Thank you so much. I appreciate so much the very warm welcome President Swygert and the generous introduction. It is longer than my speech.
To you, President Swygert, and Members of the Faculty and Administration, to Chairman Rand and Members of the Board of Trustees, most especially my friend, Governor Wilder, what an honor to be presented by you and to be on the same stage with you. Governor Wilder was at my inauguration. It was an enormously moving thing and I’m so glad to see you again.
To all the honorees, to all the members of the Howard family, ladies and gentlemen and boys and girls, go ahead and nap if you need to. And they will.
I thank you all so much for this high honor and for the privilege of participating in today’s Charter Day Convocation. I hope someday to be worthy of it. Above all, I’m delighted to be back on the Howard campus.
Occasions like these put me in mind of our youngest daughter, Katherine, and her graduation from high school just this last spring and when I sat at her graduation swollen with pride like any parent, I couldn’t help but think of the contrast between her path to that milestone and my own similar milestone more than 30 years before.
As you’ve heard, I grew up on the south side of Chicago, most of that time on Welfare. I lived there with my mother, my sister and my grandparents in that two bedroom tenement. Dr. Swygert has already told you about my mother and my sister and I sharing that set of bunk beds in one of those rooms and rotating from the top to the bottom to the floor, every third night on the floor. I went to broken, overcrowded, under-resourced and sometimes violent public schools. I can’t think of a time when I didn’t love to read. But I don’t actually remember ever owning a book. I got my own bed for the very first time when I got to Milton Academy on scholarship in 1970, an experience that was like landing on a different planet.
Now I compare that with Katherine who has always had her own room. Most of the time, as you’ve heard, I lived in the neighborhood where I used to deliver newspaper as a student at Milton. By the time she got to high school, she had already traveled on three continents. She knew how to use and pronounce a concierge and she had shaken hands in the White House with the President of the United States.
My wife and I talked very easily and very comfortably with our kids about college when the time came and organized visits for them to campuses all over the country. When I called home 35 years ago to tell my family I was admitted to Harvard, my grandmother said, “And where is that?”
When Katherine was five years old and in kindergarten actually here in Washington, her kindergarten class was studying the changes in the seasons and her homework assignment was to come home and describe to mom and dad the four seasons. So she proceeded in accurate detail to describe her several visits to the Four Seasons Hotel here in Washington, D.C. She said, at first, you drive up and the doorman takes your car. Five years old. One generation. One generation. In the circumstances of my life, my family’s lives were profoundly transformed.
Now that story is not told as often we’d like, but it’s told more often in this country than any other place on earth. That is the American story.
And for most of us, that story was made possible by a good education, great opportunities to work and develop our skills, and adults who involved themselves in key moments in key ways. That is, as you heard a moment ago, our agenda in my administration in Massachusetts. Schools, jobs, and civic engagement because I believe that is the agenda for giving another generation of young people a chance to live the American story.
I’m proud to say that in a little more than a year we are making very strong progress. Last year, Massachusetts students took top scores in all four categories measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called National Report Card.
The Massachusetts economy created over 20,000 new jobs in 2007, out-performing the national average for job creation and moving from 48 th in the previous administration to 15 th in last year.
Thanks to our new Health Care reform Initiative, 300,000 adults and children who were uninsured last year are insured today and have access to quality, affordable primary care.
We have invested more money and maybe, more importantly, more new ideas in education, transportation, housing, public safety, arts and culture, and clean energy technology than any administration in a long time, in some cases, more than ever before in history.
And yet the state of our Commonwealth and of this nation is far better for some than for others. Though our scores are high, so are our dropout rates in too many of our schools and achievement gaps persist. Yes, we’ve added many new jobs. But there are 125,000 people in Massachusetts looking for work today who don’t have the skills to do the 90,000 jobs available to be done. Too much talent and too many bright futures were lost last year to gun and gang violence. Too many young families and seniors are still being pushed out of their homes by extreme adjustments in mortgage rates.
