Knox College Commencement Address
John Podesta -- White House Deputy Chief of Staff
June 6, 1998

Knox College
Commencement 1998

Thank you, Dr. Sunderland, President Nahm, Dr. Weir, Dean Breitborde, Michael Lawrence, Willabelle Williams, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, parents, friends of Knox College, fellow honorees.

Last night we had dinner in a room named for one of the great professors of my era, Hermann Muelder. His book Missionaries and Muckrakers provided an important source of inspiration for my remarks, and I would like to remember him today.

Most importantly -- I'd like to salute the class of 1998.

Last fall, I was surprised and honored to be invited to speak here today. At the time, of course, the Clinton White House was riding pretty high. Unemployment was at its lowest level in 24 years. Incomes were up. Crime was down. Welfare rolls were plummeting. We had just passed the first balanced budget since I was a student at Knox.

Still. What an amazing lack of foresight the Trustees showed when they invited me last fall to speak this spring. Just take a moment and think about what's happened in Washington in the past five months:

We saw a sudden, escalating arms race that may end with destruction of biblical proportions. I refer, of course, to the Justice Department's antitrust case against Bill Gates and Microsoft.

We watched as El Niño blasted into the California Coastline and sent tornadoes racing through the South. Newt Gingrich says he's figured out El Niño's cause: Bill Clinton.

And Ken Starr has started investigating.

We invited Susan Lucci to have dinner at the White House in hopes of changing her luck. But one week later she again lost the day-time Emmy for the 18th year in a row.

We struggled to pass tobacco legislation to reduce teen smoking. We enlisted Dr. Koop, the American Cancer Society, and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. The public is with us. And yet two weeks from today, the biggest event of the year will occur -- the opening of "X-Files: The Movie," and the cigarette smoking man will still be prominently featured.

Does anyone here watch X-Files? Only after they're done studying, I'm sure. Some people at the White House have coffee tables full of White House trinkets. Others have what are known as "me walls" filled with candid shots of them and the President. In my office at the White House I have a little table which I've converted into an X-Files shrine, with copies of books, fan magazines, CD-Roms, photos of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

A TV fictional drama about a government conspiracy to cover up the existence of extraterrestrial life. Where else but the White House would someone grab on to the X-Files in a desperate attempt to cling to reality.

It is with a degree of unreality, and more than a measure of humility, that I stand here knowing the names of people honored in the past by Knox College. In 1860, Knox's first honorary doctorate was given to Abraham Lincoln. Two years earlier, of course, he had come here to debate Stephen Douglas. Carl Sandburg, who we from Knox also claim as part of our rich history, described in The Prairie Years the day in October, 1858 when Lincoln and Douglas came to Knox. Here is what he wrote.

"Twenty thousand people and more sat and stood hearing Lincoln and Douglas speak while a raw northwest wind tore flags and banners to rags. For three hours the two debaters spoke to people who buttoned their coats tighter and listened. They had come from the banks of the Cedar Fork Creek, the Spoon River, the Illinois, Rock and Mississippi Rivers. With ruddy and wind-bitten faces they were of the earth; they could stand the raw winds when there was something worth hearing and remembering.".

Something worth hearing and remembering.

Given how turned off Americans are by politics today, overloaded by the scandal coverage, insults, and partisan attacks, ask yourself this: why did over 20,000 people, nearly the entire population of the county, sit on the lawn that sits right behind us, to hear two politicians square off in a debate? What lessons can we draw from that experience -- that larger more attentive sense of citizen involvement.

The people on that lawn heard two great oratorical gladiators. Lincoln virtually accused Douglas of being part of a vast conspiracy whose aim was to extend slavery into the west and South America. A vast right-wing conspiracy, sound familiar.

But the Lincoln-Douglas debate was not only a spectator sport. The people, themselves, were asking and answering the great questions of their time -- Could the country keep expanding? Could slavery continue to exist? Could the Union, itself, survive.

From its founding, Knox College was a hotbed of abolitionism. The intertwined passions of religion, morality and politics had spread beyond the men and women of the College to the surrounding community. Less than three years after that debate, these farmers and merchants, ministers, college professors and students -- ordinary Americans just like you -- would be fighting to preserve the Union and to abolish slavery.

Over the next century, Knox remained committed to progressive change, but America lagged behind. You know the history -- a century after Lincoln debated Douglas, America was still engaged in a struggle to dismantle legal segregation. The struggle for civil rights was the spark that lit the fire that disturbed and then transformed America. The civil rights movement would combine with the movement to end what many thought was an unjust and unsustainable war in Vietnam to produce one of the most turbulent decades of our history.

Stoked by rock and roll, rebellious films, and a deep desire for personal freedom, the twin protest movements would culminate in one year, 1968. A year Jules Witcover has called a "a seismic explosion . . . a year when the sensitivities and nerve ends of millions of Americans were assaulted almost beyond bearing.".

That year I sat on this lawn and in between catching a baseball or a frisbee or just a glimpse of one of those magnificent Midwestern sunsets, my classmates, professors and I engaged in our own first amendment exercise -- debated, ranted, chanted, protested, took over Old Main in what was a pretty genteel sit-in, and generally carried on. Of course, chalking hadn't been invented yet.

As many of your parents will admit, if you get them to let their hair down, maybe to the lengths it was in those days, it was an exhilarating time to be a student. Watch the faces of the students in Indonesia today and see the light in their eyes, and you'll know what I mean.

It was an exhilarating time. But it was also a tragic time. We endured the news of our friends, our classmates, our relatives who were killed or wounded while loyally serving our country in Vietnam. Then, we mourned those we lost. Today, we honor their memory and the service of all those who came home.

