Text of Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker's remarks
President Ainlay, Trustees, Faculty, Union team members – thanks very much for giving me this opportunity to speak with you today. And congratulations to all the graduates and their families. Collectively, you have all worked hard to make this happen. And while we honor you today, I hope you know that the journey is what really matters.
True confessions – I’ve been to three of my own graduations – high school, college and graduate school. I do not remember who spoke at my high school graduation. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl spoke at my college graduation. I do not remember what he said. And General Motors CEO Roger Smith spoke at my business school graduation. I do not remember what he said, either.
So I recognize the extremely high bar I have to climb over to say something worthwhile. You got three hours of sleep last night. Your rooms are half packed in boxes. And I am all that stands between you and your diploma.
So let’s try this. You are graduating from a remarkable school. Union College has an extraordinary history. Over 80 Union graduates have served in the U.S. House and Senate. Among them, former U.S. Sen. William Seward. Sen. Seward challenged Abraham Lincoln for the Republican nomination for President in 1860, and after his loss to Lincoln, became Lincoln’s secretary of state, and one of his most trusted advisors. So trusted, in fact, that the plot to kill President Lincoln, which succeeded, included another effort that same night to kill Seward. It failed – but only because eight members of Seward’s family and house staff – along with Seward – suffered grievous injuries defending themselves during the attack.
Among other things, we can thank Seward for the decision to purchase what became the state of Alaska – which was routinely called “Seward’s Ice Box” during his time in Washington, D.C.
You should also know that one Union grad – Alexander Rice – served as mayor of Boston, Congressman, and…um…the 30th governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!
More recent alums include Neil Abercrombie – longtime public servant and governor of Hawaii from 2010 to 2014; Sue Goldie, an HIV/AIDS Researcher and recipient of a McArthur Genius Fellowship; Kate White, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine, inventor of the Bailey Weggins true crime novels, and the best-selling author of more than 15 books; Andy Miller, a former senior executive at Apple and co-owner of the Sacramento Kings; Mat Bodie, who led the Union hockey team on an incredible run all the way to a Division I National Collegiate Hockey Championship in 2014.
But there is one other Union alum I’d like to spend just a few minutes discussing today. In part, because – like me – he spent a big part of his life in public service. But mostly because I’ve walked by his statue on this campus dozens of times over the course of the past four years, and am constantly reminded when I do about how short our memories really are.
History has not been kind to Chester Arthur, and I think that stinks. You should know that the 21st president of the United States was an exceptional man in many, many ways. Politician turned writer / journalist / historian Alexander McClure – who was one of Abraham Lincoln’s most important political supporters – once said of President Arthur that, “No man ever entered the presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no ever retired more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.”
Graduates – I want you to think about that for a minute. When James Garfield and Chester Arthur ran for president and vice president in 1880, the country was very divided. In fact, they won the popular vote by less than 5,000 votes – out of 9 million cast. The final was 48.27% to 48.25%. Each side won 19 states. The Senate and the House were almost exactly evenly split, and the country was still recovering from the wounds of the Civil War.
Arthur became president in 1881, on the heels of Garfield’s assassination – with the task of moving the country forward, despite its deep divisions.
And he did just that. His appointments were first-rate and surprising – because he ignored the spoils system that dominated the politics of that time. In fact, he worked across the aisle with his political allies and opponents to enact and then implement the first national civil service system in the federal government’s history – replacing the patronage hierarchy that had existed for over 100 years.
By all accounts, he was a gentleman. And a very smart guy. He was Phi Beta Kappa as a Union graduate, and as an up-and-coming attorney, tried and won the case that desegrated the New York City streetcar lines.
He was also accused – and if this part sounds familiar, it is supposed to – of not being a U.S.-born citizen when he ran for vice president. His family had moved a lot in his early life – and he was first accused of being born in Ireland, and later accused of being born in Canada. He was actually born in Vermont. But some things in politics never seem to go away.
He was also fairly sick during the last two years of his presidency. He had nephritis – a kidney disease – which he worked hard to keep private. But by the end of his term, it was clear he was not in good health. As a result, he chose not mount a significant bid for re-election. He died in 1886 – 20 months after he left office – at the age of 57.
Upon his death, Mark Twain said, “It would be hard, indeed, to better President Arthur’s Administration.”
I don’t know why history has not had more to say about our 21st president. Even a small amount of research shows he was a great man who lived a purposeful and very meaningful life.
But Arthur, for reasons I have yet to figure out, burned all his papers when he knew the end was near, and passed on as he had lived. With quiet dignity.
I didn’t spend time today on President Arthur just because his statue is right there. I brought him up because there is an important lesson here. Chester Arthur was a stand-up guy. Throughout his personal and professional life, he was a man of his word, and he treated everyone with dignity and respect. New York politics in the 1800s was a very rough and tumble business. But he was universally referred to as a gentlemen among brawlers. And a man who lived by a code that was built on trust and decency.
As someone who has spent much of my adult life in the public square, I admire this. Deeply. It is so easy to succumb to the insult. The barb. The clever cut against one’s foes. Especially when the country was as divided as it was in the late 1800s.
These days, social media and the 24/7 news cycle have thrown gasoline on the fire, and turned character assassination and degradation into an art form.
That’s why we should admire people like Chester Arthur. People who choose to rise above the noise and nonsense around them. I would ask all of you – as the next class of Union alums – to appreciate the value and the importance of civility in your personal and professional lives.
It might be hard sometimes to turn the other cheek, but it’s not as hard as some suggest. And over time, it will serve you well.
As my dad has often said, “When people see two folks fighting, they’re pretty sure one of them is a jerk. They just don’t know which one.”
Don’t be the jerk.
Two more thoughts.
First – don’t settle for average. Chester Arthur never settled for that. Be more and do more than that. And this has nothing to do with money. Many of the people I admire most in life never made a lot of money, but they live amazing lives.
They are great friends. Wonderful parents. Spectacular neighbors. Devoted partners. Shockingly good musicians. Sports trivia geniuses. Astonishing youth sports coaches. Super funny story tellers. And brilliant home improvement do-it-yourselfers.
They are present. They listen. They laugh. They appreciate the gift we’ve all been given, and they try to make the most of their time here on Earth.
Second – stretch yourself – and don’t be afraid to fail. The great artist Michaelangelo once said, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
Anybody who does anything that matters fails at some point along the way. Failure is almost always an important part of ultimate success. I ran against former Gov. Deval Patrick in 2010 and lost. But Lauren and I learned a ton from the experience, and I sincerely doubt I would have won in 2014 if I hadn’t run and lost in 2010. And early on in my career, I got counseled out of a job, not because I was horribly bad at it, but because I wasn’t all that good. I was down about it, but a friend of mine said to me, “You know, there’s a reason why the Germans make cars and the French make wine. It’s what they’re good at. This was not the right fit for you.”
He was right. I didn’t fail. I just found a job that didn’t work for me.
The great inventor Thomas Edison put it best. “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
So – to be sure you remember something from what I’ve said today…
Don’t be a jerk.
Don’t settle for average.
Don’t be afraid to fail.
Finally, your next act is just getting started. The slate is clean, and the next chapter, and every chapter after that, is up to you.
Please – make the most of it. Don’t waste this precious chance you have to make a difference. The opportunities are everywhere. You just need to find them – and go get ‘em.
And Go Dutchmen!