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Commencement address of Paul Tsongas

(The following is a transcript of the speech by Paul Tsongas, chairman of the state Board of Higher Education and a former Democratic senator from Massachusetts, to the graduates and guests at Commencement on Monday, June 5.)

Before I begin, I think we should pause to remember the slain students in China. The authorities in China know full well that history will record their brutality. They have prepared for that legacy. What they are not prepared for is that history will also record their futility.

In this era of the global village, the tide of democracy is running. And it will not cease, not in China, not in South Africa, not in any corner of this earth, where the simple idea of democracy and freedom has taken root. To the students in China, our counterparts, our brothers, our sisters, I say that we are with you, and we pray for your deliverance.

I would like to express my appreciation for your kind invitations to speak to you today. But I must say I accepted it with some hesitation. Thirty-one years ago I graduated from high school. I don't remember who spoke to me exactly then. Twenty-seven years ago I graduated from college. I don't remember who spoke to me then either. And twenty-two years ago I graduated from law school. Since that was the sixties, I didn't go to my graduation, so by definition I have no idea who spoke to me there either. I fear that I'm going to be the great trivia question at your reunion.

Before I begin, I would ask you to indulge me in three acknowledgments. First, I'd like to acknowledge my uncle, Alex Tsongas, and my Aunt Bertha. Alex is a graduate of the Class of 1928. My family is the classic American story of the role of education. My grandfather came over here in 1910. The good news is that he took his six children. He sent my father to Harvard, my two uncles to MIT, and my three aunts to Simmons. That's the good news. The bad news is that most of them became Republicans. But not Alex. I'd also like to acknowledge the fine work done by Dr. David Saxon in raising for the first time the standard of excellence in public higher education in Massachusetts. And finally I'd like to acknowledge the work of Dr. Paul Gray and the fact that MIT completed a recent study on competitiveness, which is just the latest example of MIT's contribution to vital thought in this country.

At this point I would like to give you a moment to applaud your families who have supported you all these years. They are here at your commencement to share this moment. Your years at MIT have gladdened their hearts, deepened their pride and destroyed their pocketbooks.

I have two thoughts that I would like to leave with you today, and perhaps I could illustrate each with a story. It was a myth that's often perpetuated at commencement that holds that only hope and promise lie beyond the halls of academe. Don't worry, be happy. Everything is fine.

That advice reminds me of the story of a farmer. He's in an automobile accident and he sues the other side for damages. When he came to trial, the attorney for the other side put the farmer on the stand and said, "At the time of the accident you said to the state trooper `I feel fine'. Did you say that?" The farmer said, "Yes, I did." "Well," the attorney said, "then how can you possibly sue for damages?" "Well," the farmer said, "look, I was driving down the road in my pickup. I had the cow in the back of my truck. Your client came across the center span, hit me broadside, and both I and my cow went flying to the side of the road, very badly hurt. The state trooper arrived on the scene, went up to my cow, and said this cow's in terrible shape. Took out the revolver, bang! Right between the eyes. He said to me, How do you feel?"

Everything out there is not fine. A commencement is a time of joy. It is also a time of melancholy. But then again, so is life. When I look back at my graduating class, I remember co-equal faces, with co-equal hopes. And co-equal futures. The co-equality soon ended. And life took over. Life with its oddities, its surprises, its uneven effect, its -- dare I say it -- its law of averages.

The fact is that your class, as mine, will experience the same vagaries. Some of you will live long lives, some of you, sadly, will die young. Some of you will achieve great personal success. Some of you will never live up to your promise. Some of you will know inner peace. Some of you will be plagued by inner turmoil. Some of you will truly give of yourselves to those around you, and some of you will be consumed with self.

The fact of this unevenness is merely part of our earthly voyage. What is intriguing is that looking at you, no one can say who will do what or who will be what. When I graduated from college, if the speaker had announced that one of us sitting there would be elected to the United States Senate at the age of 37, and come down with cancer at the age of 42, I would have been absolutely and totally certain that neither event would happen to me. And yet, both did.

And at your reunions, similar tales of unlikelihood will be told. Yet is the very unlikelihood that cries out for stabilizing forces. For handles to grab on to. Well, they exist as well. The same old dull bromides you've heard about forever. Hard work. Family. Community. Love of others. Love of God's earth. Love of moments that are rare and wonderful. I will not preach these values to you, but they are there. Just don't be surprised when eventually you feel the same way. Some day your life will end. Don't fear your mortality, because it is this very mortality that gives meaning and depth and poignancy to all the days that will be granted to you.

My second message is less personal and more collective. No one is immune from the larger events of his or her time -- the Depression, World War II, civil rights, Vietnam, the spring of 1989 in China. These events intrude upon our lives and radically affect our directions.

In my time it was the Kennedy call to public service in the Third World. Had there been no Peace Corps, my life would have been radically different. Recent times suggest the onslaught of AIDS. The ignoble effects of the Islamic Revolution. And the financial risk of mega-banks and debtor nations locked into a true fatal attraction. But I believe the dominant factor in your lives on a collective scale will be economic.

My father's generation gave to my generation a land of wealth and purpose and world economic dominance. My generation has enjoyed this wonderful power: influence abroad, comfort at home. Ah, the sweet pursuit of pleasure. A BMW in every garage, a weekend snort of cocaine by the pool. America's best and brightest flocking to Wall Street to follow the gods of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. Money. Untold wealth. Staggering wealth. Five hundred million dollars in one year. And best of all there is none of the grubbiness of having to manufacture things, or to drill wells, or to lay down pipes, or to install train tracks.

