Richard Gephardt’s 2005 Address

Former U.S. House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt addressed the Class of 2005 and their friends and family members.

Thank you, Chancellor Wrighton, for that warm introduction. I am always happy when people learn my name. I have been on T.V. a lot through the years, but people often struggle trying to figure out who I really am.

Many people guess a news anchor on some obscure news channel. Some guess a football coach — one lady thought I did the weather on CNN. A man in Denver thought I sold him a life insurance policy, and a lady at the St. Louis airport thought I was former vice president Dan Quayle. So thank you, Chancellor, for setting everybody straight. I am honored to share this day with all of you.

I recall Adlai Stevenson’s statement some years ago on a similar occasion to another graduating class. He said, “For the next 15 minutes, I am supposed to talk to you and you are supposed to listen. I only hope we both begin and end at the same time.”

This is a momentous day for me. Forty years ago, I was sitting where you are, waiting for the ceremony to end, the diplomas to be given, the parties to begin. I see it all as vividly as if it were yesterday. But when I pause and reflect, I also see how profoundly, how unpredictably, the world has been transformed since then.

The world of 1962 seemed stable, the order of things almost immutable. Communism was, we assumed, a powerful and permanent threat. American economic supremacy was undeniable. Televisions were black and white; computers were the size of a lecture hall; and atomic energy was the wave of the future. The fight against racial segregation had just begun.

Here in St. Louis, blacks and whites, living under American apartheid, couldn’t eat a hamburger and couldn’t see a film sitting side-by-side. At the same time, we believed that the battle for equality would soon be and justly be concluded, with a few more court decisions and a few more strong laws. No one had heard of feminism or stem-cell research.

In reality, most Americans didn’t think very much about most of this. It was a given, a world view. There were elements of fear in it: As a youngster in grammar school here in St. Louis, I learned how to climb under my desk to protect myself in the event of nuclear war. But that, too, at its core, reflected a quintessential American optimism, a mixture of hope, a mixture of belief that a desktop could shelter us from the fallout, if not the blast. Even the greatest confrontation of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, was over in a matter of days — and it ended in triumph for America.

So we had no idea what we were heading into as we left on our graduation day. Neither, I suspect, do you. And it would be a reckless commencement speaker who ventured too many predictions about a world that in his own lifetime has confounded so many expectations.

But what is clear, I believe, is how different and uncertain your time is — and how much it demands from your generation. Many of the differences are happy ones. “The long twilight struggle” has yielded to a new dawn of freedom across Eastern Europe, the old Soviet empire, and all across the globe. The long nighttime of communism and totalitarianism is not over, but we are entering a new era where ordinary citizens everywhere are speaking out freely and are no longer afraid of murderous dictators. We have written sanctions for racial discrimination out of our laws, though it clearly remains seared in our national life.

We have made substantial progress towards equal rights for women and minorities, in our battalions and workplaces, even though serious discrimination still exists. And technology has given us more than compact computers, cell phones and PDA’s, and as I know from my own son’s experience here at the Washington University medical school, it has also brought breakthrough medical advances, so that in many cases today, as in my son’s, cancer is a survivable disease.

These last 30 years have seen enormous change, enormous progress, enormous advances in science, and enormous changes in legal structures which influence our lives and, when they work well, draw us all closer together.

Now, it is typical for a commencement speaker to say that it’s your turn to change the world. In fact, I can’t improve upon John Kennedy’s straightforward call to my generation to accept the responsibilities of citizenship along with its advantages, and today I won’t try.

In the days ahead I am excited about launching an Institute for Public Service at this extraordinary University. This Institute will attempt to make JFK’s challenge real for students here at Washington University. In addition, I hope this Institute will offer baby-boomer retirees the opportunity to help spread freedom, democracy, and capitalism across the globe so we can better prevent the creation of terrorists.

Kennedy’s challenge was historic but I want us to make history here at Washington University by getting hundreds of Americans to really accept that challenge. Washington University — the site of Presidential debates in 1992, 2000 and 2004 — will become a place where important Presidential challenges will be accepted and realized.

I hope to use the rest of this Address to simply pass along some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in 40 years as a son, husband, father, legislator, candidate and political leader.

First, treat other people the way you would like to be treated. It’s no accident that every religion in our world revolves, at least in part, around some vision of the Golden Rule. My mother taught it to me every day. It’s been the most important rule in my life. Every ultimately successful person — every person who makes something of their life, every ultimately successful leader — I have ever met in business, politics or elsewhere practices, or tries to practice, the Golden Rule everyday in his or her life.

