CNN’s John King’s commencement speech at URI May 23, 2010

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Good afternoon. Turned into a beautiful day, didn’t it? I cannot tell you, this is much more of a treat and a high honor for me than you might suspect. I’ll get to why in just a moment. But first, let me say good afternoon, thank you for that wonderful welcome. And before I get started up here, they say in politics when a lot of people have to speak, that everything has been said, I’m sure you feel that way, but not by me. I want you to look around for a minute. Soak in your moment. You all look great. You’re all still smiling. You brought the sun out. Take a look around for a minute at your friends and your family, say hello, and celebrate yourself for just a second.

Governor Carcieri, Senator Reed, Congressman Langevin, so nice to see you in this not so peaceful election year. The Democrats and the Republicans can spend some quality time together rather politely. A special thanks to President Dooley, for letting me share what is a most special day for him, the 124th commencement for the University of Rhode Island is the first for its ambitious and energetic new president. I’m especially honored to be in the presence of three other remarkable men and women you have honored here today.

Three very different people if you saw them stand right here, but three people who share the same gift: the desire to give back and make everything and everyone they touch a little better. We had a great dinner together last night, all of the honorees here with friends and families and leaders of the URI community. It was very nice to be back here in this beautiful place, and it was nice to make new friends and be reminded in such a friendly, welcome, vibrant way what the word “community” really means.

Let me also extend my thanks and greetings to Provost DeHayes, Judge Caprio and to the Board of Governors, to the faculty, the staff, other members of this campus and this community. Most of all, to you, the class of 2010, and the parents and the families behind all the dreams being launched here today, thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for letting me share this memorable day for you.

This is your commencement. As I have realized in recent days, my mid-life crisis. It was hard enough to do the math after the University invited me to be here and share a few minutes with you today. I did that math, I realized I graduated 25 years ago. Twenty-five years ago. I really do want to thank the class of ’60 for being here to make me feel a little younger. Twenty-five years ago was before all but a few of you undergraduates celebrating today were born. Just to reinforce this. On Friday, I went to Google, maybe many of you did. It was the celebration of Pacman’s 30th birthday. Math is not my strong suit, that’s why I chose journalism. But if Pacman is 30, I am old. I am still not quite certain why I am here probably because I work in television and in TV news the average time you get to speak is two minutes. My world is a little different now. I have an hour, five nights a week. It’s really 43 minutes if you subtract the commercials. No worries. I’d like some of you, especially the younger ones here to watch every now and then. So I’ll try to bribe you with a little relative brevity. I stayed in Narragansett last night. And while it has been a long time, too long of a time, what a fun flashback it was driving in from down the line. I saw some of you, I think way past bedtime. I miss the ocean and the rugged beauty packed into this big little state.

I don’t give many speeches because I don’t think I’m very good at it. Maybe you’ve noticed that already. So why then is this such a treat for me? Well, like many of you, I am standing here attending my first University of Rhode Island commencement. The program’s not wrong. I am a graduate, a proud graduate of the class of 1985, but I couldn’t be here on my special day to receive my degree in person because my dreams, thanks to this place, were launched a few weeks ahead of schedule. I had to work that weekend. So I am loving this. And I thank you. I had to work because, as the provost noted, I had been offered a full-time job about a month before classes ended. Then, as is the case now, jobs were pretty scarce in my business. Many other businesses as well. So I cherished my good fortune, even though as the new guy at the Providence bureau of The Associated Press, my job was really to open the door at 4 a.m., write some stories for the morning drive radio and debate the day’s big headlines with the coffee machine. I often say to anyone I meet, I consider myself the luckiest man alive. And I mean it when I say it. But my good fortune that spring 25 years ago was not all luck.

Like many of you, I came here pretty clueless about what I wanted to do, when or if I grew up. For me, that’s still an open question. A class right there in that building on the Middle East conflict made me curious about the world. A Shakespeare professor noticed I liked to write. He said why don’t you try journalism. To be honest, those early journalism classes, I didn’t find them all that exciting. I had one professor who hardly ever had us open the textbook. Instead we would sit around and debate current events. Beth Quinn was her name, I thought she’s young, new at this, she’s finding her way. I know now how wrong I was. She was testing our curiosity, trying to separate the hunters from the gatherers. There isn’t a textbook for that, and she knew it. Beth and the others to whom I am most grateful for my time here, to whom I owe the most, told me time and time again to go away. They could teach me the basics, in class, but they knew they couldn’t find out if this was what I was meant to do unless I went out and did it. So they helped me find that first internship at The Associated Press. The first one led to a second one, the second one led to a summer job, the summer job led me to a full-time job offer that kept me from this spectacular ceremony 25 years ago. One of those professors who told me to go away quite often is still here, Linda Levin. And for that wise advice, I am forever grateful.

