Joe Biden

Commencement Address by the Vice President at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York

May 10, 2009

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Good to be home. (Applause.) Chancellor, it's good to be -- it's good to be back.

Frank Sinatra, one of the few things I remember he ever said -- not what he sang -- he said, orange is the happiest color. He must have been thinking about Syracuse and today when he said it.

Dean Arterian, dean of my law school, the good news for you is I'm Vice President and not one of your students. (Laughter.) You all think I'm kidding, don't you. (Laughter.) Hey, Colin, I tell you what, you would have loved me. I never had to be told that play was important -- it just came natural to me. It came naturally to me all the way through law school. (Laughter.) Oh, God. (Laughter.) Thank God. (Applause.) Thank God, Dean, when Syracuse gave me the scholarship, they based it on a sense of obligation. (Laughter.)

But it's good to be home. And this field, which used to be called Archibald Stadium when I was here -- this is the place from which I graduated -- the same ground. This field was the scene of two of the happiest moments of my life, most exciting moments of my life.

The first was when I sat in the end zone and watched a man who has become a close personal friend of mine, number 44, Floyd Little, outscore Gale Sayers in a shoot out where they scored a total of eight touchdowns together. You can see my value system. (Laughter.)

And the second was the day that I stood here -- in those days, the law school used to graduate with the undergraduate school -- and I sat here in this field to receive my law degree, at some moments an unexpected event. And let me just say congratulations to all my fellow recipients of honorary degrees today. You all deserve.

It's great to be back at Syracuse. It's an honor to have been invited. It's an honor to hold a degree from this institution. And it's an honor to look at the next generation of Syracuse grads.

I'm sure this is said all the time, but so much emotion and expectation and confidence has been invested in all of you. And today -- today is Mother's Day. Of all the mothers who are here today, let me say to you the spotlight may be on your graduates today, but just know they would not shine nearly as brightly were it not for you. And they know it. They know it. (Applause.)

So I say to all the graduates today, there's a line, a great line I heard. It goes like this: If first you don't succeed, do it like your mom told you to do. (Laughter.) And that goes for you, Jack, or Mister W. (Laughter.)

But, look, that may be the best advice I can give you today. I'm not big in the business of giving advice. But I say to all the moms that are here today -- happy Mother's Day. It's obviously a great day for you. You deserve our thanks and our recognition. And, by the way, if any of have forgotten, immediately leave here and get flowers. (Laughter.)

Look, at the turn of the 20th Century, William Allen White -- a writer, a politician, a national spokesman for middle class values -- said, and I quote, "I am not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday, and I love today." Well, right now, there's a line of thought out there that your generation views today with anxiety, and tomorrow with a sense of despair.

But as your class speaker pointed out, I know better -- you know better. You know that you can control your destiny even in these difficult times. Let me first tell you about my yesterday. I, too, graduated from this great university into an uncertain world. The United States was at war in a faraway place, and unlike today America's faith in its leadership was perilously low.

In January of my senior year, when Americans thought the war in Vietnam may be drawing to a close, the Viet Cong launched what you studied about, the Tet Offensive, in an effort to end the war in one single, seismic assault. Two days into the offensive, a bullet fired on the streets of Saigon by a Vietnam police chief went into the skull of a handcuffed Viet Cong soldier as a photographer captured the mayhem. That one bullet not only pierced that soldier's skull, but pierced America's consciousness as well.

That one photograph, taken by Eddie Adams, brought home to everyone of my generation and my parent's generation that despite the promises we had been hearing, there was really no end in sight. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. That one image contained within its four corners the terror of the times.

Peaceful anti-war demonstrations turned violent in America -- the chancellor's office on this campus was occupied. And the violence in Vietnam exploded, nearly doubling to over 38,000 dead -- the number of our classmates we lost in 1968 in combat deaths.

Then, in March, President Lyndon B. Johnson, a man who coveted the presidency his entire career, decided he would not seek reelection to a job he had geared his entire career to attain.

And only four days later, after the president's stunning announcement, Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis. The cities, including my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware went up in flames. And a couple of months after that -- only three days after I walked off this field -- one of my personal heroes, Robert F. Kennedy, the hope of my generation, was gunned down in a kitchen in Los Angeles after having been declared the winner of the California primary and our likely nominee. Two fallen American heroes in a matter of weeks, and many more fallen heroes back across the world in Vietnam.

