Joe Biden at Colby College Commencement: 'Now Is the Time for Engaged Leadership'

May 22, 2017
Ideas

Former Vice President Joe Biden gave the commencement remarks at Colby College on Sunday. The full speech can be viewed here. Read the full transcript below.

Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. I think maybe I should sit down now.

Mr. President it's an honor to be here. And Eric Rosengren, chair of the board, Colby trustees, especially my good friend, Pete Rouse, Colby trustee—and I mean this, I can say this without fear of contradiction—one of the wisest counsels that I think ever served as chief of staff to the President of the United States of America. Pete is a man of incredible personal integrity, and a good, good friend. I was friends with his mom and dad; they helped me when I was a 28-year-old kid announced through the Senate to get elected and he has become close friends with my deceased son, Beau Biden, and my son, Hunter Biden. Your trustee from Wilmington, Del., now living in Washington, Robert Hoopes. I want to acknowledge you, Robert. Thank you. My fellow honorary degree recipients and Madam President and Mr. President [Class of 2017 co-presidents Caroline Dove and Muheb Esmat]. I've been to Kabul a number of times. For you to complain about cold is hypocrisy. I've never been so damned cold in my whole life as I was in Kabul—although not as much snow, I acknowledge. Thank you for choosing us, thank you for choosing Colby, and please—I mean this sincerely Mr. President [Esmat]—come back, come back. We need you, we need you.

And amazing Grace, Grace Dunn, where are you, Grace? God love you child. I tell you what. I am so, so proud of Grace. Grace Dunn.

And ladies and gentlemen, to your honorees, my congratulations.

My mother, Grace, had an expression. She'd say to me and I mean this sincerely, she'd say, "Look in my eyes, honey." If she said it to me once I give you my word as a Biden she said it 50 times. She'd say, "Remember: you're defined by your courage, and you're redeemed by your loyalty."

Gracie, she didn't know you but she had you in mind. Remember, remember—you're defined by your courage.

You know to all the proud Colby moms and dads here, congratulations. You're about to get a pay raise—no tuition next year. Maybe that's not quite true. But folks, your mom, dad, grandparents, your family, made a lot of sacrifices for you to be here, so stand up and give them a cheer. Stand up.

You know, Mr. President, I find commencement speeches the most difficult to give. I mean it sincerely. And the reason I do, is the faculty says, “Here we go again, my 15th commencement speech to hear,” and the students say, “Hurry up man we've got a party to go to,” and the parents say, “Say something meaningful to justify that tuition.” Well, I'm going to give it a try but I'm not sure I'm capable.

I'm inclined to do what a commencement speaker did the year that Pete Rouse graduated from here in 1968 and I graduated from law school. Bob Hope was the commencement speaker at Georgetown University that year. It was the middle of the Vietnam War, things were getting worse, and he stood up after recognizing all the celebrities and the faculty, and he turned and he looked at the students and he said, “I have one thing to say to you: don't go.” And he sat down. It was maybe the most meaningful speech that was given that year at a commencement.

But you know, the Class of '17, you made it. I'm sure you arrived on this campus wondering what the next four years were going be like, you weren't quite sure what to expect. And then, a few days later when the school chucked you out into the wilderness, and those few days of COOT—oh God you're mean up here—and, a wet sleeping bag? I mean, you really didn't know what to expect, I expect. But in those four years Colby has not only come to feel like home for most of you, I suspect, watching your faces, it's become family. It's even reflected in the way you talk about this place. The student leaders who took you out into the woods, your COOT moms and dads, when you came together on Sunday night to share your lives with one another at Page Commons—that's not some mandatory meeting; I'm told it's story time.

And, you know, I often say—as Pete Rouse has heard me say many times—the problem that's going on in Congress now is we don't tell stories to one another anymore. Sounds silly but I mean it. We don't know each other anymore. When you know somebody's mom has breast cancer, or you know somebody's dad just lost his job, or you know that you got a sister who is sick, it makes it hard to dislike that person. You get to understand and see their humanity. We used to know those things in Congress. You know those things here, I suspect, from Sunday nights.

And now after listening to your speech, Muheb, I finally understand all those hashtags about you. You'll never forget the time you spent here hunkered down with friends and hoarding food so you wouldn't have to leave the dorm during snowstorms, or reaching out to each other to get a hungry jack when Dairy Cone finally opens each spring, cheering on a hockey team that beat Bowdoin—twice. But the thing that I hope you remember most from your time here is the ethos at Colby that sought to instill in each and every one of you your sense of obligation that you bear to one another as individuals. A culture of mutual accountability, accountability and caring. In other words, be a Mule. Be a Mule. That's what it's all about.

