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Remarks by Joseph R. Biden Jr. L’68, Vice President of the United States, at SU’s 155th Commencement
SU News Services
Remarks by Joseph R. Biden Jr. L’68, Vice President of the United States
Syracuse University’s 155th Commencement
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s 112th Commencement
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Thank you so much. It’s good to be home!
Frank Sinatra, one of the few things I remember he ever said, not what he sang, he said, “Orange is the happiest color.” He must have been thinking of Syracuse. Dean Arterian, dean of my law school, the good news for you is, I’m Vice President and not one of your students. You all think I’m kidding, don’t you. Hey Colin, you would have loved me, I never had to be told that play was important. It just came natural to me all the way through law school. Oh, God. Thank God, when Syracuse gave me the scholarship, they based it on a sense of obligation.
This field, which used to be called Archbold Stadium, when I was here, this is the place from which I graduated, the same ground. This field was the scene of two of the happiest moments of my life. Most exciting moments of my life. The first was when I sat in the end zone and watched a man, who’s become a close personal friend of mine, Number 44, Floyd Little; outscore Gale Sayers in a shootout where they scored a total of eight touchdowns together. You can see my value system. And the second was, the day that I stood here – in those days, the law school used to graduate with the undergraduate school – I sat here on this field and received my law degree. At some moments, an unexpected event.
Let me say congratulations to all my fellow recipients of honorary degrees today. You all deserve it.
It’s great to be back in Syracuse, it’s an honor to have been invited, it’s an honor to hold a degree from this institution. And it’s an honor to look at the next generation of Syracuse grads. I’m sure this is said all the time. So much emotion and expectation and confidence has been invested in all of you. Today is Mother’s Day. To all the mothers who are here today, the spotlight may be on your graduates, but just know that it would not shine nearly as brightly were it not for you, and they know it.
So I say to all the graduates today, there’s a great line I heard that goes like this: “If at first you don’t succeed, do it like your Mom told you to do.”
That may be the best advice I can give you today. I’m not in the business of giving advice. But I say to all the moms today, Happy Mother’s Day. It’s obviously a great day for you. You deserve our thanks. By the way, if any of you have forgotten, when you leave here get flowers.
At the turn of the 20th century, William Allen White – a writer, a politician, a national spokesman for middle class values – said, “I’m not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday and I love today.” Well, right now there’s a line of thought out there that your generation views today with anxiety and tomorrow with a sense of despair. But as your class speaker pointed out, I know better. You know better. You know that you can control your destiny even in these difficult times.
Let me tell you about my yesterday. I too graduated from this great University into an uncertain world. The United States was at war in a faraway place, and unlike today, America’s faith in its leadership was perilously low. In January of my senior year, when Americans thought the war in Vietnam might be drawing to a close, the Viet Cong launched what you studied about – the Tet Offensive, in an effort to end the war in one single seismic assault. Two days into the offensive, a bullet fired in the streets of Saigon by a Vietnam police chief went into the skull of a handcuffed Viet Cong soldier as a photographer captured the mayhem. That one bullet not only pierced that soldier’s skull but pierced America’s consciousness as well. That one photograph taken by Eddie Adams brought home to every one of my generation and my parents’ generation that despite the promises we’d been hearing, there really was no end in sight, there was no light at the end of the tunnel. That one image contained within its four corners the terror of the times. Peaceful anti-war demonstrations turned violent in America. The Chancellor’s office on this campus was occupied and the violence in Vietnam exploded, nearly doubling to over 38,000 dead and a number of our classmates we lost in 1968 in combat deaths.
Then in March, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a man who coveted the presidency his entire career, decided he would not seek re-election to a job that he geared his entire career to obtain. And only four days later, after the president’s stunning announcement, Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis. Cities, including my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, went up in flames. And a couple months after that, only three days after I walked off this field, one of my personal heroes, Robert F. Kennedy – the hope of my generation – was gunned down in a kitchen in Los Angeles after having been declared the winner of the California primary and our likely nominee. Two fallen American heroes in a matter of weeks, and many more fallen heroes back across the world in Vietnam.
