Valedictory Exercises, May 22, 2010
University of Virginia
Thank you for that wonderful introduction. Distinguished faculty, parents, family members, and most important of all graduates on this momentous occasion. This moment is very special for me as well. I just returned from making the rounds of colleges with my daughter. At one university after the tour conducted by a student was over i went up to that student and asked what he liked best about the college. I thought he might mention the facilities, the academics or the quality of the faculty. But without hesitation he said, “There’s lots of food and most of it’s free.”
Many people ask me what it’s like to be a bestselling novelist. I can tell they think i have an outrageously cool life, which certainly amuses my wife who knows the truth is much closer to “hey it’s trash day. Get on it.” In answer to that question I tell them a story about my kids when they were little. I took my daughter to one of my book signings when she was five. A lady there asked if she knew why all these people were there to see her dad. My daughter said yes she did know. She said they were there to get her daddy to write his name in their book and they would pay him for that because he has really nice handwriting. She must have passed this idea on to her little brother. When I took my son to a bookstore for the first time and he saw all the books and all the people reading, his eyes grew huge and he started to run through the bookstore screaming, “My daddy will sign any book you’ve got for two dollars.”
I’m also asked whether I get recognized in public. I do. In fact the last time was right here in Charlottesville. I was sitting at a restaurant having lunch with my wife. When I looked up I noticed a woman staring at me from another table where she was eating with I presume her husband. This happened five times until I finally stopped looking. I was very surprised when the woman came over, scooted me to the side and sat down next to me in the booth. She looked at me and said, you are who I think you are, aren’t you? I said well do you read a lot of fiction? Yes I do, she said. I said, well, I probably am who you think I am. She said, I knew it. She turned and yelled across the restaurant to her husband, I was right Joe, it’s John Grisham. Now I know john, and like him a lot. He’s a terrific guy. But at that moment in my life I wasn’t feeling the love for John. And my poor wife, well, to put it delicately, she sort of blew ice tea out of her nose. And said very politely to the woman, right genre, wrong author. The lady looked mortified. She glanced at me and said, are you Baldacci? I said, yes ma’am I am. With much chagrin she yelled across the restaurant again, you were right, Joe, it’s the Italian. After episodes like that I really don’t know how I can get my head through doorways.
You know everything is so precise and planned out for young people these days. Just the right kindergarten. Just the right number of extracurricular activities. Sports. Music. Community service. This many AP courses, that magic target on the SAT, a 4.5 GPA and so on. Things were simpler in my time. I had a fair GPA, played some sports. I wandered into the sat test mostly by accident, did okay, sent out a couple of applications and then I graduated from high school. In late august my mother asked me if I was planning to go to college. I said yes, I supposed that was a good idea. She said, well you better get a move on. I asked, when does it start? Tomorrow, she said.
I registered that same day and then started classes. After the first week I managed to drop all math and most science classes and anything else that seemed remotely taxing. My sophomore year I became a declared student of political science, which meant all I did was read lots of books and write lots of papers and I was very content with that. Then my junior year came and I visited my advisor because, as my parents pointed out, a job that actually paid a wage might be nice after graduation. My advisor was a very nice woman and we spent a great deal of time together going over my marketable skills. However, it quickly became apparent that I had none.
Well, I’m a political science major I told her. What does that mean exactly, she asked? It means I can write a paper on Machiavelli in which I can forcefully argue that he was not nearly, well as Machiavellian as he appeared to be. She considered this for quite some time and then replied “so you’ll still be wanting a job then?" Yes, I said, my parents are sort of insisting. You know, dear, she said in an encouraging tone, the congress is thinking of raising the minimum wage.
Isn’t there anything, I asked, that I might be suitable for. Well there is law school, she answered. In fact many people with no apparent skills go on to law school. What do lawyers do, I asked? Well, she said, they dress in suits. They eat pretty well, they stand around and talk for hours and they’re paid by the word. Done, I said. And thus I came here to UVA.
I tell you this so that you can in turn warn your own children about unmotivated characters such as myself as a sort of cautionary tale. I suggest at the end of this sad account you say "and this poor man ended up in prison. Or he now works on Wall Street. Or he’s both in prison and works on Wall Street."
I loved my time in Charlottesville although my classmates were all doing the smart thing, trying out for moot court and law review while I was back in my little apartment writing short stories and day dreaming of becoming a writer. I graduated and started to work in Washington. I was a trial lawyer by day and followed my passion of writing late at night. And that’s why I write. I have a passion for it. And passion is rare. Most people never find it unfortunately. And thus if you do happen upon it in life be loath to part with it. Odds are very good it won’t come around a second time. Don’t settle for something when you can “reach” for something else.
