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Commencement remarks by CBS journalist Lesley Stahl

By Tim O'Keeffe on May 28, 2008
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(Note: These are remarks delivered by Lesley Stahl at Colgate University’s 187th commencement, May 18, 2008)
Thank you. Well first of all I’m so sorry that you’re all wet and cold. I’m watching you put on your ponchos; I hope that makes it a little better.
So now I am a member of the Class of 2008, which I am very proud of, and I want to congratulate all of us for today, a triumphful day, a happy day. I am sure you have one little pain because you will be leaving your friends, but otherwise there is this great joy of accomplishment because you guys have crossed the finish line and you know you have earned your degrees and you’ve all worked hard and it’s great.


I can feel the good cheer; it’s infectious even on a cold rainy day. The rush of your high is getting to all of us, at least to me, as a member of your class. My friend and my boss, Jeff Fager, is on the board at Colgate. He is the executive producer of 60 Minutes, an honored graduate, and what is really interesting is, not many people know this, that when he decided to come to Colgate many years ago, he didn’t come here because of the school’s academic reputation or because of your gorgeous campus. I drove around. Is it Oak Drive? Oak Drive and looked down, it hadn’t started to rain yet and the trees were blossoming. It really is one of the prettiest campuses in the whole country. But he didn’t come here for that either, he came here because he thought it was a dental school. And he was really, really disappointed when he found out that it was otherwise. But he did manage to find another way to make a living and now he has an hourlong cavity to fill every Sunday night at 7 o’clock and I know for a fact that every now and then he wishes that he really had gone to dental school.
Now another graduate that I know extremely well and also work with is Andy Rooney. Now I understand that if you look in his yearbook, I don’t know if you still do that, I certainly as a member of your class was not asked to do this, but anyway there was a section in his time that lists your goals and Andy Rooney wrote ‘I want to be a curmudgeon.’ And he succeeded, he succeeded. And someone told me that his senior thesis was about junk mail and paper clips, so he’s certainly put that to good use.
Now I also asked for a little research from the school about your class and I thought that maybe I would get up here and be able to talk about all your accomplishments. I was expecting some memorable stories, something that I could tell you about your academics that would guide you into the future that would be a beacon for you to go on and live by but all I got, and this is very strange, I don’t even understand it. I just got these two words, maybe you can explain it to me: Hilton Head. Did you have a good time? You did, I know.
As we gather here today to rejoice and to celebrate there is something kind of gnawing at us from outside this beautiful and protected compound. As you leave Colgate you will be entering an America that is not as happy a place as it has been in the past. A country has moods like a person, ups and downs. Take for instance the late 60s and early 70s when things were pretty bleak. In 1968 alone, exactly how many years, 40 years ago, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King both were assassinated. We had race riots in our cities, America was burning. We had Vietnam. Kids like you took over college buildings and some were killed. Then we had Watergate and we had Nixon with his inner demons that seemed to infect the whole country. Presidents have mysterious ways of coloring the national spirit. The country was polarized and angry and you wondered if we were ever going to pull ourselves out of it. But of course we did. We got sunny Gerry Ford as president, and boom, almost overnight, the acrimony just disappeared. It was as if a doctor had lanced a boil and we bounced back. Same thing when Jimmy Carter was president, we were in a so called malaise. We had hostages in Iran, we had a recession, we had gas lines and then boom, in came Ronald Reagan and we had ‘Morning in America.’
And now we feel down again, our inherent optimism as a people is clouded with worry over Iraq, the price of gas, and who would ever have thought the price of food in this country. And there’s another issue that could become, if it isn’t already, one of our major challenges. Something that your generation could be called upon to solve and it’s something that none of the candidates talk about and if they do, I certainly haven’t read about it, and that is fear. We build fences to keep people out, we go barefoot and get body searched at our airports, and it’s often irrational. When my mother was 87 years old she could barely walk, she had a cane. She was singled out at Logan airport in Boston and you know they frisked her. She was so humiliated; she really didn’t understand. It was a sad statement about our country.
