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Lafayette granted 556 degrees to 538 graduating seniors and honorary doctorates to five distinguished leaders, including historian Michael Beschloss, today at the College’s 172nd Commencement.

President Daniel Weiss awarded Beschloss the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. Also receiving honorary degrees were the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University and Pusey Minister in Harvard’s Memorial Church, who delivered a sermon at the morning’s Baccalaureate service (Doctor of Divinity); Michael H. Moskow ’59, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (Doctor of Public Service), Easton-based documentary filmmaker Lou Reda (Doctor of Arts), and artist and author Faith Ringgold (Doctor of Fine Arts).

Alan R. Griffith ’64, chair of the Board of Trustees, presented the Lafayette Medal for Distinguished Service to John W. Landis ’39, retired president of Gulf General Atomic Co. and Stone & Webster Engineering Corp. The medal is the College’s premier award for volunteers, given to those who have a demonstrated record of voluntary service in a variety of areas with noteworthy achievement in each. It was accepted by Landis’ nephew, William L. Landis ’71.

Danielle Bero ’07 delivered farewell remarks for the class of 2007. She is the recipient of the George Wharton Pepper Prize, awarded to the senior who “most closely represents the Lafayette ideal.” Bero, of Astoria, N.Y., graduated with a bachelor of arts (A.B.) degree with an individualized, interdisciplinary major in creative media and social justice.

The first student to receive his diploma was Haotian Wu ’07, who achieved the highest cumulative grade-point average in the class. Wu, of Suzhou, Jinagsu, China, received two bachelor of science degrees, one in physics and one in mathematics.

Matthew Potter ’07 and Carli Siger ’07, co-chairs of the Class of 2007 Gift Committee, presented the class gift. Potter, of Bethlehem, Pa., received an A.B. with a major in government and law. Siger, of Pittsburgh, Pa., received an A.B. with a major in English.

Weiss congratulated recipients of annual Lafayette awards for distinguished teaching, scholarship, and service to the College and recognized Ann L. Gold, instructor of athletics and head coach of field hockey, who is retiring after 25 years at Lafayette and has been elected to emerita status.

Griffith recognized three retiring trustees who have been elected to emeritus status, Robert L. Yohe ’58, vice chair of the board; Nancy Brennan Lund ’74, and William P. Rutledge ’63.

Weiss conferred degrees upon the graduates and delivered farewell remarks. Assisting in presenting diplomas were James Woolley, Frank Lee and Edna M. Smith Professor of English and clerk of the faculty, and Rose Marie L. Bukics, Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Professor of Economics and Business and acting dean of studies.

  • Read President Weiss’ remarks. Hear the speech

Guy L. Hovis, John H. Markle Professor of Geology, the faculty member who is senior in the rank of full professor, led the academic procession as Bearer of the Mace. James F. Krivoski, vice president for student affairs, marshaled the class of 2007.

Anthony M. Cummings, provost and dean of the faculty, marched at the head of the faculty. Trustee Emeritus Mark B. Weisburger ’55 led the trustees and the platform party.

John P. Colatch, College chaplain and director of religious life, delivered the invocation and gave the benediction. Jennifer W. Kelly, assistant professor of music and director of choral activities, led the singing of “America the Beautiful.” Members of the Lafayette Choir, led by Kelly, led the singing of “The Alma Mater.”

Address by Michael Beschloss
172nd Commencement, May 19, 2007

Thank you [Lafayette President Daniel Weiss]. I guess what Dan didn’t tell you is he took a real risk on inviting me here today, because he knows that one occupational hazard of presidential historians is sometimes they become a lot like the people they are writing about. One person I have been writing about is not a president, but he was a vice president, Hubert Humphrey, known for giving speeches that were about three hours long. Once Humphrey did this and even he knew he was overdoing it. He yelled at the audience, “Anybody here got a watch?” and someone yelled back, “How about a calendar?”

Have no fear. I know the lesson that commencement speeches should not be long. It was the last lesson I learned at Williams College, where I was graduated exactly 30 years ago this month. It was about 98 degrees, and we had a commencement speaker who droned on for at least 45 or 50 minutes. People were getting very hot, some people were about to faint, people were in danger of losing their airplane reservations because they were about fly out that afternoon. Finally he seemed to be coming to the end, and there was a collective sigh of relief, at which point the speaker said, “Now for the second half of my talk.” There was a groan from the audience, and I guess if I learned nothing else from Williams, I learned one thing: keep it brief if you ever speak at a commencement.

