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“There’s Nothing Beyond Our Capacity”


Photograph by Jim Harrison

Photograph by Jim Harrison

On an intermittently overcast Class Day, former vice president Joseph R. Biden began his address to Harvard College seniors by whipping out a pair of shades, bringing College dean Rakesh Khurana to the podium, and saying, “We’re going to break the Internet.” But after the selfie was taken, and the audience had laughed at the inside jokes about the Hong Kong Restaurant, scorpion bowls, and the net worth of Mark Zuckerberg (the next day’s featured speaker), the speech took a turn for the serious.

Without naming him, Biden took up the subject of the election of Donald Trump, saying, “I imagine that for many of you, seeing this unfold was incredibly disorienting and disheartening, as it was for so many Americans across the country. Your reaction was understandable. But I can guarantee you, I can assure you, this condition is temporary. It’s a temporary state of affairs.” As the audience in Tercentenary Theatre applauded, he continued, “There’s no graduating class that gets to choose the world in which they enter. History has already been written for you by those of us who came before you.” 

The former vice president recalled his graduation from law school in 1968. That spring, he said, he and his peers thought the Vietnam War would soon end. Meanwhile, at Harvard, students instituted the Class Day tradition of choosing their own speaker, and invited Martin Luther King Jr. But violence escalated in Vietnam, King was assassinated a month before he was due to appear at the University, and Biden returned to his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, to find it occupied by the National Guard.

“We thought, how can this be happening?” said Biden. “Name me a five-month period, short of war, that's been as climactic as that. But you know what? In spite of everything, I never doubted for one instant that we could change history. I come from a technically lower-class, middle-class, household. Educated by two high-school educated parents, who convinced me that there wasn’t a damn thing I couldn’t do, and this country couldn’t do. That my generation—I was convinced—could rewrite the outcome we were careening toward. We knew that just because they murdered our heroes did not mean the dream did not live, buried deep in our broken hearts. We got involved. We turned our anger and our disappointment into resolve.” 

Quoting Yeats’s poem about the Easter Rising—“All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born”—Biden drew lessons from that turbulent time for today: 

This is 2017. And of one thing I am absolutely certain, absolutely certain, this graduating class, this generation is fully, completely capable, of changing the trajectory of this country as well, today. You’re better equipped to tackle the challenges that lie ahead than my generation was. You’re the best educated, best talented, most engaged generation this country has ever, ever produced. That is not hyperbole. That is a fact. And you have tools available to you that we didn’t possess. There’s more power in that iPhone the dean pulled out than in the computers that sent a man to the moon. 

...there’s nothing beyond our capacity. There’s nothing we're incapable of overcoming if we remember who we are as Americans. I’m not talking politics, Democrat, Republicans—who we are, who we’ve always striven to be. We’re a nation grounded in the notion that everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity. Everyone. Cut through it all. That’s what it's about, according dignity to everyone. We’re a nation that has always thought big, not small. I’m so tired of both political parties talking about incrementalism. America has always thought big, and boldly! What has happened to us?

Biden urged the students to stay, or get, involved in public life; removing themselves from a disappointing system would not protect them from the consequences of its failure. He then cited studies showing lagging interest in entering politics. “Just this week, the Crimson reported that 37 percent of your class who had been considering a job in the federal government changed your minds in the wake of last year’s election. Forgive me, but I think that's the wrong reaction. You have an obligation to get engaged. You have the capacity to make things change. It’s within your wheelhouse to do it.” 

The vice president also had words of advice for the students’ personal lives. During his career, he said, he’d met many world leaders, and observed those who managed to find both purpose and fulfillment. “I mean this sincerely: first, those who find success and happiness understand that a good life is about being personal.” That engagement in private life, he explained, often manifested in small gestures: attending family members’ birthday parties and baseball games, congratulating a colleague, or being there for a sick friend.

“Reality has a way of intruding,” Biden said. He told the audience about the car crash, weeks after his election to the United States Senate, that killed his wife and daughter and injured his two sons. “I began commuting every single day, and I did it for 37 years, 259 miles a day from Washington to Wilmington. No, no, it’s not about me,” he cut in quickly, over the audience starting to applaud. “Thank you, you’re being very generous. I needed to be—I needed them. Because I learned what all your parents know. A child can hold an important thought for his mother or father 12, maybe 24 hours. But if you miss it, it’s gone.”

By the end, Biden returned to his theme of how the graduating class had to take up the mantle of leadership in order to solve the country’s problems. He concluded with an admonition from his former philosophy professor:

As if I was supposed to know, he said, “Remember what Plato said, Joe.” And I was thinking, what in the hell does that mean? Plato said, “The penalty that good people pay for not being involved in politics is being governed by people worse than themselves.” Let me say that again. The penalty that good people pay for not being involved in politics is being governed by people worse than themselves. So you have to engage. You have to be involved, even in this dirty business of politics, you have to, for your own safety’s sake. And I have no doubt you will, because you must.

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