2005 Commencement Address

Dan Harris ’93
May 28, 2006

I have to say this day is astonishing and wonderful for me, and also, in many ways, richly ironic.

First, the fact that I am receiving an honorary doctorate and about to deliver an ostensibly serious commencement address will strike anybody who knew me in high school, especially my parents, who are right over here, as very, very surprising and perhaps downright irresponsible. I was – and this may be an understatement – a wretched high school student. There was an assistant principal who got into the habit of escorting me personally to math class every day.

There are nasty rumors that the only reason I actually got into Colby was that my dad knew the former dean, Earl Smith. I can’t confirm or deny this, but you can read whatever you want into the fact that my parents are actually staying with the Smiths this weekend.

It’s true that as a student here, I was pretty close with Dean Smith, and he would tell me how worried my parents were by my dismal academic showing in high school. At lunch one day he actually said, and this is a quote, he told me that my father had confided in him that he was pretty sure I was going to end up as a gas station attendant.

Lo and behold, here I am. Nobody’s more surprised than me, except maybe my dad.

There’s a second, and better reason, though, why today is so ironic and rich with meaning for me.

As it turned out, Colby was the perfect place for me. In part because the professors are so wonderful and in part because I was able to control what I could study for the first time – for example, I never took math here – I was able to excel. After actually applying myself for four years I managed to graduate with honors. My dad was relieved to the point where I think he almost cried.

But here’s the twist. On graduation day, as I was getting ready to accept my diploma, I was proud and puffed up, they called out my name as “David Harris.”

So I’d like to thank the Class of 2005 for this great honor, which is also inadvertently giving me a great gulp of sweet justice. And I don’t hold any grudges. But the person who I think called out my name – her initials are Janice Kassman.

And from now on I’m going to refer to her as “Janet.”

I’d also like to thank everybody on the Colby faculty and staff, and especially my host, Sandy Maisel, for their gracious treatment over the past couple months.

When Sandy called me to tell me that I was going to be delivering this address he literally said, “Are you sitting down?” Nobody’s ever said that to me before. He was right to brace me in this way because my first reaction was shock. My second and third emotions, which rolled over me in strong, successive waves, were fear and inadequacy.

Why inadequacy? One of my former roommates from Colby sent me an e-mail pointing out that former Colby Commencement speakers include one president, one secretary general of the United Nations, two Supreme Court justices, two Senate majority leaders, one secretary of state, and, now, one “punk” who had to be dragged by his ear to math class. Now I think at this point it’s worth pointing out that I consistently beat this former roommate in beer die for four years. (I knew that line was going to get the most applause.)

So I also mentioned that I felt fear. Why would I feel fear? Because what was I supposed to say to you? What, at my relatively young age, 33, which I think is still young – what sort of wisdom could I possibly have to impart to you?

I decided, consequently, to enlist someone with real life experience: my 85-year-old grandfather, Bob Johnson. Grandpa is a self-described curmudgeon who, back when he was working, went by the nickname “Sweet Old Bob.” If you made that into an acronym, it turns out to be “S.O.B.”

Someone, a few years back, gave him a computer. This was a questionable call. He’s gotten very handy with e-mail and he peppers all of his grandchildren with rather piquant emails on an almost daily basis. He sent me, free of charge and unsolicited, an entire commencement speech. I will be drawing from it liberally today. Much of it was vulgar and profane, so I’ll be careful.

Here’s a sanitized version of how Grandpa recommended that I begin this speech today:

“Good Morning. As I remember, the best part of graduation was last night. While not every single one of you is sleep deprived or hung over this morning, there are enough of you to stir pity in me as the thoughts of my own graduation morning still generate a dull headache.”

Grandpa goes on to say, “Perhaps I should direct my comments at your parents – or whomever it was that paid an ungodly sum of money for your time here – but I’m going to take a chance and talk directly to you.” More from my grandfather later.

