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Georgetown Public Policy Institute Tropaia Ceremony

May 18, 2012
Washington, DC

Dean Montgomery, members of the faculty, family, friends, and graduates: it’s an honor to be with you this morning.  And let me start with some well-earned congratulations.  Last weekend, on Mother’s Day, I was at the University of Kansas when my younger son received his Masters degree.  So I know the hard work and effort that got you here today.

I married a Georgetown law graduate and am a Hoya Mom – the mother of a double Georgetown graduate.  So in my family, Hoya Saxa comes second only to Rock Chalk Jayhawk.

And I was especially pleased to be invited to speak to you, the public policy graduates.  Having spent my entire life in public service, I believe you’ve chosen the most challenging, frustrating, exciting, consequential, and rewarding career there is.  And today, I want to share a few lessons from my career that I hope will be useful as you begin yours.

I started out as an “unpaid volunteer.”  My dad got into politics when I was five, so for most of my childhood, I spent my fall days putting up yard signs and going door to door.

Actually, the more accurate term might be forced labor.  There wasn’t a lot of choice in the matter.  (It was only later that I discovered that other families were going to football games and picnics while I was attending political rallies).

But what I got from those fall outings, and from our conversations around our dinner table, was a deep belief in the value of public service.  And throughout my career, it’s been that unwavering belief that’s carried me to my highest points – and gotten me through my lowest. 

I know you share that belief.  If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here today.  You wouldn’t have suffered through regression analysis.  You wouldn’t have passed up bigger salary possibilities in other fields. 

So my first hope for you today is that you always hold on to your commitment to work for the common good.  If you let that focus guide you, you will never go off course.

I learned the second lesson when I came to Washington in the late 60s to attend Trinity College.  Those were tumultuous times in our nation’s history, and DC was right in the middle of it.  During my college years, the draft was reinstated, as the government ramped up the war in Vietnam.  Racial tensions, that had been smoldering, erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, and neighborhoods in DC were burned to the ground.

What was striking at the time is how young people were driving these national debates.  There was a feeling not just that young people could change the world – but that we had to. 

Robert Kennedy spoke about those times in a famous speech. He said: “This world demands the qualities of youth. Not a time of life, but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.”

As you set out on your careers, you may find yourselves tempted to defer to those who are older or have more experience.  And on behalf of the parents in the audience, I want to be clear that, even though we may not know who Kim Kardashian is, or why everyone is always so angry about her, we do still have some wisdom to share.  You still need to call your mom! (In fact, after this ceremony ends, the first thing you should do is thank the parents, teachers, mentors, and friends who supported your journey to this graduation day.)

But the truth is, wisdom isn’t the only thing that comes with age.  Growing older can also bring complacency and cautiousness.

I know Georgetown hasn’t trained you to sit on the sidelines.  You’ve studied under leading policy-makers.  You’ve proven your skills, not just on tests and papers, but in the real world through programs like Project Honduras. 

So my second piece of advice is: don’t wait.  Go ahead and do it yourself – because if you don’t, it might never happen.

Now, I wish I could give you a roadmap for exactly how to do that.  But the truth is that career paths are usually only visible looking backwards, like the tracks we make in the snow. 

I’m an accidental feminist who learned that girls can do anything by attending an all-girls school where we had to do everything.  I ended up in Kansas because that’s where my husband grew up.  I began my political career because our part-time Legislature was a better fit for me, as a mother with two young children, than the 60-hour a week job I had. 

As I moved along, I sought out opportunities to learn new skills and new subject areas.  I started out working in corrections.  Later, I worked on everything from education, to children and family issues, to the budget, to jobs and economic development, to rural challenges.

One of the issues I kept coming back to was health care, culminating in my current position.  And now, I have the extraordinary opportunity to help implement legislation that is finally, after seven decades of failed debate, ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable health coverage. 

But I never would have been here if I hadn’t taken some chances.  For me, the biggest risk was running for Kansas Insurance Commissioner.  The indicators were not promising.  The statewide office had never been held by a woman or a Democrat.  The previous three commissioners had close ties to the insurance industry and had served nearly 50 years combined.  And it was 1994, when running for office as a Democrat was the basic equivalent of wearing a Georgetown jersey in the Syracuse student section. 

But I went for it and won.  And I ended up not just getting an incredible opportunity to make a difference, but also gaining invaluable experience for the job I have now.  (Who knew?)

All of you are going to face similar choices in your careers.  It might be taking a more senior position at a much smaller organization.  It might be moving abroad to work.  It might be going from running a campaign to becoming a candidate. 

And when you do encounter these opportunities, I encourage you take a deep breath and seize them.  

And that brings me to the final lesson I want to leave with you today, which is that no matter what path you choose, it’s going to be hard.

Ultimately, public policy is about making difficult choices.  Today, there are serious debates underway about the direction of our country – debates about the size and role of government, about America’s role as a global economic and military leader, about the moral and economic imperative of providing health care to all our citizens.  People have deeply-held beliefs on all sides of these discussions, and you, as public policy leaders, will be called on to help move these debates forward.

These are not questions with quick and easy answers.  When I was in junior high, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was running for President.  I wasn’t old enough to vote, but it was the first national campaign I really remember.  Some of then-Senator Kennedy’s opponents attacked him for his religion, suggesting that electing the first Catholic President would undermine the separation of Church and State, a fundamental principle of our democracy.  The furor grew so loud that Kennedy chose to deliver a speech about his beliefs just seven weeks before the election.

In that talk to Protestant ministers, Kennedy talked about his vision of religion and the public square, and said he believed in an America, and I quote, “where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against us all.”

Kennedy was elected President on November 8, 1960.  And more than 50 years later, that conversation, about the intersection of our nation’s long tradition of religious freedom with policy decisions that affect the general public, continues.

Contributing to these debates will require more than just the quantitative skills you have learned at Georgetown.  It will also require the ethical skills you have honed – the ability to weigh different views, see issues from other points of view, and in the end, follow your own moral compass.

These debates can also be contentious.  But this is a strength of our country, not a weakness.  In some countries around the world, it is much easier to make policy.  The leader delivers an edict and it goes into effect.  There’s no debate, no criticism, no second guessing.

Our system is messier, slower, more frustrating, and far better.  It requires conversations that can be painful and it almost always ends in compromise.  But it’s through this process of conversation and compromise that we move forward, together, step by step, towards a “more perfect union.” 

Looking out on you this morning, I feel very optimistic about the future of that union.  If you hold on to your idealism, resist complacency, take chances, and engage thoughtfully with the difficult challenges of our time, you will succeed.  And I can’t wait to see what you will accomplish.

Congratulations and good luck!