By the way, Linda has helped me in recent weeks to understand just how much this place has changed. In my days, there was no face book, no twitter, no cell phones or texting, believe it or not, really no internet. To browse required a book, or this thing they call a newspaper. The search engine for us had a fancy name, the library. But for all the change, I suspect our experiences are pretty much alike. If that’s the case in 10 or 15 or yes in 25 years from your big day, you, like me, will come to a much better understanding of the gifts you are going to leave this place with today. I laugh, sometimes I cry when I look back at my big turning point here. None of the professors telling me to go away to take those internships understood how hard a choice it was for me. Like many of you, I had to borrow to pay for school, and on top of that I needed to work while here to pay the rent and buy my books. The internship, which didn’t pay, meant no work-study job, which meant no gas money.

This is a small state, but it’s still a pretty good walk from Kingston to Providence. I almost said no, because I knew saying yes would mean having to ask my parents for help, for money I knew they didn’t have. But no was not an option, not for them and because it never was for them, not for me. And so the door that was opened back then was the beginning of a remarkable journey that has taken a kid from Dorchester, Massachusetts to all 50 states, six campaigns, two wars, eight-plus years of covering the White House and just shy of now 80 countries, including Russia, China, India, Iraq, the one-time slave trading docks in Benin and to the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. It has been the unexpected ride of a lifetime, and I am in no hurry to get off. As you begin your journey, our University has a new motto. You’ve heard it once or twice today, and I hope you embrace it without reservation. Think big. We do. Some say thinking big is a bit unrealistic at this moment. We all know it’s a tough economy, and this small state has taken one of the biggest hits in this punishing recession. You don’t need me to stand here and tell you that jobs are scarce.

It’s also a very coarse time in some corners of our culture, and this coarseness sometimes pettiness, is exacerbated by the stakes of the political campaign. It’s high stakes in a midterm election year. Maybe you’ve noticed. It would be easy, even in some ways understandable, to think, “Wow, why did I have, why did my class have such bad timing?” I urge you to think again. Change, even scary change, is an opportunity, and we desperately need your help.

I’m at the very back end of the baby boom generation, which means they’ll be laughing hysterically when I show up in 20 years saying they owe me a Social Security check. The millennials is the name attached to you as a group. You are the new face of America. Look around. Look around. More ethnically and racially diverse, and better educated than any generation in history. You’re also the most connected generation. Work done by the Pew Research Center suggests 75 percent of you have a profile on a social network site. That same research says four in ten of you have a tattoo. Maybe you haven’t told your parents that. More importantly, you’re not afraid of innovation or of change. You’ve lived it all your life. Many of you, though, apparently are having second thoughts about the investment the millennials made back in the 2008 presidential campaign. That research shows about half of you think President Obama has failed to keep his promise to fundamentally change Washington, and that perhaps because of that you’ve become at your young age disenchanted already with politics.

If you listen to one thing I say today, please let it be this: walking away will only make it worse. Don’t let frustration translate into inaction. The economic debate this country is going through now is about your job. The deficit debate is about your children, and my Social Security check. The climate and energy debate is about the precious waters that surround this state and about the quality of life for those who will come to this campus after you. A great and lasting gift your generation could give us is a turn around in the lackluster, even pathetic participation rate in our political system. We hold it out to the world as this great and shining example. And yet, we’ve actually let it rust into decay like an old car in the garage. We need your help. As I urge you to get involved, stay involved, let me borrow some words delivered not all that long ago by a new president, just as he took charge. Ideas matter and are real, he said. Words written and spoken matter and are real. Relationships matter and are real. Morals and ethics matter, and are real.

This new president set a bold goal: to see under his leadership a new generation, “able to set aside the comfortable labels of Democrat, Republican, progressive, conservative, Fox fan, MSNBC fan, immigration, native, pro-choice, pro-life, gay, straight.” That new president whose words I have borrowed does not work in Washington. He is your president. And he sees the challenge of the moment, I think, with great clarity. Reject easy and often misleading labels. Respect all views in a spirited, but civil debate. Learn from others, even those with whom you fiercely disagree. And don’t sit on the sidelines at a time of such dramatic and consequential change and challenge.

Now, we all make mistakes. So while I’m here, I must take issue with one part of President Dooley’s otherwise elegant and inspiring inaugural address. Yes, he said even Red Sox-Yankees set aside all of that. No. That, sir, is asking too much. Red Sox cuff links just for the day.

I was a good, not necessarily great student in my days here when it came to grades, but I know I learned a lot more now than I thought I was learning at the time. What I love so much about what I do now is that I get paid to learn. I get paid to be curious. Paid to listen to others, listen to their stories. Last year I traveled to all 50 states, and I did it in 50 weeks. My goal was to see how the country was absorbing how it was changing, what it thought of the first year of the historic Obama presidency. I visited farms and factories and military bases where young men and women were preparing for their third, in some cases fourth deployment, saw some cases receiving treatment for traumatic brain injuries and other wounds they has suffered overseas. I spent time in Los Angeles and Seattle looking at the new face of homelessness in America, including children your age, young adults your age. These travels gave me a greater appreciation of the legitimate and heartfelt disagreements and differences of opinion that make our political conversation great. Nebraska is different from Rhode Island. And if you followed your father and grandfather into a coal mine you would probably have a different view of the energy and climate debate than somebody who perhaps lives on the coasts.