They really put themselves in the other person’s shoes before they make the cutting remark, before they ask for help, before they make the excuse. It’s amazing what happens when you ask yourself this question before you speak or act. “How would I like this said or done to me?” You’ll be amazed at how much better people treat you when you think first about them. Observing this rule is not just polite or moral, but it will enable you to weather challenges in the workplace, or home, without having to overcome divisions among people.

Second, value human relationships, above all else. No one is poorer or more lonely than the people who lack them. Our lives are short, sometimes shorter than we want, and the most rewarding, enriching, aspects of our lives are the human relationships we have to enjoy. So love your families, hold them close, for they are the greatest source of security and strength you will ever know.

More important than being a great lawyer is being a good parent. More important than being the best airline pilot is being a good spouse. More important than being a great or good anything is having a deep, lasting, loving relationship with a few other human beings, with your family and with your friends.

Third, live your life with enthusiasm and curiosity, all born of the great incomparable joy of being alive. (I’m glad somebody already gets it.) Find something you really enjoy doing. If you hate your job, go find a new one. Believe me, 40 years go by in a flash. And you must not settle for a life that will only produce regrets and recriminations.

The best description of what I mean comes from a movie I saw many years ago. In “Awakenings,” a man is brought back from a 40-year coma by a doctor. A few weeks after his awakening, he calls his doctor at 3 o’clock in the morning to come immediately to his office to meet him. The doctor, thinking his patient has fallen ill again, rushes to his office to find the man beaming with a love of life again after reading a newspaper. He said: “Look at all of these stories of people in trouble — don’t they understand? They’re alive — don’t they understand how lucky they are?”

None of us do. Not until our lives or the lives of our loved ones are threatened do we begin to see what an opportunity life is. So often we bog down in the tedious details of life, we miss the forest for the trees. We become focused on one thing and overlook what is really happening. We’re inconvenienced, we’re slighted by a friend, we’re annoyed, we’ve got this problem or that, we’d rather mourn even a passing injustice than understand and appreciate the chances for happiness that each day affords for all of us.

It is a paradox: To enjoy life to its fullest, to live without regrets, requires a discipline, a continuing reminder to ourselves of how good life really is. So work hard and play hard. Open your eyes to the beauty around you. Take time to reflect and think, go to concerts, prepare good foods, read books, look at art, notice nature around you.

Finally, try to have courage and be willing to take risks. All through your life challenges will pop up. New jobs, new opportunities to serve others, new ventures to get into. Often these decisions will involve risks, often you will be afraid to take the risk. Sometimes your caution will be right. No one should take risks foolishly. But I think our fears too often overwhelm our courage to step out and try to change what is wrong and what should be changed. You have to keep your minds open, you have to welcome change, embrace new things and you must never accept what is — you must work for what can be.

Lech Walesa, the president of Poland from 10-15 years ago, best exemplifies this idea. In a speech before the U.S. House of Representatives, he told us how he started Solidarity. He said, “It was August 1980, that there began in Gdansk shipyard the famous strike that led to the emergence of the first independent trade union in a communist country, which soon became a vast social movement supported by the entire Polish nation.”

Walesa was unemployed at the time, fired from his job for earlier attempts to organize workers, beaten by police almost to his death. But even after all of that, he jumped over the shipyard wall and rejoined his colleagues who promptly appointed him leader of the strike, the beginning of Solidarity, the beginning of democracy in Poland. That’s how it all began.

Then Walesa recalls the road he had traveled, the number of times he thought what would have happened if he had not jumped over that wall. “Now others jump fences and tear down walls.” They do it, he concludes, because it is right.

So decide that you too will jump over the wall, just as Lech Walesa jumped over his.

I know many of you are sad to graduate, because it means you are trading the freedoms of academic life for new responsibilities you’ve never had to bear. Of course, there is much truth to that feeling. But it will fade, and other joyful feelings you’ve never experienced will come to the fore.

The satisfactions of adulthood lie before you. More often than you can anticipate, you will talk to your parents as equals and friends, your best friends. You will find productive and rewarding work, and you will move ahead. Some of you will be drawn back to your churches, synagogues and mosques, and you will enjoy moments of quiet reflection that never came when someone brought you to worship.

Others will depend on you, and you will sustain them. You will tiptoe into the darkened bedrooms of your children and watch them sleep in wonder. There truly is an excitement and an art to living, and most of you — I hope all of you — will appreciate the power and dignity that come from being on your own and making a life for yourselves.

So in closing, let me congratulate you — and let me congratulate your parents. Your diploma is not just inscribed on parchment, but in their hopes and their hearts. So hug them, and thank them and thank the people who run and teach at this great university. You are the luckiest people on the planet.

Have then a wonderful time, a wonderful party with all of your friends. You’ve earned it. God bless all of you.