With all due respect to my former professors, I never really liked lectures. So, to give you a sense of how long this talk will go, and where we are at every step of the way, and how close we are to the end, I’m going to give you an outline. This speech has three parts:

First, the funny part, which you just heard.

Second, the serious part, which I’m about to do.

And third, the obligatory advice.

So now a little substance.

When I was enrolled here, it was my sense that the vast majority of the students were liberal. That may have changed. I know a lot has changed in the past 12 years. You’ve got a lot of fancy new buildings, tougher admissions standards (somebody mentioned to me recently that I would probably have to be Dean Smith’s biological son to get in today), and I hear they’re now serving beer over in Dana. Janice – uh, Janet – told me this and I was shocked.

So things may have changed, but it is my sense – or at least for the purposes of this speech I’m just going to assume – that most, if not many of you lean left. Which means that some of you may have profoundly mixed feelings about what’s happening over in Iraq right now.

After the Iraqi elections back in January – which a lot of people in this country and around the world, with those ink-stained fingers held up in the air, found genuinely inspiring. After those elections there were signs of exquisite discomfort on the left.

Jon Stewart said on The Daily Show: “What if Bush… has been right … all along? I feel that my world view may not sustain itself and I may … implode.”

On a more serious note, Kurt Anderson, who writes for New York Magazine, wrote a column titled “When Good News Feels Bad,” which said that the elections posed a “major intellectual-moral-political problem” for liberals, many of whom take “pleasure” in bad news from Iraq … “half-consciously” hoping for Bush’s “comeuppance.”

Now clearly the situation on the ground has gotten worse in recent months since the elections, with the delay in the formation the government and the recent upsurge in violence. However, the “intellectual-moral-political problem” that Kurt Anderson refers to, I suspect, remains. Now this is not to say that anybody in this audience – or anybody in the country – would really rather see more people die than be proven wrong. However the notion of watching a war that many people thought was a mistake turn into a success would be, on some levels, for some people, frustrating.

I recently spent 10 days in Iraq, which was not enough time, by a long shot, to decide out who will ultimately be vindicated by history – either President Bush or his critics on the left. But I did see enough things to give ammunition to both sides in this debate.

On the one hand I was struck by how much better daily life is than it looks on TV or in the newspapers. I hadn’t been back to Iraq in about 18 months, since the period shortly after the war. I was enormously relieved to find that, to my eye at least, there hadn’t been any fundamental change in the temperament of the average Iraqi. These are some of the most friendly people I’ve ever met. Despite everything that’s happened over the past two years, many of them are still willing to chat up an American on the street. Many of them will still invite you into their home for tea.

As an aside: one of my favorite cultural quirks among the Iraqis is that when they “goodbye” they actually use the English word “hello.” So when, for example, we’re finishing up an interview with a bunch of people, I’ll shake everyone’s hand and say, “Thank you. Goodbye,” and they’ll say, “Hello.” I say that only to point out that the Iraqis are enormously charming in so many ways that you don’t get to see on TV.

On the other hand, many Iraqis are justifiably tired, disappointed, unemployed, and, above all, scared. The security situation in Baghdad is, I think it’s fair to say, quite dire.

Since my last visit, 18 months ago, on this most recent visit, I noticed some real changes. With ABC, we now travel in convoys of three armored cars, with squads of security guards with us all the time: Iraqi security guards and former special-forces guys from New Zealand and the U.K. We live in what is essentially a fortified compound. We’ve taken over a little street, and there are concrete roadblocks on either side of this little street. There are guys with guns at each roadblock, there are snipers on the roof, and there are men with AK47s patrolling the road. When I wanted to get any exercise, I literally had to run up and down this little road, zigzagging between the guys with guns.

Security is perhaps the most pressing problem in the country right now. In my brief visit, there was one thing that really stuck out to me as perhaps the biggest obstacle and the biggest opportunity when it comes to improving the security situation. I’m going to call it the “Sunni Problem.”

The Sunnis make up about 20 percent of the population. Under Saddam Hussein, who is a Sunni, they essentially ran the country. So when the regime fell, they were outnumbered and endangered. The Sunnis for many years formed the backbone of the insurgency that has killed so many Americans and so many more innocent Iraqis.