The once-prevailing hope for better days ahead was gone, shot through with pain and grief of a nation that viewed itself on the brink. And, all throughout this great country, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness began to take hold. That was the world I entered when I walked across this stage to receive my law degree. That was the history that, up to that point, had been written for us, not by us.

But in spite of it all, as I walked across this stage like you, I never doubted for one instant that we could change that history; that we could rewrite the outcome we were careening toward. And we did. Four short years later, I sat in the Cabinet room -- five years later -- across from President Ford and Dr. Henry Kissinger -- along with colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee demanded that the war end. And it did within a matter of weeks after that.

That was 1968. And this is 2009. And now it's your turn. You are graduating into a world of anxiety and uncertainty. You're walking across this stage without knowing exactly what's going to be on the other side. But you know that.

Good jobs are hard to find now. Two wars are being waged on the other side of the globe -- a global recession, a planet in peril, a world in flux. Yes, these are the challenges you face. But these are the moments you have an opportunity to embrace.

Throughout the span of history, only a handful of us have been alive at a time when we can actually -- not rhetorically, actually shape the course of history. I call these inflection points. Remember from your physics class. Your hands are on the steering wheel of the automobile. It's going straight. And one slight turn sends the car in a direction fundamentally different and initially unalterable in the direction it's been going in. Few people, few generations get to put their hands on a steering wheel at that moment.

There's not a single, solitary decision confronting us now that doesn't yield change from non-action, as well as action. My favorite poet, William Butler Yeats, writing about his Ireland in 1960, wrote a poem after the first rising of the 20th century called Easter Sunday 1916. In it, there was a line that's more applicable, in my view, to today than it was to his Ireland in 1916. He said: The world has changed; it has changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.

Well, it's clear things have changed utterly in the last 12 to 15 years. A terrible beauty has been born. It's a different world out there, but we have an opportunity to make it truly beautiful, because we're at an inflection point. Absent our input and leadership, the will continue to careen in the direction the momentum is now taking it. That, folks, is an inflection point. Do nothing, or take history into our own, and like few generations that are given the chance, bend it -- bend it in the service of a better day.

You know how I feel; it's probably self-evident. In the face of the challenges -- and I view opportunities we have in the face of struggle -- there is a much greater risk in accepting a situation we know we cannot sustain than in steeling our spine and embracing the promise of change, even though, the pessimist will point out, we cannot guarantee exactly what that change will deliver.

The truth is individuals don't determine these inflection points, it's the cumulative consequence of changed circumstances of our country and the world that delivered us -- delivers us to these moments. But it is individuals who do determine the outcome of these moments.

I've done many commencement speeches, but I can say with absolute certainty, without fear of contradiction, since I've been in public life there has never been a graduating class that is graduating into a moment where they actually have a chance to make more than incremental change.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's where we are. That's why Barack and I ran. That's why I believe so passionately we have a shot like hasn't occurred in the lifetime of anyone in this dome. And now we're here. Imagine what we can do.

Imagine a country where within a very short time, 20 percent of all our energy comes from renewable, clean sources of energy; a country that literally is ready to invest in every child from the time they're three years old, and guarantee every American who qualifies, that they can attend college notwithstanding their income. Imagine a country where health care is for the first time affordable and available to every American, driving down our costs, opening up opportunities. Imagine. (Applause.)

Imagine a country where our carbon footprint shrinks to virtually nothing. Imagine an America brought together by powerful ideas, not torn apart by petty ideologies. Imagine a country built on innovation and efficiency, not on credit default swaps and complex securities.

Ladies and gentlemen, just imagine. Imagine a country that lifts up the windows of opportunities instead of slamming them down that has occurred over the last 15 years. Imagine a country where creativity and scientific knowledge are valued, not shoved aside. Imagine a country where every single American has a fighting chance, just a fighting chance, and a country that lives up to our promise of our ideals and leads the world with the power of our example, not just the example of our power. (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, that's why I stayed in this business. That's what you demanded of us in this last election. That's what the President and I are seeking to accomplish. They tell us we're dreamers. They tell us we're doing too much. They tell us that this is beyond our scope. Where in the hell have they been? Where have they been? (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, we desperately need you. And I know you're there. We need you to help us make this happen. This is totally within our power. As my brother, Jimmy, would say, this is within our wheel house. This is the story of America.

