Commencement Address at Proctor Academy

Andover, NH | June 2, 1973

But I hope that you will not stand outside -- that you will participate in some way in politics -- not despite Watergate, but because of it -- because you believe that politics need not be as bad as some politicians have tried to make it.

This is a joyful time -- for you; for your parents, who worked for you and sometimes worried about you as you learned; and for the other men and women of proctor academy, who are surely sad to see you leave, but who also know that your leave-taking is a natural and fulfilling moment of life.

Yet I am not here merely to congratulate you or them. Now more than ever, you have a right to expect a blunt honesty from someone like me. In the wake of Watergate, those of us who believe in the American system owe something more than the traditional commencement cliches to those of you who are asked to accept and perfect that system.

The commencement day cliche has it that you are about to go out into the world. The real question should be what kind of world this is and will become.

That question was important, too, at my graduation nearly forty years ago. It was the depth of the great depression. Millions were without work; millions more toiled long hours for little reward; money was devalued and a long darkness had fallen over economic energy and enterprise. But we had one consolation in those days; in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, as we faced our common difficulties, we at least knew that "... [t]hey concern[ed], thank god, only material things."

You do not have that consolation today. Though we surely face economic challenges, it is not primarily our wealth that has been laid waste. It is pre-eminently the ideals that gave our land nationhood and our nation a meaning beyond mere existence.

Because those ideals remained fresh -- because they were kept, however imperfectly, by our leaders -- generations of Americans have been proud of their country and secure in their liberty. America was an example to history and the envy of mankind.

But not now. Now we know that at the highest levels of our public trust, men chose to commit evils instead of correcting them. We know that men who swore a solemn oath of service plotted to bug and to burglarize some of us -- and than to conceal that terrible truth from all of us. Today you know, even as you celebrate, that your graduation has come at the crest of a government crime wave without precedent in our history.

This is not a partisan issue. Our disillusion is not Democratic or Republican; it reaches adherents of both parties and citizens on every side, and the determination to find the truth does not mark a political division; it has united senators as diverse as Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, Sam Ervin and Jacob Javits.

Nor is this a distant and abstract issue, created in Washington, reported on television, but irrelevant to the course of your own lives. For the amorality of Watergate could become the morality of our society. English journalist Peter Jenkins has already observed america's "apparent unconcern with commercial mendacity: in advertising lying seems to be considered fair game."

And early this month, the New York Times published a profile of someone involved in Watergate who, a few years ago, could have been almost anyone of you. Hugh Sloan was the Treasurer of the Committee to Re-Elect the President. He is in his early 30s, a graduate of Hotchkiss and Princeton, a husband, a father, and now a successful businessman. He says of his experience in the white house:

"There was no independent sense of morality there. I mean, if you worked for someone, he was God, and whatever he said, you did." Hugh Sloan tried to tell the truth about Watergate. Now he is gone from Washington and from politics, and glad of it. In his words, "I learned one thing in politics -- if you go into it for a career... sooner or later you have to compromise. You either compromise or get out. It just sooner or later takes the edge off your values."

How tragic it is that a young man feels he must choose between his integrity and public affairs. How far we have fallen from the time when John Kennedy told us -- and taught us to believe – that " the best means of service...for our country."

If you believe that it is instead a dirty business, as Hugh Sloan apparently does, then Watergate is perhaps less relevant to you, though no less threatening -- for the security of every citizen depends upon the rule of law over all citizens. If the government commits crimes -- if public officials break and enter and spy on innocent people -- then no one is safe, in politics or outside of it.

But I hope that you will not stand outside -- that you will participate in some way in politics -- not despite Watergate, but because of it -- because you believe that politics need not be as bad as some politicians have tried to make it.

There are others who have made it a worthy and honest profession. Robert Taft and Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson -- as politicians they sometimes disagreed about policy; but like most political leaders in both parties, they kept a common commitment to a politics of civility and decency. And that has been my experience. Never once as Director of the Peace Corps or the War on Poverty, or as George McGovern' s running mate in 1972, was I ordered or asked to do something that, in Mr. Sloan's words, took the edge off my values.

All presidents and all candidates have made mistakes; but in the past, they have been mistakes, not crimes.

Politics should not be a war of tricks and sabotage; it should be a place of peaceful co-existence among fellow citizens, a process of reasoned persuasion, a competition of ideas and dreams.

That is what it once was -- and that is what we must restore.

Above all else, let us say that national security is intended to protect our country from danger, not politicians from the people.

In recent days, we have witnessed an attempt to misuse national security to excuse Watergate. They have already made politics a dirty word; now they are about to make national security a dirty phrase.

In the name of national security, wiretaps were authorized against loyal Americans; burglars were paid from public funds; evidence was burned; crime was condoned; and justice has been obstructed.

This is not national security at all. It is our liberty under siege in an unbrave new world.

And it is national weakness. Watergate has weakened the nation abroad. Our own negotiators admit it. Virtually every commentator reports it. And our oldest friends in Europe are now calling American politics "a cesspool". Watergate has also weakened the credibility of our system in the eyes of our own people. Yet it is upon the people that security ultimately depends -- they pay for it, always with their treasure, sometimes with their blood and their lives.

Never can we afford to undermine even a little the conviction that America is something worth preserving and perfecting.

So as a free society we must have a fair politics. The principles at the center of such a politics may have been temporarily excluded from the center of power, but they are among us waiting only to be applied again. They are not complicated, though they are some-times hard -- after all, no one likes to lose. But even in politics, there are some things more important than victory. honesty, truth and integrity are those things. They are not liberal or conservative issues, but human values. They are not striking new solutions, but old words, perhaps overused, that express the essential conditions of democratic government.

Webster's collegiate dictionary defines a politician as "often, one primarily interested in political offices or the profits from them as a source of private gain."

Unfortunately, it is now easy for many Americans to accept that definition.

Our challenge is to change their minds. Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, partisans of the president or his opponents, we must make politics once again a proud object of endeavor for every citizen.

So what I would like you to take from here today is not only our congratulations, but your commitment that in the years ahead, you will not only live under the American system -- you will also work to make the system live up to its best ideals.

I hope you will not drop out of politics. Instead help to drive out all that is low and mean in it.

I hope you will take a place and a part in the free governing of America. For if I may be permitted an intentional cliche, it is still true that each new generation can change things for the better. And after Watergate, it is more important than ever that you try.