Chris Matthews to Grads: ‘Make Them Say No. Never Say No to Yourself’

Chris Matthews gave this commencement address at Saint Mary’s College of California

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President Donahue, Christian Brothers, other members of the faculty, my friend Frank Howard, graduates and families of the class of 2015. By the way, is this February? I was told to bring sunscreen and sunglasses. It’s great to be back at beautiful Saint Mary’s College!

I want to tell you right up front, that those speeches that you just heard, including the invocation – I think it was the best invocation I’ve ever heard – were pretty short, and I’m going to be pretty short. As the great Henry VIII of England said to each of his seven wives, “I won’t keep you long.”

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Before anything else, I want to say two words to the Christian Brothers here today: Thank you. Thank you for your dedication to students like me, for how you educated us, for your quiet, yes, humility – Yes, I had the Jesuits as well, – and for being more impressed with the young people you teach, more than you are with yourselves. As a Brother’s Boy, I know what I’m talking about. So thank you all Brothers, thank you all.

And congratulations to the Gaels men’s rugby team for back-to-back national championships!

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Let me tell a little side story about the first Christmas you may not hear or remember from your catechisms. It’s an important part of the story. Saint Joseph on the real Christmas Eve arrives at the inn, and the innkeeper is not a nice fellow. And he tells the innkeeper, “I really need a room. My wife’s pregnant.” And the innkeeper says, “Sorry no rooms.” And St. Joseph tries again and says “But she is really pregnant “ And the innkeeper says, “Sorry, not my faulty.” And St. Josephs says, in words you will never forget, “It’s not my faulty either.”

Well here you are graduating and most of your life you had it all figured out. You go from first grade to second grade, and you make it to 12th grade and then go from freshman, sophomore, juniors, and seniors in high school and then you do it all over again. And it’s really easy, because you can always know what is coming next. And now, you poor S.O.B.’s. You don’t know what’s next, do you?

A couple of you guys think you have it all figured out. “I’m going to go to med school. I got it all figured out.” Yeah, right. “I’m going to be a lawyer, if I can find a law firm that is still around.” Just kidding, no I am not. I like it when the people who have it all figured out, don’t have it figured out.

Now you are facing terra incognito, the uncharted waters where there is just the abyss in front of you and you have to figure things out. So what I have did today, really, so that no one will ever accuse me of repeating a graduation, speech, a commencement address, is that I have actually written a brand new speech. Okay. Yes, just for Saint Mary’s, just for the Brothers. I’ll do it anything.

And what I want to talk about for just a few minutes is the strange part of life, which is that you can’t predict it, and the things you do in life really blow your mind. Especially, when you look back over them and say, “Did I do that?” And you have probably have done some of that stuff. Now I want to talk about jobs.

I made a list a list of all the jobs I have ever since being in grade school at St. Christopher’s, and before that at Maternity BVM. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had all these all these jobs. And you guys and girls, women, have had these jobs already.

My first was altar Boy. I can certainly remember the scary parts about being an altar boy. Convent Mass! Now there was a beauty. You knock on the convent door five minutes before six in the morning. A sister greets you and takes you to the chapel. You put on your cassock, go out to light the candles – all the time averting your glance from the specter before you: the sisters you know all too well from school kneeling there in the dark. It’s an image to last a lifetime. The Sisters and Mary, together at dawn!

Then there was Byberry Hospital. St. Christopher’s, our parish, just happens to include the largest mental institution in Pennsylvania. It was quite an experience heading there on a Sunday morning not knowing what to expect. There were patterns, like how the patients would show up for the Protestant service then stick around for the Mass. They saw it as a spiritual “double feature.”

One of the altar boy’s jobs, back in those days, was to give a little card to each patient who went to confession. Then, at communion time you took the card back. I remember one guy who had a habit of using the card to keep his place in his missal. When he came in from communion, I would pull it out. Each time, I was causing this poor fellow to lose his place. I remember thinking at the time, who had the problem: this person who had the good sense to put that card we gave him to good use or the people who dreamed up with this card system in the first place.

Paper Boy! I had a very large route delivering the old afternoon Philadelphia Bulletin. I delivered it the day after John F. Kennedy won the presidency. I remember the headline on the front page. The hard part was collecting on Fridays. I dreaded it. I don’t know where some people would hide. And I would come to the houses and all the screen doors would be open and no one would answer the bell. I admit it had me making judgments about people. Were they hiding in the basement?

By my senior year at La Salle, I got a real newspaper job as the assistant editor of our school newspaper. If there is anyone here that worked for the school paper, it’s a great way to get started. I remember we had a single .45 record, you know what a record is? It’s on vinyl. We had a single record to play in the office: “Silver Daggers” by Joan Baez. And the moderator of the newspaper had a Volkswagen Bug. The Sixties had arrived!