1968 was a year of enormous violence. Television brought the Vietnam War home, into our living rooms. And the nation was shocked by the assassination of two of our most gifted leaders. I was on this lawn when one of my classmates ran up to me and told me that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed.

At that moment, on a basketball court in downtown Indianapolis, Bobby Kennedy was trying to calm a crowd and calm our nation as we mourned the loss of Dr. King. He spoke deeply from his heart about losing his brother. And he said that what we needed in the United States was "not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom." His words helped Americans better understand an otherwise uncomprehending pain.

Today, I know that you mourn the loss of a fellow student. Your tragedy, the death of Andrea Racibozynski, and knowing that another student stands accused, may be even more personal, may be even more incomprehensible, may seem even more senseless than the pain we endured in 1968. Perhaps, then, you and Andrea and Clyde's families will also draw comfort from the words Bobby Kennedy spoke the night Dr. King was killed. He quoted his favorite poet, Aeschylus. He said: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God." Robert Kennedy was a remarkable man. Many in my generation were drawn to him by his simple appeal that Americans become involved in the action and passions of their time. The great tragedy of his life, of our life, is that he never lived to see his impact on millions and millions of us.

It is thirty years to the day, that Bobby Kennedy died, struck down by an assassin's bullet. Many of us remembered his vision and recommitted ourselves to fulfilling it. We engaged ourselves -- like the witnesses to the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates -- in the actions and passions of our times. We became doctors, lawyers, and journalists, therapists, business people, artists and computer programmers. We kept our commitment to civil rights. We helped start the environmental movement. We joined and strengthened the women's movement. We tried hard to do our most important job -- raise our children.

A few months back, I had a visit at the White House from a friend from my Knox days. Her name is Nancy Becker Kennedy. Nancy was a firebrand at Knox, involved in every cause. She broke her neck before graduating and has motored through life in a wheelchair since then. She has become a successful comedienne and television actress. Nancy, ever the activist, was in Washington to testify for her right and the right of all disabled people to work without losing Medicaid benefits. Nancy combines a sense of commitment, a sense of humor, a love of art, and a streak of outrage. Not bad qualities for children of the '60s. Not bad qualities for children of the '90s either.

For the graduates of the 1860s, the issue was slavery. For the graduates of the 1960s, the issues were race and Vietnam. Today, it is your turn. As you face the new millennium you will face a new set of problems, a new set of challenges and a new set of opportunities.

You will have to learn to work in a globalized, networked economy where movement of the ruble can cause havoc on Wall Street, where workers in Galesburg compete with those in Kuala Lumpur, where the practical skills you learned at Knox could soon be obsolete, but where the most important skill you learned here, the ability to think critically, will last a lifetime.

You'll be forced to cope with an atmosphere that's heating up and an environment that may be shutting down. Have you stopped to wonder why those frogs in Minnesota have two heads and only three legs? Why a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island fell off the Larsen Iceshelf into the Antarctic Ocean? Why each year 100 "old" species are becoming 100 extinct species? When the tropical disease dengue fever will become a public health hazard in Southern United States? And although it may be hard to imagine today, what it will be like on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago in July when the average temperature is 120 degrees. Talk about road rage.

You'll have to sort through whether the digital age will provide opportunity for all or further divide our society into information haves and have nots, whether the right to privacy will be strengthened or stripped away, whether being on line, all the time, where human interaction is replaced by user friendly interfaces, will enrich our lives or only enrich our psychiatrists.

You'll be challenged to create a world where people run through the streets exalting democracy and freedom rather than cheering nuclear testing and the use of chemical and biological weapons.

Most profoundly, you will have to sort out the meaning of life and the meaning of faith as scientists discover planets in other solar systems, probe the outer boundaries of the universe, unlock the secret of the genome and experiment with cloning.

These, uniquely, are your issues. As with the 1860s and the 1960s, the challenge is the same. Will you be active or will you be passive? Will you be subject to the forces of history or will you shape them? Will you take up Robert Kennedy's challenge and become a part of the actions and passions of this time? Your time?.

Let me close with a couple of thoughts. Permit me what my kids would refer to as an ethnic moment. One month ago I stood on the White House lawn, and I watched as President Clinton, the man I'm proud to work for, greeted the Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi. It caused me to think about my grandparents, who came to America from Italy at the turn of the century and struggled their whole lives, never attending school, living in a walkup tenement in downtown Chicago. My grandfather working as a stevedore. And I thought about my father who had to quit high school after one year to support his family, who worked in factories his whole life, but who kept pushing my brother and myself to get a good education. I realized that I couldn't have been on that lawn without the support -- quite literally the scholarship and financial support, but as importantly, the educational and emotional support that Knox College gave me.

What a profound gift -- the chance to dance with my daughter in the White House at the State Dinner for the Prime Minister of the country of my forebearers. I am forever grateful to this school.

I truly believe that each of you, 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years from now, will experience a special moment of joy and you will realize that Knox College and the special experiences you've had here, and the support that your parents and families provided, made that moment possible.

Finally, I'd like to read something that I never managed to read during my four years here, written by one of the College's most famous alums, Edgar Lee Masters. In the Spoon River Anthology, he wrote the eulogy of Alfonso Churchill, Master's Professor Moon.

"But now that my grave is honored, friend,
Let it not be because I taught
The lore of the stars in Knox College,
But rather for this: that through the stars
I preached the greatness of man,
Who is none the less a part of the scheme of things
For the distance of Spica or the Spiral Nebulae;
Nor any the less a part of the question
Of what the drama means."

To translate that into a more modern idiom, I think what he meant can be summed up in the words of Agent Dana Scully and Agent Fox Mulder.