ITHACA, N.Y. — Former Vice President Joe Biden reminded graduating seniors Saturday that despite the turmoil happening in the country and the world, the opportunity to bend the future for the better is at hand.
During the Convocation address Saturday at Schoellkopf Stadium, more than 8,000 people crowded the field and more sat in the stands as Biden took the podium.
Starting with lighthearted banter, Biden quickly moved on to talk about current events, addressing racial inequity, middle class job creation, and — most importantly — a culture of fear of the “other” that has polarized the United States since the most recent presidential election.
“But I assure you that this is a temporary state of affairs. The American people will not sustain this attitude for long. I promise you,” he said. “It’s only in moments of great change and upheaval, moments like this, you have a chance to actually bend history just a little bit to the way you want the nation to be.”
Biden reflected on his own experiences graduating from law school at Syracuse University in 1968 during the Vietnam War and his generation’s effort to end the war after the death of more than 17,000 people died fighting in a single year, amid the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, civil rights Leader Martin Luther King and would-be presidential nominee Robert Kennedy.
“So ladies and gentleman, graduating seniors, never doubt your capacity to make a difference. There’s no reason why you and your generation and the class of ‘17 can’t have a similar and more profound impact on this country than my generation did,” he said. Go out and wake us up.”
Read Biden’s entire speech below or watch the video here (Biden’s speech starts at about 20:40). See a typo? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org:
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.
Madam president, standing here in this field my first words that come to mind are ‘Put me in coach I’m ready to play.’ What a great, great, great, great university. And congratulations madam president on your impending inauguration. And I hope they’ve warned you about selfies.
And I want to say to my mom who’s looking down and to the moms here, I did offer Lauren (Lang) my coat. She’s got goosebumps but she wouldn’t take my coat. But I did offer. My mother would kill me had I not. Y’all think I’m kidding. I’m not kidding.
And I want to, I want to thank the senior class and the convocation committee for inviting me to speak here today. I am truly, and I mean this sincerely, I’m honored, I’m honored to be asked.
I have loved Cornell. Cornell is one of the great, great universities in the world. And I want you to know that there are three great ones — they’re all land grant schools — MIT, Cornell and Delaware. And we’re all land grant schools.
I almost came here for law school, but I couldn’t get enough financial aid and so I, y’all think I’m kidding. I’m not, but I — part of that was I barely got in. So I ended up going to Syracuse University. Everybody thinks I went because they gave me a full scholarship, which they did. That’s not the reason. I went to Syracuse because they get more snow than you get here off the lake.
And I married a Skaneateles girl. I think this is, when the sun is shining, the most beautiful part of the world. She lived on Skaneateles Lake, and I, I really do.
And I got a chance to talk to some of the Cornell grads, soon to be grads, beforehand.
I, madam president and I…I tell you what, this child (Lang) is going to end up, I told her when she’s president of the United States and I bring my great grandchildren by and they say that Joe Biden is in the waiting room I don’t want her to say, “Joe who?” That’s the only promise I ask for her.
And Chuy (Matthew Baumel), I can tell you something man, you’re never getting rid of that nickname. You can go to Wall Street, you can go to Japan, you can go to China. You can go to, you’re going to be Chuy and people are going to be proud to know you. They’re going to be proud to know you.
I also got a chance to meet Rebecca Schwartz, your valedictorian of your comms department who was in the line, and I’m sure there’s a lot of other people, if I get chance I’d like to meet as well, who are graduating.
You guys are a truly impressive group. Ladies and gentlemen, but I gotta admit to you the real reason I came today: I love Ice Cream.
I’m the only Irishman you guys know who’s never had a drink and loves ice cream. And your dean of the school of agriculture told me that this is the best ice cream because y’all have the smartest cows up here. So good to see you Big Red. It’s good to be here.
To all the family members and loved ones in the audience, particularly the moms and dads, congratulations you all get a pay raise today. No more undergraduate tuition. Look at it that way man. Look at it that way.