As part of being part of the newspaper, we all got to go to New York for the Columbia high school newspaper editor’s convention. We saw three plays – Man for All Seasons, Stop the World – I want to get off! – and A Thousand Clowns – all for ten bucks total. That trip really opened the world to me! I think about it more times than you think when I walk into 30 Rockefeller Center to do my show from up there.

From then on, I got a lot of odd summer jobs, working on the New Jersey shore, drug store stock boy! Not all that exciting.

I was a caddy! One thing you learn hitchhiking to the golf course before dawn, is how many mosquitoes there are up then, that and how strange the people are who pick up that time of the morning.

Opening clams on the boardwalk: cherrystone and littlenecks I could do. Oysters were impossible.

Bus boy. Am I the only one to fall for the waitresses? I was a counter man at the cool hangout restaurant in Ocean City, New Jersey. Same deal, fell in love with the waitresses.

House painter! It’s where I learned the old carney trick of “Wabashing.” It’s when you mix in a lot of paint thinner. It speeds up the job beyond belief, and washes off in about two weeks.

I was working for the Murray Brothers. Bernie, the older one, had worked as a roustabout with Barnum & Bailey for 29 years, and put away, he once told me, fifth a day for all those years. He was a recovering alcoholic. We’d stop for coffee practically every hour to deal with the craving.

His younger brother, Joe, was still drinking. My first duty when I went to get him up in the morning was to run the tap in the bathroom so he could have really cold water as his first chaser of the morning. It was, like much of life, and certainly every job I managed to get, an education.

At Holy Cross, I had three jobs: waiting in the dining hall, freshman and sophomore year. We ate twelve at a table, “family style,” they called it. It paid 43 cents a meal. Even with inflation, that is not a lot of money in college.

In junior year I got a break. I got the birthday cake concession. That meant sitting for hours at the Dean of Men’s office writing down the dates of birth of the entire student body, then writing up a sales pitch to send to the parents, buying a supply of stationary and stamps and mailing mimeographed appeals to mom and dad a few weeks before the lucky kid’s birthday. And boy, were my letters good. “You may think your kid is all grown up, but boy, does he get lonely around birthday time.” I charged $5. Half went to the pastry chef in the dining hall. I think I made about $500 to $600 that year.

Senior year I had the best job, R.A. Resident Assistant on a corridor in the freshman dorm. Loved it, shared a suite of rooms with the other R.A., who had a TV set and a timed coffee maker. I learned that the best way to command respect from freshman college kids is to have some regard for them but don’t show it any more than necessary. Don’t let them get the idea you want to be their pal. It was the best lesson in the world. It gave me experience in command and it saved me and the freshman on my floor the trouble they would have gotten into if I’d caught them drinking. Holy Cross was tough back on drinking in those days, really tough.

The summer I graduated, I pumped gas in the daytime, landed a job as a clapping, singing waiter at Your Father’s Moustache at night. I was better at pumping gas, washing cars and changing oil. The number-two guy at Father’s Moustache told me I “didn’t clap right.” The top guy cut my time down to Tuesday nights. He said, kind of kindly, “Maybe this isn’t your cup of tea.”

Graduate assistant. As part of the financial deal, I worked for a professor at the University of North Carolina. As a graduate assistant I tutored and graded papers. I learned something I’ve never forgotten. No matter what the question, the smart students got it right.

That job also taught me how scared I was to stand in front of an audience. At LaSalle High, I had been terrified in public speaking class, always afraid it would be my turn to speak or perform.

In grad school, the professor once asked me to stand in for him, to give the lecture myself.

I couldn’t sleep I was so worried, stayed up the whole night. I also miscalculated how long it would take to run through my notes. Twenty minutes into the class, I was standing up there with nothing left to say. Imagine that: me with nothing to say.

The Peace Corps in Africa; for two years of my life, I road a motorbike over wild stretches of Swaziland, right next to Mozambique, teaching business to small traders. It was quite an adventure. There was a mamba snake that tried to leap in my window. There were also incredibly nice men, small business guys, who treated me like a son – or a younger brother – who always offered me a “cold drink’ even when there was no way out there to make it cold.

My great accomplishment those two years was producing a national industrial show. I was told the king liked it.

There were four of us Peace Corps guys who had that job teaching business in Swaziland back in the Sixties. We each had a province to develop. I shared my 120 Suzuki with one of them. He was brilliant at the local language. More important to me, he’s been a great and generous friend ever since. A graduate of St. Mary’s, he’s here with us today. Would my pal Jim Morphy stand up?

When I got home to the United States, I went knocking on doors in Washington looking for a job writing for a Senator of Member of Congress. Somewhere over there in the hills of Swaziland it’s what I decided to do.

