Cynthia McFadden's 2008 Graduation Speech
Columbia Law School
May 22, 2008
Dean Schizer, distinguished faculty, celebrated alumni, delighted (and relieved) parents:
What a happy day.
To the graduates of the class of 2008: congratulations. In a world with so much to worry about let today be a day of joy.
First, let me say thank you to the class for the invitation. I am honored to be back in Morningside Heights.
I begin with a confession… I graduated from this outstanding law school 24 years ago. Since then I have had the privilege of reporting the news from around the world --- from El Salvador where I interviewed a confessed killer as he sat with a very large gun in his lap and told he knew when he killed someone in the US he could flee to Salvador and never face extradition….
---- To Bosnia where I walked through a cleared mine field not knowing I was pregnant…
---- to Mumbai where I ran smack up against police corruption while doing an under-cover report on the sale of children into sexual slavery
---- to Mexico where we made our way into a series of mental hospitals with our cameras rolling --- places with some of the worse human rights violations in the world--- and got the facilities closed and the system changed.
----- to Pakistan where President Musharaff's public relations guy, a general in the army, stood up to stop my interview with the President and without thinking I told him to sit down and hold his horses. Oops. My producer later said she had visions of our old age spent in Pakistani prison. But General PR did sit down and we did finish. And listen - it didn't turn out so bad, I've interviewed the President two times since.
But none of these sometimes terrifying experiences has made me as nuts --- as nervous, as out-right crazy ---as coming back up here to talk today.
I have given a good deal of thought to this as of late. Part of the reason I suspect is because I was not a terribly good law student. I floated along in the vast middle of the class. I wish I could tell you it was because I didn't really care and I wasn't really trying. But that isn't true.
It was tough. I had applied to law school because I wanted to be a journalist and the only journalist I had ever met said I should go learn something about something after college so after working of a few years for to tuition money…. I picked law school.
The first week it was clear I had no idea what I had gotten myself in for… Imagine this: Hans Smit's class. Civil Proceedure. I raised my hand – already a bad idea--- to ask a question--- "but WHY was such and such was the rule? "
"Miss McFadden," he scolded, "WHY is never an appropriate question in this classroom."
I knew immediately it was going to be a rough ride. I was --- and remain --- all about why. As my old colleague Peter Jennings used to say: A journalist is someone who went handed a dollar wants to turn it over to see what's on the other side.
For the record, Professor Smit became one of my favorite teachers. I don't mean to ruin his carefully constructed reputation as a tough guy but he knew I needed a job to stay in school and tried hard to force Cravath to hire me the summer after my first year--- not for my legal mind but --- let's give it a nice name---- for my tenacity. Thanks Professor Smit.
Anyway, my presence here today should give all you folks who didn't make the law review--- who never understood the rule against perpetuities and who might even have rotated your attendance in criminal procedure with your two best girlfriends…. And shared the notes….not that any of you would ever do that… Well, I'm here for you.
Nonetheless, every graduation day speech presents a fundamental problem: what to say. A colleague at ABC drolly offered…oh just tell them how you "did it." Of course he got on the elevator before I could ask, "did what?"
Had a baby in the ninth inning? Interviewed Madonna yesterday in Cannes? Sat in a nest of 18 gorillas in Rwanda last month?
So while I vowed I would not resort to career advice, that's what I've got.
First let me speak to the females in the class: The US is doing worse than ever in gender equality… .last year dropping from 23 rd in the world---- not so great in the first place--- to a disappointing 31st place. Falling behind South Africa, Cuba, Columbia, Bulgaria, Moldova and Nambia. You will be relieved to know we are still one spot above Kazakhstan.
13 percent of our Congress is female; women make 77 cents for every male dollar. You get the point. So buck up.
Lest that sound too dreary, I will now pass on to all of you--- this advice is gender neutral --- the only four pieces of career advice that have NEVER failed me.
The first ---was given to me by my father. On this very day 24 year ago. I had just graduated from law school…. I grew up in Maine and was the first person in my family to go to college. So perhaps you can imagine the pride my father felt as we walked across the campus that day… He had spent 42 years working for the phone company. He stopped in the center of the quad, paused a long moment and looking up at the statute of Alma Mater said, " just remember one thing little girl, you've struggled real hard to get this degree…. Now it is up to you to find work that gives you joy. Anyone can have a job they don't like. "
So make sure you don't.
Rule two came from journalistic giant Fred W. Friendly. The former President of CBS News--- the man who produced Edward R. Murrow. Younger members of the audience may know him as the guy George Clooney played in "Good Night and Good Luck" ---- Fred would have gotten a good laugh out of being portrayed as the sauve, silent partner. He was big--- six five or so--- and he was rarely silent. I once asked him if it were true that he had thrown a chair at Eric Sevareid when he had refused to go to Vietnam--- "ASOLUTELTY FALSE CYNTHIA……it was a desk." And by the way, he refused to let CBS repair the hole in the wall, a strategic reminder.
