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Ted Koppel: real-life experiences among extraordinary people

These are ABC newscaster Ted Koppel's prepared remarks, delivered to UC Berkeley graduates at Commencement Convocation 2004.

– I don't know how many potential speakers turned you down before you finally settled on me; but I'm pleased ... even delighted to be here. You don't stoop to the level of awarding honorary degrees to your commencement speakers. I was rather looking forward to borrowing from President Kennedy's claim on the occasion of his receiving an honorary degree at Yale, that he now had the very best of both worlds: A Yale degree and a Harvard education. But then, I already have the best of both worlds: A Stanford degree and a Stanford education.

The truth of it is that some of you were harboring uncharitable thoughts from the first moment you saw me. Some of you were thinking: "He's a lot shorter than I thought he was." While others among you are still trying to figure out if this is my real hair. Think about it. You're smart people. If it weren't real, don't you think I could afford to buy a better-looking rug than this?

I'm always a little bemused to receive an invitation like this from a truly great university like Berkeley. After all, if I were to apply for admission here as a freshman, I'd be turned down in a heartbeat. That's not false modesty. That's reality. You're smarter than I am and you know it. Insofar as you've given any thought at all to what I do, you think I'm just another pretty face on television, who'd be incapable of conducting an interview if my producer were not whispering the questions into my earpiece. Sadly, though, from my point of view, most of you don't even watch television news at all. You get what you need off the Internet. Or, in a pinch, you might watch John Stewart on Comedy Central.

For the next ten, twelve minutes, however, you – out there – are obliged to listen to what I, up here, am going to tell you. Consider that one of your first, real life experiences. From here on in, (unless you go to graduate school) you will most likely be reporting to, taking instructions from and working for people who aren't nearly as smart as you. If, though, you are even half as intelligent as you know yourselves to be, you'll keep that revelation to yourselves.

Lest you consider what I'm going to say next as having a political overtone, let me preface it by saying that my own undergraduate career, which was at Syracuse University, rarely even rose to the dizzying heights of mediocrity. I blossomed at Stanford, but I was a C plus student as an undergraduate. As was George W. Bush when he went to Yale. Dick Cheney, meanwhile, has conceded that it took him six years to get through Yale because of what he described as a "subpar academic performance." He, of course, is now the most powerful vice president ever to occupy the office. George W. is … well you all know what he's doing. And, as previously noted, I'm up here … and you're out there, waiting for me to finish.

Life is not fair.

I am simply raising a cautionary flag. Many of you are about to set foot in the real world for the first time. And the rules are different out there. Your academic record, for example; which is the source of such justifiable pride for many of you here today: Put it away and forget about it. From here on in – unless you are applying to law school or medical school or seeking a PhD., you will rarely, if ever, be asked about it again. And frankly, given the state of grade inflation these days, it's difficult to argue that the document has much value to begin with. The fact that you attended a great university may help you get a job interview; it could even help you get a job. Beyond that, however, no one will ever mention that again either.

Graduating classes, on occasions like these, are accustomed to hearing that you are remarkable … extraordinary; that the world, indeed, has never seen you like before. Horse manure! I am much more impressed by those among your parents and grandparents who risked their lives fleeing Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as boat-people; who, while speaking barely any English at all, worked at whatever jobs they could get to sustain and support you. They are the ones who maintained the discipline that kept you out of trouble and forced you to study.

There are Indians and Pakistanis among you, Bangladeshis, Mexicans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Palestinians, Lebanese, Chinese, Koreans, and African-Americans whose families have endured similar hardships to bring you to the point you've reached today. Even those of you who come from relatively privileged backgrounds are probably no more than two, three or four generations removed from the Irish, Italian, Polish and Russian immigrants who fled the political and economic hardships of the mid and late 1800’s. Or the Jews who fled the Holocaust of 65 years ago and the pogroms of more than a hundred years past.

Those were remarkable … extraordinary generations. They planted all of the hopes and dreams that they would never realize, in us and in you. On this day that we have gathered to honor you, you would do well to honor them.

