Text of Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks at 2014 Class Day

John Kerry ’66 was the featured speaker at the Class Day ceremony on May 18. He was introduced by two of the events co-chairs: Nia Holston and Josh Rubin. Here is a transcription of his address.

Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you very much. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I think Winston Churchill said the only reason people give a standing ovation is they desperately seek an excuse to shift their underwear. (Laughter.) So certainly before I’ve opened my mouth, that’s true. (Laughter.) 

Anyway, President Salovey and faculty members, parents, siblings who came here under the false impression there would be free food (laughter); Handsome Dan, wherever you are, probably at some fire hydrant somewhere (laughter); members of the 2013 NCAA champion men’s ice hockey team (cheers and applause); distinguished guests and graduates, graduates of the Class of 2014, I really am privileged to be able to be here and share the celebration of this day with you, especially 48 years after standing up right here as a very intimidated senior wondering what I was going to say. 

You are graduating today as the most diverse class in Yale’s long history. Or as they call it in the NBA, Donald Sterling’s worst nightmare. (Laughter and applause.)

Nia and Josh: Thank you for such a generous introduction. What Josh didn’t mention is that he interned for me at the State Department last summer. (Cheers and applause.) Well, hold on a minute now. (Laughter.) I learned that he’s not afraid to talk truth to power, or semi-truth. (Laughter.) On his last day he walked up to me at the State Department and he was brutally honest. He said, “Mr. Secretary, JE sucks.” (Laughter and cheers.)

No, actually, on the last day at the State Department, he asked if I would come here today and deliver a message his classmates really needed to hear. So here it goes: Jarred Phillips, you still owe Josh money from that road trip last fall. (Laughter and applause.)

I have to tell you, it is really fun for me to be back here on the Old Campus. I’m accompanied by a classmate of mine. We were on the soccer team together. We had a lot of fun. He served as ambassador to Italy recently, David Thorne. And my daughter Vanessa graduated in the Class of 1999, so I know what a proud moment this is for your parents. But my friends, the test will be if they still feel this way next May if you live at home. (Laughter.)

Now, I’m really happy you made it back from Myrtle Beach. (Cheers and applause.) As if you hadn’t already logged enough keg time at “Woads”. (Cheers.) Just remember, just remember: 4.0 is a really good GPA, but it’s a lousy blood-alcohol level. (Laughter.)

I love the hats. We didn’t have the hats when I was here. I love the hats. They are outrageous. They’re spectacular. This may well be the only event that Pharrell could crash and go unnoticed. (Laughter and applause.)

I’ve been looking around. I’ve seen a couple of Red Sox, a few Red Sox hats out there. (Cheers.) I’ve also seen a few of those dreaded interlocking N’s and Y’s. (Cheers.) But that’s okay: I said diversity is important. (Laughter.) It’s also an easy way for me to tell who roots for the Yankees and who’s graduating with distinction. (Laughter and cheers.)

So here’s the deal, here’s the deal: I went online and I learned in the Yale Daily comments that I wasn’t everyone’s first choice to be up here. (Laughter.)

John Kerry points to the students from Jonathan Edwards College after making a quip about the residential college's greatness. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

John Kerry points to the students from Jonathan Edwards College after making a quip about the residential college’s greatness. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

When Yale announced that I’d be speaking, someone actually wrote, “I hope they give out Five-Hour Energy to help everyone stay awake.” (Laughter.) Well don’t worry folks: I promise not to be one minute over four hours. (Laughter.)

Someone else wrote I haven’t “screwed up badly as Secretary of State … yet.” (Laughter.) Well, all I can say is, stay tuned. (Laughter.)

But my favorite comment was this: “I’m really proud that a Yalie is Secretary of State.” I should have stopped reading right there because he or she went on to write, “but he is butt ugly.” (Laughter.) So there go my dreams of being on “Yale’s 50 most beautiful” list. (Cheers and applause.)

It really is a privilege for me to share this celebration with you, though I’m forewarned that no one remembers who delivers their graduation speech. All I really remember about our speaker in 1966 is that he was eloquent, insightful, really good looking. (Laughter.) Anyway, one thing I promise you, one thing I promise you: I will stay away from the tired clichés of commencement, things like “be yourself,” “do what makes you happy,” “don’t use the laundry room in Saybrook”. (Cheers and applause.) That’s about all I’ll say about that. (Laughter.)

