Jake Tapper’s Keynote Address at UMass Amherst Undergraduate Commencement 2018

Jake Tapper’s Keynote Address at UMass Amherst Undergraduate Commencement 2018

August 14, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


You’re a good looking crowd. Chancellor Subbaswamy,
trustees, guy with the horn, girl with the horn,
sorry, professors, alumni, Leonard Gardner, everybody,
guy with the kooky hat in the second row,
nice work, families of the graduates,
and most importantly, members of the class of 2018. So congratulations, you made it. No, wait, wait. I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to your parents. I’d like to take a
minute to give it up to your parents for their
blood, sweat, and tears, their financial contributions,
and most importantly, for not driving here every weekend
under the guise of offering to do your laundry. All right. Now to you guys,
congratulations. Welcome to the real
world and thank you for this remarkable honor. As a Philadelphian who worshiped
UMass basketball star turned Philadelphia 76ers, Julius–
you’re booing Julius Erving? I don’t think you’re
booing Julius Erving. It’s great to be near The
Cage where Dr. J once played. And out of respect
for you all, that’s the only sports reference
I’m going to make today. Commencement addresses
are tricky tasks. I want to make sure I
choose my words carefully. I want to encourage you as
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “To suck all the
marrow out of life,” but I am also
mindful that marrow sucking in some controlled
experiments has proven toxic. I want you as the
country song instructs, I want you to dance
like nobody’s watching. But if you’re drunk
and you’re embarrassing yourself and somebody has a cell
phone, that could be a problem. So there’s a balance
here I want to strike. I look at you and I think
back to my graduation. If memory serves, and
to be quite honest my memory frequently
double faults, but if memory serves
the big question for you is, where are you going to? And I don’t mean to
McMurphy’s or Stacker’s. I’m speaking more
broadly than that. You have no doubt been asked
a million times before today, and more of it’s going to
come this summer, what’s next? What path are you going to take? Robert Frost once wrote, “Two
roads diverged in a wood and I took the one less traveled by… And that has made
all the difference.” I dare say you’ve
heard that poem before. For decades this quote has been
cited in commencement addresses and in yearbook quotes as a
testament to individuality, to the notion of marching to
the beat of one’s own drummer. The notion that Frost took
the road less traveled by is an homage to
doing what you think is right even if you are alone. But there’s a problem. That’s not what
the poem is about. If you actually read the poem,
and it’s only 20 lines long, Frost makes it clear that both
roads, quote, “equally lay in leaves,” and then
quote, “the passing there had worn them
really about the same.” In other words, the
road that Frost took was not actually
the road not taken. It had been taken just
as much as the other one he didn’t take. As the poetry columnist for
the New York Times David Orr writes in his book,
the road not taken finding America in
the poem everyone loves and almost
everyone gets wrong, quote, “the poem isn’t a
salute to can-do individualism. It’s a commentary on
the self-deception we practice when constructing
the story of our own lives.” The poet says after
all, quote, “I shall be telling this with a
sigh somewhere ages and ages hence,” unquote, before
talking about his past choice. Now, I tell you
this not to make you cringe about your high school
yearbook quote selection or to embarrass your past
teachers or professors who embrace the more popular
interpretation of the poem, nor because it
annoys me to no end to hear monster.com, Ford
Motor Company, Nicorette and Mentos co-opt this poem
and push its misinterpretation to make you think that having
a Mentos is the act of a rebel, though I do appreciate
a minty breath. I bring this up because
it’s worth asking, why does this entire country
misinterpret this amazing poem? And I think it’s because we
prefer the road not taken to be about individuality. We want it to be
true, therefore, we ignore the lines and
stanzas and interpretations that contradict that. It’s what psychologists
and political scientists refer to as confirmation bias. We all fall victim to believing
what we want to believe and ignoring the evidence, but
the truth is seldom as stark as we want it to be. At this time when this
country has groups of people, tribes of people siloing
themselves off and only listening to the politicians
or the news media, and in some cases, the
members of their family or their friends
with whom they agree, I urge you to resist
the temptation to subject yourself only
to that which reaffirms what you already think. [APPLAUSE] American society today,
and yes, politicians, and yes, the media are pushing
the exact opposite message. People decide about an
article’s validity based only on its headline or the language
in the tweet linking to it. They judge books
by their covers. Some seek out vitriol
online or on air as if it were mother’s milk. Social media is like the
movie The Ox-Bow Incident with lynch mobs running
toward this person on Twitter or that person on
Facebook to destroy him or her for the outrage du
jour, not just to criticize him or her but to obliterate them. As President George W.
