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Stanford Report, June 17, 1998

Text of Ted Koppel's Commencement address: 6/98

Koppel: 'Aspire to decency; practice civility'

This is the text of Ted Koppel's commencement address on June 14.

I think it was back in early March that President Casper called to invite me here today, and there were two things about the conversation that stuck with me after we hung up. When I pointed out that I had been the commencement speaker here at Stanford once before and would that be an obstacle, I was actually fishing for an exuberant endorsement along the lines of "Yes, I know, and we never even considered inviting anybody else back." But instead, while it was clear that Gerhard knew I'd done this before ­ indeed, I had the distinct impression that he had not only read, but corrected, my earlier speech ­ the tone of his voice suggested that this invitation might be in spite of my first commencement address and not because of it. And then I recalled that the last time Stanford invited me was only because Mikhail Gorbachev turned you down at the last minute. And then the phrase "that mess in Washington" began to resonate. I recall Gerhard suggesting a general topic for my speech, and it had something to do with "that mess in Washington."


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Now, I'm a great believer in word association as a memory enhancer, but the system is anything but infallible. Two of your more venerable professors were chatting about it only last night. One of them was bemoaning his inability to remember names, and the other said that he had been working with a memory expert who relied heavily on word association. "Really," said the one professor, "I'd love to consult with her. What's her name?" "Bush," said the first professor. "Bush, bush, bush, rosebush, rose bush. Rosebush. Rose. Rose, Rose, what the hell is the name of that doctor you sent me to?"

Anyway, that's what I was left with, after my first conversation with Gerhard Casper: The distinct impression that I was being given another chance, and that I had been commissioned to deliver something profound on events surrounding "the mess in Washington." Which, while helpful in the arena of word association seemed, nevertheless, fraught with peril. So, I asked Gerhard to write me a letter, spelling out exactly what he had in mind. And he did. A long, thoughtful, provocative letter, reflecting his profound concerns over the erosion of any distinction in America today between what is public and private; and the attendant evolution of law enforcement, not only as the primary vehicle for "getting at sin," but also as a main source of entertainment in our society. It truly is a fine letter; and if, for any reason, you decide to print the text of my speech, I would suggest that you also print a copy of the antecedent. It deserves to be read to you in its entirety; but, always sensitive to a commencement speaker's first obligation to "keep it short," I'm going to limit myself to reading an excerpt:

"Can a society," President Casper asks, "that essentially obliterates all distinction between the public and the private realm be a free and civilized one in the long run? The fact that there is much sin does not necessarily mean that we can afford to eradicate all of it without turning society into something both oppressive and trivial." Then, after quoting from a friend's book, which focuses on a disturbing collection of dreams engendered by the complete absence of privacy in Nazi Germany, Dr. Casper goes on to write: "I am obviously not suggesting that we are becoming like the Third Reich. Still, it behooves us to make sure that even segments of our social and political life do not resemble some aspects of life under totalitarian rule."

Now there's a provocative starting point. If, after all, the eradication of all sin requires the effective elimination of all privacy, and if that, in turn, leads to the establishment of a trivial, oppressive, perhaps even totalitarian society, then it surely follows that a substantive and free society must be prepared to tolerate at least some sin. And that leads us, quite naturally, to the devices that tolerant societies employ to handle an acceptable level of sin: hypocrisy and privacy. They are fragile and ambiguous devices, to be sure. At which point, after all, does the tolerable sin metastasize into an unacceptable one? The standard has shifted over the years. Only a generation or two ago, for example, most cases of spousal or child abuse were protected by society's rigid distinction between what properly belongs in the public realm and what should remain private. Other implied rights of privacy clearly helped perpetuate any number of evils; among them, bigotry and racism. They permitted country clubs, universities, entire neighborhoods to engage in patterns of religious and racial exclusion. What, after all, were we about when we created our private clubs and private schools? If, as my friend Gerhard suggests, the elimination of all privacy is the goal of a totalitarian state; then, surely, a tolerance of too much privacy would seem to lead, initially, to simple permissiveness; and ultimately to a form of moral chaos. The proper goal of a free society has to be a finely calibrated balance between tolerance and moral rectitude. Whereas what we have in America today approaches a caricature of that; virtually a negative image. We are at least teetering on the brink of tolerating the unacceptable and focusing the full force of our moral outrage on the trivial. We live in a society that not only tolerates but rewards Jerry Springer and Larry Flynt, while simultaneously removing Huckleberry Finn and Shakespeare from the curricula of some of our schools and universities, lest they offend. We permit the archdeacons of political correctness to twist our language and behavior into parodies of sensitivity, while simultaneously, the language at large, our entertainment and our general behavior have become cruder, coarser and less sensitive than at any time in my memory.

