This spring over four million students will be graduating from various schools, colleges, and universities across our land. As you listen to your commencement speakers’ addresses, I’m sure some of you will be focused more on receiving your diploma and the summer freedom that awaits, than on the advice that will be given. I’m sure many of you are curious about what you will hear. Will the speaker hold your attention and will the message make a difference in how you govern your future?
I thought of the numerous graduation ceremonies I was forced to endure. I wondered what I could write that would inspire you to succeed. I wanted to echo the words of those who stood before me to deliver their commencement addresses. I wanted to tell you that your opportunities are limitless, that the world is yours to conquer. I wanted to ensure you that further education, hard work, and determination will guarantee your success within your chosen vocation. I know all who love you sincerely believe each of you will go on to live successful and rewarding lives that will be a tribute to your schools, communities, and your families.
As much as I would like to say this, you and I know better, for when you graduate and leave, you are entering a complex world that will ensure your journey will not be an easy one.
Since commencement is a beginning, a start of a new venture, I decided to write what I wish I had heard in my commencement address, the truth about what awaits you in the world that lies beyond the protective gates of your institution; what I believe you need to know to succeed and make a difference. And, what you must do to establish an indelible impression and leave a lasting legacy.
Let me tell you of the world my classmates and I entered in 1965 to illustrate the dramatic changes that can evolve during one’s lifetime, and the enormity of the tasks that lay ahead for you.
In the early to mid ‘60s, the majority of Americans trusted our government, for America was the most admired and respected country on our planet. There was cooperation and compromise within and among the various branches of government, which were far less influenced by special interest groups. We had our share of self-serving politicians, but we also had admirable “statesmen,” who placed the interests of our country first, above regional issues. There was respect and cooperation between the public and private sectors of our economy, for each knew the other had a distinctive role in maintaining our standard of living, guiding us through business cycles, and protecting our nation’s security and sovereignty. Jobs were plentiful, and there was a mutual bond of loyalty between employers and employees. There was far less disparity between the rich and poor. Government was fiscally and monetarily more prudent. Both political parties showed a degree of compassion for the sick, elderly and poor, who were truly unable to care for themselves.
Our nation had admirable leaders and honorable role models in every facet of society, from the pulpit to the school grounds, from the studios of Hollywood to the fields of sport, from the halls of Congress to the chambers of our city councils, and from the battlefields of conflict to the offices housing advocates for peace. Most admired of all, were our moms and dads.
For the most part, Americans were respectful of the office of the presidency, regardless of who occupied the White House. Most middle-income families could own a home, because most had a decent income and because the majority of middle class workers had funded pension and health plans. Terror was not a global phenomenon or national threat, but something experienced in the movie theater. Global warming, globalization, and outsourcing were unknown terms and, therefore, of no concern. Most Americans thought of war solely as a last resort and waged to save lives, restore stability, guard humanity, and protect our nation’s sovereignty.
My generation of Baby Boomers, the group of Americans born between 1946 and 1964, followed one of the most selfless, altruistic, industrious generations that made us the greatest nation that ever existed on our planet. They endured the great depression of 1929, weathered the droughts and famine of the mid-west dust bowl of the ‘30s, and survived two world wars. They were a generation that lived moderately, sacrificed greatly, and rid the world of the evil tyrants of the early 20th century who sought to exterminate entire races and dehumanize millions more. They valued and guarded life, dreaded war, and were reluctant to place America’s forces in harm’s way. They eradicated most of the diseases that plagued their children, discovered some of the greatest inventions of their time, and even placed men on the moon.
They were a generation that wanted to ensure their children would not have to sacrifice and do without. And, although they meant well, they often over compensated by giving us the best life had to offer.
But, like many of their predecessors, they were a fundamentally flawed generation, for they discriminated against those of different color, different religion and different gender. And, their government failed to heed the advice of their former President Dwight D. Eisenhower who warned America and the world to “be aware of the military industrial complex,” opting instead to fabricate a hostile engagement in the Bay of Tonkin that committed manpower and resources to a conflict that, as illustrated in the Pentagon Papers, they believed was never designed to have a favorable outcome.
Initially, Baby Boomers, much like the Millennials and Generation Z of today were politically active and conscious of our environment and the less fortunate among us. But, we slowly transformed from a humane, concerned, peace-seeking generation to one anxious to over achieve, and over indulge. Middle income “boomers” bought into the trickle down theory of economics and tried to emulate the rich by purchasing multiple cars, extravagant residences, and numerous vacation homes. We evolved from a generation that championed righteous causes like civil rights and unjust wars that were too important and big to fail, to one that promoted unfettered capitalism, which created banks and other large multi-national corporations that were, and are, too big to fail, and most times, too big to go to jail!