And I’m going to tell you something you think is corny, but I mean it. All you graduates, stand up and give your parents a round of applause and thank them. Thank them for what they’ve done for you.
But I don’t know man, do you guys know what your kids have been doing up here? You know what the most popular course on this campus is? Wines. Wines. Pass, fail. Wines.
I don’t know about that man, I (Laughs) …
I hope some of you forgive me. I was, a couple days ago, I was speaking at another one of your ivy league rivals earlr this week. I hope you don’t hold it against me. And I hope you sure and hell don’t throw any fish at me.
I know you know the school. It’s that safety school. At least that what my son at Yale and my son and daughter at Penn called it.
I (laughs) I tell you what, how many opposing goalies have the Lynah faithful tormented over all the years here. I mean you guys are tough, man. I married a Philadelphia girl. They are the meanest, smartest, lousiest fans in the world.
But throwing fish at them, that’s, I tell you, you all are good, man. You all are good. I tell you the Philadelphia Flyers would love you. They’d love you.
It’s amazing what all of you all that snow has done to your temperament.
As I said, I understand snow. I understand it’s the first time you’ve had what, three, four snow days in 15 years or so or a long time. I just want you all to know, they didn’t do that for you. They did that for your professors.
Look, it’s, it’s time to celebrate. No more prelims. You’re about to graduate.
And God knows I know you’ll miss Olin library. I know you’ll miss it badly but except maybe for the two guys I saw as I flew over lake Cayuga as I landed here trying to pass their swimming test.
I hope to hell you fish them out, you know, this is…Cornell is a great place It’s one of the most beautiful campuses, I think, in the entire country and I’ve been on hundreds literally over the last 40 years and I hope it’s been full of great memories for you.
I hope this last week you’ve spent some time reliving some of the great memories you’ve had the last four years. Your last trip to the CTB. Your last scoop at the Dairy Bar. Maybe a tray ride down the Libe slope. I hope to hell you didn’t try it this year in the spring, but some of you probably did.
The friends you’ve made here are likely to be with you for the rest of your life. They’re people you’re going to be able to look to so hold on tight to the memories you have here.This has been a wonderful trip for the vast majority of you.
No graduating class gets to choose the world into which they graduate. Tomorrow, when you walk across the stage to receive your diploma you’re going to enter a world where there are a lot of Americans uncertain and anxious about their futures.
Globalization has cost some of them their livelihood. As your president can tell you. Digitalization, Moore’s law, artificial intelligence, with overwhelming significant promise is also generating great anxiety among the great working middle class of this country.
Some communities are struggling to get by and they’re worried that they won’t be able to keep up. And we saw how playing to their fears rather than their hopes, rather than their better angels, can still be a powerful political tool.
As I said several times this commencement season, this past election cycle churned up some of the ugliest realities that still remain in this country. Civilized discourse and real debate gave way to some of the coarsest rhetoric, stroking our darkest emotions.
I thought we had passed the days when it was acceptable for political leaders at local and national levels to bestow legitimacy to hate speak and fringe ideologies.
But the world is changing so rapidly. There are a lot of folks out there who are both afraid and susceptible to this kind of negative appeal.
We saw the forces of populism ,not only here but around the word, call to close our nation’s gates against the challenges of a rapidly changing world.
The immigrant, the minority, the transgender — anyone not like me became a scapegoat.
“Just build a wall. Keep Muslims from coming into the United States. They’re the reason I can’t compete. That’s why I don’t have a job. That’s why I worry about my safety.”
And imagine, I imagine, like me many of you seeing this unfold was incredibly disorienting and disheartening. Your reaction, you graduates in particular, is understandable
But I assure you that this is a temporary state of affairs. The American people will not sustain this attitude for long. I promise you.
And the moment like this, it’s more important than ever that we get back to basics. That we hold fast to what has always made America great and unique.
