America Needs Help Right Now and America Knows It
May 22, 2019
"I believe the need now is not so much for unleashing as undergirding —steadying, strengthening, supporting so that America can flourish."
Good morning all, Father Jenkins, Board of Trustees, esteemed faculty, students, distinguished fellow honorees. I thank you for this from the bottom of my heart. Father, I must say I found the tribute you just read to be almost embarrassingly flattering, but that's because I wrote it. So I guess factor that in. Normally I just say I don't deserve those kind words, but then I have arthritis and I don't deserve that either. So what the heck?
I want you to know, Father John, I count it as a great compliment of my life that you said I sound like I went to Notre Dame. This makes me want to go to old Finney’s and have a Natty Light. Let’s all meet there. We’ll get through this. We’ll meet there.
I must begin — I note, a remarkable thing to begin with, this great institution is 177 years old, which of course makes it younger than some of this year’s presidential candidates. But in all those years, it has never quite happened in an utterly formal sense that the class valedictorian, salutatorian and commencement speaker were all women.
Now, this reminds me of a story. A few years ago, a boy came home from grade school and told his father that he was second in his class and that a girl had won top place. So his father started to tease him and he said, “Surely, Tommy, you’re not going to be beaten by a mere girl.” And Tommy said, “You know, Dad, girls aren’t nearly as mere as they used to be.”
So it is a delight to be with these strong, smart women who are not at all mere, with Annalise and Sofia, and who along with Notre Dame’s strong, smart men make this University the great thing that it is.
And so I am honored to address the great and fabled class of 2019. This is your day. We honor not only you, the graduates, but your parents, your families and all the overflow rooms, your friends, grandparents, aunts and uncles, everyone who made the triumph of a Notre Dame degree possible. Nothing happens alone, or no great personal achievement does. So all honor to whatever little platoon helped you land on this shore.
I mean to be brief today. I’m going to try to be at least as interesting as the redacted Mueller report.
I do not wish to take part in any campus controversies, though I note that under our gowns, many of us up here are wearing leggings. Even Father Jenkins.
But I must say there is a tenderness to the sight of all of you today. It’s a corny thing to say, but I want to say it. When people show unhidden joy in their accomplishments and good fortune and blessings, witnessing it feels almost intimate, and that is why all graduations, for all the pomp and ceremony and brass bands, all of them are so personally moving every year. I remember Bobby Kennedy saying — of another bright class at another time — he said in a commencement address, “You’re about to enter the great world with all its splendor, but all its challenges and hardships and tests also,” and he said, “and so my advice to you is don’t go. Stay here. It’s nice here.”
I found I too have only one piece of advice for you, and it is for when you yourselves, if you choose, and if you are blessed, become parents. That advice is: Never put a child wearing Superman pajamas on the top bunk. Just don’t do it. Nothing good will happen. You’ll thank me one day.
Now, you are well used to great praise for this great school. I join it. You are a great private institution and a great Catholic university. You have a mighty endowment, access to the best, a rich field of scholars and thinkers. You are an intellectual powerhouse, but it is also true that Notre Dame occupies a very special piece of terrain in the American psyche. If you are perhaps of a certain age, certainly Irish Catholic, Notre Dame lives in your head whether you’ve ever been here or not. It is now and always, as you know, Knute Rockne. It is the soundtrack from “Rudy,” that rousing music when they carry him on their shoulders off the field. Notre Dame is Touchdown Jesus, the Hail Mary Pass, the Fighting Irish, the Four Horsemen, the Golden Dome. It is Ted Hesburgh. It is what we have been as Americans, how we’ve seen ourselves and wish still to be — heroes living and working together.
Now, if you worked for Ronald Reagan, as I did, of course you think of George Gipp, whom Reagan played in “Knute Rockne, All American.” Now Reagan’s attachment to this University, as you well know, was such that it was the first school he visited after he’d been shot in March of 1981, but he’d made a commitment to speak at graduation and he kept it, marking what he called the first time he ever turned in a college assignment on time. You gave him an honorary degree. He said he always thought the first one was honorary. But on that day, May 17, 1981, Notre Dame having a sophisticated sense of what he had been through — it had been worse than had been said by the White House. You knew it. Having had a sophisticated sense of what he’d been through, Notre Dame wore its heart on its sleeve, greeting him with a standing ovation and great spontaneous cheers. Now the president that day said a university like this is a storehouse of knowledge, mostly because the freshmen bring so much in and the seniors take so little away.
He said the thing that had interested him most when he was a young man about the story of George Gipp is the fact that the students, the team had never known Gipp. He’d been a few years older than all of them. They didn’t know his story until coach Rockne told it to them in the locker room on that terrible day when they were losing so bad. Now they were a fractious team. Reagan said apparently they didn’t get along, but they went back onto the field and turned the game around, not out of affection for Gipp, whom, again, they hadn’t known, but out of loyalty to the idea of having a heart of hanging together, working together, coming through — out of loyalty to the idea of loyalty itself.
