2006 Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs Commencement Address
May 20, 2006
Thank you very much. I am profoundly honored to be here and tickled pink by your kind welcome.
I thank Luci Johnson for being here and her family for their life of public service.
Iíd like to thank the faculty of the LBJ School and the other officials of The University of Texas who are here. Especially Dr. Betty Sue Flowers who is the director of the LBJ Library and Museum, an institution close to my heart. Before I had one myself, I used to order things from the LBJ Library; for myself and others. I am now reliably informed that I can do nothing to reduce the revenue stream of my own library, but I love it here.
I thank Liz Carpenter for being here who once gave me the opportunity to come here to the University of Texas and speak. And all of you who were part of my administration or campaigns. In 1992 we had a rally here at the University of Texas and 25,000 people showed up. I began to think I might actually get elected.
I canít also help noticing, if youíll give me one moment of personal indulgence, that one of your graduates here is as close to being a child of mine without being one as she could- Elizabeth Puthoff who was one of my daughterís two closest friends all during childhood. We came to Austin for her wedding and her husband, her parents, her sister, her brother-in-law, are all here and I think I can say to all of you who are proud parents and family members I have some inkling of how you feel today. Because of the opportunities your children and loved ones have had to go to this remarkable, remarkable institution. I am honored to be here and I thank you for giving me the chance to offer a few thoughts.
This is a school of public affairs. You are educated in them whether you wind up going into government service as Lyndon Johnson did from the time he was the National Youth Administrator under Franklin Roosevelt to being elected to Congress, still in his mid-20s, to being a senator, Vice President and President. President Johnsonís life had a big impact on me. Even though being a young boy in Arkansas I was disinclined to favor anything that came out of the State of Texas. I resented all that size and money and oil and stuff. Most of us did and then we learned a lesson that all of you have to learn sooner or laterÖ that resentment is a highly counterproductive emotion. When you get rid of it, it frees you up to make the most of your lives. But the idea that a guy could grow up that poor with that many limitations and go that far because America offered all of us the chance to live our dreams. And that once having gotten power he used it to advance civil rights, fight poverty, give people a chance to get an education and live their own dreams. That meant a lot to me.
One of the fundamental questions you will have to ask and answer for yourselves in a personal way is what to do with the enormous power you now have. It doesnít matter if you donít have any money- youíve got a good mind and a great education and youíre now, by definition, Ďwell connectedí.
When I was in college and Lyndon Johnson, through the tragedy of President Kennedyís assassination, became President and then was overwhelmingly elected in his own right, he gave an astonishing speech on civil rights and voting rights one night and he said (I never will forget it. I can only paraphrase-because I did no research for this) but he said when he was little boy he used to go out and lie down by the river and look up at the stars at night and wonder what he would ever do if he had the power to change the conditions of the people with whom he grew up. And he looked out into the eyes of the Congress and Americans on the television screen and he said Ďtonight I have that power and Iíll let you in on a little secret- I mean to use ití and yet no one felt threatened, no one thought he meant to use it to concentrate power, to provide special breaks to people who were already doing well. He meant to use the power that he had acquired to empower more people who grew up like him to live their dreams.
You will have to decide what to do with your power. In order to make that decision I think you have to ask and answer three great questions. Public questions, not private ones:
I will very briefly give you my answers to those three questions. I donít really care whether you agree with my answers or not- if I were running for office, Iíd care- but what I care about is that you have an answer. It really doesnít matter if you agree with me. But it does matter a great deal that you can answer that question, that you have a framework which enables you to think about all the disparate events that occur every day. That enables you to watch the evening news or read the morning paper without thinking itís the political equivalent of chaos theory in physics. That enables you to see what is happening and watch ,you know, ĎAmerican Idolí on television and see some soap opera saga playing itself out on the front page and understand the difference between the headlines and the trend lines of life.
So, when I give you my answers, I do so not in the hope that you agree with them, although Iíd be pleased if you did, but in the hope that it will help you answer the questions. If some one asks you (do you have a degree in public affairs?) Ďwhat is the fundamental nature of the 21st century world?í, you should be able to give a quick answer that is not superficial.