Some think, as I said, I'm too optimistic. But I challenge that. I believe I'm being thoroughly realistic. My confidence is born out of my own experience, and America's experience -- the American people have never, never, never, ever let their country down when they've had a leadership willing to support them and to challenge them.

I was optimistic when I walked off this field into an uncertain world in 1968. I was optimistic when I was sworn in as a -- when I was elected, as a 29 year-old kid in Delaware, to the United States Senate.

But I must admit if anyone had told me then I'd be more optimistic and idealistic in year 2009 than I was then, I would have told them they were crazy. But it's the God honest truth -- I am more optimistic today than I have ever been in my life because of you, because of where we are. (Applause.)

And there's good reason, there's good reason for this optimism. It's you. It's my daughter. It's your generation. It's not only what I know you can do, it's what was already -- what you've already done -- 1.2 million of a total of 1.9 million combat troops that have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan have been under the age of 30, and many, many have given there in a war that was a war of choice and one that was one of necessity.

You, you are committing to your communities in larger numbers, and volunteering at record numbers -- the Peace Corps, Teach for America, AmeriCorps, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Habitat for Humanity -- the list goes on, and on, and on. And all over the globe you're enriching communities and making life better for people, everyone in the world from the North American continent to Asia to Africa to Latin America.

You're connected with each other like no generation ever has been. You're connected to the world in ways that we could have never imagined as I walked off this field, and you're using those connections to unite a global community and to deepen our understanding of the world around us.

That knowledge will help us seed an entire new era in world history. Your agile, your fresh minds -- you will create for us a bold new reality. And we're prepared to ride along with you and fight with you to see that it happens.

So for those who tell you we're doing too much, be smart enough not to listen. For those who say what we dream of cannot be done, be naïve enough to give it a shot. And for those that say now is not the time, say if not now, when? When? (Applause.)

So, folks, I'm not giving you the usual malarkey that everyone of you are going to change the world, that everyone of you are going to become the Nobel laureates and the presidents and the corporate heads and the leaders of great organizations. But I am telling you the cumulative effect of what you've already demonstrated you have the capacity to do will, I guarantee you, will change the world, because it cannot sustain itself in the direction it's going now.

Just as with every other generation that's found itself at an inflection point in history, it is totally within your power to shape history, to literally bend it. This is not bravado. This has been the history of the journey of America from its inception. This is a the journey that was brought home to me -- if you excuse, as we used to say in the Senate, excuse a point of personal privilege -- it was brought home to me personally 110 days ago when I went to the same railroad station in Wilmington, Delaware that had almost been burned to the ground the year I graduated, occupied by National Guard, men with drawn bayonets, in a black section of my city.

And as I boarded that train 110 days ago, it struck me how far we had traveled just in my lifetime. I was taking a very short journey on that train to our nation's capital to be sworn in as Vice President of the United States of America with the first African American President in American history. (Applause.)

As we rode down that track, that short 123 miles, it was the most moving experience of my life. Thousands upon thousands of people in my city, which had been burned to the ground -- about a fourth of it -- women and men holding up their babies so close to the track I feared someone would be hit, with a sense of hope and expectation that was reflected in the fact that we had turned around so drastically in that short time.

Ladies and gentlemen, I thought back to what Dr. King said. He said the arch of history bends towards justice. That's what you get a chance to do that no other generation in recent times has had the chance to do, not because you're better -- and you are -- but because of the moment to which we've been delivered.

I knew at that moment that the rhetoric I would repeat of Dr. King during my career was absolutely, positively, literally true. And I also knew one other thing -- I would've never been able to have that great honor, to be part of that history, were it not, Chancellor, for this great university. It would have never occurred, because those times when I had to listen to my dad's admonition of getting up at the most difficult times of my life, Syracuse University was there for me. They were reaching down, and they said, he's our guy. It's a big deal. It's a big deal.

The loyalty this university exceeds any institutional loyalty that I have ever encountered in my life, and it's come at times that were the bleakest in my life, as well as the happiest in my life.

So let me conclude by saying I'm grateful. I am truly grateful, and I thank you. And I congratulate all you graduates. Happy Mother's Day. And may God bless you all and may God protect our troops. Go enjoy yourself -- play. (Applause.)

Joseph R. Biden, Commencement Address by the Vice President at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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