So right after we graduated, Time Magazine came out with its famous “Man of the Year” issue. But for 1966, Time didn’t pick one man or one woman. They picked our entire generation.

And Time expressed a lot of high hopes for us. It not only predicted that we’d cure the common cold, but that we’d cure cancer, too. It predicted that we’d build smog-free cities and that we’d end poverty and war once and for all. I know what you’re thinking — we really crushed it. (Laughter.)

So fair question: Did my generation get lost? Well, that’s actually a conversation for another time. But let me put one theory to rest: It’s not true that everyone in my generation experimented with drugs. Although between Flomax, Lipitor and Viagra, now we do. (Laughter and applause.)

Now, I did have some pretty creative classmates back then. One of my good friends, very close friends in JE — (cheers) — I’m going to set it right for you guys right now. (Laughter.) One of my good friends in JE had at least two hair-brained ideas. The first was a little start-up built on the notion that if people had a choice, they’d pay a little more to mail a package and have it arrive the very next day. Crazy, right? Today that start-up is called FedEx. And by the way, it was created in JE, which therefore means JE rules. (Cheers and applause.)

Now, his other nutty idea was to restart something called the Yale Flying Club. And admittedly, this was more of a scheme to get us out of class and off the campus. So I basically spent my senior year majoring in flying, practicing take-offs and landings out at Tweed Airport. Responsible? No. But I wouldn’t have missed it.

And one of the best lessons I learned here is that Mark Twain was absolutely right: Never let school get in the way of an education.

Now, I didn’t know it at the time, but Yale also taught me to finish what you start. And that’s one thing that clearly separates us from Harvard. (Laughter.) After all, a lot of those guys don’t even graduate. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Matt Damon — what the hell have they ever amounted to? (Laughter.)

For all I ever learned at Yale, I have to tell you truthfully the best piece of advice I ever got was actually one word from my 89-year-old mother. I’ll never forget sitting by her bedside and telling her I had decided to run for President. And she squeezed my hand and she said: “Integrity, John. Integrity. Just remember always, integrity.” And maybe that tells you a lot about what she thought about politics.

But you should know: In a complicated world full of complicated decisions and close calls that could go either way, what keeps you awake at night isn’t so much whether or not you got the decision right or wrong. It’s whether you made your decision for the right reasons: Integrity.

And the single best piece of advice I ever received about diplomacy didn’t come from my international relations class, but it came from my father, who served in the Foreign Service. He told me that diplomacy was really about being able to see the world through the eyes of someone else, to understand their aspirations and assumptions.

And perhaps that’s just another word for empathy. But whatever it is, I will tell you sitting here on one of the most gorgeous afternoons in New Haven as you graduate: Listening makes a difference, not just in foreign ministries but on the streets and in the souks and on the social media network the world over.

So Class of 2014, as corny as it may sound, remember that your parents aren’t just here today as spectators. They’re also here as teachers — and even if counter-intuitive, it’s not a bad idea to stay enrolled in their course as long as you can.

Now for my part, I am grateful to Yale because I did learn a lot here in all of the ways that a great university can teach. But there is one phrase from one class above all that for some reason was indelibly stamped into my consciousness. Perhaps it’s because I spent almost 30 years in the United States Senate seeing it applied again and again.

One morning in the Law School Auditorium, my Professor, John Morton Blum, said simply: “All politics is a reaction to felt needs.” What I thought he meant is that things only get done in public life when the people who want something demand nothing less and the people who make it happen decide tht they can do nothing less.

Those “felt needs” have driven every movement and decision that I’ve witnessed in politics since — from South Africa a couple of decades ago to the Arab Spring a few years ago to our own communities, where same-sex couples refuse to be told by their government who they can love.

In 1963, I remember walking out of Dwight Hall one evening after an activist named Allard Lowenstein gave the impassioned and eloquent plea that I had ever heard. He compelled us to feel the need to engage in the struggle for civil rights right here in our own country. 

And that’s why, just steps from here, right over there on High Street, we lined up buses that drove students from Yale and elsewhere south to be part of the Mississippi Voter Registration Drive and help break the back of Jim Crow. Ultimately we forced Washington to ensure through the law that our values were not mere words. We saw Congress respond to this “felt need” and pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and life in America did change.