When you knock on doors in the Capitol you meet some strange people that you bump into. There was a guy, nice guy, Catholic guy, from northern New Jersey, looked like one of my dad’s Knights of Columbus buddies. I get in to see him and he says, “Look, here’s the pen President Johnson gave me when signed the latest authorization for the Peace Corps.” He was going to hire me as his latest legislative assistant, right out the bag. About three or four days later, his top aide called me to tell me that they couldn’t work it. What I discovered the reason was that he was mobbed up. They discovered that he had a loan shark’s body removed from his basement by the mob. They were keeping it there. I guess they trusted him.

That looking for a job was an experience. I must have knocked on two hundred doors. Finally, I got an interview with the top guy working for a senator from Utah. He’d been a big Robert Kennedy supporter and loved the idea I’d studied economics and had served in the Peace Corps. He gave me my first job in politics: A U.S. Capitol policeman. “It’ll pay for the groceries,” he said.

During the mornings and early afternoons I worked in the senator’s office answering complicated mail and writing short speeches, from 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 11 at night when, me and my 38 police special, I defended our capitol.

By that September I was a full-time legislative assistant to a US senator. I’d draft amendments to bills, sit next to the senator during floor debates, and learned a lot, unfortunately about the games politicians play to look good and do nothing – like saying that they are putting an “iron-clad ceiling” on government spending, which they tried in the 1970s, then exempting the entire budget from the ceiling.

My next job was working in a political campaign out in Utah, which I loved, then a stint working as an investigative reporter for Ralph Nader, then for three years as a staffer for the new senate Budget Committee.

Then came my big break, getting a job at the White House, and eventually speechwriter to the president, the job I’d wanted since I came to Washington. I loved it, sitting on Air Force One as it takes off, knowing the President of the United States will be speaking some of my words at the next stop.

Then, for the next half dozen years I worked as top aide to Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill., Jr., which taught how great leaders like he and Ronald Reagan could actually get things done. Saving Social Security from its fiscal trouble, reforming taxes by plugging loopholes and lowering rates, beginning the Northern Ireland peace effort, supporting Reagan on ending the Cold War. Yes, I give Ronald Reagan the historic credit for what he did.

In 1987, I found myself as president and CEO of the Government Research Corporation, a consulting company when the job I really wanted arrived. Larry Kramer, Executive Editor, of the San Francisco Examiner hired me, at first to write a weekly column on the side, then to a full-time position as Washington Bureau Chief for the paper.

At the Examiner I got to cover some unforgettable events: The fall of the Berlin Wall.

I hope to never forget a conversation I had with a young East German while standing in the rain before the Brandenburg Gate. “What does freedom, Freiheit!, mean to you?” I asked. “Freedom means talking to you,” he said. And a nurse standing next to him said, “Two weeks ago, we couldn’t do it.” The Iron Curtain was real.

Or watching the long line of people waiting to vote in South Africa’s first all-races election back in 1994, interviewing one young woman. She was standing in this incredible long, biblically long line, that Mandela got people to believe in – Democracy. “This is the day I’ve waited for my whole life,” she told me. I’ll never get over that lilt in her young voice when she said that word “life.” The lilt in her voice when she said “life,” and she was white.

Or being in Belfast during the 1998 Good Friday Accords, standing in the back of Ulster Hall, watching and hearing this roomful of Protestant working men cheering the peace effort.

And there’ve been show-stopping moments on Hardball when someone admits something that stuns us – like the top CIA briefer who said this week that there was never evidence that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons, despite what our leaders were saying and leaders in both parties were buying. I was so glad to get that fact on the table.

I have been to national political conventions going back to Lyndon Johnson’s in Atlantic City back in 1964, then to George McGovern’s in 1972, Jimmy Carter’s in 1976 and again in 1980, here in San Francisco for Walter Mondale’s in 1984.

One job led to the other, although it always looks easier, more graceful when looking back.

Soon after I joined the San Francisco Examiner, I became a nationally syndicated columnist – with newspapers carrying me around the country – and a political commentator on CBS morning news.

In 1988, James Silberman of Simon & Schuster had seen an article I’d done for The New Republic. He asked me to write a book about the inside of politics. I called it “Hardball.”

In 1994, I got my first TV show and have been on every weekday night since.

I got that job because I went to dinner with a hero of mine from college; author Joe McGinnis who’d written “Selling of the President.” He said he was meeting someone for drinks afterward and invited me along. That friend was Roger Ailes, who gave me got me started as a broadcaster. I’ve been on every weekday night since.

Altar boy, paper boy, stock boy, caddy, clam opener, bus boy, house painter, counter man, college waiter, birthday cake man, R.A., gas pumper, singing waiter, graduate assistant, Peace Corps volunteer, U.S. Capitol Policeman, senate legislative assistant, investigative reporter, presidential speechwriter, aide to Tip O’Neill, CEO, columnist, newspaper bureau chief, television host, author. You never where things are going to take you.