Most people would say, this is the age of globalization; I prefer interdependence, because globalization has largely an economic connotation and depending on your perspective will immediately suggest something positive or negative.
Interdependence goes beyond economics to culture, communications, travel, immigration, politics, war, peace, and it can be positive or negative or both. It simply means we canít escape each other.
If you look at the Middle East, for example, the Israelis and the Palestinians are completely interdependent. It doesnít matter whether they are fighting or working together. When I was President, we were working toward peace. There was more positive than negative interdependence although the occasional intrusion of terrorism was negative. The continued impoverishment of the people in Gaza and the West Bank because of the security environment was negative but it was basically positive. In the four years after I left office, four times as many Israelis and Palestinians died from violence as in the previous eight years. But they were not a bit less interdependent. It had just gone from positive to negative.
The reason terror frightens people is because we are interdependent. 9-11 was an act of interdependence- 19 people come from other countries, use open borders, easy travel, easy access to information and technology to turn a bunch of jet airplanes into chemical weapons and they studied the plans of the World Trade Center and they realized that the steel girders werenít reinforced by concrete and therefore thereís nothing to absorb heat and you can bring these towers down. And they can find all that out on the internet.
I have a cousin who lives in the mountains of North Arkansas who for years played chess with a guy from Australia once a week over the internet and they took turns deciding who would stay up all night.
All these things are manifestations of interdependence. Now that is my answer- we live in an age that is interdependent- it can be good or bad or both.
Part B- it is inherently unequal and unstable. Why? One, because half of the worldís people live on less than two dollars a day and are not a part of the world that brought you to this auditorium today. Two, because 25 percent of all of the deaths on earth this year will be from AIDS, TB, malaria, and dirty water, mostly cholera and dysentery and diarrhea among children under five and hardly anybody you know will die of any of those things.
Because we are all burdened by our interdependence and the possible spread of disease which is why whenever they kill a chicken with Avian influenza in Romania, you know about it on the evening news and how many chickens they kill within a three square kilometer area. Thatís a good thing, by the way. It shows we understand what to do. We are responding in an interdependent way. Itís why climate change is more remote than terror but a more profound threat to the future of the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren I hope all of you have because itís the only thing that we face today that has the power to remove the preconditions of civilized society.
So, we live in an age of interdependence.
Question two- What direction should we be taking and what should we do to move there? I believe we should be moving from interdependence which is good for us but inherently unequal and unstable toward integrated communities- locally, nationally, globally. As defined by shared responsibilities, shared opportunities, and shared values. You might say Ďwell, that sounds very good but how in the world would you do it?í Beginning with the fact that given all of this diversity, people canít even have shared values when they live in a little place that they share like the Holy Land or Kashmir. And Lord knows, look whatís happening in Iraq. And now the al-Qaida is setting off bombs and killing other Muslims in Jordan and claiming that the first thing- there is a big debate within the al-Qaida factions now- whether worst enemies are those that are near or far. The near enemies are defined as Shiíite Muslims, apostate Sunnis who donít want to murder everybody in sight and the Israelis. As opposed to the far enemies like all of us. And Hillary and Chelsea and I have walked in the broken glass of those hotel rooms in Jordan where the wedding party was exploded and all of the victims were Muslims.
So you could say ĎBill Clinton is a naive foolí, saying we could ever find a common set of values, but we could. What would they be? Everyone has dignity and deserves an opportunity. Everyone has a responsible role to play in society. Competition is good, but we do better when we work together. Our differences are important. They matter. They aid the search for truth. They make life far more interesting.
This class is far more diverse than it would have been a decade or two ago. They are important our differences, but our common humanity matters more. And all you have to do to get people to agree to that simple set of values is to recognize one thing ≠ no matter what their religious faith, no matter what their political convictions, they can believe there is an absolute truth, but they cannot believe that as finite human beings any of us can be in absolute possession of it, much less turn it into a political program that is absolutely true. Thatís why the founding fathers protected the freedom of religion, but protected the State from being taken over by religion.
