Academic Ceremonies - Commencement
Howard Brush Dean III
The contents herein are the unedited verbatim transcript from Howard Dean’s visit to the University of Vermont on Sunday, May 17th, 2009. This transcript is intended for educational use only and may not be reproduced in any way.
Mr. President, thank you for your kind -- I'm just thinking. I called somebody else Mr. President recently; I don't think he was you. Thank you for your very kind introduction.
It's customary for the graduation speaker to talk about the things that are in the future and the achievements of the class and what’s to come, and I’m going to do a little bit of that, but I thought because of my recent job, I ought to tell you something about who you already are, and what you have already accomplished. And you’re, on average, about 21 years old. This election is the most important election of your lifetime, this past election in November. And I’m going to do my very best to be as nonpartisan as I can, although this is the People’s Republic of Burlington, but there are some Republicans among us, and we want to be as respectful to them as possible, so nothing that I say is intended to be disrespectful, but your generation has remade America already.
Now, there are a lot of important things to do, and we’ll get to some of those in a minute, but you have already remade America. You are the first multicultural generation in this country. This has been a multicultural country for a long, long time, but you are the first generation that sees itself as multicultural. And the first thing you did was to elect a multicultural president. I don’t believe that change comes from the top. This change has been going on for a while. In 2004, young people in this country under the age of 30, increased their voter participation by 20 percent over the previous election, 2000, and 56 percent of you voted. It was the only age group that John Kerry carried. In 2006 voters in that age group increased their participation by 24 percent, and 61 percent of you voted for the democratic candidate for Congress in your districts. In 2008, for the first time in my lifetime, upsetting every belief that people my age who've worked in politics all their lives have about politics, more people voted who were under the age of 35 than voted who were over the age of 65 in an American presidential election. You did this, Barack Obama is your president, you elected him, and he has ushered in your generation into the corridors of power, and you’re only 21 years old.
And I appreciate Dan’s kind words about the Internet and stuff that we did in 2004, but the technology is growing so fast. When I got to Washington, the Democratic Party was in a lot of trouble, and interestingly enough, the model for how to win elections was at the Republican National Committee. They knew what they were doing, they had a business plan, their technology was 15 years ahead of ours, and I looked at what they had and I thought to myself we are not going to catch them by 2008, but we might catch them by 2012. But I hired a bunch of smart 25-year-olds who didn’t care much about politics, but they sure liked computers and grassroots. I think they slept under their desks for two years, because by 2006 we had caught the Republican party. That was your generation that did that. That was impossible to do.
In the four years since I ran for president, YouTube was invented, and the fact that YouTube was invented gave the Democrats control of the Senate because of a 22-year-old political activist who followed a senator around with a camcorder, and when he said something he probably shouldn’t have said, it was all over YouTube on America. Before 2004, there was no such thing as Facebook or MySpace. Facebook and MySpace were an integral part of the Obama campaign for president.
Now, the interesting thing, which should give the Republicans some comfort, is that although you have overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, 63 percent of you voted for Barack Obama, statistically you are not necessarily a democratic generation. You are a center-left generation, but you register mostly independent and no party preference. Which means that we have to earn your vote every single election, and the Republicans have the opportunity to do the same.
But you are a very interesting generation for another reason. When I finished my campaign after the Wisconsin primary, we had interesting discussions at home. My kids were both teenagers at that time, and one time they said to me, “Dad, you’re just too confrontational.” And you have to be a parent to know how incredibly ironic that is to have your two teenage kids tell you that. But I reflected on that for a while and it was absolutely true. Our generation was the generation of confrontation. And we had to be, in order to make the extraordinary changes that happened because of our generation -- civil rights, voting rights, gay rights, women’s rights.
My wife graduated from Rosalyn high school in suburban New York in 1971. In her junior year there was a big construction project that had to go on at the high school and they had two playing fields -- a girl’s and a boy’s. Without hesitation, they just closed down the girl’s playing field for a year, got rid of girl’s sports for a year, and did the construction. Today that wouldn’t even cross your mind, because Title IX was one of the things that came out of the extraordinary struggles of the 70s, but most young women today, it doesn’t even occur to them that anyone could think of doing that. That’s a good thing as well as a bad thing. You want to know the history of the struggles that came before, but you also want to take for granted those struggles, because I believe in life that you get treated the way you expect to be treated, and if you think it is an outrage for people to be denied their sports facilities for a year, then it is less likely to be done. But we were a confrontational generation.
