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Penn Commencement 2008
May 27, 2008, Volume 54, No. 34

Penn Commencement Address by Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of the City of New York, Monday, May 19, 2008.

Sharing ‘Four Virtues to Lead By’


Good morning, graduates, faculty, family, friends—Quakers one and all! Mr. Chairman, President, Provost Daniels, thank you for that kind introduction. I’ve never been compared to Ben Franklin before, but if the wig fits wear it. 

In gratitude, I will keep these remarks brief.  As big Ben himself wrote, ‘He that speaks much ... is much mistaken.’ And I’ll try to make that the last Franklin quote I use. Let me start by saying how honored I am to be here today, and to receive this honorary doctorate degree. My mother always wanted me to become a doctor. And my father, if he were alive today, would never have believed I got any degree.

When I was offered this degree, I asked President Gutmann if I needed to attend some classes here first to sort of get the hang of the place. She told me that she knew I was very busy so not to worry—but I explained I’d be happy to—if she could get me into the course taught by that actor from Harold and Kumar. She may be president, but it turned out, she couldn’t get me in. 

Still, this really is a dream come true: Who would have thought I’d be standing here in the legendary Franklin Field, where the Eagles used to play, where the movie Invincible was filmed, where Howard Cosell once famously got sick during a broadcast of Monday Night Football and where the rap star Ludacris recently uttered the immortal words: ‘It’s all piña coladas ... from here to the Bahamas!’

I’m a graduate of Johns Hopkins—a little school not very far to the south of here—but I really feel at home at Penn. First of all—just take a look at the University’s four big undergraduate schools.  It feels like a grand tour of my life: I went to a liberal arts college—much like Penn’s; I majored in engineering—another one of your great schools; I spent decades in the business world—think Wharton; and I’ve had a lifelong commitment to public health—which is what your nursing school really is all about. So the degree is a perfect fit.

And another thing:  where I work in New York, I’m surrounded by Penn alums: two of my deputy mayors, two press secretaries, my legal counsel, and my speechwriter’s brother, who is graduating here today.

Now, as you’d expect, I’m completely prepared for this occasion, ready to impart some indispensable words of wisdom—or dispensable ones, depending on your ability to focus after a night of carousing before graduation. But before I do, I want to recognize another special group: the parents and relatives—who are sitting out there this morning, beaming proudly, and they’re probably not even thinking about what it cost to get you to this day, or what happens if you don’t get a job and have to move back home.

It has been a great year at Penn—I know there’s a lot to celebrate. And perhaps the biggest event that we saw on New York television was just last month, when the Democratic presidential juggernaut rolled onto campus. Political rallies, policy discussions on Facebook, Steven Colbert, even a 1-2-3 punch from Hillary, Bill and Chelsea at the Palestra. The University of Pennsylvania in a political sense, really was the place to be. And that’s a tremendous tribute to your enthusiasm and activism.

For many of you—this November will be your first time voting in a presidential election. You’ve come of age in a period when no one can ever say, ‘My vote doesn’t matter’—because the election of 2000 proved that every vote counts. Or at least, every vote that didn’t have a hanging chad, but that’s another story.

You’re lucky. You’re getting to participate in what may go down as one of the most important elections in American history, so important that there was a period when some people were encouraging me to get into the race. I have to admit:  all the buzz was very exciting—and flattering, if you ever get the chance, do it. The covers of Time and Newsweek, people from Al Gore to Bono visiting City Hall.  Here is the most impressive part, I even got a small cameo role in the upcoming Sex and the City film. Unfortunately, my scene ended up on the cutting room floor. Turns out they wanted more sex and less city.

But in the end, I decided to stay with my current job—one that has 591 days left before I’m term-limited out—but who’s counting? And instead try to influence the country that my two daughters will inherit by speaking out as a concerned citizen, rather than a candidate.