Anyway, I was working for Fred on a public television series on the Presidency and I had made some awful mistake--- what it was now escapes me--- but it was bad and you can imagine I was scared… I ventured into Fred's office, head hung low. Fred pointed to a picture on the wall. "See that, " he said pointing to a series of four little photographs I confess I had never noticed before.
"Yes," I said, "it is someone hitting a baseball."
"That is not just someone, Cynthia, THAT is Babe Ruth … the greatest ball player of all time, and he's not hitting the baseball he is striking out. All the greats do. "
So rule two is: If you don't strike out once in a while you are not in the game.
Fred also provided rule three: it came in picture form as well. One day at a screening a colleague suggested taking a sound bite from the end of an interview and moving it to the beginning. Fred did not approve of such editing. Urging him to make the changes another young producer said "And after all Fred, who would ever know?"
Fred reared back and this time
pointed to a framed New Yorker cartoon. The picture was of a desert island, a lone palm tree swaying over a woman looking out to sea and a man standing behind her--- it is clear the man has just propositioned her. Arms folded the woman says, " I'd know that's who'd know." It was Fred's mantra, it has become mine.
My final rule: is from Katharine Hepburn. at least she played a lawyer once…. In Adam's Rib –and strangely enough she and I were friends --- and while that is a story for another day ----her philosophies of life have shaped mine.
I was offered a new job. My first as an on-air reporter. I wanted it desperately but was afraid I would fail. I went to Kate's for dinner. --- I told her--- "the good thing is he's offering me a three-year contract--- so even if I stink I am still employed!"
She looked at me with horror. "HEAVENS NO! You must sign for as short a time as you can. If you're good you want them to have to pay you a lot more money and if you're bad you want to be able to get the hell out. "
"When you are young," she continued, " you must always bet on yourself." I signed for one year. I was good. And he did pay.
So rule four: Bet on yourself. Take a chance. I hate to quote a greeting card on an occasion as important as this one but here goes "what would you do if failure weren't an option." What indeed.
I wanted to leave you with words of inspiration and insight. I looked back across the centuries from Aristotle and Plato through Jefferson and Lincoln. I found myself drawn to one fine mine. One of the most insightful thinkers of my generation: Jon Stewart.
Ok so it's fake news… but I say the fake news is good for the real news business…. The jokes aren't funny if you don't follow the real stuff…. Anyway, a few years back Jon Stewart spoke at his alma mater, William and Mary. Here is part of what he had to say:
"Let's talk about the real world for a moment…. I wanted to bring this up with you earlier about the real world, and this is I guess as good a time as any. I don't know how to put this, so I will be blunt. We broke it.
Please don't be mad. I know we were supposed to bequeath to the next generation a world better than the one we were handed. So sorry.
I don' know if you've been following the news lately but it just sort of got away from us….we heard this kind of a pinging noise and uh, then the damn thing just died on us. So I apologize."
Well, he's got a point doesn't he. I was in China last spring where 70 percent of the water is so polluted tit is not suitable for industrial use. I was in Rwanda last month where the average yearly income is less than 250 dollars a year. In India I was reminded that 150 million children go to sleep every night in this world with no parent to protect them. And in the Appalachian mountains a month ago I was reminded you do not have to travel so far from home to see the soul-deadening effects of poverty.
But you are being your new lives just as America is re-evaluating it's self. The latest poll numbers show 81 percent… of the American people believe our country is headed on the wrong track… Fareed Zakaria --- the editor of the International edition of Newseek and a true intellectual wrote last week that the level of American doom is at the lowest ebb in the last 25 years.
American anxiety, he writes, springs form something much deeper, than worry about terrorism or the foreclosure rates or even gas prices….. but rather from a sense "that large disruptive forces are coursing through the world. In almost every industry, in every aspect of life, the patterns of the past are being scrambled…. And for the first time in living memory--- the United States does not seem to be leading the charge."
Fareed calls it the "rise of the rest"… meaning of course the rest of the world. He writes "just as the world is opening up, we are closing down. " I commend his new book to you and I call on you as he does to use your fine minds and hungry hearts to make change.
My pal Miss Hepburn often said that there was only so much school could teach, quoting Disraeli, "all you can expect to learn at a university is what is ROT and what is not."
She said, "if you've learned that you've learned judgment and with good judgment you can do anything. It is really a question of when to say yes, when to say no, when to say maybe. And when to say nothing."
That last one is hard for me. But a good place to end. My best wishes follow you.