Bush said in 2017, quote, “too often we judge other
groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves
by our best intentions.” I urge you to resist joining
these mindless hordes. Use the critical
thinking skills you just spent four years developing. I urge you to read the story, I
urge you to think for yourself, I urge you to click the link. Members of the class of 2018
read the poem for yourself. Now, my personal
theory as to why Frost’s poem is so popular,
especially at times like these, and seriously, I do apologize
if I ruined your high school yearbook, is because a walk in
the wood with a choice of roads is such an apt
metaphor – you are about to face so many choices. More than one. There are going to
be momentous ones. What will you do for a living? Where will you live? Whom will you marry? Will you marry? Will you have children? And there are going to
be a million tiny ones. Right now if memory
serves, in addition to being excited, perhaps
a little hung over, perhaps a little buzzed, you might
be feeling a little anxious. And I get it. I remember it. You’re leaving this cozy womb. And like the newborn,
when you leave the air’s going to feel a
little bit cold at first, that umbilical cord of food
delivered right into your belly is about to be snipped,
someone you don’t know might give you a slap. That’s OK. It’s normal. I don’t know why people
don’t share this information with more college graduates,
but these next few years can be a little bit tricky. I want you to know
that going into them. No one warned me of this. Don’t be scared, but know
that you won’t be alone if you stumble onto a
moment or two or 2,000 when you wonder just what
the heck you’re going to do for the rest of your
life and whether it’s all going to be less fun
than the four years you just spent at this
amazing university. I guarantee you that your most
celebrated alumni felt this way at one point or another;
Jack Smith, Madeleine Kunin, Jack Welch, Natalie Cole, Bill
Pullman, Buffy Saint-Marie, Paul Thoreau, Richard Gere. It’s possible
Doctor J never felt this way because he’s a super
hero, but the rest of us mortals have. And I’m here to warn you that
those fears might be coming and it’s all going to be OK. Subbaswamy just said a lot
of nice things about me. Let me tell you what
he didn’t tell you. He didn’t tell you that after
I graduated from Dartmouth I went to film
school where I was so bored and so intellectually
starving I would literally sit in class listening
to Senate confirmation hearings of a Supreme Court
justice on my Walkman. Do you know what a Walkman is? It was like an
iPod or an iPhone, but was like the size
and weight of a brick, and it only had eight
songs, and it was yellow. Anyway, so I was so
miserable at film school I would think of
days as something that I had to get through. There would be mornings
that I would wake up and I would be disappointed
that I was awake. Fast forward three
years, I left one job where I was unhappy to
a different job where I was even less happy. I would nap under my desk. This is before George
Costanza did it on Seinfeld. I would take long coffee
breaks, so long that really it was like a day of coffee break
with sporadic work bricks. My point is I didn’t just
saunter from that chair to this honorary degree and
the privilege of delivering this address. I had a lot of
wrong turns, a lot of roads that should
have gone untaken, roads that I walked down and years
later wondered how the hell I ended up where I was, and
then I had to figure out how to find another road and go
somewhere else and where to go. I want you to remember
this if you remember nothing else from
these remarks, there are going to be tough
moments on this journey. Most of the rest of your
life should be great, but there are going
to be wrong turns and there are going
to be stumbles. You’re going to get
lost a few times. You might arrive at a
destination and realize, oh you don’t want to be there. And it’s all going to be OK. I’m making the real world
sound frightening now and I don’t want to do that. I truly don’t. It’s a wonderful place. There’s an open bar,
there’s a decent cover band, you get to pick out
who you hang out with, and you can try to
be whoever it is you want to be regardless of
who you were here and regardless of who you were in high school. It might take you a few
years to figure it out. That’s OK, too. That’s something
else no one told me. I didn’t become a
full time journalist until I was almost 30. I didn’t know what
I wanted to do. After film school I dropped
out, I worked on a campaign, I had a whole bunch of odd
jobs throughout Washington. I didn’t like any of them. I wasn’t good at any of them. It’s OK to see these
next few years, this next decade as
a way to figure out what it is you want to do. You don’t have to know today. None of these experiences
were a waste of my time. They were my path. They taught me things about
myself and about the world. I was in DC and I was
learning about DC seeing it from different vantage points. Now look, obviously, you’re
going to have to make a living. And whether that’s
waiting tables or serving as a paralegal, those
choices are yours. You’re about to become a
freshman at the university of life, which means
you’re back to the bottom, and you might have
to make copies and you might have
to answer phones and you might feel like
you’re above that work, but you’re not. Let me tell you why. Because those are chances
for you to develop something that’s not easy to develop. And that’s a positive
work ethic and attitude. And the quicker
