Remarks at Columbia Law School Commencement
New York - May 16 - REMARKS AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY BY VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE
COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL COMMENCEMENT, AVERY FISHER HALL
Tuesday, May 16, 2000
Dean Leebron; faculty and staff; family and friends – thank you for giving me this chance to address this first graduating class of a new century.
And congratulations to you, the remarkable Class of 2000.
I’m grateful for this chance to talk with you just before you graduate. I understand that right after the ceremony, this conversation will cost me two hundred dollars an hour.
I have to admit that as I was preparing to come here tonight, I tried to remember who gave the commencement address at my own college graduation, more than 30 years ago.
I have to tell you: I have absolutely no idea.
Decades from now, you will remember this day. You will probably remember the parties you go to tonight. But I accept the fact that many of you will not remember who gave the speech you are about to hear.
It’s not that I don’t have some real experience to share with you. In fact, just in this past year, I have faced some long days where I have to dig deep on too little sleep to face tough new challenges. And then there are the days when I’m not baby-sitting my grandson Wyatt for the weekend.
Of course, the best advice you will receive today comes not from the person standing in front of you, but from those who have stood behind you. Let me take this moment to congratulate my fellow parents of the Class of 2000, for the children you have cared for and raised. And I want to give you a chance to thank your families.
I want to start with a small historical note. As all of you know, when a President enters a room, he is welcomed with the musical honors, “Hail to the Chief.” I’ll bet most of you don’t know that there is a Vice Presidential march as well – and it is called “Hail Columbia.” I kid you not.
Incidentally, legend has it that the playing of “Hail to the Chief” became a regular tradition because President John Tyler was so short, when he entered a room people wouldn’t even know that the President was there.
Then-Vice President Tyler became President because his predecessor, William Henry Harrison (a.k.a. Tippecanoe), gave a two-hour inaugural address, outdoors, in a winter sleet-storm -- and died of pneumonia just weeks later.
Tonight – as I hail Columbia – I promise to be a bit more succinct.
But I do want to share my thoughts on the remarkable opportunity that comes with your law degree – and the responsibility that comes along with it.
Now these days, some find it fashionable to bash the legal profession. I’m sure that by now, you’ve heard all those lawyer jokes.
You know, like the one about the shark that won’t eat the lawyer out of professional courtesy.
Actually, somebody pointed out that there’s a big, basic, generic problem with all lawyer jokes. Lawyers don’t think they’re funny, and nobody else thinks they’re jokes.
But the next time you hear one, I hope you will remember something my good friend, Senator Tom Harkin, said to a doctor friend of his, when that doctor started criticizing lawyers. He said: “Don’t forget that when your predecessors as doctors were bleeding George Washington with leeches, our predecessors as lawyers were writing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
With all due respect to the medical profession – and to my son-in-law, who is a doctor -- there is truth in that statement. For generations of American revolutionists and idealists, lawyers have been among the most effective carriers of justice. And like the statue that stands at the Law School’s western entrance – a rather abstract rendering of the taming of Pegasus – it is for you to recognize the power you have learned here, and to direct it as a force for good.
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I want to share a story about our family. My mother, Pauline LaFon Gore, was born in a small, rural county in Northwest Tennessee – a farming community where land was livelihood. I’ve often recounted the stories she told me -- about my grandmother and great-grandmother’s struggle to inherit land that was rightly theirs. Instead, it went entirely to their brothers.
In that part of the country, women weren’t supposed to own land in those days. They certainly weren’t supposed to become lawyers. My mother set out to change that.
Barely a dozen years after women won the right to vote, she became one of the first women in history to enroll at Vanderbilt Law School. She was the only woman in the Class of 1936.
My mother taught our whole family to love the law, and the promise it holds for fighting injustice.
I know how proud she is that her oldest granddaughter is graduating from one of the finest law schools in this nation – and how proud she is of what all of you have done to reach this day.
I am so happy that she is here tonight -- and I want to congratulate her on the 64th anniversary of her graduation from law school.
And I share her pride in each and every one of today’s graduates – for you represent a profession that has opened its doors to all who believe in the law’s power and possibility.
Needless to say, the Class of 2000 is entering a far different world than the one my parents – and your grandparents -- inherited.
Back then, America was suffering through a deep Depression. In my mother’s day, hard-working farmers had no electricity or crop insurance.
Across the country, older Americans who had worked hard all their lives lacked decent pensions and health care. There was no Social Security; as many struggled to find food and shelter, they were told that they should have invested their private savings more skillfully. For millions of women and people of color, no matter their excellence, the doors of opportunity and justice were barred shut.
There were also great challenges abroad. Over half the world’s people lived under monarchies. Another third lived under colonial rule. There was not a single electoral democracy on this Earth with universal suffrage.
There has indeed been a lot of change in the last century.
In 1936, after graduating from law school and passing the bar, my mother’s challenge was simply finding a place where a woman could get a job as a lawyer. Nashville law firms would not hire women. So she traveled to Texarkana to practice oil and gas law, and divorce law – at a time when that was virtually unheard of for women.
Change came. But slowly.
Even a quarter-century later, the woman who tied for first in the Class of 1959 at Columbia Law School couldn’t get a job, either. That woman – Ruth Bader Ginsberg – often points out that she ended up with a pretty good position after all.