You know, this past election cycle churned up some of the ugliest realities in our country. Civilized discourse and real debate gave way to the coarsest rhetoric and stoking of our darkest emotions. I thought we had passed the days where it was acceptable for politicians at all levels to bestow legitimacy on hate speech and fringe ideologies, even if it was just by their silence. But, the world is changing so rapidly, there are a lot of folks out there who are afraid. Good people. We know globalization hasn't been an unalloyed benefit for all communities struggling to get by. People are being displaced by technology; Moore's Law; the whole notion of digitalization. People are worried, a lot of people are worried. There's an overwhelming need for continuing education.

Those of you graduating, even in the sciences, within the next 15 years you're going to have to be re-educated—you can be an astrophysicist—so much is going to change. So much is going to happen. To keep pace with your profession you’re going to have to continually, continually, be re-educated to keep up. A lot of people out there know they have to do that without any capacity to do it, don't know how to get by. We saw how playing to their fears and appealing to their baser instincts—rather than their better angels as Lincoln talked about—can still be, at least temporarily, powerful in politics. We saw how appeals to the forces of populism can stoke anxiety and seek to blame the troubles of a rapidly changing world on “the other.” It's always the outsider. “I wouldn't have lost my job but for... The reason I'm not doing well...” The immigrant, the minority, the transgender. Anyone not like “me” became a scapegoat. There's a reason I'm falling behind, why I can't get a job.” And I imagine for many of you, seeing this unfold was incredibly disorienting, a disheartening experience. It was for me and many, many Americans all across the country. And it's understandable. But I assure you it's temporary. I assure you it's transitory. The American people will not sustain this attitude.

And now is the time for engaged leadership. So you have to hold, you have to hold on to the Colby mentality once you leave campus. Because it will not only serve you well, it will serve our nation well—and that is not hyperbole. I mean that literally. You have to be responsible to join in the ceaseless work of perfecting a more perfect union. “We hold these truths self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.’ We say those things. But think about what defines us as Americans. You cannot define an American based on their ethnicity. You cannot define an American based on religion. You cannot define America by anything other than an inherent acceptance of the notions contained within our institutional structures. “We hold these truths self-evident that all men are created equal.” We don't always practice it, but we know that's why we belong, no matter where we come from. It's been a long, long climb—an uphill climb—to make it real; we're nowhere near making it real yet. We haven't always lived up to our ideals. We're respected around the world not because of the exercise of our power but the power of our example. That's why we're who we are.

But, it's especially in moments where the world is in disarray and our politics is in chaos when there is a temptation to disengage, to throw our hands up. That's when it's most important for us to return to the basic principles. That's when we have to show that our ideals remain undimmed, and it still matters to us as Americans. It sounds corny. But it's really true. It's really true. For me it goes back to something my father taught me. My father used to say—and I mean it, this is not a joke. My father was a graceful, high school-educated man, who was well-read and a truly decent man. And he used to say, “Joey, every, every, every man woman and child is to be treated with respect and deserves to be treated with dignity.”

My father would never walk by someone begging. I'd say, “Dad, but he's only going to use it to go out and drink.” He said, “Do you think if he had any choice he'd be standing here doing anything else than begging?” No matter who it is, they're entitled to be treated with dignity.

It goes to the very heart of what it means, I think, to be an American. The right to dignity is what undergirds these self-evident truths we always talk about. Furthermore, when we treat people with dignity, when we equip them with the ability to care for their families and maintain their dignity, it's harder for the politics of fear to find a home. So today I want to talk to you about the importance of keeping dignity at the center of our society and at the center of your life as you go out into the world.

Folks, each of you has responsibility—you all know it, you've been taught it here and you've been taught it before you came here—to treat people with dignity. You demand it for yourselves; you demand that you be treated that way. And all of us—all of us—have to do better when it comes to building the bonds of empathy. That folks who aren't like us can know we understand them.

Life can't be lived in this self-referential, self-reinforcing, self-righteous echo chamber we've built for ourselves online. Living in our screens encourages shallow and antiseptic relationships that make it easy to reduce others to stereotypes. To write another human being off as a bad person rather than someone who just made a really bad decision. The person on the other side of the negotiating table, the other side of the political debate; a person who doesn't look like you, who lives in a community you've never visited, a person who has a different background or religion than yours. They're not some flattened version of humanity, reducible to a collection of parts and attributes. They're a whole person, flawed, struggling to make it in the world just like you. You have to work to ascribe to your opposition the same emotional complexity you find in yourself that you possess.