We follow the evolution of "that mess in Washington" with a sense of discomfort that is eased only by a reliance on precisely the two devices that society employs when logic fails. We mix ourselves a toxic little cocktail of privacy and hypocrisy: "I don't care what he does in his private life," we tell one another with a nudge and a wink. "The economy's doing great." Which poses at least one potentially troubling question: If the economy collapses, does a focus on the president's character then become more appropriate?

What we have done in America today is to turn ethics into a commodity. Virtue may still be its own reward, but we lose touch with its meaning when we allow it to be defined by the standards of the marketplace or the political arena. The equation really couldn't be much simpler: When people, in large numbers, consistently reward bad behavior, then, inevitably, we perpetuate that sort of behavior. To suggest that a vibrant economy somehow renders questions of morality irrelevant reduces ethics to a business proposition; one set to be applied when things are going well, another when the economy is in trouble. But that is surely not the message that my generation wants to pass on to yours. We can't synchronize our moral values with each surge or decline in the market. I doubt that there is a parent here today who wants his son or daughter to believe that what is unacceptable in bad times is tolerable when things are going well. Which brings me to President Casper's concern about our reliance on law enforcement these days as the primary vehicle for "getting at sin," and law enforcement as our main source of entertainment.

I believe ­ and perhaps, Gerhard, this is where you were leading me ­ I believe that, ultimately, questions of what is right and wrong require the individual to measure himself against absolute standards of ethics and responsibility. Not that any one of us ever completely measures up to those standards; but you can't set your compass, moral or otherwise, by a shifting North Star. Our generation has become so comfortable watching itself being defined according to polls and ratings and surveys, in the Dow or on the NASDAQ, in the outcome of elections or in public propositions or referenda, that we have sunk into a sort of general relativism, in which all issues are determined by majority vote or a public display of the lowest common denominator: We learn, according to the syndicated lesson taught by Jerry Springer, that while all of us are flawed, we who are watching are not nearly as flawed as the poor souls he parades in front of us. Which may, if the lesson is repeated often enough, teach us that, rather than struggling toward an ideal of perfect behavior, we can always console ourselves with the examples of those even weaker than we are.

By our failure to judge or act decisively on moral issues as individuals, we contribute to a collective caricature of tolerance; a universal lack of discrimination (in the qualitative sense of the word), in which almost everything is reduced to a form of entertainment: murder, suicide, theft, adultery, corruption, perjury, bigotry; and, of course, the efforts of law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice. Those constitute one half of our entertainment diet, while watching prosecutors and defense lawyers battle it out in the courtroom coliseum, that makes up the other half.

And it hardly seems to make much difference any more whether the chase is real or fictional, or whether the courtroom drama was created by a playwright or a legal "dream team." Those parodies of justice, in which race, money and superstardom are used to undermine our jury system, are not merely distractions; they overwhelm our ability to focus on reality. We have, on a per capita basis, more people in prison than any other industrial country in the world. And all too many, if not most of those prisoners, are there as the result of a 10-minute plea-bargaining session in some courtroom corridor. The O.J. Simpson trial had nothing to do with the way that most Americans experience our legal system. It was a show, a display of legal narcissism.

So, what then do we make of "the mess in Washington"? The battle between an independent counsel, armed with an inexhaustible budget and calendar, on the one side and the awesome power of the White House, on the other. Buried within that struggle are some actual issues that cry out for resolution; and all these months of political spinning, on all sides, require so much unraveling that I confess, even while attempting it, that it may be beyond me.