Your generation is much smarter. We used to get a million people to come to the Washington mall. You send a million emails to Congress and shut down their email system for a couple of days, and that makes the point pretty well. In addition to not being a particularly confrontational generation, you are an incredible generation of pragmatists. I hardly know anybody that’s your age that hasn’t been to place, whether it’s abroad or at home, to make life better for somebody else -- building homes, teaching school abroad, doing something, being in a church group that builds houses, Habitat for Humanity. It is an extraordinary generation, a pragmatic generation.
I said that you were a center left generation, but the ideological bandwidth in your generation is much smaller and narrower than ours. We have people from the extreme right and the extreme left, and both parties have been in the grip at one time or the other from these extremes. Your generation, there aren’t so many people on either extreme. You may be center left, but you are in the middle.
One of the projects we undertook when I was in the DNC is to begin reaching out to people who hadn’t voted for us before, not because we thought they would suddenly change their mind, but because we wanted to begin the process of reducing demonization of Democrats. So we did polling in the evangelical community, for instance. Here’s what we found: The top three issues that they cared most deeply about in order, were one, poverty, two, climate change, three, Darfur. We looked at those results and we thought wait a minute, this is a democratic activity agenda. Why shouldn’t we reach out to people who share our agenda? We don't have to be divided by the things we disagree about, we should be united by the things that we can work together on, and that is the core message to your generation, which is to stop fighting about the things we’ve been fighting about for 30 years and get something done about the things that need to have something done about them.
But now comes the part that every graduation speaker always has to talk about. The governor touched on that. It's responsibility. You have a responsibility. With this power that you have now earned, you have a responsibility, and the first responsibility is to learn from the things that we did wrong. We did a lot of things right, and I’m incredibly proud of the huge steps forward in human rights that my generation undertook. But the biggest mistake we made is one that you must not make. After all was said and done in the 60s and 70s, an awful lot of us took a vacation from politics. We spent a lot of time on our families and our careers, and those are the most important thing in the world is your family, but we thought we could put politics on hold. And that was an enormous mistake and led to what I consider to be a very dark period in American History. We need you to stay involved in politics, always.
Now, I don’t mean you’re going to have to do the things you did in the last campaign -- working for 20 hours in addition to your class load and sleeping on people's floors all over America. That’s great when you’re in your 20s, but by the time you’re in your 30s and have kids, it gets a little tough and a little old. But we need you to stay in politics.
Politics is not just running for office and making speeches and licking envelopes and making phone calls. That’s part of it. That’s the part you see on television. Politics is community organizing. You already have, even though you didn’t work in the last campaign on either the Republican or the Democratic side, you already have a background in politics. Politics is simply resource allocation in a democracy. It’s simply organizing people to get something done. If your folks are on the library board, they’re involved in politics, because they’re organizing to make sure that people can read and have the opportunity to have books in their community. If you’re on the planning commission, you’re in politics. Obviously if you’re on the city council, you’re in politics. If you’re on your church vestry you’re in politics. If you’re doing things in church that are organizing to help other people, you’re in politics. There are a lot of ways to be in politics. But every single one of you has an obligation to stay involved in your communities, because if you don’t, you will live to see folks in office that you wish weren’t there. And that will be the responsibility of your generation.
We need your help. We need your help, because this is an extraordinary country. And I know that politicians always come and say how great America is. It is great and it is a unique country, and I’ll tell you why. We have the same faults that everybody else has. An individual is -- no individual American is any better than an individual of European or an individual African or an individual Asian. But in the founding documents of our country is espoused a lack of cynicism that doesn’t exist in anybody else’s constitution. We try to live that as best we can. It is not an accident that millions and millions of us are from ancestry that came from elsewhere, because those people came here with a hope that here their voice would matter, and it largely has. That is what the struggle is for. Yes, this is a day about your families and your own achievement. But this is an extraordinary, glorious country, which still differentiates itself from most other places with a lack of cynicism and an abundance of hope. The only way that continues is through your nurturance.
Democracy is an invention of human beings, and like every other invention of human beings, it dies without people who are willing to feed and water it in small ways every single day. So the one thing that I ask of as you go forward from this extraordinary university and this wonderful state, and like Jim, I hope you will return, because you have made Vermont a better place to live. The one thing we ask of you, now that you have elected your first president: Don’t blow it.
Thank you very much.
Last modified May 25 2009 07:32 AM