Saturday, May 23rd, 1998
1998 Cornell Senior Convocation Speech by Keith Olbermann '79
WVBR alum Keith Olberman is the host of "The Big Show with Keith Olbermann," the top-rated program on MSNBC cable. He is a former co-anchor of ESPN's "SportsCenter," and has been sports anchor and reporter at KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, WCVB-TV in Boston and for Cable News Network in New York.
Joshua, Thank you. Seniors, friends, parents, faculty, fellow alums: The Grand Course Exchange begins in fifteen minutes.
I did want to take a moment to honor someone who has more or less inadvertently joined you graduates. Dave Wohlhueter is leaving as Cornell's sports information director after many years, so many that he had the job when I was a student! Dave has been a good friend and a professional all the way and this university will miss him. All the best, Dave.
This is an especially great honor for me because this is the second Cornell Convocation and Commencement process with which I've been involved, which is two more than my professors, teaching assistants, parents and I expected me to be involved with.
When people give you imminent graduates their congratulations, you might tend to think those people are being gratuitous or insincere. Not me. When I congratulate you, I really mean it ... do not for a moment underrate what you have accomplished here.
Many of you are doubtless self-confident enough to have never contemplated the possibility that you might not be here today. Most of you, having learned to translate several years of Ithaca weather forecasts -- you know: "partly cloudy" means 5 inches of snow by sunrise -- you have always allowed for the worst.
Two of my friends from the Class of 1979, each far better students than I, learned in the last week that they would not be graduating on time. One had made the mistake of taking a course pass-fail ... as a second-semester senior ... and worst of all her course was "Sex Roles." The other had enough credits, he just hadn't paid his parking tickets. Five hundred and seventy-five dollars worth of parking tickets. They never even asked him how much he owed at the library.
There is no shame in taking a little extra time to get to this stage, of course. But for those of you who have, in fact, broken the tape ... I say from personal experience, congratulations.
And to those of you who are sitting here somewhat surprised that when you hit it, it did break rather than snap you back into some educational stone age ... to you, my heartiest congratulations. You are my brothers and sisters.
Nineteen years ago yesterday I spent the longest five minutes of my life when I placed the call to the registrar's office to get the official word about whether or not I had graduated.
This was Dad's fault. Dad had called a few hours before and explained that he and my Mom would not be driving up here from New York to watch me watch other people graduate. He wanted to know, and he wanted to know then. Me? I was content to let it ride till about an hour before commencement ended.
I wasn't going to miss out on the free "I-can't-mention-what-the-beverage was" that my friends had already announced they were going to pass around. But, even if that had not been a factor, there were all those great speeches to look forward to.
The fact that, 72 hours prior, I did not know if I was indeed to move the tassel from one side to the other -- that was also Dad's fault. It had been in October of the preceding fall that he had issued his little bombshell. "You know what," he said to me as we sat in our living room five hours from here just at the time I should've been heading to the government lab I was skipping, "After next spring? I'm not paying for another dime of your education."
This was somewhat alarming to me.
I realized that even if I were to pass all my courses in that penultimate frame, even if the fact that I'd just missed the better part of two weeks of class because I had gone and covered the baseball playoffs and the World Series didn't put me hopelessly behind in every course I had, even in the best case scenario, come springtime, I would still be 27 credits shy of graduation.
Now, this fact had occured to me, but it had occured to me in that simple, painless way that one thinks of one's own mortality.
---yeah, I'm going to die some day ... What's for dinner?
---yeah, I'm going to have to take 27 credits next spring to get out on time ... How's hockey doing?
This announcement of my father's, made this amorphous cloud seem like a very real anvil. And thus I registered for 28 credits for the spring semester, which was alleged at the time to be an all-time tie for the university record. And thus I still have the dream every month. It's graduation morning and I have forgotten an entire course and will have to start all over again ... from the fourth grade. And thus, that phone call: The longest five minutes of my life.
The woman in the registrar's office first tried to get my name right.
I corrected her.
"Oberman? John Oberman? E.E.?"
I laughed at the thought of me in E.E., Then I corrected her.
"Oh, Olbermann. Ag, With the unpronouncable name."
I affirmed that.