Thatís why the enlightenment thinkers who founded this country made a clear distinction between faith and politics and science. Because they knew that in this life you had to limit the power of the state, you had to protect the right to embrace your faith and you had to adopt the scientific method, to make progress because none of us will ever have the absolute truth in this life. Not that there is no absolute truth, but weíre not absolutely wise.
This is the great battle going on today ≠ in a simplest statement. Once you do that, we can have that. Assuming you agree thatís the direction we should go, how do we go about building these communities?
We do have to have a security strategy against terror, weapons of mass destruction, the killing of innocents in Darfur, and also against common threats like the spread of disease and most especially against climate change. And for those of you who think I am overstating the case, let me remind you that the last ice age ended 15,000 years ago on this planet, which is 2.5 billion years old.
15,000 years ago, the first human beings rose up on the African Savannah about 130,000 years ago. They wandered around in a narrow space until 15,000 years ago when the ice withdrew and enabled them to swarm all over this place. By 10,000 years ago (thatís the oldest ruins we have of the urban areas in Jericho, ironically, in the Holy Land. There may be older cities, but we havenít verified that date.) 5,000 years ago there were civilizations in, ironically, Iraq, Egypt, China, Peru and Mexico. We got around in a hurry, considering how old the planet was, and a few hundred years later in India. Everything weíve done since weíve been just been, sort of, amplifying on that theme.
Now, a couple of months ago researchers in Antarctica dug down into the core of the Antarctic ice shelf and discovered what they already knew- you can measure the ages of the planet through the ice core the same way you can trace the life of a tree through its rings.
And they know that the world is warming more rapidly than it has in 200,000 years. We know that if this happens for another fifty years, a lot of the Greenland ice cap will melt, will pour into the North Atlantic, change the composition of the water, block the flowing of the Gulf Stream and perversely the warming of the climate will make the winters much, much colder in Northern Europe, miserably cold.
We know that more of Africa will turn into desert, weíll have tens of millions of food refugees, there will be less clean water than there is, we know weíre gonna have a lot of problems. So, it is very important in my opinion that we have a security strategy but we understand what security entails.
Secondly, we have to realize that in an interdependent world we cannot kill, jail, or occupy all of our adversaries. And if you canít- if you canít kill, jail, or occupy all of your adversaries, you have to make a deal and thatís where politics comes in. You just think of it- we wouldnít need any politicians if we could control all events and all people, would we? If you could be the dictator of your own life, you would never have to cooperate with anybody else about anything.
But since we canít, we need to make a world with more partners and fewer enemies. And we know how to do that, we know how to end extreme poverty.
Half the world living on less than two dollars a day, a billion people on less than one dollar a day, a billion never getting clean water, half a billion having no clean sanitation. We know what to do about these things and they are far, far, far less expensive than going to war. The most expensive thing, never mind the lives and moral implication just in terms of money the most expensive thing you can do in the modern world is go to war. We could make all of our commitments paying 25% of the worldís GDP toward ending extreme poverty, toward ending the worst threats of disease, to putting the 130 million children who never go to school in school- we could do all of that for probably another 25, 30, maybe 40 billion dollars more a year and weíre spending $100 billion every year on one war in Iraq.
Itís far less expensive to build a world with more partners and fewer enemies. And itís also more effective.
There is one and only one Muslim country where the opinion of the United States has increased in the last couple of years in the aftermath of Iraq. You know which one it is? The biggest, Indonesia, and why? Because of the tsunami. Because we dropped food instead of bombs. Because our civilian aid agencies went there for the government. Because our private religious and non religious groups went there. Because businesses just up and went there, I saw them myself, these people who werenít associated with anybody and set up their own clean water equipment to keep kids from dying of dysentery and cholera.
And the opinion of the United States went from 28 to 58 % positive and the opinion of Bin Laden went from 58 to 28%. And he didnít do anything to them, but he didnít do anything for them.
So I ask you to think about this. We do need a security strategy, but we have to have a strategy for more partners and fewer enemies.
