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Tom Brokaw’s Stanford Commencement Speech 2006

Fomer NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw delivered the Commencement address to graduating students.
Fomer NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw delivered the Commencement address to graduating students.

Broadcast-news icon and author Tom Brokaw reminds graduates to be mindful of their to duty to contribute to society and to avoid turning exclusively to the Internet in his delivery of the keynote address to undergraduates at Stanford University’s 115th Commencement at Elliott Field.

Following is the text of the Commencement address delivered by Tom Brokaw on June 18, 2006, at Elliott Field.

President Hennessey, distinguished guests, graduates and especially family members, I must tell you as I walked in here today, it became to a very unexpected degree a very emotional moment for me. As a Stanford parent, I remember vividly the graduation of our daughter, Jennifer, here in 1988, and all that not just her Stanford education but this community has meant to her during these years and in the future, and to see all this promise assembled before us today, this colorful tapestry of humankind in caps and gowns—well, in some cases in bikinis and flip-flops as well—the Class of 2006 backed up in the rows behind by the pride and the sacrifices of the families. This is a uniquely American moment of great promise and, for all of us as well, of great emotion that we have to fulfill in the days and years to come. …

In the last couple of years I’ve been a Class Day speaker at Harvard and Yale, and at those institutions I had to use shorter words and speak more slowly.

And as a reader of the Stanford Daily, I realize that I was not a consensus choice. One student of the graduating class said, “Tom Brokaw? That’s like getting a contemporary radio station, adult radio station as a speaker—has a soothing effect but there’s not much to get excited about.”

So here’s the deal that I’m prepared to make. That student, Natalie, if you’ll just turn around—you get Michael Bolton going on your iPod right now and I’m going to invite the rest of you to listen to me … while I’m giving my speech here.

What I like about addressing a Stanford graduating class is that the standards are so clear, the means by which we will measure you in the future. If you’re not as beautiful and as gifted as Sigourney Weaver, if you’re not as rich or successful as Jerry Yang and the Google boys, Sergei and Larry, if you’re not as talented as Tiger Woods or John McEnroe, you’re a failure.

This is a day for us to celebrate and enjoy. This is also an occasion for us to remember other young people your age, because while we are gathered here in this place of privilege and promise, other young men and women, your fellow citizens, many of them without the advantages that brought you to this ceremony of hope and celebration, at this hour are in uniform and in harm’s way. However you may feel about the decision that placed them in peril, you must not forget them or their families, for they have volunteered to risk their lives if necessary to ensure your security and to defend this country.

They come from, as I know firsthand from having lived and traveled with them, the working-class families in places such as Big Timber, Montana, and the barrios of East Los Angeles, the African American neighborhoods of Greater Detroit, the red soil of the American South, the backwoods of New England. They are involved in hard duty with a high price, as we have all learned so painfully. It is about death and lifelong debilitating wounds, about policies gone awry, about terrible mistakes, and successes, and heroic noble actions.

It is a duty and a burden not to be borne by the military families alone. You come to this ceremony with many choices before you. Those choices must include a commitment to honor the personal sacrifices of those in uniform, to act in a meaningful fashion to their families and to become involved in the debate on the course of national security for this country now and in the future. You have so many choices and so many opportunities. You are the generation of a breathtaking transformational technology that for all of its possibility is really hard to believe still is in its seminal stages. It is the single most important technological development of my lifetime. It is limited only by our imaginations. It is a powerful tool across the arc of possibilities. You live in a world of personal computers and search engines, e-mail and network, capacity and storage, research and retrieval, entertainment and commerce, chat rooms and websites, MySpace. … You’re manned with PDAs that take pictures, remember your tastes, indulge your whimsies and play your favorite tunes. You have video on demand and songs on a chip and games on a screen. You have bloggers that blabber and blogs that enlighten. You’re exposed to hi-def and lowbrow. You are the masters of a new universe whose boundaries are yet to be determined.