"Just a minute."
Hereupon she put her hand over the phone and started yelling to a colleague. Thus, I could hear her even more clearly than when she hadn't had her hand over the phone.
As you re-create this scene in your mind, I might add in one additional bit of information. It had dawned on me that I had done acceptably well in all of my courses and finals, save one.... That Pollenberg history final. Uh-boy. I was in serious doubt about five credits out of a 15-point essay on a 150-point final. If I got them, I passed. If I didn't, I stayed for the summer. On my own dime.
The woman's shouting grew relevant. "No, no, Gladys, not the one in E.E., That's Oberman. This is the one in Ag with the unpronouncable name.... Yes. That one ... No?... Why not?"
It was at this point that the sweating began. I was drenched faster than if I had jumped into Buttermilk falls fully clothed.
"No?... History?... Oh, that's too bad."
Did you know you can sweat from your eyelids?
My entire life flashed before me. That American history class, which I had dutifully attended six or possibly even seven times, was going to do me in. My job search was for nothing. My career was on hold. I would have to clean out beer steins at Rulloff's all summer and pay my own way.
And what if I didn't get out in the fall? Or December? Or the next spring? Did you know you can sweat from your fingernails?
Suddenly the woman removed her hand from the phone. "Yes, you graduated. They just hadn't marked in the history grade yet."
I did not stop panting until I handed my father my diploma, said "Here's your receipt," and told him to beat it out of town as fast as the car would go, before they changed their minds.
Now, I have gone through this very painful re-creation of the trauma of 19 years ago not merely to underscore the sincerity of my congratulations, but also because it brings me to the one point I would like to share with you this afternoon, one final little Cornell assignment that I would like to give you. There is no due date on this. There will be no grade other than the one you give yourself.
One of the reasons that history was the only one of my 10 classes that was actually in doubt -- 11 if you count P.E. Bowling over at Helen Newman -- was a teaching assistant in the chemistry department. Back in those days, even us communications majors had to fulfill some Draconian science work-load. I think it was 30 hours of bio and 12 of physics and a lot, like, a thousand hours in chem. I may be exaggerating the memory here, but only somewhat.
I had missed the second half of my freshman year due to illness, so among these last 27 credits were a couple of introductory classes, including the second half of the introductory for chem. In the spring of 1979, I sat in Baker Lab with 29 freshmen, listening to the lectures and going through the labs...And it was one long car crash. If the instructors suddenly switched languages from English to Russian it could not have affected me one bit.
One day this T.A. asked me to stay after class and he had my lab reports and quizzes in his hand and he didn't look happy. "The way things are going," he said, "you're not going to pass this course, are you?" I confirmed what he already knew. "But you are trying and you do show up and I listen to you on VBR every day and you're probably going to be a pretty good sportscaster. So here's what we do. You come in here every week and do your best with these dumb experiments -- don't blow up the lab -- and you do your best on the quizzes, and I'll give you an 'A' for the lab. You have to be a real moron to flunk the whole course if you get an 'A' in the lab."
I stared at him, wondering if I were a real moron, wondering if I was next going to be asked to lick the lab clean every week, and, most importantly, wondering why he was being so generous.
He saw my multiple perplexity and he said -- and in repeating this, for all I know, I may be retroactively endangering my degree and his -- he said, "It's really simple. I'll be damned if I let a second-semester senior from Comm Arts not graduate on time because of freshman chemistry."
Only much later did I understand why he did this, and why -- truly -- it was so important. This was the first time I had encountered what we might pretentiously refer to as Moral Force.
Here he was, not necessarily cutting corners, not necessarily undermining the standards of the university, not really risking anything of his own -- but nonetheless he was factoring in ... The Human Equation -- some sense of proportion -- into the rigid formulas of the lives we were leading. He was saying, "Most of the time I'm going to do what other people tell me I have to do. Most of the time, I'm going to follow the book. I'm never going to cut a corner for personal gain. But whenever and wherever I can have a positive effect on somebody else's life, whenever I can get away with it, I'm going to do it."
It's such a simple thing, really. It's an awareness that the other people in the world are other people, and that you are one of them. That every time you have a chance to help somebody out, to do what's right instead of what you think you're supposed to do, you should do it.
