

I spent this spring teaching a course at one of your sister schools 100 miles north in Philadelphia; Ivy Leaguers, or, as we call them, Hopkins Wannabes. What emerges from that splendid experience with stimulating students, and from researching survey data and from talking to some of you graduates, is profoundly encouraging. Whatever your reservations about politics, you are not apathetic or tuned out or jaded -- quite the contrary. You are intimately involved with people and communities: Americorps, Habitat for Humanity, biking for AIDS, mentoring underprivileged kids, the Special Olympics, Race for the Cure, Big Brothers and Sisters, Christmas in April, Meals on Wheels, soup kitchens, Make-A-Wish foundation, reading to the blind, manning crisis hotlines, planting trees. The prominent pollster, Peter Hart, in a national survey of college students finds that three-quarters volunteer for one form of charitable or community activity. The civil rights and women's movement of yesterday are a source of inspiration to today's students.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at Johns Hopkins. Your classmate, Wesley Moore, has created a mentoring program with the Baltimore city public defenders for middle school kids in the juvenile justice system. Lorig Charkoudian, a graduate student, initiated the community mediation program that now has 150 mediation locations around this city. SALUD was formed this year to improve health care in Baltimore's Latino community. Hundreds of Hopkins students each week can be found in churches, schools or community service centers, teaching ballet and sports or English and math.

As you go out into the larger world, you know better than I how important technology will be, how much it will continue to enhance the quality of our lives. But you also know that the Information Highway will never read to an underprivileged preschooler, will never take food to an infirm senior citizen, will never transport a disabled person or play ball or go to a movie with an at-risk teenager. These experiences not only enrich you today but help fashion your character, which forms your destiny.

It is not simply that these are good deeds, but the rationale behind them is heartening. It is an idealism with few illusions; you are interested in results. Your culture is to Walk Your Talk. This idealism is more practical than that of your parents, and thus probably more enduring. They wanted to change the world; you want to make a difference. It's fascinating that the largest student organization at the Harvard Business School--hardly a hotbed of social change--is the venture philanthropy club. Some of you will be attracted to the exciting emerging field of social philanthropy, combining business discipline, accountability and performance standards with a caring social mission: Teach for America, the New Principle Corps, City Year, Public allies.

There may be one among you who will find a cure for AIDS or win a Nobel prize; there will be accomplished engineers, physicists, family physicians, teachers, artists, musicians. Hopefully there will be those who see public service as a noble calling and maybe even a journalist or two. Some of you may become billionaires and be as generous as the chairman of your trustees. To those who go to work for corporations, inject your social conscience: insist, for example, that all companies follow the lead of the Timberlands, the AT&Ts, the Morgan Stanleys, the Hasbros and provide special incentives for volunteer and community involvement.

Whatever path you choose, pressures and counter-claims will build in the years ahead, whether graduate school or advancing your career or meeting the demands of family. Continue this devotion to community service. For all the differences from your parents' graduation, there are many eternal truths. Remember today the words at a Berkeley commencement thirty-five years ago: "You can use your privilege and opportunity to seek purely personal pleasure and gain," Robert F. Kennedy declared that day. "But history will judge you, and as the years pass you will judge yourself, by the extent to which you have used your gifts to lighten and to enrich the lives of your fellow human beings." I fully expect you will continue to make a difference, to avoid unearned cynicism. That is cause for optimism. There is one more choice or path that you should take this afternoon: Recall the great Mark Twain once wrote that when he was a boy of 14, "my father was so ignorant that I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned." So when this ceremony ends, go to your parents, who are so proud of you, say thank you for the support and sacrifice and give them a big hug.

Congratulations on a great beginning. Best of luck with the rest.

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