Not only did landmark civil rights advances grow out of the sit-ins and marches, but we saw the EPA and the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act and all of it come out of Earth Day in 1970. We saw women refusing to take a back-seat, force institutions to respond, producing Title IX and a Yale University that quickly transformed from a male bastion of 1966. Citizens, including veterans of the war, spoke up and brought our troops home from Vietnam. 

The fact is that what leaps out at me now is the contrast between those heady days and today. Right or wrong, and like it or not — and certainly some people certainly didn’t like it — back then institutions were hard pressed to avoid addressing the felt needs of our country.

Indeed, none of what I’ve talked about happened overnight. The pace of change was different from today. The same fall that my class walked in as freshmen, Nelson Mandela walked into prison. It wasn’t until 30 years later, when my daughter walked through these gates for the first time, that Mandela was his country’s president.

When I was a senior, the debate over the growing war in Vietnam was becoming all consuming. But it took another seven years before combat ended for our country, and more than 25,000 lives. And it wasn’t until the year 2000 that we finally made peace and normalized relations. Now, amazingly, we have more Vietnamese studying in America — including some in your class — than from almost any other country in the world.

What’s notable is this daring journey of progress played out over years, decades, and even generations. But today, the felt needs are growing at a faster pace than ever before, piling up on top of each other, while the response in legislatures or foreign capitals seems nonexistent or frozen.

It’s not that the needs aren’t felt. It’s that people around the world seem to have grown used to seeing systems or institutions failing to respond. And the result is an obvious deepening frustration if not exasperation with institutional governance.

The problem is today’s institutions are simply not keeping up or even catching up to the felt needs of our time. Right before our eyes, difficult decisions are deferred or avoided altogether. Some people even give up before they try because they just don’t believe that they can make a difference. And the sum total of all of this inaction is stealing the future from all of us.

Just a few examples, from little to big: a train between Washington and New York that can go 150 miles-per-hour — but, lacking modern infrastructure, goes that fast for only 18 miles of the trip; an outdated American energy grid which can’t sell energy from one end of the country to the other; climate change growing more urgent by the day, with 97 percent of scientists telling us for years of the imperative to act. The solution is staring us in the face: Make energy policy choices that will allow America to lead a $6 trillion market. Yet still we remain gridlocked; immigration reform urgently needed to unleash the power — the full power of millions who live here and make our laws in doing so both sensible and fair.

And on the world stage, you will not escape it — even more urgency. We see huge, growing populations of young people in places that offer little education, little economic or political opportunity. In countries from North Africa to East Asia, you are older than half their population. Forty percent of their population is younger than Yale’s next incoming class.

If we can’t galvanize action to recognize their felt needs — if we don’t do more to coordinate an attack on extreme poverty, provide education, opportunity, and jobs, we invite instability. And I promise you, radical extremism is all too ready to fill the vacuum left behind.

What should be clear to everyone — and it’s perhaps what makes our current predicament, frankly, so frustrating — is that none of our problems are without solutions. None of them. But neither will they solve themselves. So for all of us, it’s really a question of willpower, not capacity. It’s a matter of refusing to fall prey to the cynicism and apathy that have always been the mortal enemies of progress. And it requires keeping faith with the ability of institutions — of America — to do big things when the moment demands it. Remember what Nelson Mandela said when confronted by pessimism in the long march to freedom: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”

One thing I know for sure — these and other felt needs will never be addressed if you, we fall victim to the slow suffocation of conventional wisdom.

On Tuesday I sat in the State Department with some young Foreign Service officers at the State Department, and one of them said something to me that I’ve been thinking about, frankly, all week. He wasn’t much older than any of you. He said: “We’ve gone from an era where power lived in hierarchies to an era where power lives in networks — and now we’re wrestling with the fact that those hierarchies are unsettled by the new power.”

Every one of you and your parents have mobile devices here today. They represent a lot more than your ability to put a picture on Facebook or Instagram. They are one of the powerful new instruments of change that makes hierarchies uncomfortable because you can communicate with everybody, anywhere, all the time — and that’s how you beat conventional wisdom.

That’s what makes me certain that felt needs are not just problems. They are opportunities. And I am convinced if you are willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, which you should be after this education, you can avoid the dangerous byproducts of indifference, hopelessness, and my least favorite: cynicism. 

It is indifference that says our problems are so great, let’s not even try. We have to reject that. It’s hopelessness that says that our best days are behind us. I couldn’t disagree more.