To me, at it’s basic, it’s down to a simple idea: that every single person is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. It’s in our DNA. It’s in the fabric of our Declaration and our Constitution. It sounds corny but we do hold these truths self evident that all men and women are created equal. It’s the uniting feature of what makes us who we are.
You cannot define an American based on ethnicity, religion, race. America is an idea. That’s the uniqueness of who we are and it’s embodied in what we say we believe.
Even when we haven’t live up to our ideals, dignity has been part of our national ethic because we know that if people are treated with respect, if we equip them with care — the capability to care for their families — to maintain their dignity, it’s harder for the politics of fear to find a home.
For when a person is stripped of their dignity, they lose hope.
My dad, who moved from Scranton because the job he had in the mid-50s wasn’t enough to take care of the family, and set up in Delaware and was able to take care of us again. Every time he’d hear someone lost their job, my dad would look at me and say “Joey (and I mean this sincerely, my word as a Biden) Joey, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about your place in the community. It’s about being able to look your child in the eye and say, “Honey it’s going to be okay.” It’s that basic.
Your parents can tell you, the single most helpless thing a parent can face is looking in the eyes of their child with an enormous opportunity or a significant problem and know there’s nothing they can do to help.
Look folks the American people aren’t looking for a hand out. They’re not looking for government to solve their problems. But at a minimum they expect their government to understand their problems. Just understand their problems.
And it helps when this generation that’s emerging reaches out because all this is personal and tries to understand, understand the people you’re dealing with, understand their problems.
It’s an awful lot harder to dislike someone when you know their dad is dying of prostate cancer or they have a brother with a drug problem. Or they just lost their mom.
You may fundamentally disagree with them, but it’s hard to dislike them. It’s hard to question motive. And that’s all we do today is question motive. And when you do that you can never get to a resolution.
If I say your motive is that you are in the pocket of this or you are unethical about that, it’s awful hard to reach a consensus, and you can’t govern this country without consensus.
It’s the way we talk to one another, the way we act toward one another that really matters. You don’t need years of experience or even an ivy league degree to put this into practice.
It’s pretty basic stuff.
Everything from — your marriage, to your job, to your neighborhood, to your country — works better when we actually take time to look out for the other guy.
Just treat them with a little bit of dignity and decency in our neighborhoods, as well as our national institutions.
Everything works better when we honor that uniquely American, uniquely egalitarian ideal: access to opportunity and recognize that everyone entitled to be treated with dignity. It’s not that complicated.
I believe from that uniquely American perspective sprung this outstanding university:
Quote, “I would found an institution where any person, any person could find instruction in any study.”
Cornell wasn’t just talking about white men. He wasn’t just talking about those born in the United States, not just the wealthy.
He was talking about any person with the desire, the drive, and the capacity to excel. And Ezra Cornell meant what he said.
His response to a letter he received asking if a young black man could enroll was unequivocal: “Send him. Send him. Send him.”
And look what’s been sent.
Who knows? They may be the next Ruth Bader Ginsburg or the next Janet Reno or the next Edmund Muskie or Gabby Giffords, who I’ll see in two days. The next Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut. The next Mae Jemison or even, or even, Bill Nye the Science Guy.
But really and truly think about it. And by the way so can you can be. So can you, the graduating class be. I hope you know that in no uncertain terms.
I know you expect graduation speakers to tell you what you’re capable of and give you advice. I don’t have a lot of advice, but I tell you what, I know one thing: in order to, the people I know who are successful and happy are the people who treat others with the same dignity that they demand for themselves.
To do that, to do that you’re going to have to fight the urge to build a self-referential, self-reinforcing, and self-righteous echo chamber of yourself online. No, I mean this, I mean this sincerely. Living in your screens encourages shallow and antiseptic relationships that make it too easy to reduce the other, to reduce the other to stereotypes
They’re not flattened versions of humanity. They’re not flattened versions…faster…They’re a whole person, flawed, struggling to make the world better just like you. To make it in the world just like you. And you have to ascribe to those with whom you disagree the same emotional complexity you know yourself and that you possess.