Your Sunday story time, learning to listen to one another, shape your own story in turn. It may be among the most important things you've learned spending time here at Colby. Because so often, over the course of time, in public life, I found that it comes down to just being personal. It's all about being personal. All politics, all international relations is personal.

I have met every major world leader in the last 42 years, without exception. I've met an awful lot of people who are supposedly, in fact are, powerful. And I've found that not all those who are successful are happy. And I've found the one common trait, that those who've found that sweet spot between success and happiness, are those persons who are personal. Caring about your colleague as they're dealing with a sick parent, or their child has graduated from college, or the child just was in an accident. That's the stuff that fosters real relationships, breeds trust, allows you to get things done in a complex world.

It's a lesson I first learned when I got to the Senate as a 30-year-old kid. I didn't want to go to the Senate. I got elected on November the third. I was down hiring my staff on December 18th in Washington, D.C., and I got a phone call from a young woman who didn't know me, and that's why they had her call me, and she said in a monotone, "Mr. Biden. Your wife is dead. Your daughter is dead. I'm not sure your sons are going to make it, you should come home now." My family was Christmas shopping and a tractor trailer broadsided them. And all of a sudden everything changed.

I learned. I learned a lesson from that. I didn't want to go, and Mike Mansfield, Ed Muskie, some other senior senators said, “Just come and be sworn in, and stay for six months. Only 1,703 people have ever been sworn in, your wife worked hard to get you here, you owe it to your family.” But I didn't want to go. So the day I was supposed to be sworn in I refused to go to the Senate. And so I later learned I was probably the only senator in history ever sworn in in a hospital because I didn't want to leave my sons. So they sent the Secretary of the Senate up to the hospital to swear me in.

And Senator Mansfield, who had more integrity in his little finger than most people have in their whole body, he used to have me come by his office every Tuesday at 3 o'clock, and give me an assignment. I thought all senators got assignments—no senator gets an assignment. Not a joke. I'm the first senator I ever knew, I didn't know any better. But it took me about two months to figure out he was just taking my pulse to see how I was doing.

And it was the end of May and I walked in—you see on C-SPAN, you see those two doors that senators always go through, those big swinging doors —and I walked down to the well of the Senate to determine when the last vote was going to be so that I could catch the train to go home to see my boys, which I did over 8,300 times, they tell me. And as I walked down the floor a very, very strident fellow named Jesse Helms from North Carolina was excoriating Ted Kennedy and another good friend of mine, Bob Dole—who's still alive, God love him —for introducing the precursor for the Americans With Disabilities Act. And he was going on about how it was not the role of government, and no one had a right to tell a county, or a business person, or anybody else they had to have a curb cut or buses had to accommodate, et cetera. And I thought he was being heartless. So I sat down and Senator Mansfield looked at me and said “What's the matter, Joe?" And I went on for probably three minutes talking about how Jesse Helms had no social redeeming value; I thought he was terrible. And he looked at me when I finished and he said, "Joe, what would you say if I told you that Jesse Helms, three years ago sitting at his home in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Dot, saw an advertisement in early December for a young man with braces up to his hips—14 years old—and steel braces on his arms saying, 'All I want for Christmas is someone to love me, and take me home.' So what would you say, Joe, if I told you Jesse and Dot Helms adopted that young man as their own child?"

I said, "I'd feel like a fool." He said, "Well, they did, Joe. And Joe, it's always appropriate to question another man or woman's judgment. But it's never appropriate to question their motive, because you don't know.” And once you question motive, you make it impossible to reach compromise. I say “you're in the pocket of” or “you're unethical” or you or I go in and talk about things that go to the heart of who you are as a person, your character, it's awful hard then to reach an agreement on an issue that has to be resolved.

At the same time, we have a responsibility to stand up against indignities. You're committed. You have to be committed everywhere, against any and all of those folks out there who want to dim the rights of other people. But you can't start by questioning people's motives. Because an injury to the rights of any person diminishes all of our humanity. The defining, you know, if you're defending the dignity, requires an absolute intolerance of abuse of power at the end of the day. That's been the underlying principle behind every issue I've ever gotten involved in, and I suspect all of you, where your political passion, your personal passion is directed throughout my life and my guess, yours. That's why I got involved in the civil rights movement as a high school kid doing sit-ins. It's why I joined the environmental movement led by Senator Ed Muskie when I got to the Senate. It's why pushing back against companies that were abusing their power, polluting our environment—something I'm sure many of you studied in your ES classes. That's why I pushed so hard against Slobodan Milosevic, the butcher in Belgrade, who was literally engaging in genocide. That's why I worked so hard and why I wrote the Violence Against Women Act in the late ’90s, and that's why I remain committed to ending sexual assault, especially on campuses.