Reagan that day touched on the great themes of 20th-century conservatism — man and the state. He raised high the individual.
But he also said these words: “Government has certain legitimate functions which it can perform very well." It can be "responsive" to the people, it can be "humane and compassionate". But when it tries to do things that are not its "proper province", it will not do them so well. It has a tendency to fail there. He wasn’t saying find the balance. He was saying, use your discernment, use your judgment. And he was speaking not in a partisan way, but to both parties.
So today I want to speak briefly about that phrase, "proper province".
Reagan respected reality. The spirit of Reaganism was in line with the real need of the era. The economy was stagnant with double-digit inflation and unemployment — a mess. He knew the America of his time was in need of being unleashed, of rising, of throwing off unhelpful barriers so the country would flourish. That was the urgent need.
To me, and at its best, conservatism, which of course is one of America’s two great political tendencies — conservatism is not a reaction, but a reminder from a wise old friend. It is not the antidote to progressivism. It is not the antidote to anything. It is its own vivid and particular mood, or attitude. It is an attempt at wisdom, grounded in knowledge of human history and human nature. It lacks the shine of newness, but perhaps that’s because it has withstood the test of time. Its weathered look is testament to its enduring power. Edmund Burke spoke of an unseen compact between the living, the dead and the unborn. Margaret Thatcher was less poetic. She said the facts of life are conservative.
Conservatives are always still trying to define conservatism, which suggests it is a lively thing — dynamic, still changing, finding new expressions in new eras.
Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker has just written a good book about what he calls the moral adventure of liberalism. And that’s good. I think he is in part trying to free liberalism from a feeling of mere ideology. He says liberalism finds its best expression in a thousand small sanities.
So I ask, how does conservatism find its best expression now, in the 21st century? What are its small sanities?
I happen to see wisdom in the words of Oscar Hammerstein, the great Broadway lyricist. Asked in a TV interview 60 years ago by Mike Wallace if Eastern media folk weren’t mostly or all liberal, Hammerstein wasn’t defensive at all. He said, “Yes, we are.” He said, “Yes, I am.” And yes, he said, this affects the view of the world that Americans are given. But he figured liberals need conservatives to hold them back, and conservatives need liberals to pull them forward.
And in our history that has been pretty much true.
Now, there are many conservatives right now who, looking down the road to future presidential cycles, to moments beyond this one, who long to return to the twentieth century arguments for smaller government and spending. And I understand. You don’t want government bigger than it has to be. You always want taxes lower rather than higher. You don’t want to dishearten people. In an age of deficits you want to keep your eye on spending.
But I believe that limited style of conservatism, while very right for its time, is not now enough in and of itself because it is not fully in line with the crises of this moment or of its reigning facts.
I believe the need now is not so much for unleashing as undergirding — steadying, strengthening, supporting so that America can flourish.
The federal government will not likely become smaller and less expensive in our lifetimes. There’s almost no political will for it in Congress — they privately admit this — or within the parties, where they'll privately admit it. What we have now and for the foreseeable future is two parties of large government, one leaning a little this way on the issues, the other that.
And to me now the important question is what that government does.
I believe America needs help right now and America knows it. The reasons are so obvious that we’ve almost stopped saying them. But we’ve been living through an ongoing cultural catastrophe for the last 30 years. You know all the words that I will say now — illegitimacy, the decline of faith, low family formation, child abuse and neglect, drugs, poor education. But all of that exists alongside of and is made worse by an entertainment culture from which the poor and neglected are unprotected and which is devoted to violence and nihilism.
Politically as a people, we are constantly bitterly pitted against each other along racial, religious and many other lines. Culturally we are force-fed a picture of America as an ugly, racist, misogynist nation — 'fruit of the poison tree,' as somebody said. So even honest love of country isn’t allowed to hold us together so much anymore. I believe we’re losing, through all these things, some higher sense of ourselves.
America right now has a strong economy, growth is solid, unemployment is way down, employment is way up, thank God. But underneath that America is, as Father John quoted, a torn-up, wounded place in need of repair. And honestly I’m not fussy about where the repair comes from, what levels, what entities, and I don’t think the American people are either. I just think they want it to come soon.
And all of this to my mind comes within a certain historical fact. You can’t see all the world’s weapons, all its mischief, it's malice, it's accidents too, and not know that someday we as a country will face a bad day or a series of bad days. And everything will depend on our ability to hold together and hold fast. A strong people will make their way through it, together, and to the other side. But with so much tearing us apart now, will we have that sense of cohesion and solidarity? This is often on my mind.