We lived far above our means and allowed our government to go unchecked. We became preconditioned and predisposed to war, complacent and indifferent to our elected representatives’ behavior, and increasingly apathetic and insensitive to the hardships of our “fellowmen.” We protected and placed our revered armed forces in countries that failed to defend themselves, were disrespectful toward our country and our citizens, or did not seek or want our protection or intervention. We exhausted precious resources abroad, while ignoring those in need at home. We continually provided money and arms to both sides in conflict regardless of the consequences. We worried about rebuilding infrastructures that we destroyed in war, while failing to repair our crumbling highways, bridges, dams, and energy grids at home. We sought to educate those abroad, but were disinterested in modernizing curricula and schools at home. We sought to reform the economies of other nations, but failed to make the necessary modifications to strengthen our own. We helped the World Bank eliminate the liabilities of other nations, but failed to rid ourselves of our debt. We preached equality abroad, but were unwilling to follow the same standards at home. (Our Congress hasn’t passed legislation guaranteeing the fundamental right of equal pay for equal work for women.) We engaged in unfunded wars that polarized our nation, and passed legislation which provided massive unfunded tax cuts that continue to widen the gap between the ultra rich and poor.
We failed to heed the words of one of our greatest forefathers, Thomas Jefferson, who said, “It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debt as it goes.” We amassed and continue to accumulate spiraling deficits and an unsustainable national debt that stifles robust growth, mortgages your future, and may very well, one day threaten our nation’s security and sovereignty. Our behavior has stripped my generation of the empowerment we felt and experienced in our early years that enabled us to believe that we could challenge the establishment, change the status quo, and make a difference. In doing so, we further tainted and skewed the inadequacies, injustices, and inequities we questioned and hoped to change.
Changes are being made, but much more needs to be done. President Kennedy said in 1961, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” My generation believed in this once, but many among us have lost our way. You will not have this luxury. Your generation will not only have to bear the consequences of our over indulgence, complacency, and indecisiveness, you will have to right the ship and select the course that will continue to strengthen our economy, fortify our defenses and unite a polarized populace. It will be your daunting task to make America once again, the nation that all others admire and wish to emulate: a nation which draws and welcomes the most talented and gifted to its shores. You will have to do this while dealing with global civil unrest, terror threats from abroad and within, escalating costs in education and healthcare, a competitive job market, structural imbalances, and, proliferation of nuclear weaponry in hostile nations governed by irrational tyrants who threaten our very existence.
This is the world that awaits you. This is the world that will look to you for leadership and guidance. Do not lose your sense of empowerment. Don’t be complacent and governed by greed and materialism. Do not give up your ideals and the belief that you can make a better world by changing the status quo, and correcting the inadequacies, injustices, and inequities that you have inherited. Follow the example and courage displayed by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who stood up for what they believe and united the outraged to march on Washington.
I think I’ve painted a clear picture of the world you are about to enter, and the task that lies ahead. As for what it will take to make an indelible impression and a lasting legacy for the generations to follow, you will have to emulate the example of the selfless, altruistic, industrious generation that preceded mine. But in doing so, you will also have to heed President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s advice, something that his generation and mine seemed to ignore: Beware of the industrial military complex,” he warned America and the world. You will have to endure the aftermath of our opulent lifestyle and a half-century of war. You will have to invent technologies that weather future droughts and famines brought on by climatic changes. You will have to rid our nation of deficits and debt, and immoral government and corporate behavior. You will have to be more tolerant, respectful, civil and compassionate toward your fellow man and less tolerant of government bureaucracy. You will have to be more watchful of your elected representatives and more attentive to current affairs. You will have to protect our nation from tyrants who wish to destroy democracy and diminish our sovereignty, while being far more discreet when placing our troops in harm’s way. You must stand united against discrimination in any form and in any domain. And, you must become more appreciative of the gift of life and the precious love of family and friends
Your commencement is the beginning of another chapter in your life, a time when you can commit to make the most of your talents. Don’t become one who despondently looks back in 50 years and says, should have, could have, or would have.
Former President Bill Clinton said, “there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed with what’s right.” Former President George W. Bush said, “We are not limited by what we have done, or what we have left undone. We are limited by what we are willing to do.”
I ask you to think of all that is right in America, and what you are willing to do to fix all that is wrong. Remember, your legacy will not be measured by what you amassed, but rather by what you gave. You are the future of America, and your actions will determine if our country will become a footnote in time, as have numerous great powers that preceded us, or if America is to remain the most admired nation on our planet.
Heed the words of John F. Kennedy to go forth and take control of your destiny and do your part to make our country the envy of all other nations. Unlike any other species on this planet, we, in most cases, have the ability to determine how we are going to live our lives. I simply challenge each of you to live it with civility, passion, dignity, honor and integrity.
We at Coastal Breeze News congratulate you and your loved ones on your achievement. We hope each of you live productive, exciting, fulfilling lives, and that, in the years to come, you and your families are blessed with good health, much happiness, continued success and well-earned prosperity.
May God bless each and every one of you, and may He give you the strength and courage to stay the course.