Former Governor Mario Cuomo Delivers 2010 Commencement Speech to Baruch College Graduates

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Standing at the podium at Madison Square Garden on June 1, Mario Cuomo, the celebrated orator and former governor of New York State, delivered the Commencement Address at Baruch College’s 45th
Commencement exercises. A transcript of his remarks follows.

A post-commencement speech interview with the governor was featured on NY1 that evening and can be viewed online at http://www.ny1.com/content/119645/ny1-online--full-interview-with-mario-cuomo-6-1-10?ap=1&MP4

 

Commencement Remarks by Governor Mario M. Cuomo

First and foremost, Congratulations Baruch Class of Two Thousand Ten and thank you for the privilege of addressing you.

The last time I spoke from a podium in Madison Square Garden it was 1992. I was nominating Bill Clinton as a candidate for President of the United States.
He was a winner and went on to serve the nation well.

This morning I am here to honor you hundreds of winners, who, I am sure, will also go on to serve this nation well... after your celebrations. I promise I will delay you only long enough to tell you why I believe you graduates of Baruch are so valuable to our nation.

In 1983, I had just been elected Governor for the first time and one of our greatest United States Senators ever -- the Brilliant Daniel Patrick Moynihan, offered to introduce me to President Ronald Reagan at a White House party. He said to the President, “Mr. President I’d like to introduce you to...” but before the Senator could get my name out of his mouth the President said, “You don’t need to introduce us -- I know Lee Iacocca well.”

The Senator corrected the President as gently as he could, explaining that I was a Governor and not the head of Chrysler Motor Company.

And I stifled a temptation to say what an Italian kid from Queens might have said, “I know Mr. President, to some people we all look alike.

The truth is of course, that the people of our great nation don’t all look alike or sound alike or think alike or vote alike.

And that is especially true of the graduates and students of Baruch. All of you are part of one of the most diverse and most honored academic communities in the nation.

Several years ago I was asked to speak at Baruch’s conferring of a “Distinguished Alumnus Award” on the greatly admired Bernard Schwartz, whose name today identifies Baruch’s Communication Institute.

I wrote a first draft of my remarks that referred to Mr. Schwartz as an immigrant’s son, “prodigiously Successful Businessman, Humanitarian and Philanthropist, Educated at an Extraordinary Institution of Learning, distinguished by its Excellence and its Unique Diversity.”

I asked Senator Moynihan for an opinion as to whether that would be excessive praise.

The Senator replied with his Typical Elegance. He said: “Governor, be not Daunted. So Abundant are Bernard Schwartz’ Achievements and so well-recognized is Baruch’s Pre-eminence, that no eyebrows will be lifted at your words of praise for Mr. Schwartz and Baruch College.”

Quite a set of endorsements from the illustrious Senator, a graduate from Harvard, for an immigrant’s son educated at Baruch.

In fact both Baruch and Harvard are great institutions of higher learning, but there are differences between the two.

Harvard is a private university supported largely by huge endowments and high tuition, established in 1639! That was 150 years before the United States became a Republican Democracy!

Baruch was built from the labors and taxes of a whole community ? a public college established for the public interest.

Baruch came later, in the midst of the great waves of modern immigrants, earnest strugglers and seekers, scrambling and scratching for a foothold, desperate for a chance to prove what they could do.

People like my Mother and Father, and my wife’s Mother and Father and many of your forebears.

Brave parents eager to help give their children a chance to build a better life than they could, in the place they came from... by providing them with the advantages of formal education.

Both Baruch and Harvard teach truths, possibilities, skills and techniques.
Both develop valuable professionals in many disciplines.

But Baruch has always done something more.

From it’s earliest days it rejected the notion that newcomers to our land should be dropped into a “melting pot” -- presumably some kind of seething social cauldron that would boil away their distinguishing cultures and characteristics homogenizing them into a new, bland, probably insipid American.

Baruch on the other hand, has always believed that we are at our best when we recognize ourselves as being a nation made up of different sizes, shapes, colors and cultures, histories and hopes -- its beauty the brightest and it’s efficacy the strongest when all these characteristics come together harmoniously, producing a glorious American mosaic.