It’s cynicism that says we’re powerless to effect real change, and that the era of American leadership is over. I don’t believe that for a second, and neither does President Obama. We refuse to limit our vision of the possibilities for our country, and so should you. Together we have to all refuse to accept the downsizing of America’s role in a very complicated world.

I happen to love T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one of my favorite poems. And I respectfully challenge you to never wind up fretfully musing as Prufrock did: “Do I dare disturb the universe? … In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Class of 2014: Your job is to disturb the universe.

You have to reject the notion that the problems are too big and too complicated so don’t wade in. You don’t have the luxury of just checking out. And it doesn’t matter what profession you wind up in, what community you live in, where you are, what you’re doing, you do not have that luxury.

One of the greatest rewards of being Secretary of State is getting to see with my own eyes how much good news there actually is in the world — how many good people there are out there every single day courageously fighting back. The truth is that everywhere I go I see or hear about an extraordinary number of individual acts of courage and bravery, all of which defy the odds — all by people who simply refuse to give up, and who start with a lot less opportunity than you do.

You can see this in the lonely human rights activist who struggles against tyranny and against a dictator until they are defeated. You see it in the democracy activist who goes to jail trying to ensure an election is free and transparent. You see it in the civil rights lawyer who suffers scorn and isolation for standing against bigotry, racism, and intolerance.

I am literally in awe of the courage that ordinary, anonymous people demonstrate in the most difficult circumstances imaginable — in a dank African jail, a North Korean gulag, a prison in Syria or Central Asia, facing the cruelest persecution and lonely isolation. 

Many of these people just quietly disappear. They lose their lives. They never become an international cause or a global hero. Courage is not a strong enough word for what they do every day, and all of us need to think about that.

What all these people have in common — and what I hope they have in common with you — is that they refuse to be complacent and indifferent to what is going on around them or to what should be going on around them.

And that’s the most important lesson I hope you will take with you when you leave Yale. The fact is that for those of you who have loans are not the only burden you graduate with today. You have had the privilege of a Yale education. No matter where you come from, no matter where you’re going next, the four years that you’ve spent here are an introduction to responsibility. And your education requires something more of you than serving yourself. It calls on you to give back, in whatever way you can. It requires you to serve the world around you and, yes, to make a difference. That is what has always set America apart: our generosity, our humanity, our idealism. 

Last year I walked through the devastation of the typhoon that hit the Philippines. The U.S. military and USAID and regular volunteers got there before countries that lived a lot closer. We went there without being asked and without asking for anything in return. And today Americans are helping to bring that community back to life.

In Nigeria, when Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls, the government didn’t turn to other powerful countries for help — and by the way, they’re not offering.

As Josh and Nia mentioned, it was my privilege to stand here 48 years ago at Class Day. Before coming here, I did re-read that speech. A lot of it was about Vietnam, but one line jumped out at me. In 1966 I suggested, “an excess of isolation had led to an excess of interventionism.” Today we hear a different tune from some in Congress and even on some campuses and we face the opposite concern. We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade. 

I can tell you for certain, most of the rest of the world doesn’t lie awake at night worrying about America’s presence — they worry about what would happen in our absence.

Without arrogance, without chauvinism, never forget that what makes America different from other nations is not a common bloodline or a common religion or a common ideology or a common heritage — what makes us different is that we are united by an uncommon idea: that we’re all created equal and all endowed with unalienable rights. America is not just a country like other countries. America is an idea and we — all of us, you — get to fill it out over time.

Tomorrow, when President Salovey grants you those diplomas, listen to what he says. He won’t say what is said at most schools — that your degree admits you to all its “rights and privileges.” At Yale, we say your degree admits you to all its “rights and responsibilities.” It means we need to renew that responsibility over and over again every day. It’s not a one-time decision. Participation is the best antidote to pessimism and ultimately cynicism.

So I ask you today on a celebratory afternoon as you think about the future: Remember what happened when the Founding Fathers had finished their hard work at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and Ben Franklin, tired, end of day, walked down at night, down the steps of the hall. A woman called to him. She said, “Tell us Dr. Franklin: What do we have, a monarchy or a republic?” And he answered: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Class of 2014: We know what you have — a world-class education — if you will use it.

Congratulations to you, good luck, and God bless. (Cheers and applause.)

*Source: Yale University

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