And now the simple rules that worked for me, may work for you.

It’s all about finding a way to make a living at what you think you’re good at. In my case, it’s arguing about politics, something I’ve been doing ever since lunchtime at La Salle High.

So here are the rules. Woody Allen has a great rule. He says 80 percent of success in life is showing up. I’d say it’s even higher. Show up, for the interview, for whatever.

If I hadn’t gone to Washington looking for that job I don’t think some Senator from Utah would have come knocking on the door of my parents house in Philadelphia asking what I’d like to do with my life.

Get out there and look – meet people – it’s not who you know; it’s who you get to know – because nobody’s coming asking what your dreams are, when you put your head on the pillow at night. Nobody’s coming. You have to go, you have to go.

The good news is that “You’re coming.” Starting today you’re going to be out there hustling your way to the first job, the first chance to do what you want. Show up.

Rule two: Ask. Sometimes, most of the time, it comes down to something this simple, this hard. If you see an opening, ask. Show how you can do the job. Lay it out and then ask for it. If you are a minority, or a woman, or gay or you feel like no one like you has ever had a particular position, go for it. Go for it. Make them say no. Never say no to yourself.

And I know this sounds a little “romantical,” as my wife would say. Try to get everyone’s cell number before you leave today. Stick together. Be loyal – get the email addresses before you leave today – especially from the one you’ve been afraid to ask.

Besides friendship or true love, one of your greatest career assets is each other, the people right here with you today. Stay in touch. Somebody’s going to get an idea that’s perfect for you. Think of yourselves as mountain climbers with ropes connecting you in case someone falls. Better yet, if someone gets to the top of the mountain, they’ll pull you up with them. Stick together.

Keep your values. Be honest. Try not to be jealous. Try to see the good in other people, including the ones you disagree with. Try not to hate. Try to care.

And try this one for extra credit. “Always do what you’re afraid to do.” I read where David Letterman advised Jerry Seinfeld, before he got his show, “Just make sure if you fail, you did what you wanted to.”

Isn’t that great; because, we all fail at times. I was a terrible clapper. It’s going to happen. But I really didn’t want to be a good clapper. I wanted to argue politics.

Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist, said we don’t always do what we want, but we are responsible for who we are. So don’t get pushed into stuff.

Finally, let’s all pray on this day for Pope Francis. He’s coming to our country this year. He seems to have a sure sense of what’s important. He really could raise this country’s spirit; it’s spiritual life, its everyday life. I think he’s going to have a big impact on us. He is raising this country’s spirits. I think a lot people think he’s already doing it. And on that note, I can’t go any higher than Pope Francis. Thank you very much for having me.

Read more 2015 commencement speeches:

Alan Alda to Grads: Everything in Life Takes Time

Bernard Harris to Grads: You Are an Infinite Being With Infinite Possibilities

Bill Nye to Grads: Change the World

Chris Matthews to Grads: ‘Make Them Say No. Never Say No to Yourself’

Colin Powell to Grads: Learn to Lead

Ed Helms to Grads: Define Yourselves

Eric Schmidt to Grads: You Can Write the Code for All of Us

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel to Grads: ‘This Is the World We Were Born Into, and We Are Responsible for It’

Gwen Ifill to Grads: If You See Something, Do Something

GE CEO Jeff Immelt to Grads: Become a Force for Change

Ian McEwan to Grads: Defend Free Speech

Joe Plumeri to Grads: Go Out and Play in Traffic

Jon Bon Jovi to Grads: Lead By Example

Jorge Ramos’ Message for Journalists: Take a Stand

Joyce Carol Oates to Grads: Be Stubborn and Optimistic

Katie Couric to Grads: Get Yourself Noticed

Ken Burns to Grads: Set Things Right Again

Kenneth Cole to Grads: Find Your Voice

Madeleine Albright to Grads: The World Needs You

Mark Ruffalo to Grads: Buck the System

Matthew McConaughey to Grads: Always Play Like an Underdog

Maya Rudolph to Grads: Create Your Own Destiny

Mellody Hobson to Grads: Set Your Sights High

Meredith Vieira to Grads: Be the Left Shark

Michelle Obama to Grads: Shape the Revolution

Mitt Romney to Grads: America Needs You to Serve

Natalie Portman to Grads: Carve Your Own Path

President Obama to Grads: We Should Invest in People Like You

President Obama to Cadets: Lead the Way on Fighting Climate Change

Salman Rushdie to Grads: Try to Be Larger Than Life

Samantha Power to Grads: Start Changing the World By ‘Acting As If’

Stephen Colbert to Grads: You Are Your Own Professor Now

Tim Cook to Grads: Tune Out the Cynics

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