Parents and cities find it hard to dream about college for their kids and parents in suburbs have nightmares about how to pay for college for their kids. In Massachusetts and all over America, the poor are in terrible shape and the middle class are one month away from being poor and deeply anxious about it.
Now as you’ve heard, I don’t believe that government can or should undertake to solve every problem in everybody’s life. But I do believe that government has a role to play in helping people help themselves and yet better policies, better policies, as important as that is, will not be enough. We need better politics. We need a renewed sense of community.
In that south side Chicago neighborhood I grew up in, there were many things that we didn’t have. But one thing we did have was a community because those were days when every child was under the jurisdiction of every single adult on the block. So if you messed up down the street of Ms. Jones, she would straighten you out as if you were hers and then call home. So you got it two times. I think what those adults were trying to show us was that they had a stake in us and they expected us to understand the stake that we had in each other.
That is a community. Understanding and acting upon the stake we have in our neighbor’s dreams and struggles as well as our own. A renewed sense of community could not come a moment too soon in my view. But it is and has been under direct assault by the politics of fear and we have been in the grip of fear for a long time.
In 1950s and 1960s when I was a kid, the nation was shrouded in fear. We were in the midst of the Cold War and the shadow of what was then called The Communist Threat. Thousands of missiles were pointed at us ready to launch at a moment’s notice.
A few of us here will remember being taught in school in the event of a nuclear attack to get down under our desks. I still remember the air raid siren that went off every weekday morning at 10:30 a.m. from the roof of the firehouse across the street from where we lived. It was a mechanical test, of course, but it was a daily reminder that we believed an atomic blast was a real and present danger.
Surrounded by fear and perhaps in spite of it, President Eisenhower established Law Day, an annual day of recognition to celebrate the contributions of law to American freedom. Those contributions and the special contributions of American lawyers including many legendary graduates of this University helped us face down fear and expand freedom for poor and black people, for women and other minorities. America not only survived the Cold War but won it because fearless Americans challenged this nation to remember who she was.
The willingness to face down fear with reason and courage, to speak truth to power, is the hallmark of American progress. It springs from a sense of community, of understanding the stake that we have in each other. We must recapture that above all else it seems to me because fear as a device to manipulate and to govern is at large again in our times.
The events of September 11, 2001 were horrific. We all know that. They devastated individual families and disrupted our collective sense of security and well-being. It was a wake-up call to our own vulnerability and it represents a catastrophic failure of human understanding.
In its wake, I believe, we have been governed by fear. Fear drove us to round up people of Arab descent, many of them American citizens, and hold hundreds without cause or charge. Fear drove us to ignore a known enemy in Afghanistan and invade Iraq instead. Fear justified what I believe to be the greatest assault on personal freedoms in the Patriot Act and the greatest aggregation of Presidential power in recent history.
Fear created the Guantanamo Detection Center. In a radio interview last year, Charles Culley Simpson, a senior Pentagon official, named some of the law firms providing pro bono representation to the Guantanamo detainees and suggested that Corporate America make those law firms choose between representing terrorists and representing reputable firms. He attempted to mark these lawyers as enemies of society. There was no subtlety in the message.
Speaking about this post 9/11 phenomenon, former Vice President Al Gore observed that fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction. Quoting Justice Brandeis, Gore reminded us men feared women. Excuse me. Men feared witches and burnt women. The Vice President captured the transcendent fear of the common cause when he said the founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hanged as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk. Yet, in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing a Bill of Rights. Like me, he wonders is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol?
Fear is a treacherous thing. The politics of fear is by no means limited to the area of national security.’It is increasingly the political weapon of choice to overcome a position that has reason and fairness on its side.
When our Supreme Judicial Court announced its decision in Goodridge five years ago, recognizing the right of gay men and women to marry, all it did was reaffirm an old principle that people come before their government as equals. Yet there was a ground swell of opposition drummed up by the fear that this private freedom represented a threat to everybody else’s marriage. Several years and many marriages later, the institution of marriage has survived, but the fear-mongering persisted--never mind that these are the same threats to civilization that were leveled 40 years ago when the Supreme Court struck down prohibitions on blacks marrying whites.