you develop that, the quicker that
they’ll say you don’t have to answer phones anymore. [APPLAUSE] Looming above all of
this stuff, of course, is the question of
where you want to be when you’re 30 or 40 or 50. And all I can say about that
is try to figure out what it is you actually love doing. And if and when
you figure it out, take risks to make it happen. You have your 30s and
40s to make compromises. Spend your 20s
finding what you love. I don’t care if it’s acting or
carving chairs, fixing cars, tending to the sick,
creating a business, raising children, whacking
weeds, standing post in Afghanistan. Find something you love and your
career will grow from there, your community of
friends and colleagues will grow from there. What you want to be
and who you want to be will come into focus. Someone once told me
buy a good mattress. You’re going to spend a
third of your life on it. It might as well be good. And it’s smart advice,
but that’s not the point. The point I’m trying
to make is more people seem to understand the
argument about the mattress than they do about
finding a job that they love where you will spend
most of your waking hours. And I say this is
someone who loves what he does for a living. And I’ve been to every one
of my college reunions. And let me tell you what I’ve
learned from my own experiences and those from my classmates. Do not give up on
your dreams too soon. Do not think that just because
you don’t get the job that you dream about in the first
year or the second year or the fifth year that
you should give up. Don’t. Have faith. Everything in this
world comes from effort. Everything. But here’s another truth
from your humble veteran of class reunions. Don’t end up being
so focused on what you want to be that you avoid
working on who you want to be. The job’s one thing. You’re going to
have lots of jobs. At 50 you can
change your career. It happens. But who you are, that’s not
as easy to leave behind. Frank Sinatra once sang,
regrets I have a few, but then again,
too few to mention. With apologies to Mr.
Sinatra, that is crap. I will be 50 next year. I have a load of regrets. I’m going to mention
a few of them. They mainly fall
into two categories. Times I was too
chicken to take a risk and times I was not considerate
enough of people’s feelings. Of the risks I’ve
already spoken, and in terms of
more personal risk, suffice it to say that I
still regret not backpacking through Europe with
one of my best friends before my overseas
program began in 1988. Yes, 30 years ago. I still remember it. I still regret it. You will regret things 30 years
later when you don’t do it because you’re chicken. You will remember the diems
that you did not carpe. As for being kind
to people, allow me to observe that when you’re
younger, maybe even your age, being callous or being mean
can sometimes seem like a way to project confidence,
but what it really does is convey to people who know
better the exact opposite. The shock of cruelty
can be amusing when you’re in your
teens or your 20s. You get older and you realize
that the hard- hearted are compensating for an emptiness. Choose not to take that pains. I realize that the nation
right now is not exactly getting a crash course
in exemplary behavior. I realize that we’re in a time
when nastiness and mockery and meanness sometimes
seem as if they’re spreading like a contagion. But when the indecent
becomes commonplace is not the time for good
people like you to follow suit, because you know what? Mean is easy, mean is lazy, mean
is self-satisfied and slothful. You know what takes effort? Being kind, being patient, being
respectful, telling someone how you feel politely
instead of just avoiding them for six weeks. That’s the stuff of adulthood
and truly of adventure because when you
rise to the moment to embrace the
humanity of everyone, you give yourself a
chance to grow and achieve a strength of character. Having nothing to do
with policy debates on immigration or
trade or North Korea, we are today seeing a
degradation of discourse and behavior that is upsetting. When my little girl at
the time eight years old saw a video of a certain
presidential candidate mocking someone’s disability,
she came to me weeping. Why would someone
do that, daddy? People with special
needs deserve to be treated with respect,
my 8-year-old said. [APPLAUSE] We’re in a time now where
we cannot look to Washington to exemplify the standards
of behavior we want to teach our children. In fact, quite the opposite. I recently wrote a
book about the 1950s in which the pathology of
McCarthyism figured heavily. I studied the ’50s a great deal. There were heroes
during that time. People like Senator Margaret
Chase Smith, Republican of Maine, who stood on
the Senate floor in 1950 and decried how the Senate
floor had become quote, “debased to a forum of hate
and character assassination.” Freedom of speech,
she said, is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused
by some that it is not exercised by others. In other words, the attacks
were so mean spirited good men and good women
were scared silent. Senator Margaret Chase Smith
is recognized today as a hero for taking that stance. And she took it in
1950, a full four years before legendary newsman Edward
R. Murrow famously eviscerated McCarthy on television, and
four years before the Senate censured Joe McCarthy. You know who isn’t remembered
as a hero of that time? Almost every other
politician in Washington. The Senate majority
leader at the time was a guy named