But along with that passion, I am duty bound to say that you should try to earn some money too. Your parents I am sure love you. But they also want to turn your bedroom into a walk-in closet so you really need to get out. I kept on writing year after year and finally got lucky and now my passion pays the bills. And that’s really where things stand.
Now when I graduated the speaker really laid down the gauntlet for us. You are stepping out into challenging times. The very existence of the world depends on all of you. You are the next generation of leaders and your decisions will determine whether life will go on or the planet is doomed. After listening to that I wanted to stay in school for another decade just to postpone the anxiety.
Now I could stand here and say you will face more challenges than any generation before you. But I suppose if I were standing here in 1862 or 1942 or 2002 I could, with all sincerity, say the same thing. The truth is, all graduates, all generations are challenged in some way and you will be no exception. I have no doubt that you will accept this challenge. You will live good, useful lives. You will do many wonderful things. You will also cure cancer, solve the problems associated with climate change and live to see the day where dick Cheney and Nancy Pelosi hug. That is if you live for a very, very long time.
Speaking of politics we are all aware of the vitriol being tossed around in Washington these days and also across the length and breadth of this great land. Many esteemed scholars will tell you that politics has never been nastier and more personal than it is today. Really?
During the presidential campaign of 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s camp called John Adams, “a hideous, hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In return Adams’ people called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow sired by a” (term I will refrain from using today). Later they labeled Adams “a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal and a tyrant” and Jefferson was “a weakling, an atheist, a libertine and a coward.”
During the presidential campaign of 1864 which pitted Abraham Lincoln against his former top general George McClellan, Lincoln was called "a filthy storyteller, a despot, a liar, a thief, a braggart, a buffoon, a usurper, a monster, ignoramus Abe, old scoundrel, a perjurer, a robber, a swindler, a tyrant, a friend and a butcher." and most of those remarks came from his own party.
Many years later harry Truman, when campaigning for john f. Kennedy, said, “That if you vote for Richard Nixon you ought to go to hell.”
If we can conclude anything from this it’s that our forefathers were far more eloquent and creative in their insults than our leaders are today. I mean how can right-wing nut or socialist looney compare to hideous, hermaphroditical character? It’s just wonderful stuff. I can almost guarantee that virtually no politician today can even spell hermaphroditical. Or even know what it means.
In addition some of our founding fathers shot, caned and beat up each other. All things considered, politics today is pretty tame.But it does make you wonder how much more civil things might have been if there had been some founding mothers in the mix. With that said, there seems to be an appalling rancor across the country today. So much anger, bitterness and mistrust. We have stopped listening to each other. Each side has its core principles and they are sticking to 'em. However, disagreement does not and never will equate with being un-American. In fact being an American requires us from time to time to disagree, to dissent, to break off from whatever majority rules the day. It’s all quite democratic actually.
As our Mr. Jefferson famously said, “the difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” And “I have learned to be less confident in the conclusions of human reason, and give more credit to the honesty of contrary opinions.” The people who first came to this land did so to escape places that did not tolerate dissension or alternative thinking. We are not a country of one size fits all. Here we can safely worship the god of our choice or no god at all. We can be a hawk or a dove, pro-choice or pro-life, a fiscal conservative, a libertarian, a social liberal. We can protest a war and still defend the second amendment. We can fight against deficits and big government and at the same time believe the poor, the sick and the undereducated are entitled to assistance. I don’t think it's one set of core beliefs or principles or values that makes America great. That sort of mindset only weakens us because it removes the individual in all of us from the very equation of life.
I believe what ultimately makes America unique and the true land of liberty is that we are a country of individuals. An individual mind is designed to go in unexpected directions. Some of the greatest discoveries in all of history have come from one person taking the path less traveled. Or because one citizen stood up to a majority that she believed to be wrong.
America has long been called a melting pot and that’s what we are. We’ve taken in the poor, the persecuted, the hungry, the huddled masses and we’ve done so for centuries. We are a shining beacon in a sometimes bleak world. Certainly we have problems and issues like every other land. But so long as we have people who love this country and the many outstanding principles for which it stands, the beacon will continue to shine on for centuries to come.
As you leave this great university and make your way in life one of the best things you can do is listen to each other, discuss civilly important issues, change someone's opinion through reasoned debate but do not be fearful or dismayed when someone convinces you to change your mind. Live the full and unfettered existence of a citizen in a free and open democracy, perhaps the greatest such democracy ever created.
People are fearful these days of enemies from other lands doing harm here. Yet really the only thing that can defeat America is ourselves. Arguably our greatest president, the aforementioned old scoundrel, Abraham Lincoln said it best, "a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Thus I would stand here in 1862, 1942, 2002 and certainly do so here today and tell you that nothing is worth this house of freedom ever falling.
I wish you good luck and Godspeed. The world awaits 2010. Congratulations. And thank you.