Elliott Richardson gave the commencement address to my college graduating class. I don't remember what he said so much as what he had done: as attorney general he stood up to then-President Richard M. Nixon and refused to fire the Special Prosecutor investigating Watergate. His moral stand and subsequent resignation hearkens back to a much earlier time, one that Maureen Dowd longs for in her editorial, "Moral Dystopia." Excerpt.
"EVERYONE is good, until we’re tested.
We hope we would be Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons,” who dismisses his daughter’s pleas to compromise his ideals and save his life, saying: “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
But with formerly hallowed institutions and icons sinking into a moral dystopia all around us, has our sense of right and wrong grown more malleable? What if we’re not Thomas More but Mike McQueary?"
Richardson was tested. His actions are his legacy.
It would be too easy to say that in the years since I stood alone and applauded Richardson's address I became a lawyer and stood up to wrongdoers to model his role. My mother would just tell you that I was always a head-strong independent soul rooting for the underdog while marching to a distant drummer.
What I do want to know is what today's graduates will take from the plethora of commencement speeches given by the notables and quotables whose earnest, funny, somber and encouraging words come to us in snippets in todays NYTimes, "Familiar Faces Offering Advice, Idealism and Humor." Excerpt.
"But uplift and idealism still ruled. Graduates were exhorted to do great things, look out for others and maybe, just maybe, put aside their electronic devices for a few minutes. The nearest to universal advice was that graduates should chase what they love, and heal what ails humanity."
Here are a few of my favorites:
NEIL GAIMAN, AUTHOR
University of the Arts
“Nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it, except as bitter experience. Usually I didn’t wind up getting the money, either.” “Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. I.R.S. on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.”
LAWRENCE LESSIG, LEGAL SCHOLAR
John Marshall Law School in Atlanta
“There is no one in the criminal justice system who believes that system works well. There is no one in housing law who believes this is what law was meant to be. ... The law of real people doesn’t work, even if the law of corporations does. ... The law has convinced most Americans that the law is for the rich, except that part of the law that involves the prisons. We, all of us, have a duty to fix this. To repair this. To make it better.”
CORY A. BOOKER, MAYOR OF NEWARK
“Go out there and swear to this world your oath, not with your words, but with what you do. Not with your hand over your heart, but with your hand outstretched to a world that desperately needs your hand, your help, your insights, your creativity, your honor, your courage. It needs you.” “My dad would always tease me: ‘Boy, don’t you walk around here like you hit a triple. You were born on third base, boy.’ ... I drink deeply from wells of freedom and liberty that I did not dig. I eat lavishly from banquet tables prepared for me by my ancestors. I sit under the shade of trees that were planted and cultivated and cared for by those who I will never know.”
AARON SORKIN, WRITER AND PRODUCER
“To get where you’re going, you have to be good, and to be good where you’re going, you have to be damned good. Every once in a while, you’ll succeed. Most of the time you’ll fail, and most of the time the circumstances will be well beyond your control.” “You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance — and since you’re walking into the middle of a presidential election, it’s worth mentioning that you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy.”
To those of you setting out, every good wish for health, prosperity and joy. For those of us still on the road take a moment to thank and learn from the ones on our (aging) heels.