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1999 USC commencement speaker Warren Christopher on freedom and responsibility

by Remarks by Warren Christopher

USC President Sample, members of the faculty, graduates, family and friends of graduates, congratulations on reaching this great day in your lives. Dr. Aronson [Jonathan D. Aronson, director of USC’s School of International Relations], thank you very much for those kind and generous words. Thank you for your kindness in inviting me to be with you today.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that there are places in the world I’m not so highly regarded. I recently learned that the Belgrade Zoo has a snake named Warren Christopher. I understand that it is an especially ugly boa constrictor. I’m not sure why the Belgrade Zoo thinks my name belongs on a boa constrictor, but maybe it’s because I squeezed Milosevic a little too hard at the Dayton peace talks.

IN 1945, I sat where you’re sitting today getting my degree. As I sat there, I was consumed by one and only one thought: How long is this guy going to talk? I wouldn’t be surprised if that same question has crossed the minds of one or two of you in the last few minutes – and shame on you, whoever you are! But rather than keep you in suspense, I can tell you I’ll complete my remarks well within the limit given me by President Sample. Steve, that was two hours, wasn’t it? I did have something serious to say, and it will take just a few minutes of your time for me to do it.

On Dec. 19, 1998, the night of the House impeachment vote, one of the networks ended its summary of the day’s sad events with scenes of two young children at play. When the program returned to the studio, the anchorperson wondered aloud whether Americans would want their children to pursue careers in public service. She answered her own question, saying, haltingly and sadly, “Not on this day.”

When the news from Washington is disappointing or downright depressing, there’s a tendency to paint all public servants – and public service generally – with a broad negative brush. It’s an easy way of expressing disapproval of events beyond our control. And at these moments, it’s hard to imagine advising anyone – certainly anyone we care about – to give themselves over to such a life.

I understand this reaction, but I also believe that it’s important to think beyond the pictures or stories of the day. Our Founding Fathers built this nation on the premise that the best of us would commit to run the government for the rest of us. To the extent that we broadly disparage government service or public servants, to that same extent we jeopardize our great experiment in representative democracy.

Today, more than ever, America needs people of character and competence to carry out the vital tasks of running this huge and complex mechanism we’ve designed for ourselves. We need talented people like those assembled here this morning to teach our children, to make and carry out our laws, and to keep our system faithful to the vision that gave birth to it.

There is a myth circulating these days that if we just put our faith in technology, all of our problems will be solved – and government will become unnecessary. But being plugged into a vast telecommunications network is not the same as being connected to society. The fastest electronic link in the world cannot substitute for human interaction, for being face-to-face with someone – judging mood, attitude, and intellect – personally and immediately.

There’s a corollary to this observation. Just because you’re plugged into the Internet doesn’t mean that you’re informed. It is possible today to customize for yourself a universe of inputs that do no more than mirror exactly what you already believe. That is not opening your mind; it’s closing yourself off from it.

If we balkanize and isolate ourselves and our institutions, if we think the tasks of society are for others or that competent stewardship of our government can be bought on the cheap, then we’re on the road to second-class status as a nation. I’ve been to countries in Europe and South America where the educated upper classes believe they can simply hire people to carry out the vital tasks of self-government. I’ve also seen how naïve and destructive that idea is. If the very best minds in society regard government as beneath them – it will be.

Unlike many other countries, the United States has been very good at attracting talented and hardworking people to its service. The reason is not just that there are many able people in this society who will choose self-sacrifice over private success. But there are also significant rewards for making the choice of public service.

One of those rewards is the respect and appreciation that follow you after public service. If my own experience is any indication, America knows how to say thank you and continues to do so well after your service has ended.

I have to concede that sometimes the public’s gratitude, though heartfelt, is misplaced. I recently stood in an elevator with a man who went on at great length – about 15 vertical floors – expressing his admiration for my contributions as secretary of state. I was feeling pretty good by the time we reached the lobby. As we parted, he looked at me and said: “I am going home tonight and tell my family that today in the elevator I met one of the great living Americans – George Shultz.”

Beyond the thrill of instant recognition, there’s the reward of having moved history – to have helped keep on course this extraordinary vessel we have built to preserve and enhance our freedom. John Gardner had it right when he said, “Freedom and responsibility. That’s the deal. You can’t have one without the other – at least not for long.”

Another kind of satisfaction that comes from public life is simply being a full participant in life. Sitting on the sidelines may be safe, predictable and even profitable. But – except on rare occasions – it is not “cool.” The sidelines are not where things of historic weight and magnitude happen. A long time ago, one of the wisest of judges, Oliver Wendell Holmes, said it more elegantly: “It is required of a man that he should share in the passion and action of the time, at peril of being judged not to have lived.”

Involvement in public life does make you more alive, and closer to the heart of things. You will, in a real sense, understand more about what is going on about you. You will find in the daily news meaning and significance that elude those who have lived their lives solely in private pursuits.

Teddy Roosevelt called public service the “arena,” and he said it is not just a rewarding place, but a dangerous one as well. One of the prices for climbing into the arena is that you can be caught in controversy. Criticism often goes with a public job. After all, more than 250 million people can claim to be your employer.

But I found that a few appearances in the arena help you to develop both confidence and a useful thickness of skin. When you come to realize that a bad story or harsh editorial is not the end of life as you know it, it’s quite an emancipating experience. And when you learn that you can survive in the arena while maintaining your standards and keeping your values, it’s even better.

When the latest news pushes me to the edge of despair, I think about public servants I’ve known who performed their duties as if they were opportunities, not burdens – as chances to give rather than to get. Many of them earned their degrees here at USC. I’ll give you a few examples from among people I know:

John Ferraro, an All-American football player and my classmate here, has been president of the Los Angeles City Council longer than anyone in history. John has often prevented fisticuffs in the council – not entirely by physical strength, but by force of common sense, honesty and good will.

Mark Ridley-Thomas, who earned a Ph.D. in social ethics here, is another example. As councilman for the 8th District of Los Angeles, he has worked to bring citizens into the processes of government, establishing a dynamic tie between his office and the people.

Dorothy Nelson, a former dean of the USC Law School, is now a distinguished federal court of appeals judge. Throughout her career, Dorothy has found time to serve as an eloquent spokesperson for the persecuted Bahai minority in Iran.

Another prominent example is Los Angeles Chief of Police Bernard Parks, an alumnus of the School of Public Administration. He is someone who has never wavered in his belief that law enforcement is a noble calling and that it’s possible to provide effective and color-blind police protection to a city as diverse as this one.

These are people, among many others, who give public service a good name. They should remind each of us how lucky we are that some decide to serve society rather than themselves, that there is honor, even heroism, in giving something back. Each of you graduates today has it in you to follow in their steps. I urge you to share the best in yourselves with all of us.

Thank you very much, and my congratulations.

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