The Sunnis are showing signs that they may want to change this – many of them boycotted the elections – and they’re now showing signs that they think that was a mistake and it’s time to engage in the political process. On the one hand this is very positive. Sunni leaders told me their demands are modest. They want the current government, which is made up mostly of Shiites, who are the dominant ethnic group in the country right now, to give the Sunnis fair representation and to stop what they call a “witch-hunt” directed at anyone with any association with Saddam Hussein’s regime. If their demands are met, they say, most Sunnis will want to return to normal life.

On the other hand, many Shiites – who were slaughtered, tortured, and otherwise repressed by Saddam Hussein – are justifiably a little wary.

If the Sunni Problem isn’t solved, the consequences, I fear, could be catastrophic. As one Sunni leader told me: “We’re at a tipping point right now.” If the Sunnis feel there are good-faith negotiations to bring them to the table, many of the insurgents will put down their guns. If not the insurgency will expand. Many of the insurgent leaders are actually nervous about this, because they fear that the level of violence will increase to a degree that they cannot control it and there will be no turning back.

As I was leaving the country we got stuck at a roadblock on the airport road, apparently the most dangerous road in the country. We got stuck at a long roadblock by the U.S. Army. Sure enough, the mortars started coming in, and American soldiers started running out, shooting their guns.

As I sat helplessly watching out my car window, which at that moment I was thanking God was bulletproof, or allegedly bulletproof, I thought there are two ways to look at this situation in Iraq right now. A pessimist could make a case that it’s an unfixable morass doomed to disintegrate into civil war. An optimist, however, could make the point – and this is something that many of us in this country are familiar with – that democracy is a slow and a messy process. And especially so in a country where democracy is new and where lawlessness is widespread.

As I finish up this serious part, I want to urge you not to tune out news coverage of Iraq, even though it often seems like nothing more than a litany of attacks. Whether you agree with the war or not, it may be the most consequential foreign policy step this nation has taken in a generation, and we all have a stake in the outcome. Success or failure, I think it’s fair to say, will impact all of our security and this country’s standing in the world.

Now that I’m in finger-wagging mode, I’m going to move to the third and final portion, which is advice. Three things:

First, I urge you not to take for granted the piece of paper you’re getting today – your degree.

I recognize that liberal arts are somewhat out of fashion. The New York Times wrote an article recently that said liberal arts is “under siege”… that “critics… call it an overpriced indulgence”… and that “fewer and fewer of today’s undergraduates are pursuing the liberal arts, with most of them studying practical subjects, like finance, marketing, real estate, and pharmacy.” (They didn’t mention dentistry.)

I have nothing critical to say about these choices. But for my money – or, more accurately, my parents’ money – I will take the liberal arts education any day. What these people over here [gesturing toward the faculty] have given you, I hope – and, I hope, me – is an openness of mind, a base of knowledge, and an ability to formulate and articulate arguments that will be a huge advantage in your life and your work.

Back to my grandfather. This is how he puts it in his speech. “You have learned how to learn. This is what will help you know the difference between a job that’s just work… and one that is pure joy. Never lose the capacity to learn, or your life will change from living to just existing.”

Which brings me to the subject of career choices – and my second piece of advice, which is going to sound weird at first, but bear with me. Fear is both your friend and your enemy.

Fear, for example, can protect you.

My grandfather wanted me to tell you about how I was covering the Afghan war in the mountains of Tora Bora and a sniper took a shot at me and my crew. He wanted me to say that I “threw myself on the ground in a very undignified and inglorious manner.”

This fictionalized account – and I say “fictionalized” because the way in which I threw myself on the ground was, in my opinion, quite graceful – does contain a nugget of truth. Obviously, if somebody is shooting at you, you should duck. Fear is good.