My father used to say that the greatest sin was the abuse of power, and the cardinal sin of all sins was a man lifting his hand to a woman or to a child. Women have the same exact right to be treated with dignity as a man, and I am determined that my four granddaughters, who are capable of doing anything any man can do—anything any man can do—that they are treated that way. So each and every one of you has to stand up to the indignity of sexual assault. Stand against the indignity of excusing harassment. End this notion in locker rooms that, the talk that goes on—it doesn't go on like somebody said it does. Stand up against the indignities of a culture that devalues women's humanity. And Michelle [Boucher], congratulations to you and your award today. I'm so proud that Colby is recognizing your commitment and your service to preventing sexual violence. I know the entire Colby community has made a commitment to building a culture of consent for everyone here on the campus, including joining the It's On Us campaign, which I continue to be deeply involved in. I hope you'll carry that conviction with you out off this campus, throughout your lives. In fact, hold on to all those convictions you learned here on the Hill. Because you're going to face temptations along the way to rationalize and make choices that put people second. Everybody does.

There's an incredible amount of pressure on your generation to succeed. You already accomplish so much, but you might notice that you start slipping into a bubble that validates certain choices, that prioritize these social trappings of success, rather than making a difference. “Take the job, live in the place, hang out with people just like you, take no real risks, have no real impact.” Defending dignity requires more than just watching out for your own opportunities and looking out for your own success, because no matter —no matter what you think —you cannot erect a bubble around yourself and your family to protect them.

This degree won't protect you from the pressures of a changing world, as prestigious as it is. What happens to your community effects you. If your sister is a victim of domestic violence, you are violated. If your brother can't marry the man he loves, you are lessened. If your best friend has to worry about being profiled, you live in a circumstance that's not worthy of us. And if you cannot breathe free air, and clean air, there's no place to hide no matter how much money and success you accomplish.

So folks, you have to reach beyond yourself, because we know what's possible when people get a chance to explore their talents without being held back. There's no better example of that than my dear friend, Waterville's own, George Mitchell. The last in a long line of majority leaders in the United States Senate, along with Bob Dole, who actually, actually helped generate consensus in the Senate. He went on to be a great diplomat and a peacemaker, ending decades of conflict in Northern Ireland and literally, quite literally, saving hundreds and hundreds of lives. George is the son of a janitor. His dad worked right here at Colby. His mom worked in the textile mill.

George, like me, understood watching his parents, what my dad would always say; he'd always say "Joey, a job's about a lot more than a paycheck. It's about your dignity. It's about respect. It's about your place in the community. It's about being able to look your kid in the eye and say, 'Honey it's going to be okay.,It's going to be okay.'" The parents can tell you the most helpless thing a parent can face is looking at a child with an opportunity or a problem, knowing there's not a damn thing they can do to help them deal with either one. So folks, they worked hard to give their kids lives filled with greater opportunity, to give George a chance to go to college and then to law school, a chance to choose a life of public service. So like George, regardless of your background, remember where you came from. Hold on to the way so many of you reached out to mentor a young persons through Colby Cares About Kids. Hold on to the way you engaged in this community. And make sure to bring that commitment to whatever walk of life you choose.

Folks, Class of 2017, no graduating class gets to choose the world into which they graduate into. That history has been written by those who came before you, but now it's your job to put your hands on the wheel and bend that arc of history closer to where we want to be as a nation. The journey to perfecting this union is never complete. There's always new challenges ahead, challenges that make it seem like it's too daunting for one person to have any impact, make any difference.

But individuals always make a difference. Sometimes perspective is important. I remember what it felt like as I sat where you’re sitting now in 1968, graduating into an uncertain world. My final year, when America thought the war in Vietnam was drawing to a close. And Pete and I thought, well maybe we’re not going to Vietnam. Maybe for my generation, the war is ending. We were told there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Well, as Lenny Bruce the comedian said, it turned out to be a freight train. The war was supposedly drawing to a close, yet the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive in an effort to end the war in one single, seismic assault.