At the end of the day, for a person to be afforded dignity, there must be an absolute intolerance of the abuse of power.
My father had another expression, he really did. He said, “Joey, the greatest sin you can commit is the abuse of power whether it’s economic manipulation, social manipulation or physical intimidation.”
Everybody always asks why did I write the violence against women’s act. Was my mother abused, was my — no. My father, my father was a gentle man but he said the cardinal sin of all sins was to raise your hand to a child or to a woman. That’s what ignited my political passion throughout my life.
When I was a high school kid and a college kid in Delaware. I got involved with the civil right movement because my state was still struggling. That’s why I joined the environmental movement as I ran to push back companies polluting the Delaware river and our bay, and I ran for United States Senate.
That’s why I got criticized, but I make no apologies, for looking at the president of a country named Slobodan Milošević and he asked what do you think of me and I said, “I think you’re a damn war criminal, and I will spend the rest of my life seeing you tried as one.”
That’s why I wrote and worked to pass the Violence Against Women Act. Because look, if you can’t be free from physical abuse, the ability to reach the capacity that you have is diminished in a significant way.
Today, today we’re on a verge –in my view — of being able to fundamentally change the culture in this country — to fundamentally change the culture.
The press always asks me, “When will you know you’ve succeeded?”
I’ve succeed when not one single woman who is abused ever ask themselves. “What did I do?” Not one single woman ever ask, “What did I do?”
And so folks, folks, you know as you go into the world you’re going to have an enormous amount of pressure, temptations along the way to rationalize and to make choices that other people want you to make.
And as you move through life, you may notice yourself slipping into a bubble that prioritize social trappings of success rather than doing what you know is right, what you feel in your heart is what you should do.
Take this job, live in this place, hang out with people just like me, take no real risk and have no real impact. Living a life of dignity is going to require more than just watching out for your success. It’s going to require — you can’t erect a bubble around you and your family.
This degree won’t protect you from the pressures of a changing world. And don’t fool yourself into thinking that disengaging from the system that you believe is broken is going to hold you harmless from its failures. What happens in your country, your community, your neighborhood affects you.
If the nation is permanently riddled with as much income inequity today as it is and unable to create good middle class paying jobs in an age of artificial intelligence and automation, you’re not going to thrive economically either.
If you sister is the victim of domestic violence, you are violated. If your brother can’t marry the man he loves, you are lessened. If your best friend, if your best friend, has to worry about being profiled racially, you live in a circumstance unworthy of us. If the global rules that undermine our security for the last 70 years break down, we’ll all be less free. We’ll all be less safe. If the air we breathe is not clean, the water we drink is not pure, there’s no way for you to hide. There’s no way to hide.
You are the most engaged, tolerant, talented, and technologically advanced generation in the history of the United States of America.
But none of that will matter very much if you don’t engage in public affairs. I’m not saying you all have to go out and run for office.
A recent study done by Harvard Kennedy School of the Millennial generation shows it’s the most engaged, tolerant etcetera. but it also shows something else.
Fifty eight percent say know what happens in public affairs can fundamentally affect their lives but only 7 percent of the women, only 9 percent of the whole population thinks they are going to get engaged at all. You have a responsibility to engage and incredible opportunity, as well, when you do.
It’s only in moments of great change and upheaval, moments like this, you have a chance to actually bend history just a little bit to the way you want the nation to be.
I know that sounds like a tall order. But sometimes perspective can be helpful.
I remember sitting not far from here, where you are today, on Syracuse University’s campus on their football field in June of 1968. I was graduating from law school.
As we began our semester, we were certain that the war in Vietnam was about to end and we wouldn’t all have to go. But then the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive in an effort to end the war in one seismic, two-day assault.