Now, I’ve been a Democrat, a Republican and now I am an Independent.   So I think I can speak for many across the political spectrum. But I’m not here to tell you who to vote for—I don’t even know yet who I’m going to vote for. But I do want to share with you what I heard from the people as I traveled around the country. Over and over, I heard them speak of their desire, a president who will lead from the front, not follow what the pollsters say is politically astute at the moment—wherever they happen to be giving a speech. People want someone who can break the death grip that partisanship has on Washington, who can stand up to the pandering on trade and reject the reckless diplomacy which, together, are destroying our relationships around the world, and one who can mobilize both parties to confront the big, long-term problems they’ve been carefully avoiding—health care, immigration, Social Security, poverty, infrastructure, budget deficits, public education, you name it.

Now, there are some signs that this year’s crop of candidates might do just that. But they’re not going to do that without us pushing them. It’s going to take all of us, together, standing up and demanding more from Congress and from those who would lead our nation, demanding real change—not words, but deeds, and demanding real results—not next year—or after the next election, but now.

It’s not totally an overstatement to say our future is in your hands after you graduate. And rather than tell you how to lead your lives down the road—something you certainly don’t need from me after your excellent education at Penn—let me talk about what I think you should demand from those that want your vote. The candidates often talk about change and making a difference—but what does it really mean? Ben Franklin once compiled a list of ‘13 Virtues to Live By’ but let me take a few minutes to share my ‘4 Virtues to Lead By.’ They’ve served me well in business, in government, and in life.

And I think that if ‘we the people’—a phrase proclaimed just minutes away by horseback from here—challenge the presidential candidates to embrace these four, we can begin to change the culture of Washington and the course of American history.

So here we go: It all begins with the virtue of independence. That’s a word you’re probably used to hearing in this town but it seems to lose its meaning as you travel south on I-95. When you go to Washington now, you can feel a sense of fear in the air—a fear to do anything, or even say anything that might offend the special interests. This is paralyzing our federal government—and causing our leaders to shy away from common sense solutions.  For example: Today, this day, 34 Americans will be murdered with guns. And again tomorrow.  And the day after. America experiences a Virginia Tech massacre every single day!

The solutions are fairly obvious: since most murderers purchase and possess guns illegally, we need to crack down on the black market for illegal guns. Pretty basic stuff and it has nothing to do with the 2nd Amendment. But try finding a majority in Congress who is willing to stand up and be counted, who’s willing to take on the NRA. Democrats, Republicans, Independents—they’re all terrified! And people die as a result.  Children, parents, police officers. You’ve lived through it here in Philadelphia. Every day, innocent people lose their lives because Congress doesn’t have the spine to stand up to the special interests. A little more independence would go a long way toward reducing crime and solving many of our other serious problems. So starting here in Philadelphia, let’s help put independence, and independent leaders, back on the map.

The second ‘virtue to lead by’ is honesty. Ben Franklin said—another quote—I couldn’t help it:  ‘What you seem to be ... be really.’ Less spin.  More sincerity, or more spine. Here at Penn, you have all been fortunate to be part of an institution that’s always put an emphasis on practical thinking, real-world solutions, and sticking to the facts.  Don’t forget that—because there’s no better way to get your point across.  And you’ll find that even those who disagree with you will respect you for having the guts to give it to them straight. If only Washington would learn this lesson.

Today, we see people at the highest levels of government manipulating the facts to fit their own agendas—especially when it comes to science. You can see it at work in the decisions to restrict federal funding for stem cell research, or to refute proven methods that stop the scourge of AIDS here and around the world. It’s a phenomenon I like to call true “political science.” But we should never stifle scientific investigation or ignore the facts for the sake of ideology or short term political gain. That’s not only short-sighted ... it’s completely dishonest. You have a right to your own opinions—but not your own facts. That’s the key difference. There’s a saying I like: ‘In God we trust. All others bring data.’