A mosaic made up of millions of seekers and strugglers banded together with those who had preceded them here and those who would follow... by the rights and obligations of the Constitution. And inspired by the promises of the Declaration of Independence. Altogether demonstrating the unique effectiveness of the Republican Democracy we had created in 1789. In the process, the immigrants have helped build us into the most powerful nation in world history, blessed with the fruits of foreign cultures they had been born to.

I have been reminded of all of these realities recently and up close. During the last presidential election, I agreed -- together with the faculty’s Doug Muzzio and Florence Frucher, to help teach a course at Baruch that dealt with the major issues of the Presidential campaign.

The students were a reflection of the extraordinary breath and depth and diversity that help define Baruch: They were honor students, men and women of all different races, places and beliefs.

What all of them had in common was a high degree of intelligence and academic accomplishment, and a strong interest in understanding exactly where we are as a nation, where we would like to be and how they can help get us there.

Together for fourteen evening sessions we discussed how the nation was aching for a change in the midst of a deteriorating economy and two confusing -- and terribly costly -- wars in the Middle East. We discussed the great danger that lurked in a serious recession that could become a depression; or in a possible second -- and maybe third... or more... terrorist attacks, in a world where terrorism and weapons of mass destruction are still proliferating. All of our fourteen sessions were lively and stimulating. In most of them the discussion continued in overtime.

There were strong differences on many of the issues, but in the end, what was apparent to all three of us lecturers was that the intelligence of the students and the subtlely of their exchanges signaled an ability they had to produce useful, effective collaboration and resolution... precisely what we have not seen enough of in the Congress for the last year, when we have needed it so badly.

It took our Democratic President more than a year to get a healthcare bill to his desk and that was without getting a single vote from the ideologically intransigent minority Party in the Congress.

The lack of suppleness and willingness to collaborate was discouraging, especially because there is so much more the President and the Congress have to do before the nation can reclaim the kind of strength and confidence that characterized us in the past.

At the top of the list is the need for good, well-paying jobs, a surer, safer, more convenient form of energy, major infusions of wealth for education, infrastructure repairs and additions and, at the same time, a reasonable reduction in our huge deficit... at least prospectively.

It seems clear at the moment that after the next election in November, despite improved economic indicators, President Obama will probably have to deal with a much less friendly Congress and, certainly, a more hostile public than he expected when he was elected President in 2008 by a wide margin.

Particularly disconcerting have been some ugly reminders that not everyone today appreciates the beauty in our nation’s diversity, and indeed some apparently resent it.

It’s been a long time since our nation has witnessed the kind of red-hot anger and venomous attacks from politicians and some white voters who apparently see themselves as demeaned or threatened or both by a black president, a white female Italian-American Speaker of the House, a powerful openly gay Congressional Committee Chairman and a wise Latina who was appointed to the Supreme Court.

Enraged groups cursed President Obama and all his supporters. Hate mail was distributed in the Capitol and the offices of Democratic members of Congress.
Frankly, it’s difficult not to give some credence -- at least -- to the conclusion that this surge of anger and fear has been inspired -- at least in part... by a sense of so-called “white disenfranchisement” like the one that followed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

If that is where we really are as a nation, the rest of us -- and especially you Baruch graduates -- will have to heighten our efforts to encourage a more intelligent, constructive and reasonable acceptance of our nation’s unique diversity, through dialogue and hard work and not diatribe.

If we are able to do that we will not only improve current conditions, we will have an opportunity to make the kind of progress we have not seen since the industrial revolution.

Why?

Because in recent years the surge of discovery, innovation and technology and accelerating globalization, has opened new markets to scores of new products and techniques.

The truth is a whole new world awaits building and no one in America has been gifted with a better education with which to make the most of that opportunity, than you graduates of Baruch.

And you have the additional advantage of having experienced immersion in the Baruch diversity which demonstrated for you how diversity can be productive instead of divisive.

And provided you with precious insights that will help you in approaching the global workplace.

Yesterday was Memorial Day.

A good way to honor the memory of all the patriots who have given their lives or are risking them this very moment to protect our nation, is for you to go from this place today, committed to doing all that your bright minds, strong hearts and Baruch education will help you to do to give us a better America and therefore, inevitably, a better world.

I know you can do it. I hope you will.

You have earned yourselves a great prize....
A chance to help build a better world.

Make the most of it!

Thank you.

Congratulations again!