Two days into the offensive, a bullet fired in streets of Saigon by a Vietnam police officer went into skull of a handcuffed Vietnam soldier and a photographer captured that mayhem. That one bullet not only pierced that soldier’s skull, it pierced America’s consciousness. Even those of you graduating today probably have seen that iconic photo all these years later.
It brought home to everybody in my generation that there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
That the comedian Lenny Bruce was right when he would say, “It’s a freight train.”
Peaceful antiwar demonstrations turned violent all across America and the violence in Vietnam exploded. That year alone, 17,000 of my generation died that year alone in Vietnam.
Shortly after that Lyndon Baines Johnson, who coveted the presidency, announced he would not seek reelection.
In April, Dr. King was assassinated — a major political icon, a moral compass for the country — gunned down on a balcony in Memphis.
Cities, including my hometown of Wilmington, went up in flames. My city was the only city since Reconstruction occupied by National Guard with drawn bayonets on every corner for nine months.
And in June when I walked across that stage, my only political hero of my life, Robert Kennedy, was gunned down in a hotel in California after winning the primary and becoming the de facto nominee for president.
I can remember my colleagues and I looking at each other as we graduated thinking, “‘How could this be happening?”
But in spite of it all, I never doubted for one instant that we could rewrite the outcome we were careening toward. We got involved. We turned our anger and disappointment into resolve, and I would argue, into positive change.
Four years later, after I walked off that stage, I was being sworn in as a United States Senator determined to end the war in Vietnam. Not long after that, I sat across from President Ford as a Freshman senator — the youngest person in the room — as they explained finally with Secretary Schlesinger and Kissinger the plan to end the war in Vietnam.
Five weeks later the rooftop at the embassy at Saigon was evacuating people and the war was over.
So ladies and gentleman, graduating seniors, never doubt your capacity to make a difference. There’s no reason why you and your generation and the class of ‘17 can’t have a similar and more profound impact on this country than my generation did. And I mean it.
As I said, you’re the most tolerant, talented, engaged generation in American history.
You have better tools to tackle the challenges that lie ahead than my generation did.
There’s more power in that cell phone you have in your pocket or purse than the computer that put the man on the moon. 3D printers are restoring tissue after traumatic injury. Scientists are racing to figure out how to print human organs for transplant. Technology, technology is there to fight climate change. Cornell scientists are figuring to suppress the growth of brain cancer by inhibiting the ability to recruit other cells into a deadly malignancy.
So make no mistake about it, we’re going to be able to end the scourge of cancer and do so much more.There’s so many opportunities. I’m so optimistic about your generation and I’m optimistic about this country. The United States has ever been better positioned to lead the world than we are at this moment.
We have the most productive workers in the world, three times as productive than in Asia. The most agile venture capitalist system in the world. The greatest research universities in the world, thanks to Dwight Eisenhower. We have more great research universities in America than the rest of the world combined, and that’s not hyperbole. And we’re at the epicenter of energy in this new century.
And like I said folks, I’ve met every major world leader. I know every one of them leading their country now in a major country. I’ve spent more time with President Xi (Biden may have been talking about Chinese President Xi Jinping.), for example, than any world leader. I’ve had 25 hours of private dinners with him. I’ve not met a single leader who wouldn’t change places with the president of the United States in a heartbeat, in a heartbeat.
We have problems, but my God.
And I’m so tired of both political parties. I’m so tired of the incrementalism. I’m so tired of thinking small. When has America ever thought small? We never have.
It’s time for America to get up. It’s time to regain our sense of unity and purpose and remember who we are.
With all the brainpower and energy I see in front of me, I know that nothing and no one in this world can beat us. And we want these other nations to do well, but God, the idea that we are somehow behind the eight ball…it’s time for the country to wake up.
And ladies and gentlemen, the graduating class of ‘17, go out and wake us up.
God bless us all. May God protect our troops and give my regard to Davy.