The once-prevailing hope of better days was gone, shot through with pain and grief of a nation that viewed itself on the brink. And all throughout this great country, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness began to take hold. That was the world I entered when I walked across the stage to receive my law degree. That was the history that up to that point had been written for us, not by us. But in spite of it all, as I walked across this stage like you, I never doubted for one instant that we could change that history. That we could rewrite the outcome we were careening toward. And we did. Five years later I sat in a room across from President Ford and Dr. Henry Kissinger, along with my colleagues on the Foreign Relations committee, demanded that the war end and it did within a matter of weeks after that.
That was 1968, and this is 2009. And now it’s your turn. You are graduating into a world of anxiety and uncertainty. You’re walking across this stage without knowing exactly what’s going to be on the other side. But you know that. Good jobs are hard to find now. Two wars are being waged on the other side of the globe, a global recession, a planet in peril, a world in flux. Yes, these are the challenges you face. But these are the moments you have an opportunity to embrace. Throughout the span of history, only a handful of us have been alive at a time when we can actually shape the course of history. I call these inflection points. Remember from your physics class. Your hands are on the steering wheel, the automobile is going straight, and one slight turn sends the car into a direction fundamentally different and initially unalterable from the direction it’s been going in. Few people get to put their hands on a steering wheel at that moment. There’s not a single decision confronting us now that doesn’t yield change from non- action as well as action.
My favorite poet, William Butler Yeats, writing about his Ireland, in 1916 wrote a poem about the first rising of the 20th century called “Easter Sunday 1916.” In it, there was a line that’s more applicable, in my view, to today than it was to his Ireland in 1916. He said “The world has changed. It has changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” Well, its clear things have changed utterly in the last 12 to 15 years. A terrible beauty has been born. It’s a different world out there. But we have an opportunity to make it truly beautiful because we’re at an inflection point. Absent our input and leadership, the world will continue to careen in the direction the momentum is now taking. That folks, is an inflection point. Do nothing, or take history into our own hands, and bend it to the service of a better day.
You know how I feel – it’s probably self-evident. In the face of the challenges and opportunities we have, in the face of struggle, there is a much greater risk in accepting a situation we know we cannot sustain than in steeling our spine and embracing a promise of change. Even though the pessimist will point out we cannot guarantee exactly what that change would deliver, the truth is, individuals don’t determine these inflection points. It’s the cumulative consequence of change, circumstances of our country and the world that delivers us to these moments. But it is individuals who do determine the outcome of these moments.
I’ve done many commencement speeches. But I can say with absolute certainty, without fear of contradiction, there has never been a graduating class graduating at a moment where they actually have the chance to make more than incremental change. That’s where we are. That’s why Barack and I ran. That’s why I believe so passionately that we have a shot that hasn’t occurred in the lifetime of anyone in this Dome. Now we’re here.
Imagine a country where within a very short time, 20 percent of all our energy comes from renewable, clean sources of energy. A country that literally is ready to invest in every child from the time they’re three years old and guarantee every American who qualifies that they can attend college, notwithstanding their income. Imagine a country where health care is, for the first time, affordable and available to every American, driving down our costs, opening up opportunities. Imagine a country where our carbon footprint shrinks to virtually nothing. Imagine an America brought together by powerful ideas, not torn apart by petty ideologies. Imagine a country built on innovation and efficiency, not on credit default swaps and complex securities. Imagine a country that lifts up the windows of opportunities instead of slamming them down, as has occurred over the last 15 years. Imagine a country where creativity and scientific knowledge are valued. Imagine a country where every single American has a fighting chance in a country that lives up to the promise of our ideals and leads the world with the power of our example, not the example of our power.
That’s why I stay in this business. That’s what you demanded of us in this last election. That’s what the President and I are seeking to accomplish. They tell us we’re doing too much. They tell us that this is beyond our scope. Where in the hell have they been?