Is the president entitled, first of all, to a presumption of innocence? And, if so, what right do the media have to recount and analyze all of the unproven allegations? Well, the presumption of innocence is a legal right, to be exercised within our judicial system. The media have no right to presume guilt, but they have every right to report on unproven allegations. To do otherwise would mean that no charge or accusation could ever be reported until after it had been litigated.

Is even the president of the United States entitled to a private life? That is certainly one of the central, if implicit, questions of Gerhard Casper's letter. And the somewhat unsatisfactory answer is that it depends. If the president has athlete's foot, he's entitled to keep that private. If he has a heart condition, he's not. The standard is whether or not it will have an impact on the rest of the country.

All right, then, let's deal with the allegation that has so preoccupied the media, if not our consumers, these last few months. If, as alleged, there was a sexual relationship between the president and the intern, does that meet the test of having an impact on the rest of the country? Surely, after all, an affair between two consenting adults, even if one of them is married, comes close to defining what is private. But ask yourselves how many middle-aged university presidents, or corporate vice presidents, or high school principals or network anchors could effectively defend themselves against even an unfounded allegation of this kind simply by insisting that the matter was private. If competence at one's job ­ that and a broad sense of public approval ­ were adequate protection against allegations of a dalliance with a young intern, then Gerhard and I could engage in that sort of behavior with impunity. But I wouldn't count on that, Gerhard. I assure you, I don't. We can choose to raise or lower our standards for what is generally acceptable, but those standards must be consistent. And depending on which course we choose, society at large will be either consistently better or consistently worse.

What about the years of inquiry and the 40 million dollars of expenditure to pursue what, in the final analysis, appears to be just about sex, and possibly lying about sex? Doesn't the relative triviality of the crime render both pointless and wretchedly excessive the enormity of the investigation?

So it would seem. Whatever the investigation ultimately succeeds or fails in proving, it is not just about sex. And at least part of the reason that it has taken so long and cost so much money is because the White House and the president's attorneys have not always been forthcoming. Which is the way that people with access to money and power and good legal advice litigate these days. And sometimes justice weighs more heavily on one side of that equation and sometimes on the other; but there is nothing unique about the legal battle between Kenneth Starr and Bill Clinton. Ten years ago the protagonists were Lawrence Walsh and Ronald Reagan, and the Republicans were complaining about the exorbitant waste of time and money. It is the way we do business, political and commercial, in these United States, whether the issue is tobacco and health, or health and silicone breast implants; whether it is the individual against an automobile company or the Internal Revenue Service against an individual. Or whether, for that matter, it is a congressional committee employing its investigatory powers against a great western university.

Again and again, we see the process being used as a device to blunt our attention or distract our focus from what is really important. It takes untold time and energy and more resources than either side should have to expend. And why? Because we tolerate it. More than that, because we permit the carnival of process to divert us from the central questions of what is right and wrong. We have reverted to some of the darker practices of our ancestors, seeking to establish truth by ordeal. You are right, Gerhard, in defining a civil society as one in which there is a "clear demarcation between public and private." But there is no set of controls that we can calibrate to bring our society into balance. The responsibility to effect change remains, as it always has been, an individual responsibility. And, if I may, I would like to address these last few words to those of you who are graduating or receiving advanced degrees from Stanford today.

What is great about our system of law and government is precisely its focus on the rights and obligations of the individual. There is in our system a touching faith in the power of one man, one woman to make a difference, and in each individual's right to challenge what are, after all, only the symbols of our greatness. Burn a flag and you've simply destroyed a piece of paper or cloth that can easily be replaced. Deny the right to burn that flag and you have destroyed something irreplaceable.

We will not change what's wrong with our culture through legislation, or by choosing up sides on the basis of personal popularity or party affiliation. We will change it by small acts of courage and kindness; by recognizing, each of us, his or her own obligation to set a proper example.

Aspire to decency. Practice civility toward one another. Admire and emulate ethical behavior wherever you find it. Apply a rigid standard of morality to your lives; and if, periodically, you fail ­ as you surely will ­ adjust your lives, not the standards.

There's no mystery here. You know what to do. Now go out and do it!