|©Marianne Lee / Courtesy of Salve Regina University|
The 2012 Pell Scholars, with Mrs. Nuala Pell, center; me, behind her; and Dr. Khalil Habib, director of the Pell Honors Program and philosophy professor at Salve Regina University, right rear.
On Tuesday, May 15, I was the guest of honor at the graduating dinner for this year's class of Pell Scholars at Salve Regina University. An honor indeed! These young women and men are destined for great things. And I had the pleasure of sitting with Salve President Sister Jane Gerety and Mrs. Nuala Pell. Our conversations could have continued all night. These were my remarks:
REMARKS TO PELL SCHOLARS
Salve Regina University
May 15, 2012
Thank you Dr. Habib, thank you Sister Jane, thank you Mrs. Pell -- and especially thanks to all of you, Salve’s distinguished Pell Scholars, for allowing me the honor of your company on the eve of your graduation.
I know a little about your impressive backgrounds – the internships some of you have served while at Salve, the superb education you have received at this great university in the city by the sea, and the study abroad many of you have undertaken. Seems like there is a strong connection between Newport and Senegal, Russia, Egypt, Denmark, Greece, Spain, Australia, Ireland and England. All of this is the very type of real-world experience that greatly influenced Claiborne Pell when he was your age and throughout his whole life.
From travels and learning like that, both here and abroad, came his profound belief – a belief he never lost -- that the world can indeed be a better place. A more peaceful, verdant and tolerant place, in which all people have the freedom to pursue their dreams, just as you already are pursuing yours.
So I congratulate you. I admire and respect your intellectual curiosity and scholarship. And I wish you safe and happy travels.
As you prepare for the next chapter of the stories you each are writing for yourselves, I encourage you to speak out at every appropriate opportunity. As someone who has spent more than three decades as a writer and journalist – in the public realm, in other words – let me say that we need fresh, new, exciting – and excited -- voices as never before. Welcome to the stage!
Whether standing front and center or occupying the wings, all of you here this evening will participate in the civil discourse that has shaped America since before the founding fathers. In the case of Rhode Island, this remarkable tradition dates to our own founder, the great 17th-century contrarian Roger Williams, who was banished from Massachusetts after being convicted of sedition and heresy for his belief in the separation of church and state. To think that Massachusetts today is the epitome of liberalism, the place that gave us the Kennedys, John Kerry, Mike Dukakis and President Obama, by way of Harvard Law…
But I digress.
The point is, Roger Williams was a man of conscience who was not afraid to use his voice. In his 36 years in the U.S. Senate, one of the longest legislative careers in history, Claiborne Pell was also a man of conscience who never feared using his voice. And like Williams, he was in the forefront of the public discourse on most major issues of our era, from foreign policy to mass transportation to the arts and humanities –– to the environment and to education, the cause dearest to his heart, as you who bear his name well know.
As Mrs. Pell can attest, Claiborne never lost his optimism – but in his final years, as politics became increasingly contentious, he did become concerned. He would not be surprised by today’s Washington gridlock, in which the common good suffers at the hands of vanity, grudge, bigotry, small-mindedness and big money. In fact, he saw it coming –– and he addressed it in his farewell speech on the Senate floor, in 1996. He also spelled out his vision of what America can be if the common good, and not self-interest, is the guiding principle. That is the vision he so tirelessly fought for.
And so let me read some of his parting words, which may help you – and all of us – as we participate in the public discourse, a civic forum that is our American birthright. They are contained in the final pages of my biography of Claiborne, AN UNCOMMON MAN. They ring as true today as they did 16 years ago:
“In times such as these, when there is fundamental disagreement about the role of Government, it is all the more essential that we preserve the spirit of civil discourse . . . The fact is that the democratic process depends on respectful disagreement. As soon as we confuse civil debate with reckless disparagement, we have crippled the process. A breakdown of civility reinforces extremism and discourages the hard process of negotiating across party lines to reach a broad-based consensus.
“The Founding Fathers who prescribed the ground rules for debate in Congress certainly had all these considerations in mind. We address each other in the third person with what seems like elaborate courtesy. The purpose, of course, is to remind us constantly that whatever the depth of our disagreements, we are all common instruments of the democratic process. Some of that spirit, I believe, needs to be infused into the continuing national debate that takes place outside the Halls of Congress. It should be absorbed by our political parties and it should be respected by the media, particularly in this era of electronic information. The democratic process is not well served by spin doctors and sound bites…
“I would only add my own prescription for comity, which can be summarized in three simple rules:
“First, never respond to an adversary in ad hominem terms. In my six campaigns for the Senate, I have never resorted to negative advertising. The electorate seems to have liked that approach, since they have given me an average margin of victory of 64 percent.
“Second, always let the other fellow have your way. I have always found that winning an ally is far more important than getting exclusive credit. In politics, the best way to convince someone is to lead him or her to discover what you already know.
“Third, sometimes, half a loaf can feed an army. The democratic process is meant to be slow and deliberate, and change is hard to achieve. Very often, achievement of half of an objective is just as significant as achievement of 100 percent. And it may make it easier to achieve the rest later. In Government, as in all endeavors, it is the end result that counts—whether that result is half a loaf or more. Hopefully, an increase in comity and civility, together with renewed emphasis on moral responsibility, will result in a qualitative improvement in end results. In that regard, I have been guided throughout my Senate career by a simple motto and statement of purpose. It is a mantra of just seven words: translate ideas into action and help people.”
Pell closed with his vision for his country, still idealistic after nearly four decades in the bruising world of national politics.
“Over the years, I have thought time and again of the historical comparison between Sparta and Athens. Sparta is known historically for its ability to wage war, and little more. Athens, however, is known for its immense contributions to culture and civilization. In all that I have done over the past 36 years in the U.S. Senate, I have had that comparison uppermost in mind. I believe deeply that when the full history of our Nation is recorded, it is critical that we be known as an Athens, and not a Sparta.
“My efforts in foreign relations have been guided accordingly. I believe that instead of our ability to wage war, we should be known for our ability to bring peace. Having been the first and only nation to use a nuclear weapon, we should be known as the nation that brought an end to the spread of nuclear weapons. We should be known as the nation that went the extra mile to bring peace among warring nations. We should be known as the nation that made both land and sea safe for all. In particular, I believe that we should seize every opportunity to engage in multilateral efforts to preserve world peace. We should redouble our support for the United Nations, and not diminish it as some propose. We should not lose sight of the UN’s solid record of brokering peace—actions that have consistently served U.S. interests and spared us the costly alternatives that might have otherwise resulted.
“In education, I want us to be known as the nation that continually expanded educational opportunities—that brought every child into the educational mainstream, and that brought the dream of a college education within the reach of every student who has the drive, talent, and desire. We should always remember that public support for education is the best possible investment we can make in our nation’s future. It should be accorded the highest priority.
“In the arts and humanities, I want us to be known for our contributions, and for the encouragement we give to young and old alike to pursue their God-given talents. I want us to be recognized as a nation that opened the arts to everyone, and brought the humanities into every home. And here too, I believe government has a proper role in strengthening and preserving our national cultural heritage.
“Pursuing these objectives is not an endeavor that ends with the retirement of one person. It is a lifetime pursuit of a nation, and not an individual. It is always a work of art in progress, and always one subject to temporary lapses and setbacks. My hope, however, is that it is our ongoing mission to become, like Athens, a nation that is known for its civility and its civilization.”