We spend who knows how much money frisking little old ladies and confiscating perfume bottles. We are so afraid of outsiders that we have made visiting the United States for tourists a series of belittling hurdles. And this is something new to us Americans because as a people we have always been inviting, open, and confident. Now I’ll bet most of you have ancestors or maybe even living relatives who have come here from somewhere else. They have escaped some hardship, economic distress, a war, or maybe even genocide. We come from hardy stock, all of us. People who are brave enough to flee, often when they were young and often alone. Courage and grit are in our DNA.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it during World War II, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ And yet now we have allowed the terrorists to terrorize us into a society of timidity. It’s really raining hard, isn’t it? Sorry. So we feel, besides wet and cold, we feel angst and cold feet where pusillanimous, remember the SAT word pusillanimous? It derives from pussy cat, doesn’t it? Guess not. No, no it doesn’t. There must be a way to be sensible about the threat of terrorism that doesn’t change our very essence. Now if I knew how to do that I would run for office. Obviously, I don’t. We need to ask those who are running to change the mood, to restore our national and natural pluck and spunk.
Now having courage isn’t the same as having a positive outlook, that’s different. When I was young, when I was 21 or 22, which must be your age, I thought that for most people life was hard, that the human baseline was unhappiness and that you really had to work hard to overcome that. You had to be determined. But I now find out that I was wrong. It turns out that it’s the opposite, that most of us, not all but most of us are programmed for cheeriness … when it’s not raining. Even if we have setbacks, even tragedies or tough times, we will return fairly quickly to our natural buoyancy and bushy-tailed equilibrium, and that’s good news. I also used to think that most people hated their jobs. I got that wrong, too. There is a sense, and maybe we get this from our sitcoms or from I don’t know, Arthur Miller’s plays, that fun is what you do when you’re not working. That fun is the other side of your job. But I have been conducting a little survey ever since I’ve been a reporter. I’ve been asking people their attitudes toward their jobs and I’m delighted to report to you today that hundreds of people actually have told me that they absolutely love to get up in the morning and go into work. I did a story, for instance, on construction workers and they tell me that they relish getting up on the scaffolds and that they love working the heavy machinery. They enjoy the labor, the precision, the craft, and the camaraderie and here’s what else they told me: That they like to take their children and show them what they built, show them the building that daddy or mommy helped put up.
Sometimes you can’t believe that someone loves what they do. For instance, oncology nurses who work with children. I personally wouldn’t last one day, but my sister-in-law, she works with abused children and she tells me that she wouldn’t want to do anything else and that she gets a complete jolt from helping these children. Here are some more people who love their jobs – graphic artists, teachers, hairdressers, makeup artists, guys on Wall Street, especially I suppose today if they work at a hedge fund. Everyone at Facebook and Google. Actually, anyone with a job on the web. Everyone on a movie set, crews on boats, people who work with animals, soldiers. I’m doing a story right now on reservists and I had a guy tell me that he couldn’t wait to get back to Iraq and I said you’re kidding, and he wasn’t kidding. Entrepreneurs who own their own business. Recently I sat next to a ballet dancer, Charles Askegaard. He grew up in Minneapolis where he was the only little boy to go to ballet class. So I asked him, ‘Were you bullied?’ And he gave me that look of ‘Well, what do you think’. He was teased, he was miserable, he was ostracized and still he went to ballet class and it’s thirty years later, he’s a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, he’s married to the woman who wrote Sex in the City, and he can’t wait to get up on stage and do what he loves to do.
Most kids your age don’t know yet what they like to do and you’re going to have to go out there and discover it. But my message is don’t panic if you stumble around for a long time. Now your parents aren’t going to want to hear this but I did not discover journalism till I was 30. Think about that, that’s going to be in about 10 years for you guys. And how will you know when you have found it? You’ll know because you will enjoy the doing of the work itself. Not the pay, not the promotion, not the pat on the back from your boss, though that’s kind of nice, kind of nice. But it’s the sheer pleasure of the slow, steady crawl. There’s a wonderful poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. “Live not for the battles won, live not for the end of the song, live in the along.” And Albert Camus said this, and I love this. “One must imagine that Sisyphus was a very happy man.” Now Sisyphus was the guy who kept trying to push the boulder up the hill and this brings to my mind a supposition that Hillary Clinton has never been as happy as she is right now; back up against the wall, all the adrenalin pumping, she concentrates, she’s in the flow and I can tell you from my own career that when that moment, when you’re in the flow, when you’re working on tough questions, you’re editing, you’re writing. Let me tell you there is no more fun in the world.