This new wealth comes from sitting in an office. A wonderfully nice office. And playing with numbers. The magic words are arbitrage, hostile takeover, leveraged buyout, sale of assets. You would have to be truly stupid to think of inventing something or designing something or creating something. It's all in the numbers, man. It's all in the numbers. Forty years of increased consumption. Falling savings rate. Lagging productivity statistics. High cost of capital.

But most of all, numbers -- numbers written in red. Debt. Real debt. Crushing debt. In the 1980s we have gone from being the world's largest creditor nation to the worst debtor nation the world has ever known. And all of this debt we give to you, our beloved children. America is on the verge of economic decline. We are now in an undeclared and unfelt and unrecognized battle for our future standard of living.

Are we fighting? Yes, we are. That's the good news. The bad news is that we are fighting the wrong war. We still pour our resources into the Cold War. The enemy is still the Russian bear. Ladies and gentlemen, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is over. Not because of anyone there or here being kinder or gentler, because of economic reality. These two aging boxers, with flabby midriffs, are losing their economic muscle.

Quite simply, they can't afford the Cold War. Harsh economic reality created Mikhail Gorbachev. Not an accident of history. I'm not calling for an abdication of our defense responsibilities. They remain. I am calling for recognition of the brave new world that exists. It is time to deal with the other war. The war with our friends. The war with Japan and Germany and Taiwan and Switzerland and Korea and France [who] sell to us and then take away our patrimony in return.

Can we turn our attention away from the Kremlin and face our new adversaries? I think so. I want to believe that America is ready for it. Let me illustrate. This story that I'm going to tell you is a true story.

When Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan were negotiating the IMF treaty, they came to a point of deadlock. And the President got up and turned to Mr. Gorbachev with all the others there and he said, "I'm going to tell a story about Chairman Gorbachev." He said, "As part of perestroika [Mr. Gorbachev] called in the state police and said, `we lose too many people in highway fatalities in this country. I tell you there should be no more speeding. If anyone speeds from here on in this country, they should be arrested. Do you understand?' They said, `yes, we do.' He said, `if you don't arrest them, it's your career.' So the edict went forth.

"Couple of weeks later he was at his retreat and overslept on a Monday morning. He remembered he had to be at the Kremlin early. So he and his chauffeur ran out of the house, and as they were about to get into the huge limousine, he remembered his edict. He said, `move over, I'll drive.' So, out they went out the driveway , down the highway, 95 miles an hour. And, sure enough, got pulled over by the police. In the police car there was a veteran cop and a rookie cop. The veteran cop looked to the side of the limousine and said to the rookie, `you go arrest whoever's in that car.' The rookie went over, had a long conversation, finally came back. The veteran said, `did you arrest him?' The rookie said, `no, I did not.' The veteran said, `well, who was he?' The rookie said, `I don't know, but Gorbachev was his driver.' "

The relevance of that story, if there is any, is that the story is the most-told piece of political humor by United States senators in America today. And that a story, that is essentially pro-Gorbachev, could be told in Massachusetts and Utah tells you how far we have come. I think we're ready for that change, but the harder part is taking on our friends, taking on our trading competitors.

We in America have lost our edge. We are zigging when we should be zagging. When we should be producing, we are consuming. We are borrowing, not saving. We have horizons measured in quarterly reports, not ten year plans. We produce with a casualness when the market demands precision. "Whistle while you work" has given way to "take this job and shove it."

The war that we talk about is not one of tanks or planes. It is a war of discipline, of purpose, of will, of determination, of hard work, of sacrifice, of attitude, and above all, of education. At the core it is essentially a war of culture. We have endured our tradition of anti-intellectualism long enough. Let us be done with it. Let us celebrate in intellect. Let us honor learning. Let us pay homage to the keen mind. Let us value those who think. We need to see, and to see clearly, what our nation's worries are in the 1990s and beyond. There is no need for Rambo or Conan the Barbarian or Dirty Harry. They are useless in this war. They are useless.

Our only weapons in this war of your lifetime are the weapons of the mind. In this country we consider those weapons to be curious at best. Unless we change this part of our culture, we will endure a steady decline in the American standard of living in a nation more and more owned by foreign interests. You deserve better. We have not served you well. We have squandered a good part of our collective patrimony. Perhaps here, more than almost any campus in America, the products of MIT will be called upon to restore that patrimony. You must become leaders in this cultural realignment.

Let me close with a story. There was a fellow from Massachusetts who went to the Grand Canyon. We don't have anything like that in Massachusetts except during the pothole season. And he was looking out at the abyss and 5,000 feet straight down, and was so awed by it that he tripped. And over he went. Fortunately there was a tree growing about 30 feet below the rim, and he grabbed it and he was hanging there and hanging there. And finally, in desperation, cried out, "is there anybody up there?" Finally, after much silence, a voice said, "I am here, I am the Lord." The man said, "Well, thank God you're there, God could you help me?" The Lord said, "well, I would be inclined to help you if you have faith in me. Do you have faith in me?" The fellow said, "well, of course I have faith in you, but can you hurry up, God, my fingers are slipping." God said, "all right. I will help you. To demonstrate your faith, let go." The man thought for a moment and cried out, "is there anybody else up there?"

In this new war, in a very real sense, you are what's up there. You are part of that horrid expression, the best and the brightest. It can be a terrible burden if you let it be, but it is the great challenge of your time. And being a warrior in that challenge should be wondrous. I wish you Godspeed for your sake, for my sake, and for my children's sake. Thank you.