That T.A.'s decision has stuck with me all these years, and it has been with me constantly of late. I work in television, an industry in which the total number of these moral choices may, this year, actually exceed last year's total, which I believe was 19 correct moral decision out of 975 million, 365 thousand, 272 opportunities.
Let me give you an example. Early this month a television station in New York ran, for three days, the most hyped-up story imaginable. It turns out there was a file kept at the FBI on the baseball immortal Mickey Mantle. What an outrage this was! J. Edgar Hoover spied on Mickey Mantle! What the hell kind of world are we living in!
Well, the last thing I'd ever thought I'd be doing was publicly defending the FBI or J. Edgar Hoover. But lord knows they did enough illegal, immoral things that we don't have to go inventing or making up new ones.
See, anybody who knows something about the life of Mickey Mantle knows that some nut wrote him a letter in 1960 saying if he played in the world series, he'd be shot, in the knees, from the stands. Mantle and the Yankees went to the FBI and asked them for help, just as they had done four years earlier when somebody tried to blackmail Mantle. The FBI investigated, tried to dig up all the dirt they could find on him in hopes of finding out who had reason to threaten him.
And they opened a file. What were they going to do? Leave all the reports out on somebody's desk?
The television station, though, interviewed Mantle's widow and his kids and for three nights -- here's a surprise, three nights during the ratings period --presented this as an infuriating invasion of Mantle's privacy, of a smear against a cultural icon. They asked Mantle's widow how she felt, and she felt invaded. They asked his kids how they felt and they felt, invaded. They might as well have asked Mickey's dog how he felt.
They did this even though they had the FBI file, which consisted of exactly 29 pages -- 27 pages about the two threats and two pages of the official reports about the two threats.
A friend of mine knew the general manager of the station that did this, and I asked him to ask this man how he could consciously decide to misrepresent what happened. The answer came back thusly: "All of it was true. We didn't say they investigated him. We let the viewer decide."
Well, technically, all of it was true. But it also happened that all of it was wrong.
Hell's bells, the story's interesting enough: You don't have to sexy-up the story of how the FBI tried to keep some nut from shooting Mickey Mantle's knees out.
And nobody in the process -- not the woman who found the file, nor the producer who suggested the story, nor the reporter who did the story, nor the executive producer who vetted the story, nor the news director who approved the story, nor the general manager who ultimately put the story on the air --nobody in the process stopped and stood up and said this is wrong: we do not have to do this this way.
I am doing now what I hope to convince you not to do. I am pointing fingers at other people and saying, "You failed to use your moral force," when what I want is for you to look in a mirror and point at yourself and ask yourself if you have used your Moral Force. Not every time, not at the sacrifice of everything ... Even only if you do it because doing it the other way is only one percent easier or one percent more profitable or one percent more in your self-interest.
So let me point the finger at myself instead.
Since Jan. 21 the news program I do for the MSNBC cable network has been devoted to what we have euphemistically called "the Clinton-Lewinsky investigations." Virtually every night, for an hour, sometimes two, I have presided over discussions about this stuff, so intricate, so repetitive, that it has assumed the characteristics of the medieval religious scholars arguing for months and even years over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
At first I genuinely believed this was a relevant matter for fairly constant discussion. I used my moral force to keep sex out of it whenever possible. I didn't allow the word "scandal" or even "affair" to be used. I tried to be non-partisan and skeptical about both the accused and the accusers.
But as the weeks have gone by, it has become more and more clear to me that there is no moral force at work in this process, whatsoever. Nobody is doing the right thing. Let's review this briefly and see if we can spot anybody doing something because it's better for somebody else, or because of their own ethical standards.
If the worst that all is alleged is true, the president runs a job exchange program. Simple as that. Thank you, seniors! That was me not using my Moral Force, I'm sorry.
A willing participant in this, a Miss Lewinsky, blabs proudly to her gossipy friend, a Ms. Tripp, who is just paranoid enough to think that she'll lose her own job because she knows this.