I thought I’d speak just for a moment about how I got into this line of work. I grew up in Illinois where Abraham Lincoln is even more of a religion than he is elsewhere. And many kids in Illinois are taken by their parents, as I was, down to the Abraham Lincoln site. It’s in Springfield. I went when I was about eight years old, and what I remember is that I went into Lincoln’s house and I saw his parlor and the chair where the guide said Lincoln used to read to his children. That was sort of interesting to me, but more interesting to me at the age of eight, I asked the guide, “When Lincoln’s boys were bad did he spank them?” The guide with a great disgusted look said, “No, Lincoln didn’t believe in discipline. He just these kids run wild through the house.” I took one listen to that and knew Lincoln was the man for me. I began reading everything I could on Lincoln and more generally on presidents in history and learned that one actually could make a living writing history books, which is what I wanted to do.

One great blessing I had is I went to a boarding school Phillips Academy at Andover, which then and now has had an unparalleled history department. The headmaster of the school was a man named Ted Sizer who had been dean of the Harvard Education School, I think, at the age of 31 and taken this job on to sort of learn about education at the high-school level hands-on. He knew I wanted to become a historian, and those days he had a lot to do with who went to what college from Andover. I went to see him, and we were talking about colleges. I said, “All my friends want to go to Harvard, so I hope you send me there,” and he said, “Tough luck for you, I’m sending you to Williams.” My face fell. I said, “But you knew I wanted to go to Harvard.” He said, “Well, you want to become an historian don’t you?” I said yes. “Well, the problem is, there is a very good chance that if you went into Harvard College as an undergraduate, you would sit in the back of a big lecture hall and you would probably never meet a full professor. I want you to go to a liberal arts college, maybe the size of about 1,800 to 2,000 students. If you go to Williams you’ll get to study under a great historian like James McGregor Burns. I’m not sure that he would take you on, but if you are lucky you could be his research assistant and you could write a thesis under him and you can really learn how to write history in a way that you probably wouldn’t at a larger university.” So the point I’m making is that I know as well as anyone else the enormous value of a liberal arts college like Lafayette. I must say that since I’m being welcomed into the Lafayette family today, from now on I will start referring to Williams College as the Lafayette of the North.

As I was saying, one problem of this presidential history business is you can take on the characteristics of these guys you are writing about. One I wrote on was Lyndon Johnson. I heard a story not too long ago, and it’s one that has the added advantage, as they say in Texas, of being true. He had asked one of his aides to write a speech for him. A long speech, it began with a quotation from Aristotle: “As Aristotle said, blah, blah, blah.” Johnson looked at it and said, “The speech looks great. I like the opening quotation. The problem is no one in this audience is going to know who the hell Aristotle was, so keep the quotation, but change it to ‘As my daddy said.’” It’s the kind of thing that did wonders for him as a president. It would not do wonders for me as an historian.

Sometimes we presidential historians have a problem justifying our existence because we Americans think that we almost know more than we want to about a president in real time. But the difference between writing the history of a past president, if you wait 30 years or so, and writing about a president in real time is that we can benefit from two things that people in real time can’t: information and hindsight. You learn things that you couldn’t have known at the time. For example, coming from Illinois a presidential nominee was Adlai Stevenson, and when I was a young historian I ran into a guy who knew Stevenson. I said, “You must have learned so much about politics from him.” He said, “No, Stevenson was actually clueless as a campaigner, but we couldn’t say it in his lifetime.” He told this story. “One day we were campaigning in northern Florida in a shopping center. Even Stevenson knew he wasn’t connecting with the voters. He said to one of his aides, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ His aide said, ‘You remember this morning, Governor, when that girl handed you that stuffed dead baby alligator?’ Stevenson said yes. The aide said, ‘What you should have told her was, “Thanks little girl, this will look good in my living room,” instead of “For Christ’s sake, what is this?”’”

Just these past few days, President Bush was meeting with Tony Blair for the last time as prime minister, and you could hear these commentators, they just gave you the sense that they were almost in the room: “The two leaders discussed A and B and C.” I couldn’t help but remember that I was writing a book about John Kennedy years ago and read similar reports about a meeting he had with a British prime minister at the time, Harold Macmillan. And only long afterwards could I see the private notes that were actually taken about the conversation by someone who was there, and it turned out that they were talking not about great state issues, but instead Jack Kennedy was very angry because the press was going after his wife, Jackie, saying that she was traveling too much and spending too much and so on. He was getting very heated. Macmillan, the British prime minister, who was a generation older, said, “Jack why do you care? It’s the press, just brush it off. It’s not important.” Kennedy got even more angry at this. He said, “Well, that’s very easy for you to say Harold. How would you like it if the press were to write that your wife, Lady Dorothy, was a drunk?” (Which actually she was). Macmillan, quite suave, said, “Well if the press said that my wife was a drunk, I would issue a statement saying, you should have seen her mother.”