So my belief is that whatever holds us together now, whatever makes us stronger, brings us together, binds us close right now is good and necessary and must be encouraged with whatever it takes.
Conservatives pride themselves on being earthbound, and that’s nice. They respect gravity. But I would say — they haven’t asked — but I would say they should step up. Just step up a few steps higher, change the vantage point, see the country more clearly. Don’t be battling right now to make government smaller, don’t be talking about that, I mean don’t make believe that’s what you’re doing. Instead, make government more helpful, more pertinent to all of the urgencies around us.
Shift focus — direct government toward conservative ends. Focus on conserving.
We are hearing now and listening to those running for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. They would, most of them come forward and say they would shift things more towards progressive ends. And they will talk about it and they have many interesting thoughts on global climate change, Medicare for all, reparations debates and such. Fine. Let those debates commence and continue.
But what would a government aimed at conservative ends look like? I can’t fully say because we can’t go too long in a commencement address, but these are just a few things that my mind went to:
First of all, whatever might help families form, grow and endure. Whatever will help, do it. Make it a matter of national policy.
America is in a severe, and each year growing, mental health crisis. Let’s try to solve it. Help give families what they need. They don’t have enough recourse now when somebody inside the family is turning sick.
My goodness, teaching the lost boys of the working and middle class how to live — the infrastructure bills floating around Washington are good in themselves to me, because we need better bridges, tunnels and roads, and because we need the pride as a nation that comes from making them better. Like Eisenhower’s building of the U.S. highway system in the 1950s, a spirit of “we can still do that.”
But I am most for infrastructure because it could provide a great national setting for breakthrough mentorship in which men teach boys how to do something. I swear they should go out and recruit in the most difficult and detached neighborhoods and towns, dragging teenage boys out of the house integrating them into a world of dynamism and competence.
Couldn’t we work a little bit harder on helping our immigrants become Americans? However the illegal immigration crisis is resolved or not resolved, there are tens of millions of immigrants, legal and illegal, already here. Who helps them love America? Who can teach them lovingly our history and what it means to be part of this great project called America? It is a tragedy of the past 15 years in immigration debates that we've lost sight of a central fact that has everything to do with our future. We, America, we have the best immigrants in the world. Let’s just try to help them a little bit more. Thank you.
Only two more.
What can be done to focus more on threats to religious freedom? They are real and will get real. You know this. The polls are interesting. They say Americans are not always breaking down the doors to go to church, but they respect religious life. They intuitively understand the crucial nature of religious institutions, and they don’t want to see them under siege. They don’t want long-held religious beliefs compromised or trampled by the state. I feel I’ve known America a long time. Deep down it actually respects you when the dogma lives loudly within you.
That was my shout-out to Amy Barrett. Thank you. Thank you, Amy.
You know, just for fun, break up big tech. You know all the reasons. Deliberate abuse of privacy, deliberately addicting people, monopoly. They turned a convenience into a utility. Fine. Regulate it. At this point, do it to prove we are not passive observers of the corruption of our society, but active combatants against it. We would be showing, as in the highways and I hope in the infrastructure, we can still do something big, and together, as a people.
So there's many more points. I mean, you could all do your 10-point system if you wanted to because you live in America and look at it every day and you know what's not working.
But to me, really the point of conservatism is to conserve. It is to protect and strengthen, to focus on ends not abstract and notional but immediate and concrete.
Everyone in politics always want to go through the old motions because everyone in politics wants to be safe. They figure what worked in the past will work in the future. But challenges change, eras change. It does no good to repeat old mantras, especially when you don't even mean to enact them.
So be far-sighted, I would say to my friends 'see America’s real state and real plight'.
If a government will be a large, it will need sober-minded stewards. If a government will be large, it will require protecting the system that made our wealth and allowed us to be generous with the world and with ourselves. And that is free-market capitalism. Conservatives especially don’t just accept that system, they actually love it. And you fight hard for what you love.
And so let me add only one more thing from the writer and thinker Yuval Levin. He said conservatives have to stop hating our institutions. A conservatism that despises it society's institutions is self-destructive. He is exactly right.
In our political life, both sides have big sins. But you cannot hate and denigrate government, the press, the courts, our institutions and claim that the same time that you are trying to be constructive. You are not. You cannot hate the other side and claim you are trying to help. You are not. Fight failures, fight oversteps, fight arrogance and high-handedness. But we must do it in a spirit of repair.
The secret of successful politics: Be moved more by what you love than what you hate.
And so I am done. But I would say all of this is a matter of "proper province". All of this to me is being loyal to the team. All this to me is being loyal to the idea of loyalty itself.
And so I thank you. It has been an honor to be here on this great day, May 19, 2019, in South Bend, Indiana, at the University of Notre Dame in the house that Rockne built, and Ted Hesburgh too. May God bless you and keep you, the class of 2019. Thank you.