I must at this point quote a man with whom I shared a work cubicle at ESPN, the humorist, and former overnight-shift worker at UPS, my friend Craig Kilborn, who himself paraphrased the comedian Mike Myers by saying "Linda Tripp is a man, baby!" That was also me not using my Moral Force.
Anyway, this Tripp person, at the urging of her friend, a book agent ---"Lucianne Goldberg is a man, baby" -- she secretly and at least unethically, records hours of conversations with her young friend Monica ... and takes them to the FBI.
The FBI then cleverly tries to force the young woman into stinging the president of the United States! A news magazine finds out -- it makes the rare moral choice to delay publication of the story (because it'll be a juicier one later, and they've been promised an opportunity to listen to these sleazy tapes).
Then the magazine gets scooped by an idiot with a modem who has decided that his job is to take any rumor he hears and put it out onto the Internet.
All of this comes to the attention of an independent counsel who may or may not be politically independent, but who is dumb enough to have accepted in advance a future job at a university, a job funded by a rabid hater of the president that the independent counsel is investigating.
Then, my network starts covering this story 28 hours out of every 24, and six days after the story breaks more people watch my show than watch my old show Sportscenter. And while I'm having the dry heaves in the bathroom because my moral sensor is going off but I can't even hear it, I'm so seduced by these ratings that I go along with them when they say do this not just one hour a night, but two, thus bringing my own skills and talents to bear on the process by which the snowball runs faster and faster down the hill.
In the ensuing four months ending day before yesterday, we are visited by the chairman of a committee investigating the president who publicly announces that the president has no morals or character and who then reveals his own character by calling that president the term for a previously owned prophylactic device.
A speaker of the house who divorced his own wife while she was in the hospital being treated for cancer first tells his colleagues to stay out of this mess, then after reading some research about how his constituents are angry that he hasn't pointed a moral finger at the president, he turns into a self-proclaimed judge and jury and tells his colleagues to stop referring to what the president may or may not have done as "scandals" and start calling them "crimes."
The networks, including my own, then each broadcast stories about a private investigator who claims a man in Arkansas told friends that a woman he knew 20 years ago told him she'd been assaulted by the president even though she swears she wasn't and his only evidence is a letter he wrote to her expressing his sympathy for the terrible thing that didn't happen to her.
A convicted felon and attorney then has a series of very odd phone calls to his wife and his lawyer. Though he is standing next to a sign saying "All phone calls are recorded," he is surprised when tapes of these calls are released publicly by the politician who had made the remark about the used device.
The politician then assumes responsibility for his "error in judgment." As the comedian David Frye said during Watergate, while doing his perfect impression of Richard Nixon, "The difference between responsibility and blame is that those who are to blame lose their jobs. Those who are responsible do not." The responsible politician thus fires his chief investigator.
All the while, the operatives of the president who are howling over how their personal lives are being improperly investigated, are themselves investigating everybody else, spending taxpayer dollars to release information about how Linda Tripp was arrested on a dismissed vagrancy charge 29 years ago, and to chase down a story about whether or not one of the president's key opponents used to like to wear dresses when he was 6 years old.
In the interim, as this tepid and not steamy story of maybe sex registers no impact whatsoever on the American public, the president's opponents then switch to the campaign finance issue, then to the Chinese influence on our elections issue, and then finally to the we gave the Commies secrets issue. That same politician who used that very unfortunate term says, day before yesterday, "Is this treason? No, right now I don't think it's treason." Meaning I got to say the word treason without saying the word treason. The president's people reply by insisting they didn't sell a change in policy -- this was the policy that the previous Republican president wanted.
I'd love to tell you the punch line to this story. But, I can't because it ain't over yet. All I know is that if even the slightest part of any religion known to man is factually correct, all of these people are going to meet again some day -- in hell. (Extended applause) And I haven't mentioned Paula Jones' attorneys yet.
A month ago I went to Washington for the White House correspondents' dinner, where two people who jokingly admit to being a part of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" told me that even they were sick to death of this story and only my jokes about it kept them going. I was proud of this for about a week until it dawned on me that if I never had joked about it, they might have stopped participating in it.