It’s the kind of thing that gives you a sense of these people that you really don’t know in real time when you are watching them from the outside. As Dan Weiss was so kind to mention, I have been studying for the last two years the issue of presidential courage and have come to feel that is a very important thing for us to look at in a president. Presidential courage I define as a president’s willingness to take a decision that might cost him his popularity, or his presidency, or even his life, to change the future of the United States in a big way.

That was invented by the first president, who was such close friends with the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington. What happened was in 1795 Washington was nearing the end of his presidency. He was worried that the British were going to invade, conquer this country, and essentially strangle it in its cradle. He thought the only way to stop that would be to make a treaty with Britain, no matter how humiliating. He sent John Jay over; Jay came back with Jay’s Treaty. It did stop the British from invading, but had millions of Americans absolutely furious at Washington. They burned John Jay in effigy. Jay said he could walk the length of the United States at night merely by the light of his burning effigies. Life was not very good for Washington for the first time in his life. Everyone had said when he walked into a room, “There is the hero who unites all hearts.” He was elected president twice unanimously by the Electoral College. After Jay’s Treaty, no more. People were issuing assassination threats. They were saying that Washington should be impeached. They even charged him with padding his expense accounts.

So the result was that Washington left office largely miserable, for the first time experiencing this enormous discontent. His wife, Martha, thought that the result of all this was that he died early, he died only two years after he was president. But in retrospect Washington felt, “First of all, I’ve saved the country by keeping the British away, but, more important, over the long run, I’ve sent a message to later presidents of the United States that their job is not just to do what the Constitution tells them, to carry out certain duties, but it is also, if there is a moment like the one that I faced, to do the same thing – to make a decision that will improve America, even if it means that they might not win reelection, or something even worse.”

As you look at presidents, or at least as I do, you always sort of relate it to our own lives, and in these presidents’ case, in these ordeals, they had a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other – torn in different directions. And one thing that you can get from studying the lives of leaders in a time of ordeal is to see how they did it. And I guess the best advice of all comes from Theodore Roosevelt, one of the other presidents that I’ve studied, who famously said that there is no achievement in life without falling short again and again and again.

And the other thing that I wanted to look at – and I think it really helps us in all of our lives: we all have to make tough decisions and we suffer. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices. Where did these people get their strength when they had to do that on a grand scale, as presidents of the United States, when they were looking into the abyss? I found that, more than anything else, the ones who were able to do it were people who had more in their lives than just their careers: people who had wonderful marriages or wonderful families they were close to. TR on election night, 1904, was terrified he’d lose the election, but he told his wife, “Even if I lose, I’ve had a vision, and it was of you and our children. Even if I lose, I have our family to come back to.” Another thing is convictions. Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 almost had to choose between winning a third term or defending the nation so that it might win World War II if it came to defying Adolf Hitler. He finally decided, because he had strong convictions, that he loved being president but he loved defending freedom more. And the other thing – I guess you’d expect me to say this – I think it probably doesn’t hurt occasionally if presidents — and all the rest of us — have a sense of history, because as horrifying as something may seem when you’re going through an ordeal, it sometimes helps to know that other people have faced similar ordeals before, find out how they did it, and also be comforted by the fact that, in many cases, these ordeals did not destroy them.

My big worry, especially this year, because we are approaching another presidential election campaign, is, if you’re looking for courage in our leaders, in our presidents, we’ve got a system that is making it tougher and tougher. A candidate probably has to raise $50 million to $100 million dollars. There are polls, there are consultants, all telling him or her to do the easy thing. That’s not what George Washington did, and that is not what his dear friend the Marquis de Lafayette did either.

I just love the story about how this college was founded, the founders meeting at Chippy White’s tavern, and the fact that this college was named after Lafayette in 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, when on the Fourth of July, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within a few hours of each other, and, it was said, the two founders ascended to heaven together, hand in hand. They knew the Marquis as a man of courage, just as they knew George Washington.

But the thing that strikes me most of all is that we are a very young country. (We sometimes forget that.) If you think about it, an 88-year-old American in 2007 could have known TR. TR could have known Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln in his lifetime could have known the Marquis de Lafayette. So basically three human beings’ lifespans span the entirety of American history, all the way back to the time of Lafayette. Sometimes we forget our history too much, and if anyone forgets what courageous men George Washington and Lafayette were, one way to correct that is to go to Mount Vernon, which is beautifully restored. You can go up the stairs to George Washington’s bedroom and see the bed in which Washington died in 1799. And there was a scene in which George Washington was looking into the kindly, worried face of his doctor and talking about his own prognosis, but I think he was actually sending a message to later presidents and later Americans like us. He spoke three words: “Don’t be afraid.”

That’s a message that I think burns brightly in all of us who have the honor to be associated with Lafayette College. I look very much forward professionally to writing the history of all of you in the future. Congratulations to the glorious class of 2007.

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