It is a 50-piece, very complicated puzzle. It’s also an amazing and beautiful and diverse country. But finding consensus is complicated. I ask you please to do your part. My hope is 25 years from now you can say despite all the bumps and bruises that you love what you do. I love what I do, because I learn every day. I enjoy it now as much as I did 25 years ago when I covered what we like to call my first political gift that keeps on giving. Yes, I confess, I missed Buddy Cianci. Maybe some of the lessons I have learned can help you a little, as you leave here for your adventures. The ones that stick with me were born of struggle and come from people who don’t have power or fancy titles.

From my mother I learned dignity is quiet. I’ve been reminded of that lesson in recent years by visiting parents not long after they have had to do what no parent should ever have to do, bury a child. People like John Dier in Ohio, Tom Titus in Idaho. Their sons, like many sons of this state, paid the ultimate price in Iraq. At the time I met these gentlemen, the country was in the middle of a contentious often nasty political debate about the Iraq war. These very two different men touched me because they shared such a quite, strong bond. Their concern was that the names and faces of sacrifice seemed forgotten in a debate to them seemed too loud and too partisan. They made their points, these two gentlemen, forcefully but respectfully. We can learn a lot from those who have paid the highest price. I met a man named Sam Burton,under a spectacular Magnolia tree in Burlington, Mississippi. We met after Katrina outside a house still in shambles. Yet, there was Reverend Burton 82 years young, his church in shambles, too, smiling, singing, teaching these young church volunteers from New Jersey the words to “amazing grace.” Mesmerizing them with stories of the KKK, the Civil Rights movement and riding out Katrina up in that tree clutching his grandson. He had been a preacher for 50 years, Sam Burton had, and as the waters kept rising he finally looked and said, “Lord I’ve been helping you down here a long time, and now it’s your turn to help me.’ Don’t ask until you really need. That was Sam Burton’s lesson.

From a man named Sabri I learned how sadness could turn bright eyes hollow. And I learned the frustrating limits of our language. The limits even of the pictures we are told should be worth a thousand words. I met Sabri in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after the tsunami. It’s my job to tell stories. And that I could not give his justice is a failure that still haunts me. I met him in a crowded camp, carrying a wrinkled photo of a little girl. She had big brown hair and bigger brown eyes. Her name was Dira. Two years and seven months old, Sabri kept saying, and he kept saying it was his fault. When everything started to move, he grabbed his infant daughter, but his wife and Dira were swept away by the water before he could get across the room. He recovered his wife’s body a few days later and buried her. Then he spent 16 days, 16 days walking from refugee camp to refugee camp looking for his little girl. All he could say was that she was wearing a yellow dress, that she loved fruit, and that it was his fault. I could see the pain of thousands in the eyes of this one man. But I don’t think I ever came close in my work to conveying the numbing scope of his suffering and that place’s suffering. The biggest lesson to me there was the power of Sabri’s love. Another lesson is that no matter how hard you try, no matter how hard you try, some days in work and in life you will fail. Those days hurt. I’m a very private person, it might sound funny considering I work in television. You can see me every day. But that’s what I do. It’s not who I am. And there’s one last lesson there. There was a time when I forgot to separate the two, my work and my life. And I paid a high price. Work became so important I was missing T-ball, dance class, karate.

The priceless gift of “goodnight, daddy,” said in a fading yawn. I was failing the simple test of my father. End the day with a look in the mirror, and if you can’t hold that stare, if you’re not at peace with who you see, with what you see, then you have a problem. Don’t be in so much of a hurry that you end up losing your way. I still miss too much, but there’s a remarkable woman over there who taught a grumpy lost man how to love again and this now much less grumpy man owes her more than he can ever repay. And my children, Noah and Hannah are my inspiration and my best friends. He is a year away from his college or university adventure. Boy does that scare me. At times he’s more brother than a son. He has my mother’s quiet dignity. And my baby girl is a beautiful young woman about to enter high school. She has my father’s love of mischief, so I am in trouble. But she still asks for a bedtime story every now and then and trails off to sleep with a good night, daddy. I learned so much more from them than they will ever learn from me. And I hope many of you get that gift some day.

Dignity is quiet. Character counts. Don’t ask until you really need. Fix it if you can’t hold that stare in the mirror. Don’t be in so much of a hurry that you lose your way. And participate and shape, change, impact the debates of your day. Most of all, have fun pursuing something you love, even if because of this bad economy, because of anything else in your life, even if there are few detours along the way, one of the best lessons in life is when you fall down, you get to get up. Think big. Think big. You have earned that right. Good luck. Congratulations. Celebrate.