Two days into that offensive there’s an iconic photograph even you’ve seen, although it was years and years ago, of a policeman standing in a busy intersection in Saigon with a Viet Cong with his hands handcuffed behind his back holding a revolver to his head. The photographer captured it, blowing the man’s brains out. That bullet not only pierced the soldier’s skull, it pierced America’s consciousness as well. And it brought home to everyone in my generation, that was ready, that there was no end in sight. There was no light.

Peaceful anti-war demonstrations turned up all over the country, and some turned violent, all across America. Instead of the war winding down, bombings in Vietnam exploded that year I graduated. Seventeen thousand Americans killed that year, just that year alone, the war was supposed to end.

The sitting president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who coveted the presidency, announced he would not seek a second term. Then in April Dr. King was assassinated—gunned down in Memphis. Cities, including my own hometown of Wilmington, Del., went up in flames. My hometown is the only city in American history since the Civil War occupied by the National Guard, for seven months. So as I walked across that stage to receive my diploma that day, I learned the only political hero I ever had had just been assassinated. The hope of my generation. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Died with that assassin’s bullet in the kitchen in Los Angeles after having been declared the winner in the California primary, and the likely nominee. Two fallen American heroes in a matter of weeks and many more fallen Americans all across the globe in Vietnam.

For my generation, for my graduating class, the once prevailing hope of better days ahead was gone. Shot through with the pain and grief of a nation that viewed itself on the brink. All throughout this great country a sense of hopelessness and helplessness began to take hold. That was the world that Pete and I inherited. That was history that had been written for us up to that point. Not by us. But in spite of all that, as I walked across that stage I never doubted for one instant that we could change the history we were handed. That we could rewrite the outcome we were careening toward.

But it didn’t matter that at the time the overwhelming zeitgeist was, “Just drop out. Don’t trust anyone over 30. Haight-Ashbury.” I’m deeply proud that that generation that graduated took to the streets, got involved, stepped up.

Four years later, I ran against the war in Vietnam and was elected to the United States Senate. The same year that Bill Cohen, the great friend of mine and great senator here, was elected to Congress. We ran as Republican-Democrat determined to end the war. Not long after that I sat in the cabinet room as a young senator across from President Ford demanding to know what the final plan was. He finally turned to Henry Kissinger and to Jim Schlesinger and said, “Alright. Lay it out.” Four weeks later bodies were being lifted off the top of the roof of The Saigon and the war was ending.

That was 1968. This is 2017. Now it’s your turn. You’re 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 there’s no reason why your generation can’t do the same and better than ours did. You’re better equipped, you’re better educated. You’re more informed, you’re more engaged to deal with what lies ahead than my generation was. Ladies and gentlemen, you have better tools. You’re in a position now where there’s power in that iPhone that’s 10 times more powerful than all the computers that sent the man to the moon. We have 3D printers now, restoring tissue after traumatic injury. We’re actually beginning to be able to produce body parts for transplants, software that translates real-time conversations in multiple languages. Technology’s there to fight climate change, cure cancer.

I’m optimistic. I don’t believe there’s anything we cannot overcome if we remember who we are and what we’ve always striven to be. A nation grounded in dignity. A nation that thinks big. A nation of optimists who believe there’s nothing beyond our capacity. What’s happened to that notion in America? Both political parties. We talk about things in incremental terms. When the hell has that ever been the American spirit? When? And there’s an overwhelming reason to be optimistic.

I say to all you parents: the United States is better positioned than any nation in the world to own the 21st century. We have the most productive workers in the world. The most agile system of venture capitalism. The greatest research universities in the world. Every other research university in the world combined does not equal what exists here in the United States. We’re the epicenter of energy production for the remainder of this century.

So it’s time. It’s time for America to get up. It’s time to regain our sense of unity and purpose. It’s time for us to start realizing who in God’s name we are. And it’s time for your generation to remember the admonition of my philosophy professor. I remember him leaving the last class and he looked at us, and he said as if we all knew, he said, “Remember what Plato said.” And we all thought, “What the hell is this going to be?” And he said something fairly profound. I’m going to augment it slightly. Plato said, the penalty good people pay for not being involved in politics is being governed by people worse than themselves.

All the polling data shows your generation is by far the most tolerant, the most capable, the most engaged of any generation ever produced. But it also shows you don’t want to be engaged in politics. Overwhelmingly you don’t want to be engaged in the process. You have to be. You have to be. For our own safety’s sake.

God bless you all. Enjoy the parties. And may God protect our troops. Thank you.


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