Ladies and gentlemen, we desperately need you. And we need you to help us make this happen. This is totally within our power. As my brother Jimmy would say, this is within our wheelhouse, this is the story of America. Some think I’m too optimistic. Well, I challenge that. I believe I’m thoroughly realistic. My confidence is born out of my own experience, and America’s experience. The American people have never, ever let their country down when they’ve had a leadership willing to support them and to challenge them. I was optimistic when I walked off this field into an uncertain world in 1968. I was optimistic when I was elected as a 29-year-old kid in Delaware to the United States Senate. But I must admit, if anyone had told me then, that I’d be more optimistic and more idealistic in the year 2009 than I was then, I would have told them they were crazy. But it’s the God’s honest truth. I am more optimistic today than I have ever been in my life because of you, because of where we are. And there’s good reason for this optimism. It’s you, it’s my daughter, it’s your generation. It’s not only what I know you can do, but what you’ve already done.
One point two million of a total of 1.9 million combat troops who have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan are under the age of 30. And many have given their lives in a war that was a war of choice than one of necessity. You are committing to your communities in larger numbers and volunteering in record numbers – the Peace Corps, Teach for America, AmeriCorps, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Habitat for Humanity, the list goes on and on. And all over the globe, you’re enriching communities and making life better for people. From the North American continent to Asia to Africa to Latin America, you’re connecting with each other like no generation ever has been. You’re connected to the world in ways that we could have never imagined as I walked off this field. And you’re using those connections to unite a global community to deepen our understanding of the world around us. That knowledge will help us seize an entire new era in world history. Your agile, fresh minds will create for us a bold new reality and we’re prepared to ride along with you and fight with you to see that it happens.
So for those that tell you we’re doing too much, be smart enough not to listen. For those who say what we dream of cannot be done, be naïve enough to give it a shot. For those who say “Now is not the time,” say, “If not now, when?”
Folks, I’m not giving you the usual malarkey that every one of you are going to change the world, that every one of you are going to become the Nobel laureates and the presidents and the corporate heads and the leaders of great organizations. But I am telling you, the cumulative effect of what you’ve already demonstrated, your capacity to do, will – I guarantee you – will change the world. Because it cannot sustain itself in the direction it’s going now. Just as with every generation that is at an inflection point in history, it’s totally within your power to shape history and literally bend it. This is not bravado. This has been the history of the journey of America from its inception. This is a journey that was brought home to me personally 110 days ago, when I went to the same railroad station in Wilmington, Delaware that had almost been burned to the ground the year I graduated – occupied by National Guard with drawn bayonets in a black section of my city. As I boarded that train 110 days ago, it struck me how far we’ve traveled in my lifetime. I was taking a very short journey on that train to our nation’s capital, to be sworn in as Vice President of the United States of America with the first African American president in American history.
As we rode down that track, that short 123 miles, was the most moving experience of my life. Thousands upon thousands of people, in my city which had been burned to the ground – about a fourth of it – women and men holding up their babies so close to the track I feared someone would be hit – with a sense of hope and expectation that was reflected in the fact that we had turned around so drastically in that short time. I thought back to what Dr. King said. He said “The arc of history bends toward justice.” That’s what you get a chance to do. No other generation in recent times has had the chance. Not because you’re better, but because of the moment to which we’ve been delivered. I knew at that moment that the rhetoric I would repeat of Dr. King during my career was absolutely, positively, literally true. And I also knew one other thing. I would never have been able to have that great honor to be part of that history were it not for the chance I had at this great institution.
Because those times, when I had to listen to my dad’s admonition of getting up at the most difficult times of my life, Syracuse University was there for me. It’s a big deal. The loyalty this University has shown me exceeds any institutional loyalty that I’ve ever encountered in my life. It’s come at times during the bleakest moments, as well as the happiest ones.
So let me conclude by saying I’m grateful. I am truly grateful. I thank you.
I congratulate all you graduates, and happy Mother’s Day, and may God bless you all and may God protect our troops. Go enjoy yourselves. Play.