The third virtue is accountability. Accountability means facing your responsibilities and never passing the buck. Anyone who works in the private sector understands this. But how often do we see accountability in politics? It’s missing from our efforts to improve education, to expand health care, even to confront the urgent challenges of climate change.  Cities across the country have been taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and become more sustainable. So have universities like Penn—which last month announced that it’s increasing its use of wind energy over the next few years.

But in Washington, just a little bit south of here, there’s no meaningful action, just talk of meeting goals in 2050 or 2070—when none of those legislators will even be alive. I don’t know about them—but we are breathing this air now, drinking our water today, stuck in traffic that’s stalling our economies this year and every day becoming more and more vulnerable to coercion and terrorism from oil-supplying dictatorships around the world that fear our freedoms. It’s easy to announce far-off, distant goals and then expect someone else to figure out how to pay for them and complete them.  Do any of you graduates feel like putting off your goals for 30 or 40 years?  I didn’t think so. It’s time Washington has the courage to tell the American people that there’s no free lunch—and the time to make difficult choices has arrived.  As New York Times columnist Tom Frieden said, ‘It’s too late for later.’

And that brings us to the last of my four virtues that make for great leaders, and successful individuals: And that is innovation. Good leadership means having the courage to think outside the box ... and never settling for the same old, tired ways of thinking. As Franklin wrote: ‘Do not fear mistakes—You will know failure.’ I’ve experienced failure, nothing big. Not everything I’ve tried has worked. In 1981, at the age of 39, I was fired from the only full-time job I’d ever had—a job that I loved.

But I have never let myself look back, and the very next day I took a chance and began my own company with the wild and innovative idea of making financial information available to people, right at their desktops. By the way, for the record being kept by those who fired me. It worked out just fine, thank you very much. And make no mistake: I’ll fail again—many times more if I stay active and try to push the envelope by innovating. For America, the key to innovation boils down to one word. You know what it is, it’s immigration.

The word I was thinking of, the key to innovation is immigration. Our nation’s greatest historic strength is that we’ve always welcomed the best and brightest from every corner of the globe. eBay, Google, Levi’s, Budweiser, they were all started by immigrants. That’s the story of New York, and it’s the story of Penn—which has the highest percentage of international students in the Ivy League.

And yet every year, Congress shuts the door to hundreds of thousands of doctors, scientists, engineers, and artists from around the world who want to come here. It’s the greatest case of national self-sabotage and attempted suicide I can imagine. If our country’s future is going to be as great as our past, we have to start realizing that immigrants have always been—and always will be—one of our greatest economic and cultural assets.

And that’s not a bad message to end with today. I have no doubt that the amazingly diverse experiences you’ve had at Penn are going to help you achieve great things. Some of you are going on to graduate school. Some of you are heading into the job market starting tomorrow. That can be scary, especially in this job market. To you, my advice is: find something that teaches, humbles, and exhilarates you.  And don’t despair if your career path doesn’t follow a straight line. Plenty of successful people are doing things that are radically different from where they started.

Look around you—that party animal who lived across from you in the Quad could be the next Donald Trump, that sophomore working at Van Pelt, the next Mayor Nutter, that bookish grad student, the next Candice Bergen. There will be ups and downs and sideways. I’ve been hired and fired, lauded and vilified.  But each day was a day I looked forward to—even that day in 1981 when I knew I was going to be fired from the job I loved because I’ve always felt that tomorrow will be even better. I have no doubt that, for the great class of ’08 that will be true, too. That tomorrow, you’ll embark on an unforgettable adventure. Tomorrow, with your newfound independence with honesty and accountability, and the spirit of innovation you’ll help build a better world. But today, you’ve earned the right to one last brew at Smokes.

And why not? A great American patriot—whom I’ve actually been compared to recently—supposedly said ‘Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.’ And to send you on your way, graduates, there is one more Quaker tradition I’d like to fulfill—especially here at Franklin Field: ‘A-toast-to-dear-old -Penn.’  Congratulations to all of you!




Almanac - May 27, 2008, Volume 54, No. 34