Robert Taft of Ohio. He ran for president in 1952. He lost the nomination
to Eisenhower. I’m certain that Taft thought
he would get another opportunity to run for president,
that his legacy would be that he would be a stalwart
for important conservative principles. But as Senate majority leader
he took not much of a stance against McCarthy, he tried
to straddle the worlds of decent and indecent. And Robert Taft died
suddenly in 1953. And his legacy today
is he didn’t stand up for what was right when
the country desperately needed him to do so. It’s a lyric in
Hamilton, and it’s true. We have no control
who tells our story. We can think that our legacy
will be our achievements, but often what we hand
down to our children is the moral example that we
set or the moral example that we failed to set. Members of the class of
2018, other generations are failing to set this
moral standard for you. So you must set
it for yourselves and you must set
it for each other. [APPLAUSE] You will now play a pivotal
role in how this story unfolds. Your generation can
go down in history as the ones who
actually asked more of yourselves and your leaders. Other generations have said
they were going to do that and they didn’t, you can do it. When I was in those
seats, it was 1991. We were Generation
X. We were skeptical, if not cynical about the world. We saw hippies
turn into yuppies. We saw the Beatles
Revolution Number 9 played on a Nike
commercial, but we also saw Martin Luther
King Jr. be honored with the federal holiday
for the first time. We saw Reagan and Gorbachev
come to an agreement on limiting nuclear weapons. We watched the USSR collapse
and the Berlin Wall crumble. Perhaps, we in
Generation X, took for granted that
freedom of speech and democracy and basic
human decency would endure and indeed improve. We’re in a different world
now, a world of social media where every bad impulse,
every negative nasty thought, every shallow glib
cut down can be shared the very moment it’s conceived. We’re in a moment where humanity
and decency are being eroded, where basic systems
and law and justice are under attack, where the
very notion of empirical fact is being attacked and corroded. People are standing
up and saying No to these indecencies, but
not enough people in power. It will have to be
your generation that leads this nation
out of this darkness. And when you do that, I want
you to think about this. In October 2009, I was a
White House correspondent. My career was good and
my family was healthy. Everything was
great in the world. In a striking moment
in October 2009, I was holding my
newborn son and I learned of eight other
sons, American soldiers all about your age who
had suddenly been taken from this earth in Afghanistan. It was poignant. And I sat there in that
hospital recovery room with my wife and my
son watching the TV and thinking about the battle
at Combat Outpost Keating. Who were these men and the
families that loved them? Who were these people
that sacrificed so much for a country that wasn’t
paying much attention to them for a war, to which most
Americans didn’t even bother watching on TV
or reading in the paper? I spent the next
few weeks and months trying to find out more about
the Battle of Combat Outpost Keating. Why would anyone put an outpost
in such a vulnerable position? Why was it there? What was its purpose? And most importantly,
who were these men? Who would volunteer for this? I was reporting on the
debates over troop levels from the North Lawn
of the White House using numbers like 20,000,
30,000 40,000 like they were statistics
from a stock ticker. But these were people. I started calling around, I
reached some of the soldiers when they got back to the
US the following summer. Combat Outpost Keating
was built at the bottom of three steep mountains just 14
miles from the Pakistan border. It was overrun by the Taliban
one day after my son was born. I started writing a book
about these men and women. At times it made me feel like a
selfish, narcissistic, pampered piece of China to hear
about what these men and women sacrificed, but I
took some well-needed looks at the selflessness of others. I went to Afghanistan
once with President Obama. I went again on my own. I was embedded with
a medi-vac unit, I was embedded with the
Wolfhounds in Kunar Province. I talked to Afghans and
the soldiers and the widows and the moms who still
almost a decade later weep every day because they
miss their sons so much. It wasn’t until this project
when I truly stepped out of my comfort zone that I became
an adult. I like my job a lot. I like being a reporter. It’s funny to be portrayed
on Saturday Night Live, especially by a much younger
and better looking person. It’s fun to go on late
night shows and all that. But without question,
the most satisfying professional
experience of my life has been meeting and
talking to and telling the story of men and women who
spend their lives sacrificing for the rest of us. [APPLAUSE] And I tell you this because
it’s where I started. I read the poem for
myself, I clicked the link, I tried to show
kindness, I tried to step outside of
my comfort zone. And it’s really that simple. Members of the class of
2018, avoid the masses. Love what you do, love who you
are, be nice to each other, embrace the humanity
of everyone, especially those who don’t understand. Good luck. We’re all counting on you. Thank you for this honor. God bless you, God
bless your parents, God bless the University
of Massachusetts and the great
Commonwealth, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]