Today, of course, Columbia graduates of all backgrounds are courted by the finest law firms; the biggest dot-com empires; the most respected judges and the leading public interest advocates from all across the spectrum.
But I hope you will never be complacent about your own lives, or the life of the nation. Indeed, no generation has been given so great an opportunity to serve -- and so great a challenge to make a difference.
The gap between the rich and the poor is finally narrowing. You have a chance to help close it – and to see that no one is left behind.
We have banished much inequality from our laws and institutions. You have a chance to banish it from our communities and from our hearts.
More of our world is free than at any other time in the human journey. You have a chance to help sustain and strengthen that freedom – to help spread it further and fulfill its promise of human dignity.
One of Columbia Law School’s most illustrious alumni, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said it this way. He said: “Our people [have been given] stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mighty blows for freedom and truth.” We have also been “given…a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world.”
I hasten to add that Franklin Roosevelt failed two of his courses during his first year at Columbia Law School – and then never actually graduated. As he later pointed out, in words that may comfort us all: “It certainly shows the uncertainty of marks.”
But Franklin Roosevelt understood that because of our laws and our Constitution – because of the ideals for which we stand – America has an obligation beyond its borders, an obligation to be a watchword and a witness to the world for justice and liberty.
And each of us has an obligation beyond our own home and families, beyond the campus gate or the law firm door.
As much as you care about your own success – and you should – I urge each one of you to look for the ways in which you can serve; to give new meaning to the ideals that animate our laws and summon our nation to look higher.
Yet ironically, it is sometimes the most idealistic who are the most reluctant to serve – to try to improve a decidedly imperfect world.
I don’t underestimate that feeling – because many came to share it in my own generation.
I finished my education at a time when our nation’s spirits were steadily sinking. Activism seemed defeated. Cynicism was rising.
The war in Vietnam, the assassinations, the Watergate scandal.
When I came home from Vietnam, at just about your age, I was certain of only one thing about my future: that I would never, ever go into politics.
So I began working as a local newspaper reporter for the Nashville Tennessean. And I saw a lot more of what could go wrong in this country – from the private pain of domestic violence, to the public outrage of government corruption.
I also saw people in their communities, trying to bring reality nearer to their vision of what they thought it could be – on their own block; in their neighborhoods; on their City Council.
More than anything else, their example led me to seek public office in 1976. And today, more than ever, I believe we need a new generation committed not just to the idea of service, but to public office as well.
I believe in – and I want to share with you on this remarkable day in your own lives -- the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “We must become the change we wish to see in the world.”
And public office can still be the noble calling it was meant to be. It can still give you a place to stand – a fulcrum from which to move the world – if only you will try.
Thomas Jefferson was 32 years old when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Few if any others will ever make the world so new again at so young an age.
But the impulse to serve – to reach for ideals, to touch and share the best in ourselves – can lead to acts, both individual and legislative, that in their effect at the most human level, can achieve something as simple and glorious as cleaning up a neighborhood park where children play. Providing legal representation to the poor. Curing a dread disease or immunizing against it. Opening doors to learning or shutting off wellsprings of hate.
Some reply that even though there may be so much to be gained, don’t even run because the track is muddy – it’s rough and tumble and you can always falter or fail. And in truth, politics is not only potentially honorable, but often intense – in part, because the stakes are so high.
But I ask at least some of you to think of the difference you could make at some point in public office – and how much closer you could bring your community and your country to your best ideals.
Our country needs you. So I hope you will consider the path of public service – now or later.
Finally, I realize that many will resist the call to public office because our very system of elections is distorted by special-interest money. I recognize that – and we have to change it. We cannot know how many never even think of running because they believe money bars the way.
And just as your generation has a responsibility to become involved, my generation has a responsibility to reform the system -- to make it honorable not only to hold office but to seek it.
I understand this path of public service is not for everyone. And each of you can make a difference in many different ways.
I know that many of you have already given of yourselves, and that the tradition of caring runs deep at Columbia Law School. I congratulate this class for the more than 15,000 hours you have devoted to pro bono service in the past three years.
There are students here who have traveled to Mississippi, to educate African-American shipyard workers about their basic civil rights. And I will wager that those of you who did that learned at least as much from them as they did from you.
One student became a one-person Peace Corps, traveling to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to join efforts to ease tensions and suspicions between the military police and minority communities.
Others have worked in the fledgling democracy of South Africa, defending rights as basic as the freedom of religion.
I understand that one of today’s graduates even works as a volunteer on a Presidential campaign. I wish her success in that effort.
Each of you will choose your own path – and your own ways to serve your families, your communities, your country.
As you make your choices in life, remember the words of Albert Schweitzer: “I don’t know what your destiny will be,” he said. “But one thing I do know. The ones amongst you who are really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
Now more than ever, we need you to choose hope over despair, striving over resignation, faith over cynicism.
We need you to believe in the power of justice to make the world a better place.
At a time when the values America has proclaimed, defended, and sought to live are now rising almost everywhere in the world, we need a new generation committed to carrying the standard high – with more enthusiasm and idealism than ever before.
And no matter what path you choose, we need you to keep the lessons of the law close at hand.
Which, by the way, is precisely why I invented Lexis-Nexis.
For my part, I have faith in America’s future – because I have faith in you, the first graduating class of the 21st Century.
Thank you – God bless you – and I wish Karenna and each and every one of you every blessing as you now set out on the long journey of your lives.
Paid for by Gore 2000, Inc.
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