Let me put it in more subtle terms by quoting my father, who has an expression: “The price of security is insecurity.” It’s a terrible thing to tell a twelve year old; it’ll ruin your life. But you guys are old enough to handle it, I think. I agree with this. A healthy dose of fear, insecurity, whatever you want to call it, can lead to careful decision making and good preparation.

But, as I said, fear can be both your friend and your enemy. You cannot let it paralyze you. There’s something comforting, I’ve learned in my years as a journalist, that I hope will mitigate any fear you might feel as you go about making career decisions.

What I’ve learned is that things that from a distance seem intimidating, daunting, scary, are often, upon close inspection, just the opposite.

I learned this by covering such stories as the dotcom boom, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, and Saddam Hussein. Now these stories are obviously all not connected in any way – except that they all started with massive hype and ended with a sudden, violent implosion.

Another example is the Taliban, oddly enough. In late 2001, while the U.S. was still bombing Afghanistan, the Taliban invited a group of journalists, including this one, to come in and see the bomb damage first hand.

I was terrified, quite naturally. I did it anyway As it turned out, however, the Taliban – or at least the low-level guys who drove us around – were anything but scary. Yes, they had guns. Yes, they had beards and turbans and they could look scary. But they were essentially scared kids from the countryside. As I was preparing to leave the country after this brief visit, one of them actually took me by the arm and said, “Take me to America.”

So I encourage a healthy dose of fear and insecurity, but you cannot let it hold you back from calculated risks.

And that’s my third and final piece of advice: take risks, especially right now, at your age.

I do remember, as my grandfather said before, what it felt like to sit in your seats. (Except my graduation was outside because the weather was good.) And, despite what my grandfather said, I actually wasn’t hung over. I was a little hung over, but mostly what I was feeling was depression. I was looking down the barrel at the rest of my life, and I had no idea what to do. I suspect some of you understand how that feels.

My mother, however, had some valuable guidance. She said I was 21 years old, I didn’t have much to lose, so I should pick the coolest thing I could think of to do and give it a shot. So I had done a few internships in TV news and I thought that was pretty cool. So I started looking around for jobs. I applied all over the country and I was rejected for reporter jobs in some of the smallest TV markets in the nation, including Presque Isle, Maine, population: 9,511. I finally got a job up in Bangor, Maine. The job was part time (five hours a day), paid $5.50 an hour, and involved writing scripts and operating the camera in the studio. There were vague promises that at some point I might be promoted to a reporter. So I told my mother about this, and she said that was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard.

I tell you this because her guidance, if not her follow through, was terrific. She denies this, by the way, to this day. I can’t imagine a more exciting career. I am still surprised every time they let me through security at ABC.

It’s hard to find a way to say what I’m going to say here in conclusion without sounding sappy. But the best piece of concrete advice I can give you is really to obey those clichés from the after-school specials: “follow your dreams,” “just do it,” “carpe diem,” etc. When you’re young, you really can afford to take a few hits. I say dream up the most exciting possible career you can think of and give it a shot. In my experience, the rewards can be tremendous. This sort of calculated risk can mean the difference between a career that is, as my grandfather says, just work or pure joy.

I want to wish you good luck. And I also want to say thank you again for this astounding honor.

Dan Harris was the commencement speaker at Colby on May 22, 2005. Harris graduated from Colby summa cum laude in 1993 and received an honorary doctorate at the 2005 ceremony.

Harris got his start in journalism reporting for NBC affiliates in Bangor and Portland and was named an ABC News correspondent in 2000. Before going to ABC he was an anchor at New England Cable News, America’s largest regional cable news network. He reports for World News Tonight With Peter Jennings, Good Morning America, and Nightline, and he has covered many of the biggest news stories in the world in the last five years.

Harris reported from Ground Zero in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, from Afghanistan and Iraq in wartime, and from Pakistan and Israel. He covered the Democratic presidential primaries and John Kerry’s campaign for ABC and is currently reporting on, among other things, religion and America’s culture wars. For his work he has won an Associated Press Award for political coverage, a regional Emmy for feature stories, and a duPont Award for in-depth coverage.


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