But at that dinner, I was also seated next to a fellow member of what will in 24 hours be your alumni association, a former congressman. He told me about how his roomate led the armed takeover of the Straight and that as nuts as all that group was, and how nobody then or now really thought that was an appropriate expession of political or social activism, they actually did believe in something. I told him of the day in 1979 when we VBR types rushed to Day Hall upon the news of a takeover there. Our takeover turned out to have been by six students who were late on their tuition and were going to hold the place until they got extensions.
This was my first hint that the idea of Moral Force had been declining for some time.
Anyway, my fellow Cornellian and I got talking about a prominent politician, and I said, "At least he believes in this stuff he's saying" and he said, "No he doesn't. He gets focus groups to tell him what to believe." And I asked how many members of Congress really believe in something, and he thought for a moment and then he answered... "Six." He then named them.
I went back to the hotel and prayed that I would wake up in a more honorable time, like maybe the McCarthy era.
I'm going on like this for a reason. If I live so long, eight months from now I'll turn 40, and I hope I'll still be surprised and saddened that there are only six congressmen who believe a damn thing. And I hope that eight months from now, or whenever, my moral sensor will be a little sharper than it has been.
There are days now when my line of work makes me ashamed, makes me depessed, makes me cry. And it occurs to me that this moral sensor has been fine-tuned within the walls of this campus. Forty years ago the great news broadcaster Edward R. Murrow got up in front of the convention of the radio and television news directors and announced that without moral direction all this great medium would become was "wires and lights in a box," and there are days when I wish it would still be even that idealistic.
About three weeks ago I awakened from my stupor on this subject and told my employers that I simply could not continue doing this show about the endless investigation and the investigation of the investigation, and the investigation of the investigation of the investigation. I had to choose what I felt in my heart was right over what I felt in my wallet was smart. I did not tell them they had 24 hours. I did not threaten them. I let them balance for themselves their professional and moral forces and set their timetable. I await their answer. Of course, I am not buying any new furniture for my home.
I heard an interview the other day with a brilliant British television screenwriter named Dennis Potter. He was ruminating on society and TV from a position which commands my attention: He knew he had less than three months to live. Potter described the change in society so well that I actually transcribed it. He said that in the mid-80s, quote, "Everything was given, in a sense, its pricetag. And the pricetag became the only gospel. And that gospel, in the end, is a very thin gruel indeed. And if you start measuring humankind in those terms, everything else then becomes secondary, or less important, or, in some sense ... laughable."
So this, ultimately, is my point. You are about to go out there and be confronted with choices. This is a real world and you may actually only be able to do this one time out of 10. But that seems to be about one time more out of 10 than those of us out here are pulling off.
Remember that everything you despise, every evil company, every corrupt politician (and I don't care if you think I mean Bill Gingrich or Newt Clinton) -- every single bad decision that affects life for the worse, has been made by a human being who, because he needed to eat -- or maybe because he was greedy -- or maybe because he hadn't used the spark of humanity that rests inside all of us for so long that it had burned out -- a human being who chose to do what he knew ... was not right.
Each time you see a decision like that made, do not point. Each time you see someone's personal venality or failure or slippage exposed, do not gasp. Make yourself a mental note that if faced with participation in such a decision, or such an exposure, you will try to face it with your Moral Force prominently displayed.
Come on out of this wonderful haven, this experimental lab of life you've been in, and guard your humanity and your Moral Force as if it were your wallet.
I know you have to eat. I know you see the booming economy and you want one. I know some of you are going to become ... Lawyers ... and give us reporters a run for our sleaze money. I know you want happiness and achievement.
But I also know that the one thing you have that all of us "out here" do not ... is that you are not yet jaded by this process. To some degree you must inevitably become so. But if you keep your Moral Force intact just sufficiently so that you can stand up once or twice in the rest of your life and say, "You know what? This is wrong for me and for people I know and for people I don't know and i'm not going to do it," you will have improved the world.
And I do not know what the meaning of life is.
The older I got, the more complicated my philosophical gymnastics got until my one sentence answer turned into a paragraph and then an hour and then it began to shrink to "beats the hell out of me" and finally to this gesture:
But I do know without fear of contradiction what the definition of life is and it is 12 words long. "Life is defined by how much you improve the lives of others."
May you do better than all of us have.
You take it from here.