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Fall 2002
Volume 39, No. 1
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PCMOnline Editor: Sarah Dolinar


Getting Closer

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Keller ’70 shares some hard-won life lessons with the Class of 2002.

The following excerpts are taken from the commencement address delivered by Bill Keller ’70 on May 19, 2002.

Since leaving Pomona, I’ve learned a lot about what humans are capable of, for better and for worse. I’ve learned about death on a large scale—what it looks like, what it smells like. And I’ve learned about death on a more intimate scale—what it feels like when it happens to someone you love, what it feels like to be afraid of it. I’ve learned a bit about war and tyranny and privation, and about honor and compromise and sacrifice and endurance and other things that are not on the curriculum here at least, not in the same way as they exist out there.

The point is not that experiencing any of these things makes you wise, only that big things await you in the Graduate School of Serendipity.

Which brings me to my first aphorism, and it is this: An awful lot of life is just plain luck.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I have a suspicion you need to be reminded of this. Luck is not something that has been stressed in your upbringing. You are products of one of the world’s great, if imperfect, meritocracies, the American educational system.

Since toddlerhood you have been told to take responsibility for yourselves, you have been tested, you have been drilled in the rituals of competition and you have been taught that your success was something you earned.

On top of that, you live in a country that has a wide streak of self-reliance in its national myth, and at the moment you live under a government that preaches laissez faire at home (unless you happen to be a steel company) and unilateralism abroad. We’re a society with a firm grip on its bootstraps.

And I expect a lot of you think, at least subconsciously, that every good thing that happens in your life is a reward for your talent and hard work, and that every setback is your own fault. Perhaps this fills you with existential dread.

Well, lighten up.

It may be that I believe in luck because most of mine has been so incredibly good. An editor sent me to Russia and, whoops, communism fell and everything I wrote went right to the top of the front page. Then another editor sent me to South Africa and, whoops, wouldn’t you know it—whites handed over the government and Nelson Mandela became the president and there I was, on the front page again. Brilliant timing? Yeah, right.
I’m the kind of person who quits smoking cold turkey and never feels a craving.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2002, you have worked hard and done well but you were born with good minds, to nurturing parents. Your luck began before you were conceived. There are plenty of people out there who have worked just as hard, and not done nearly as well.

Now, I’m not here to suggest that you throw up your hands and surrender to fate, or abdicate responsibility for the choices you make. One of the more interesting commencement addresses I ran across was delivered by a performance artist at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He came out on the stage and threw pieces of paper that said “Surrender” and then left the stage. That was his message, not mine. Mine is less categorical. Stuff happens—good stuff, bad stuff, all kinds of stuff that you don’t choose or control.

You can get hired on a hunch, fired on a whim. You can end up in the right place at the right time, or miss the bus.

There is a saying that you make your own luck. Don’t believe it. You can make the most of what life throws you, but life doesn’t hand you the ball and turn over the pitcher’s mound.
So: Don’t whine when things go wrong, don’t preen when they go well. And have some sympathy for people who make out worse than you; because here’s the thing: while you can’t make your own luck, you can definitely make someone else’s.

My second aphorism is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. It is this: The most important division in human affairs is not the one between left and right, liberal and conservative. It’s the one between zealotry and understanding, between absolute conviction and compromise, between preachers and politicians.

True believers, whatever their persuasion, start with the answer and therefore they don’t have to think about the question. They have moral clarity. Moral clarity is all the rage these days. As a basis for governing, it tends not to work very well, because the world is almost always more complicated than it seems when you judge by any single catechism, as the President has been learning in the Middle East. If you decide you’re not going to deal with morally ambiguous characters, you’re going to be very, very lonely in the world.

These categories, preachers and politicians, are not mutually exclusive categories. There are tolerant believers, and there are politicians with convictions—yes, there really are—and there are some exceptional people who can play the prophet or the statesman, depending on what the occasion demands. And yet, the true believers get more than their share of the respect. They are inspiring, thrilling. We call them “uncompromising,” and we mean it as a tribute. Politicians and diplomats are boring, exasperating, equivocal.