But it’s also important to remember that it will do us little good to wire the world if we short-circuit our souls.

Imagine the power felt by students at the beginning of another century 100 years ago. They were mostly young men in those days in institutions of higher learning. They were poised at the cutting edge of a new century as well as with new tools available to them—electricity, flight, automobiles, telephones, transcontinental travel by rail. Great fortunes were being amassed—not here in the Silicon Valley but in steel and oil and banking. My God, the possibilities of that new century! And yet it became a century of great tragedy. Two world wars, the second one giving birth to the nuclear age and in the center of Western civilization the darkest of darkness, a holocaust designed to exterminate a great people and their faith.

Other wars in the 20th century left deep scars at home as well as on the battlefield. Communism, a political and economic ideology introduced as an instrument of liberation, became one of the century’s cruelest forms of oppression. At one end of the scale, great powers developed weapons capable of ending life on earth as we know it. At the other end of that scale, religious fanatics turned their bodies into weapons and their zealotry into suicide assaults.

The code of life, DNA, was cracked. The plague took new form, but it was also the century in which the universe of political freedom expanded as it never had before, when science crashed through frontiers heretofore thought to be impenetrable, when gender and race finally made it onto the global agenda in a new and significant fashion.

So, welcome to a world of perpetual contradictions, welcome to a world of unintended consequences and unexpected realities. Welcome to a world in which war is not a video game, … in which genocide and ancient hatreds are not eliminated with a delete button. You won’t find the answer to global poverty in Tools or Help. You cannot fix the environment by hitting the Insert bar. You cannot take your place in the long line of those who came before you simply by sitting in front of a screen or at a keyboard.

The pace of change in your lifetime is at warp speed. We live now on a smaller planet, with more people, many of them on the move these days in a desperate search for economic opportunity and political freedom, a world of ever-diminishing open spaces, disappearing natural resources, with great seismic shifts in political, economic and cultural power wherever you may be on this planet.

We live at the apogee of Western civilization and in despair that sectarian ancient rivalries are lethal alternatives to reason and modernity. We live in a world of a rapidly expanding population of Muslims, too many of whom love our culture but hate our government, who envy our successes, disdain our pluralism and are enraged by our sense of entitlement. Too many young Muslims who live in politically and economically oppressive regimes where they are easy prey for religious teachers who preach jihad against the West as a matter of faith. What we hold dear—pluralism, the rule of law, modernity—they are taught to hate and attack.

We cannot ignore them, and as the last four years have demonstrated in tragic fashion, a military response is inadequate. If … hostility is not addressed in a more effective manner in the West, and in the Islamic world as well, we will live in a perpetual state of terror and rage on both sides of the equation.

So a primary challenge of your time is to bank the fires of hostilities that are now burning out of control, to neutralize that hatred, to expedite not just global competition economically and politically, but also global understanding, and especially global opportunity.

To do that requires more than a fresh political strategy or imagination. It requires the personal commitment of the best among us, the Stanford Class of 2006.

When I am asked who are the most memorable personalities that I have encountered in more than 40 years of journalism, I expect that my interrogators think that I’m going to say Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan, Golda Meier, Dr. Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Cesar Chavez, Lance Armstrong, Mia Hamm, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or any other number of big marquee names that make up the headlines of my career. But instead I recall for my interrogators the brave young people, black and white, who risked their lives demonstrating for fundamental civil rights in this country in the sixties and seventies.

I remember well the young on this campus who fought against the war in Vietnam, but I also remember those who stepped forward when their country called and fought in that war. I have a vivid memory of a young American surgeon from a very poor family in the American Southwest who once he graduated from medical school and finished his residency in surgery with great debt behind him and ahead of him—he volunteered for Doctors Without Borders and I encountered him in a dimly lit tent in the middle of the night trying desperately to save still another victim of the anarchy in Somalia. I was in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and I remember the Chinese who stood up to their oppressors during that remarkable time. I’ve traveled the backroads of Tibet and met the lamas who risk their lives for their faith and their land. Wherever I go in the world, I’m in awe of biologists in remote rainforests who dedicate their lives in discomfort and obscurity to save this precious planet.

