- Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Law School
The celebrated actor Alec Baldwin, winner of two Emmy Awards for his role in the television comedy series 30 Rock and a powerful presence in dozens of films, television shows, and theatrical productions, surprised many in the audience with his Class Day speech at Harvard Law School on May 25. Notwithstanding his glamorous career, artistic and financial success, and many awards for his work, Baldwin bluntly told the graduating law students, “From the bottom of my heart, I envy you.”
Baldwin recalled that his ambition from age 10 was to become a lawyer: “I wanted to be president of the United States, so I had to get my hands on a law degree.” Instead he abandoned that plan in college, choosing instead to study drama and acting at New York University. “Nearly every day since then I have wondered what might have been,” he said, “if I had possessed the patience, the skill, and the good fortune to be where you are today.” He noted that he had asked his friend John Sexton, president of New York University and a former law school dean there, for help on his speech, and that Sexton had advised him to ask the graduates “to think about the link between law and morality.” Baldwin went even further than that. “I want you to leave here and save this country,” he said, “because this country needs your help.”
Campaign finance reform, for example, is “an issue that I believe is the linchpin of our domestic political problems,” he said. Baldwin touched briefly on many social issues that lawyers could affect. He noted that the historic 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision did not grow from any new information, but occurred because the Supreme Court justices realized that the country was ready to move past the “separate but equal” doctrine.
Some listeners were braced for a more confrontational address; Baldwin had endured a hellacious custody battle for his daughter during his highly public, bitter divorce from movie star Kim Basinger. (Read a New Yorker profile of Baldwin.) His 2008 book (with Mark Tabb) A Promise to Ourselves detailed his frustrations with family law and divorce lawyers. One of his ex-wife’s lawyers, Baldwin wrote, “had a bad case of the intellectual vanity that afflicts most attorneys I had known. Since my own college days, most lawyers had always struck me as men and women who were not smart enough to become doctors or engineers. Therefore, they opted for a career wherein rote recitation of the legal code and a gift for bullshitting people amounted to a profession.” However, the latter pages of that book describe the intellectual bond he formed with professor of law Jeannie Suk (read a Harvard Magazine article on her work) and others on the Harvard Law faculty, and advance some constructive suggestions for improving divorce proceedings. His connections with the HLS teachers no doubt paved the way for Baldwin’s Class Day appearance.
Toward the end of his remarks, the actor shared the humorous adage that “Acting is what you do when you have no musical ability.” He corrected this to, “Acting is what you do when you have neither musical ability nor a law degree from a school like Harvard.” On reflection, he said, “If I had it to do all over again, I would choose differently….I believe that I would trade what I have for what you’ll have tomorrow afternoon. Thank you.”