Well, I urge you to spare a thought for the politicians. True believers are usually the ones who get us into wars. Politicians get us out of them. True believers are the people to see if you’re trying to overthrow a bad government; politicians are the folks to call if you’re building a new one.

My stumblebum’s great luck has brought me into contact with some very large people—Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Andrei Sakharov, who designed the Soviet nuclear bomb and then became one of Russia’s bravest defenders of human rights, Nelson Mandela. I keep pictures of all of them in my office. What do these very different men, all great reformers, have in common?

First, they were optimists. Reform begins with the sense that things can be better.
Second, they were brave in different ways, and to different degrees. They took big risks.
But third, all of them could bend. All of them could compromise.

Consider Nelson Mandela. Most people venerate Mandela as a great moral leader, fighter, champion. Indeed he was, but I watched him pretty closely for three years and I’m convinced the greatest thing about him was that he was a politician. People tend to think he liberated South Africa by suffering in prison for 27 years. The fact is, he liberated South Africa by suffering in prison for 27 years and then sitting down with the white leaders who put him in prison, and cutting a deal that allowed the country to change hands peacefully—no civil war, no vengeance. There were plenty of people in Mandela’s party who wanted no part of such a deal. They wanted moral clarity. But here’s the lovely paradox: by being a politician, by making the compromise, Mandela achieved the ultimate moral victory—he showed a generosity of spirit his oppressors could never muster.

This subject has been on my mind because, for the past eight months, since I moved from being an editor to being a column-writer, I’ve been learning how to have opinions.
Now, I recall leaving Pomona full of opinions, and most of you probably wake up every morning knowing exactly what you think about pretty much everything.

But when you’ve spent 30 years of your life as a reporter and editor, trying to keep your opinions from creeping into the paper, trying to be exquisitely fair, it’s strange to suddenly be licensed to flaunt your prejudices in the great department-store window of The New York Times Op-Ed page. …

My third and final aphorism is this: You will regret the things you haven’t done more than you’ll regret the things you’ve done.

This aphorism, in one form or another, is a staple of commencement speeches and it ought to be, because generation after generation, men and women heading off into the world of work need to be told: Have a life.

Pomona College graduates may be a little wiser on this score than their counterparts at other colleges. I read the alumni notes and am always pleased to run across alums who have abandoned numbing security to follow a dream, to go to someplace completely odd, to learn something not widely regarded as productive, to bring some good luck to the luckless.

You are all on a very elegant treadmill, from success to success, from college to graduate school, to careers. It may bring you immense satisfaction, but I implore you, take stock from time to time, and if you are tempted to get off the treadmill, then get off it. Otherwise you’re going to save up all that frustration and have a mid-life crisis — when you’re really too old to enjoy it. …

So, have a life. Not my life, or your parents life but your own life. It would be great if it included some romance and some adventure and even some failure but it should be your own, not one you compare with the guy at the next table.

Having a life means taking some chances. From time to time, do something that scares you. Having a life means sharing it with those you love, of course, but also with those you don’t, because a life hoarded is a life wasted. (I’m packing in a few extra aphorisms here.)

Now, I owe you a closing exhortation. This is hard. The best exhortation I’ve read lately came NOT from one of those many commencement addresses I studied, but from a nun, Sister Veronica McRooney. Sister Veronica read a column I wrote about the pope, and she didn’t like it which is perfectly within her rights. (God knows, she had plenty of company.)

She bought a postcard of the pope and sent it to me, and the exhortation neatly typed on the back was as follows: “Obey your holy priests and bishops or risk excommunication, anathema and eternal hellfire!!”

Anathema! I can’t top that.

But I don’t want to leave you with eternal hellfire. What I really want to leave you with is a plea to pay attention. The Buddhist version of that is “Be here now.” The New York version, courtesy of Yogi Berra, is “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

My son Tom is 12 now, and he’s gotten interested in taking pictures. My friend Ford Reid, a photographer as well as a boat-builder and crackerbarrel philosopher, wrote him a nice long letter about how to make his pictures better, and his letter included a bit of advice from the great photographer Robert Capa. And that bit of hand-me-down wisdom is my final advice to you. What Capa always told other photographers was: “Get closer.”