The memorable people for me represent that vast population of young and old of every hue and origin who gave up comforts and convention to answer their conscience, who are guided by their moral compass to difficult challenges and who are determined to make a difference. They lived in the real world and they took responsibility for it. They did not attach themselves simply to a virtual experience and find satisfaction in a search engine. They were boots on the ground, hands in the dirt, nights in scary places, healing and courageous. They stepped into the unknown and they made it more welcoming for the rest of us.

It is part of my privilege and my good fortune that I can stay in world-class hotels, I can attend state dinners and chat up kings, queens, billionaires, I can knock back a beer with Bruce Springsteen and talk back to Jon Stewart, I can call on movers and shakers on every continent. But I am never more alive intellectually or emotionally than when I am, for example, sitting outside of a ger in Mongolia listening to a young nomadic tribesman describe how he rode his horse 20 miles through freezing temperatures just for the chance to vote. Or sleeping in a cargo container as I did just this spring in the Pakistan earthquake zone with young American relief workers who had been on duty there for three months. Or riding a humvee with American Special Forces through a hot combat zone in Afghanistan to a primitive village to make sure people have the medical needs that they desired and needed. Or stepping into a wilderness anywhere in the world with all that I need in a backpack, no call waiting, thank you very much.

Life away from the keyboard, the PDA and the cell phone is a life in which you connect to the websites of your personal convictions, and that is an obligation you must carry with you the rest of your days. And that role is never more satisfying when it is expressed robustly, especially when others are attempting to suppress your participation or belittle your beliefs.

These are difficult times. We are at war. And this war, as all wars are, is one freighted with mistakes and miscalculations, lethal consequences, highly charged emotions, defeats and successes. It is the debate in which we all have a say. I have a special place in my mind and in my heart for those who understand that patriotism is not a loyalty oath. I am never more proud to be an American than when a fellow citizen steps forward and says, “Can’t we do better?”

If we portray ourselves as patrons of democracy abroad, we must be certain that we’re stewards at home of a fundamental tenet of that governing principle. We are, after all, the inheritors of what I call the greatest generation. The American men and women that President Hennessy refers to who came of age in the Great Depression, when life was about deprivation and suppressed hopes, the generation that then answered the call at home and abroad to fight the two most powerful military machines ever assembled in the greatest war in the history of mankind, a war that was fought on six of the seven continents, in all the seas, in all the skies, and when it was over, 50 million people had perished, but the world had been saved from Japanese imperialism and German fascism. And when it was over, this generation, which had sacrificed so much at your age, came home, not to lay down their arms and turn only to their selfish interests, but they built the country that we have today, and they did something unprecedented. They rebuilt their enemies.

Fifty years ago this spring, this campus was [full] with those veterans, many of whom had never thought they would have the opportunity to go to college, but because of the wisdom and the vision of the G.I. Bill, they were here, and they left here to give us new industry, new science, new art, new possibilities, and they expanded the freedom of those who had been left behind too long, especially African Americans and women.

These people are now … your grandparents or your great-grandparents. So I invite you to go forth from here with your Stanford degree in hand with the conviction to carry on their legacy, to improve on it, to create your own legacy of greatness, to live your convictions not just at the keyboard but on the streets, in the arena and in the polling place, to arrive each morning determined to hate hate, to become colorblind, to take a chance, to love your mother, Mother Earth. In the past I have concluded these remarks by saying it’s easy to make a buck; it’s tough to make a difference. And then a father wrote to me and said, “I work on Wall Street. I have a rewriting of your phrase. It’s tough to make a buck; but if you make a lot of bucks, you can make a helluva difference.”

You decide. You can’t go wrong either way. Finally, the Class of 2006 at this great institution, I wish you Godspeed and Beat Cal.

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