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A Historian's Advice

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. , a distinguished historian, was an advisor to President John F. Kennedy.

Editor's Note: Not many commencement addresses are memorable. This one, delivered by the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to the Middlebury College Class of 1994, is.

I am honored to have the opportunity to assist in the launching of this splendid ship, the Class of 1994. You intrepid men and women share a distinction rare among college graduates. You have survived not only four years of absence from home, not only four years of arduous instruction: you have survived four years of Vermont winter. And if all of you did not succeed in graduating in the top ten percent of the class, let me console you by recalling that ninety percent of the graduates of the Harvard Law School didn't do so either.

Across the land, commencement speakers are materializing this week to convey worldly wisdom to the young. I do not speak, I must confess, with great confidence in the immortality of the words uttered on these occasions. The commencement address is not one of the more notable American art forms. Actually one of the charms of this ceremony is that no one can remember in later years what a commencement speaker has said or, indeed, even who the speaker was. Ask your parents or your teachers what eminent figure dispensed wisdom to them at their commencements, and I will be much surprised if they can conjure up the vaguest recollection out of the dark caverns of memory. I certainly cannot tll you who spoke at my own commencement fifty-six years ago.

The fact that no one remembers what commencement speakers say gives us a certain license to say anything, so I might as well take advantage of the opportunity you are kindly offering me and speak my mind. Still I will do my best to detain you no longer than necessary, representing, as I do, the last obstacle between you and your diplomas.

Confident in the immunity enjoyed by commencement speakers, I have decided to undertake one of the most daring things imaginable these days -- far riskier than a defense of pornography, or a defense of prostitution, or a defense of polygamy.

I propose to submit a defense of politics.

I have no doubt about the risks involved. There are few people less popular, less admired or less trusted in the republic today than politicians. The Roper Organization ran a poll a short time back asking what opinion people had of the leading professions. While I was gratified to note that 46 percent responded that they had a "high opinion" of teachers, thereby putting my own profession at the top of the list, I sorrowed to see that at the bottom -- even below corporate executives, even below advertising people, even, for heaven's sake, below lawyers -- were politicians, with only three percent admitting to a "high opinion" of them. Indeed, what more dismissive remark can anyone make these days than to describe a person as "a typical politician?"

"I am not a politician and my other habits are good, also."

Of course contempt for politics is among the most hallowed of American traditions. Congress, Mark Twain said a century ago, is the only "distinctly native criminal class." "Reader, suppose you were an idiot," he wrote on another occasion. "And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

"I am not a politician," said Artemus Ward, "and my other habits are good, also."

"A politician," wrote Ambrose Bierce, is "an eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared." The basic motto of our democracy has always been "throw the rascals out."

The tradition, I repeat, is an old one. And it has its points. A measure of disrespect for our masters is a useful thing. We are not a deferential society. Skepticism is essential to chasten what Walt Whitman called 'the never-ending audacity of elected persons." Politicians are sworn to public service and can reasonably be held to higher standards than businessmen or labor leaders or even maybe professors.

But today politicians have fallen into special and, I would venture, excessive disrepute. Thirty years ago over 60 percent of Americans thought that the government generally would try to do the right thing. The proportion of those today who think that government would generally do the right thing has sunk to not much more than 10 percent. According to the polls, people believe that members of Congress are less honest today than they used to be. The "typical politician" is presumed to be venal, self-seeking, lazy, hypocritical, mendacious, demagogic.

Ironically, our political standards are in fact a good deal higher now than they were a century and a half ago. Then, in the midst of Andrew Jackson's war against the United States Bank, the revered senator Daniel Webster could notify the Bank's president Nicholas Biddle that his retainer had not been "renewed or refreshed as usual' and that Biddle had better pay up, Webster wrote him, if "my relation to the Bank should be continued." Our stringent conflict-of-interest, disclosure and campaign finance requirements would have appalled 19th century politicos.

As for Mark Twain's "idiots," there are far fewer of them on Capitol Hill today than when he wrote a century ago. Congress today contains more educated and independent-minded legislators than the nation has enjoyed since the early republic.

Few sports are more popular today than the bashing and the trashing of politicians.

Yet contempt for politics increases. Why should this be? Of course Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra and so on are a vital part of the story. Television has had something to do with it, too. Daniel Webster may have wanted his retainer refreshed, but he also gave serious and thoughtful speeches on the problems of the republic. Now television is doing its best to reduce our politics to a fatuous montage of photo-ops and sound bites. At the same time, television has greatly increased the costs of campaigning and thereby the role and influence of private money -- the central source of political corruption.

Politicians themselves have collaborated in their own downfall by the smear campaigns they wage against other politicians. Instead of concentrating on the discussion of issues, too many concentrate on the vilification of personalities. After a time voters begin to believe that what politicians shout about each other must be true of politicians as a class. And so, despite improvement in political ethics, education and independence, few indoor sports are more popular today than the bashing and the trashing of politicians.

Yet where do we end when we systematically disparage politicians and discredit politics? For politics is the heart of democracy. It is the means by which a free citizenry pursues the goal of government of, by and for the people. It is the machinery by which we make choices about the national future. How in the end do we reconcile our belief in self-government with our disbelief in politicians? Pressed too mindlessly and carried too far, contempt for the people we choose to govern us may undermine self-government itself.

Do politicians deserve this contempt? I doubt that politics is any more crooked than other callings. When Lincoln -- our greatest president and also an astute and crafty politician -- addressed the Wisconsin Agricultural Society, he presumed, he said, that he was not expected to employ his time in flattery of farmers as a class. "My opinion of them is that, in proportion to numbers, they are neither better nor worse than other people." That is my own impression of politicians -- as it is of college professors and, for that matter, of graduating seniors. Augustine and Calvin were surely right in postulating the mixed and ambiguous nature of man.

