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May 1, 2008

Commencement 2008: “Change the world,” GSPIA speaker urges

“Your presence here today means not only that you are hardworking, but courageous and independent,” a national political commentator told new graduates of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) last week. “Your presence means you believe there is such a thing as the common good. You have chosen to stand up and say that government, public service and public life matter.

“And because of that, some Americans might say: You are all a little bit nuts,” said author, editor and Washington Post op-ed columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., in a humor-laced address to GSPIA graduates April 26. GSPIA was one of several Pitt schools to hold graduation exercises in addition to the University-wide commencement.

“You are about to embark on lives of knowing that what you are supposed to do will bring down on your heads the condemnations of talk show hosts, the scorn of columnists, the rage of interest groups, maybe subpoenas from senators and representatives, the scorn of mayors and governors, and sometimes your very best friends and [relatives] will proclaim against you,” Dionne said. “Making public policy, or trying to influence how it is made or organizing people to get things done is hard work that often, maybe even usually, goes unrewarded. If you serve in government, you will be criticized for being too intrusive and meddlesome until the day something goes wrong. And then you’ll be asked: Why didn’t you do more?

“But before your parents wonder why in the world you got this degree, let me say: Precisely because you care about these things, every American who cares about our democracy should salute you,” he said.

Dionne cited his favorite aphorism about democracy: Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary. “We need democracy because it allows us to aspire to self-rule, but we also need democracy because it [affords] the opportunity to check the powerful, especially when the powerful abuse their power. Never lose the proper respect for the value of the expertise you will bring to your work in the attempt for popular rule,” he said.

While government-bashing is a kind of national pastime in the United States, Dionne said, it belies the importance of civil service work.

“When you do encounter people who say government is useless, evil and unnecessary, conjure up the pictures of this [Iraq] war of those looters ransacking homes after the fall of Saddam,” he said. “Absent a government committed to the protection of rights, there are no rights. Without government, individuals have no way to vindicate their rights to property, to basic personal liberty, to life itself. We forget that our personal and collective prosperity as property-owning, enterprising people depends on a strong and effective government.”

In addition, a government does not have to be mediocre. “To see this we only have to point to the great public universities we’ve built, the national parks we’ve created, the extraordinary transportation networks we’ve constructed,” Dionne said.

He cited the G.I. Bill as one of the great achievements in public policy that launched the United States’ ascent to becoming a very rich nation during and after World War II.

“The G.I. Bill was rooted in the simple but revolutionary idea that those who gave so much to their country deserve something back for their devotion and that public resources would be deployed not to promote dependency but, on the contrary, to help citizens achieve independence and self-sufficiency. Our economy simply would not have had the extraordinary growth it enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s absent that public investment in our own people.”

While a hallmark of “creeping middle age” is the tendency to criticize younger generations, Dionne said he had only high praise for the generation represented at the graduation.

“I thought it was easy to be a parent until I became one myself. I don’t think it is possible for a child to know how much love, pride, anxiety, concern, interest and joy a parent takes in a child until that child has a child of his or her own. We just don’t understand what our parents went through, and our kids don’t understand what we are feeling as parents. So I’ve concluded that’s why grandparents and grandchildren are so close: They have a common enemy,” Dionne said, evoking laughter from the audience.

“But I have a very positive view of your generation, [which] has been exceptional in its devotion to service,” he said. “Your generation has the possibility of restoring the faith in public service and public life that began eroding before you were born, in the divisions bred by the Vietnam War and in the ashes of public trust left by the fires of the Watergate scandal.”

Today’s graduates combine the idealism of the 1960s with the practical concerns of the 1980s and 1990s, he said. “You want to do good, but you want what you do to last. You’re willing to take risks, but you’re not foolhardy. You have doubts about politics, but you’re willing to give politics a chance. You have no illusions, but you do have hopes.”

Those U.S. generations that were reformers in the past were the ones that married the aspirations to service with the possibilities of politics, and that transformed what worked one-on-one in local communities into larger movements for change in the country and in the world, Dionne said.

“I do not envy your generation for the problems that you are inheriting from us. But I do envy the opportunity you have to break with failure and old ideas, with old prejudices and old ways. I do believe that you are entering the public sphere in one of the rare moments in history when our nation is prepared to move forward in a new spirit of innovation and motivation, of solidarity and justice. You have a chance that only a few generations are afforded. Please seize it,” he said.

“It’s up to you. Dare to be hopeful. Dare to break away from weary cynicism. Dare to insist that we can do better. Dare to change your country. Dare to change the world.”

At the GSPIA ceremony, individual awards were granted to Kevin Kearns, professor of public and urban affairs, as teacher of the year and Renee Kidney as staff member of the year, based on students’ votes.

The late Pittsburgh mayor and Allegheny County commissioner Peter “Pete” Flaherty, who earned a Master of Public Affairs at GSPIA in 1967, was honored with the school’s distinguished alumni award, the first such award to be given posthumously. Flaherty’s widow, Charlene, accepted the award on behalf of the family.

—Peter Hart

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