The third thing we have to do is build more institutional cooperation. I almost became a joke to my own administration members, like Mr. Steinberg, who was brilliant in his service on national security. But, you know, Iíd organize a group at the drop of a hat. We had the Asian Pacific Economic leaders; we rebuilt the Summit of the Americas which hadnít met since President Johnson was in office, and now we do it every four years. We expanded NATO. We did all this stuff and it wasnít that I liked going to meetings. It was that I knew that if we built the habits of working together, it would be harder when the conflicts came, to take a destructive course.
Thatís why I favor the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, thatís why I favor the International Criminal Court. It is not true that our soldiers are not protected, they are. Thatís why I think we should be in the Kyoto climate change system. All these things, we canít solve global warming or any other problem in the world you can mention that amounts to a hill of beans, by ourselves; and, therefore, we need institutionalized cooperation.
And the fourth thing we have to do is to keep making America better. Because if the local environment doesnít work for ordinary people, they will not support the policies necessary to reach out and build a more integrated world.
Why did the Bolivians elect Mr. Morales as the first native Indian president promising to nationalize the natural gas resources? Why? Because itís the poorest country in South America and because they had all kinds of foreign investment and ordinary peopleís lives did not get better. If you do not continue to improve the local environment, that will happen and it will also happen in America. That is why France and the Netherlands rejected the European constitution. All this integration can not incur unless ordinary people feel the prospect of progress for themselves and their children.
Thatís my answer to question two. More direction towards integrated communities defined by shared values, shared responsibilities, shared benefits. Achieved by security, making more partners, having more institutional cooperation, making the local environment better.
Third question, what are you supposed to do about it?
Well there are a lot of these things which can be done only by government.
Government policy matters.
But unlike when this schoolís namesake was growing up as a boy, where if you wanted to do public good on any kind of a scale, the only option was, once you got out of your local community, the civic clubs, the United Way, the only option was to be in public service. In the government at some level, it is still very important.
We will never be able to do everything we should in reforming our dysfunctional health care system or our energy problems, or dealing with a lot of our economic problems, and certainly a lot of the security issues without different government policies.
But today there is more opportunity for private citizens working through non government groups to do public good than ever before. Something you have doubtless studied at this school.
Thatís what my foundation does in providing AIDS medicine to now over 350,000 people. About 25% of the people in the developing world have gotten AIDS medicine in the last three years, have gotten it through contracts negotiated by foundations at the lowest prices in the world. Thatís a nongovernmental organization and we can operate with hundreds of employees at a lower cost than government can. So there are some things that can be done that way.
There are millions of these groups now. When I became President, there were none in Russia, there are 63,000 today; there were none in China, there are 265,000 today; and those are just the ones that are registered.
Theyíre all over America, all over India, all over Africa and people are banding together to move the world.
The advent of the internet gives people with modest incomes the power to contribute to such endeavors. When we gave $1.2 billion to tsunami relief in American, 30% of our households gave over half of it over the internet.
So, those of you in public service, you can be in public service as a private citizen. And if you just go to work in the private sector for a private sector employer, because of the internet and because of NGOs, even if you donít do it full time, you can still do public good.
And because you know that and because you have power, you must.
So my answer to the third question is, you can go into government or you can stay out of government, but because of the rise of nongovernmental organizations, the power of private citizens to do public good is more profound than ever before and more needed.
And because you have the power, you have a moral obligation to do this.
So those are the three questions, and those are my answers.
You need answers to those questions, your education has prepared you to ask and answer them. Your predisposition has made you long to answer them.
I am not one of those who is pessimistic about the future of the world. The sooner we get off our duffs and do something about climate change in a timely fashion.
The world has always had problems. The world always will have problems. Weíll always have problems for the same reason none of us will ever be in possession of the absolute truth, we are fallible human beings subject to error and afflicted with ignorance.
But we have been marching toward the light or as Martin Luther King said, ďThe long arc of history bends toward justice.Ē
Our framers said that all we could ever do is make our union more perfect. It would never be perfect, but it could always be better. The same can be said now about our troubled, but wonderful and wonderfully interconnected world. There has never been more an exciting time to be alive, never been more opportunity, never been more obligation.
You are fortunate to be leaving this great place at this moment in history. And I urge you to live your dreams and make the most of it.
Thank you very much.
Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
25 July 2006
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