Politicians are certainly no more liable to corruption, for example, than businessmen: recall the savings-and-loan and so many other white-collar scandals. And politicians make far less money than businessmen out of corruption. Before he went to prison, Michael Milken made enough in a single year to pay all the salaries of all members of Congress, both houses, for a dozen years. Yet people complain more about the modest salaries of legislators than they do about the outrageous compensation for chief executive officers.

In a democracy the buck finally stops in the voting booth.

If we detest our politicians, whose fault, in the end, is that?

The rest of us must accept our own share of responsibility. It is we the people -- too many of us anyway -- who tune out serious speeches about public issues, who devour scandal about private lives, who denounce politicians but can't bother to vote. Can the morality of politics rise above the morality of the people? "Every nation," as Joseph de Maistre said, "has the government it deserves." The famous sign on Harry Truman's desk -- "the buck stops here" -- tells only half the story. In a democracy the buck finally stops in the voting booth.

And I would argue for politics and for public service on higher grounds than just that politicians and public servants are, in proportion to numbers, no worse than other people; or that, if our politics fails, it is our own fault. These are negative reasons. I would propose to you rather that politics and public service are a noble and exalted calling. I would propose further that, if you are worried about your future, politics and public service provide the best means of influencing the shape of things to come.

This indeed was the way we regarded politics and public service when I stood in your place more than half a century ago. No prospect then seemed more exciting than working for the nation. As Theodore Roosevelt had done before him and as John Kennedy did after him, Franklin Roosevelt lifted the imagination and the hope of the young. The problems of the Class of 1938 were acute - more urgent, I would say, than those you face today. We went anxiously into a world still mired in the Great Depression and shadowed by the aggression of dictators. Three years after my graduation the Japanese at- tacked Pearl Harbor. Six years after graduation I was in Europe as a corporal in the Army.

You have a different set of challenges -- in a way harder to deal with than depression and war because less palpable and less immediate -- challenges posed by racial and ethnic conflict, by cities rotting away, by schools in decay, by pollution of the environment, by inadequate medical care, by collapsing infrastructure, by an anarchic and chaotic world. Such problems are hard to get a handle on -- which is all the more reason for tackling them.

Ignoring them is no answer, for these are the problems that will dominate your future. And the future is open. Consider how totally unexpected and unforeseen the pivotal events of the past decade have been -- the break-up of the Soviet Union, the handshake on the White House lawn between Arafat and Rabin, the peaceful election of a black government in South Africa. Who would have predicted any of these things? You have witnessed the memorable sight of history rising again to refute the determinist theologies, demonstrating once more that the world is unfinished and that the future is, within limits, yours to make.

We need not be the slaves of history.

This very inscrutability of the future implies the reality of individual freedom, the autonomy of individual purpose, the potency of individual choice. We need not be, as Tolstoi tried to persuade us we were in War and Peace, the slaves of history. Individuals do make a difference. As Tocqueville wrote in the last lines of Democracy in America (it is of course unconstitutional to give a commencement talk and not quote Tocqueville): "It is true that around every man a fatal circle is traced beyond which he cannot pass; but within the wide verge of that circle he is powerful and free; as it is with man, so with communities."

In December 1931 a British politician crossing Fifth Avenue in New York around ten thirty at night looked in the wrong direction and was knocked down by an automobile. Fourteen months later an American politician sitting in an open car in Miami, Florida, was fired on by an assassin; the man beside him was killed.

Would the history of the 20th century been the same had the automobile killed Winston Churchill in 1931 and the bullet killed Franklin Roosevelt in 1932? Suppose in addition that Lenin had died of typhus in Siberia in 1893 and that Hitler had been killed on the western front in 1916. What would the 20th century look like now?

It is given to few of us to be Churchills and Roosevelts, Lenins and Hilters, leaders who, for better or worse, have the power to shake the world. As Robert Kennedy said in his great Cape Town speech, "Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation."

Within the latitude and longitude of our own lives we can make a difference -- whether in the elevation of standards of work and opportunity, in the reinforcement of the civilities of living, in the cultivation of the arts, in the creation of a more robust, more just and more generous society. Village Hampdens shape the future too, withstanding the tyrants of the field with dauntless breast.

Politics is still the greatest and the most honorable adventure.

So nil desperandum. The 21st Century -- your century -- gleams mysteriously ahead, filled with opportunity and danger and hope. Exult in the chance to serve your community, your country and your ideals. You are not the prisoners of impersonal forces. The choices are yours to make.

And remember above all that the means by which you will make the most decisive of these choices is politics. You are not dirtying yourselves when you go in for politics and public service; you are vindicating yourself, and you are vindicating democracy. Politics is an exacting discipline, calling for hard thought, for innovation, for irony, for vision, for daring. Moreover, politics is great fun.

In "Democratic Vistas" Walt Whitman condemned what he called "the fashion among dilettantes and fops... to decry the whole formulation of the active politics of America, as beyond redemption, and to be carefully kept away from." He urged the young "to enter more strongly yet into politics ... Always inform yourself, always do the best you can; always vote." The poet of democracy was everlastingly right.

In the grieving this week over the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I could not help recalling those stirring times some thirty years ago when Jackie and her husband glittered in the White House. There came to mind one of John Kennedy's favorite quotations. It is from John Buchan's memoir Pilgrim's Way, and from time to time President Kennedy would recall it to us.

"Public life," John Buchan wrote, "is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest ambition. Politics is still the greatest and the most honorable adventure."

Published: Jun 22 2000


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