In response to the surging number of shootings in Boston, we filed legislation to limit the purchase of guns in Massachusetts to one gun per month. Anybody here need more than one gun per month? Yet even in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedies, the Gun Lobby urges hunters and other law-abiding citizens to resist such measures as a threat to sport. Never mind that no one uses a semi-automatic to hunt birds and law-abiding citizens rarely, if ever, buy guns in bulk.
Even the current presidential contest is fought with the politics of fear. Has anyone seen the 3:00 a.m. phone call ad? The whole point is to scare us into voting for one candidate rather than another. Never mind that the candidate running the ad has never had to answer that kind of call herself.
Now compare it to the experiences of our founders as Vice President Gore described, perhaps these are all trivial examples. But my point is that fear, raw, emotional and compelling, is the pervasive means today by which to ignore fact and to overlook our better values. The politics of fear have made us afraid not just of what’s out there but of each other undermining the very sense of common cause that we need to recommit to the American story and to pass it on to another generation.
For a year now, I have attended the funerals of Massachusetts service men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each occasion is profoundly moving. Most of the time the lost soldier, sailor, or Marine is young. In some cases, there is a girlfriend or a young widow; on one or two of those occasions with a baby the fallen soldier had never even held. We cannot escape the youth, the disbelief of childhood buddies that their friend could be gone so soon, the utter tragedy of parents having to bury a child just entering his or her prime.
Still there is a remarkable lack of bitterness among the families, only loss and grief and an unspoken understanding that service and sacrifice is sometimes necessary. We cannot ask these exceptional young people to give what Lincoln called a last measure of devotion to strengthen our community and secure the American future for ourselves and then balk at making far less profound sacrifices ourselves to achieve the same ends. We have to put our fear down and reject those who use the politics of fear to defeat our need, our yearning, for common cause. Beyond better policy, we must renew our sense of community.
At home in Massachusetts and there are some of my constituents here, I am sometimes called an impatient governor and I admit that. People think it’s because I’m from the business world where things tend to move more quickly once a course is set. Others think it’s because I’m a newcomer to the State House and I don’t understand its ways.
Actually, my impatience has nothing to do with any of that. It has to do with the fact that for every one of us from the south side of Chicago or from southeast Washington or from neighborhoods like them all around the country, for every one of us who has had the blessing of that American story, that one generation transformation, countless others wait. They wait. My impatience comes from knowing all the other eager, ambitious, capable, idealistic young boys and girls just like me, just like them, and just like a whole lot of you used to be, left behind in places where you and I come from. My impatience comes from knowing up close the cost of fear and the inaction that that brings.
I went out to visit a school called The Holland School in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston last spring. A few weeks before a young woman who was visiting her family from out-of-town was shot and killed and, a couple of weeks after that, an 11-year-old boy found a 44-caliber pistol out in the neighborhood and brought it in to his classroom. The neighborhood was understandably in an uproar.
We called a meeting of adults so that the Mayor of Boston and I could listen to some of their ideas about ways we could help and offer some of our own. The meeting convened at the end of the school day as the kids were being let out to go home. You have to picture the scene--the kids and their backpacks heading off to the buses or to walk home and adults coming toward the school looking weary and worried. And I had a minute or two alone in the principal’s office to look at my notes and collect my thoughts and you know that sense you’re being watched. I looked up and outside the window were about a dozen or more little black boys and girls about so high, some a little bit bigger than them, backpacks on, waving, pointing, all excited.
When I look into their eyes, the excitement I see is not for the history we made last year. It’s for the history they might make. Not my chance but theirs. I see that excitement, that look of anticipation and hope, in the eyes of children everywhere I go. I saw it in them before it got hot and long in here.
There is a whole generation watching and waiting, some of you here perhaps, to see whether we see our stake in their future and act like it. I say let them look to us, to you and to me. Let us overcome our fear, recommit to the stake we have in one another and to learn to live finally by that old, old adage that we are more than our brother’s keeper, that on this earth we are his savior just as he is ours.
Thank you so much for having me.