Now there’s a natural instinct to want to climb the ladder and in almost every workplace there is kind of a natural path to advancement. Did any of you ever hear of something called the Peter Principle? This is when you are promoted until you reach your level of incompetence and there you remain. So today I’m going to coin something, let me call it Lesley’s Law, and that’s where people get promoted till they reach a level where they’re absolutely miserable. Take TV reporters for instance. Some of them want to be anchorman, which is basically a desk job. Then they sit inside and never go out and report anymore. Or take TV producers who want to be president of the news division and then what they do is bicker over budgets and fire people. They give up the doing of journalism, which is why they got into the profession in the first place. So don’t always want to go up the ladder if you love what you do.
Now often people succeed very quickly and then they burn out. Most of us don’t succeed that quickly. For most of us we have to go through a gauntlet of mistakes and embarrassments and that’s how careers are built. It may sound unappealing but the harder the journey, the more glorious the sense of achievement. Now how many of you in my Class of 08 have never been mortified because you flubbed something and everybody saw it? Ahh, no hands. Good, because if you hadn’t had that happened, happen to you, you will and I thought I’d tell you one short story, my story.
At the beginning of my career at CBS, Watergate happened when I first got there and I was assigned to the story because no one thought it was going to become a story and soon it was going … hearings were being held in the Senate and this was the age of affirmative action, when affirmative action was popular and my bosses wanted to show the world that they had hired a woman. So when the Senate hearings were on during the day, CBS had a special every night, in primetime believe it or not, and that wouldn’t happen today. And they would show clips from the hearings and then the reporters would sit at a round table and analyze it. And so the male veterans were at the round table and my bosses asked me if I was ready to do this. And I lied and I said I was ready. So I was on television every night with these male veterans who’d been at the business for 10, 20 years and they would argue and I could never get a word in. Every time I would say ‘but I disa,’ someone else would shut me down. ‘But don’t you think,’ someone else would shut me down. Night after night after night. Finally the bosses came to us and said look, if she doesn’t talk tonight we’re not going to do these anymore. Because the public was calling in and writing in and saying that the men were being rude to the girl. So everyone knew I was going to talk that night and yet we had a moderator whose question was, ‘Well folks, what’s the gossip about what happened at the hearings today?’ And I said to myself, ‘Well I’ll wait for the next question cause why should the girl gossip, right?’ So I sat there but of course they sat there too, because I was supposed to talk. Dead air. Goes on and on and on. Finally Daniel Shore, one of the veteran men, said well if it’s gossip you want that’s why we have a woman here. I can hear the mothers in the background remembering. That wouldn’t happen today. So I did not do well. I answered the question but I had basically forgotten the subject matter. I stumbled around, grammar and any sentence I uttered had no connection whatsoever. I made no sense and then I just stopped talking in the middle of a sentence. I ran upstairs, called home. Daddy answered and I said I have to resign. I humiliated myself, everybody saw, help me write my letter of resignation. And being a dad he said I was great, he said I was brilliant, he said I was smarter than the guys. Of course, I said daddy I just made a fool of myself. I made no sense. I wanted to do this so badly and I blew it. And I said if you can’t be honest with me, put mother on the phone. And my father said, uh, mother can’t talk right now she’s too upset. Well truth is mother grabbed the phone and told me quitting was not an option, that I had to be brave and keep at it.
So there’s a life lesson in there for everybody, which brings to mind some wisdom from a great philosopher about the ups and downs of life that could apply to you and to our country. When you’re in a slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done. But as Dr. Seuss so aptly went on, ‘You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself any direction you choose.’
With that in mind and that as your motto, to go out and choose and choose well and choose things that give you pleasure and joy and have some idealism mixed in with it, I’d like to close with something I heard at the New York Historical Society just a while ago. A panel of academics was asked what they think the founding fathers would think about our country if they came back today. And one of the historians said as an inventor Ben Franklin would love the cell phone. Another said Thomas Jefferson would be appalled at the prominence of celebrity in our lives. And a third said they would all be awed by the stability of the system they created. So congratulations, best of luck to all of you, and remember be brave and keep it up. Thank you.

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