A few words now about war and patriotism and dissent. This campus has a long-standing reputation as a hotbed of anti-war activism. Those of us who were in college during the 1950's, looked with awe and, I think, a certain envy at the students who marched and demonstrated and even rioted in Paris during the mid-sixties. For university students to be so politically and personally engaged was beyond our experience. The greatest moral dilemma that most of us confronted during the Eisenhower years was whether to order a quarter or a half a keg. Even so, your predecessors during the late 60's and early 70's gave us pause. It was shocking and not a little frightening to see the level of rebellion that existed on this campus.

And before I go any further, I don't want there to be any misunderstanding between us. I know that many of you here today oppose the war in Iraq. I do not. I have many questions and reservations about how that war is being conducted but I do not oppose it. We may have some other occasion, perhaps to debate the issue; but that is not my purpose here this afternoon.

There is a national debate building in this country over the legitimacy of this war and whether U.S. forces should have been sent to Iraq in the first place and whether, ultimately, the war is even winnable. It's terribly late. That's a debate we should have had more than 18 months ago. Still, here it is; and my concern is over how it will be conducted: Whether your generation will have the patience and the courtesy to listen thoughtfully to the opinions of those with whom you disagree.

Whether my generation will have the humility to admit, not just that mistakes were made … but that we have made them.

We have become so embroiled in the distaste we have for one another's ideologies that we're in danger of losing sight of the real peril that confronts us. Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11; and invoking the war against terrorism as a justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq invites skepticism. Still, terrorism is not a figment of this administration's imagination. It doesn't matter what you believe the United States is doing or may have done to earn the enmity of so many people around the world, someone has to be thinking about the consequences of that hatred, even as we consider what can reasonably be done to address it.

It now appears that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq at the time that U.S. forces invaded. But chemical and biological and even nuclear weapons do exist; and some even exist in the hands of our enemies. Do not doubt for a moment that, at some point, during the next few years, one or the other of those weapons will almost certainly be used in an act of terrorism against the United States … in the United States. Then the time for discussing our civil liberties will be over. More than likely, the use of a chemical or biological weapon in a terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland would lead to the imposition of martial law. For how long and under what circumstances it would be lifted again has, to the best of my knowledge, never even been publicly addressed. But understand that the most implacable enemy of our civil liberties is fear. What we will do after the next terrorist attack is not a conversation that should be deferred.

The time for that national debate is now. As important as it may be to argue over the rights of Iraqi prisoners of war, those horrific photographs have largely obscured the context in which the abuses took place. The perceived need to obtain more and better intelligence in the face of a mounting Iraqi insurgency late last fall, created the environment in which those human rights abuses took place. It is quite extraordinary that so much attention is still being focused on the culpability of a bunch of young military police, when they, in fact, were clearly operating under guidelines that had been set much, much further up the command chain. It is the legitimacy of those guidelines that require public discussion.

And yet, what have we been debating for the past few months? The nature of George W. Bush's service in the Air National Guard, more than 30 years ago, while he was working on a senatorial campaign in Alabama. The value of John Kerry's military service in Viet Nam once he'd appeared at the same anti-war rally as Jane Fonda. What madness! Do we really believe that we can rise to the great challenges that confront us by endlessly questioning one another's motives and patriotism?

There are decisions that will be addressed or ignored over the next few months that will set the course of human and civil rights in this country for many years to come. There is a direct correlation between the perception of threats to America's security and the contraction of our rights and freedoms. We need to critically examine the nature and scope of those threats; and where they exist, we must be prepared to calibrate our rights and freedoms. If we fail to do that now, at a time of relative sanity, when it is still possible for voices of moderation to be heard, then we will have condemned ourselves to having those choices made in a climate of national hysteria.

I've already conceded that you're smarter than I am. Well … you'll have to be. This is one helluva mess we've created for you. Having said that, never doubt for a moment the greatness of this country's heritage; or the generosity of the opportunities it still provides. Some people have a greater tolerance for the opinions of our enemies overseas than they do for the opinions of their adversaries here at home. The tolerance part is a good thing. See if you can help spread it around a little. We're going to need all the tolerance for one another that we can get.

Well, that's about it. You've survived the last hurdle. You're going to get your degree. I wish you happiness and peace. Neither is as easily achieved as we sometimes like to pretend. But start with this day. Carpe diem! Seize the day with both hands. It's a great occasion and you've earned the right to enjoy it. You can start thinking about what I said … tomorrow.