Jon Lovett l 2013 Pitzer College Commencement Keynote — May 18, 2013

Jon Lovett l 2013 Pitzer College Commencement Keynote — May 18, 2013

September 9, 2019 51 By Ronny Jaskolski


In keeping with a 49-year Pitzer tradition,
the Senior Class selected this year’s Commencement speaker. Our guest today is Jon Lovett. Jon
is the co-creator and head writer of the NBC sitcom 1600 Penn. Prior to this, Jon spent
three years as a speech writer for President Barack Obama. During his tenure at the White
House Jon drafted speeches on a range of public policy issues. He also helped craft the jokes
used by President Obama at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Before serving
in the White House he was the chief speechwriter for then-Senator Hillary Clinton, working
on both her presidential campaign and in her Senate office. Jon is a 2005 graduate of Williams
College. After college but before entering politics he spent time doing standup at comedy
clubs around New York. He is a Los Angeles resident today. So on behalf of the graduating
class of 2013 and the Pitzer community, Jon Lovett , welcome. Hey, guys. Graduates, how are you guys feeling?
I, for one, think we look amazing in these gowns. We look like gay federal judges who
aren’t afraid to put a little flair out there because times have changed and you can be
a confident, proud, even flamboyant gay judge while still being impartial on, say , a copyright
dispute, which you’re seeing more and more of these days as our creaking laws face the
onslaught of questions that come with new forms of media. You wonder if the whole idea
of copyright is antiquated; of course you believe intellectual property is the lifeblood
of a free market, but you didn’t become a gay judge to arbitrate lengthy trademark disputes
between multinational corporations. You wanted to stand up for the little guy; you wanted
to help that undocumented farm worker who is just providing for her kids; you wanted
to help that repeat drug offender get treatment instead of another pointless stint behind
bars. And now look at you. Twenty years on the bench and the only reason you stand out
as a jurist is because you wear a colorful sash. You didn’t even want to go to law school.
You weren’t sure what you wanted to do but you figured a law degree would be a great
resource and give you time to learn who you were but of course, three years later who
you were was a lawyer with a ton of debt. So you end up at a big law firm in Manhattan
grinding out the billable hours. You’re a young gay man in the heart of New York City
but you’re too tired to go out and even if you weren’t you’d have no idea where to go
because the only two places you’ve been are your windowless office and your tiny bare-walled
studio with a big screen television and a bed. Now in hindsight you kick yourself for
wasting the years when you were young and pretty and confident and still had some shine
in your eyes and the world seemed boundless and anything was possible and all you wished
with every fiber of your being was that you could go back to that young man accepting
his college diploma and shake him, shake him hard and tell him that now is the time to
take risks, now is the time not to be safe, that there would be time for safe, that there
would be time for offices and stability and sacrifices and savings accounts but that this
was the rare moment when a human being could be free—free to write and dream and walk
the earth and shout at power and dance, dance with beautiful strangers. You want to smack
some sense into your young self. But you can’t. Because that’s all in the past. You’re just
an old gay judge now. Anyway, good morning! Listen, you guys didn’t
invite a typical commencement speaker so I’m not going to waste your time with a typical
commencement speech. If you wanted one of those you could have booked historian Doris
Kearns Goodwin, or that nice pilot who crashed into the Hudson or Tom Hanks. Imagine if I
were Tom Hanks right now; how cool would that be, and I was like, this reminds me of the
time I pulled a prank on Steven Spielberg, which is awesome because it seems like they
have a ton of fun making movies together. But here’s the thing: those renowned, accomplished
people, they don’t remember what it feels like to sit in your seats, not really. They
can offer advice and sure, some of it may be good. Follow your dreams, aim high, whatever.
But long ago they have forgotten the subtle notes of excitement and uncertainty and alcohol
coursing through your veins today. And by the looks of you, there’s some other stuff
in there, too. The guy in the sandals knows what I’m talking about. I recently turned 30 which, I know, seems
like a generation away to those of you graduating this morning but it’s more than just the worst.
30 is a year when you’re left straddling two worlds. One foot stands in the world of the
young amongst the bright, eager minds and supple bodies of students like you. And the
other foot stands in the world of the gray and decrepit, the ancient shapes of your professors
and parents, their dulling senses, their craggily wizened faces. And by the way, congratulations,
parents! This day is your day, too. But what all this means is that I’m in a position
to talk about life after college as someone who just lived through it. For example, do
you remember how your elementary school felt enormous but when you returned years later,
you were amazed by how small it actually was. In time your chosen professions will feel
the same way. That is not to say that you won’t have almost unlimited opportunities
but it is to say that if you sleep with someone who works in your industry, just be aware
that you’re going to bump into that person at meetings and conferences and birthday parties
for the rest of your life. I literally had to leave politics; we’re going to talk about
it. Your love is a delicate flower. So anyway, I’m going to skip the platitudes.
I want this to be a practical commencement address and I’m going to do my best to tell
the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable to say, even when I probably shouldn’t say it,
because you’re already swimming in half-truths and people telling you want they think you
want to hear. And in the next phase of your life I promise you, you will encounter more.
I should preface this by saying that the problem I’m going to describe involves a bad word,
not the worst word, but a bad word, though I made sure I only have to say it now and
one more time at the end so if you want to distract any little kids for one second, please
do so. One of the greatest threats we face, simply
put, is bullshit. We are drowning in it. We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is
just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research, in social media’s imitation of human
connection, in legalese and corporate double-speak; it infects every facet of public life, corrupting
our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the
truth and making it harder to achieve anything. And it wends its way into our private lives
as well, changing even how we interact with each other, the way casual acquaintances will
now say, “I love you,” the way we describe whatever thing as the best thing ever, the
way we are blurring the lines between friends and strangers, and we know that. There have
been books written about the proliferation of malarkey, empty talk, baloney, claptrap,
hot air, balderdash, bunk. One book was aptly named Your Call is Important to Us. But this is not only a challenge to society,
it’s a challenge we all face as individuals. Life tests our willingness in ways large and
small, to tell the truth. And I believe that so much of your future and our collective
future, depends on your doing so. I’m going to give you three honest, practical
lessons about cutting the B.S. Number one: Don’t cover for your inexperience.
You are smart, talented, educated, conscientious, untainted by the mistakes and conventional
wisdom of the past. But you are also very annoying. Because there is a lot that you
don’t know that you don’t know. Your parents are nodding; you’ve been annoying them for
years. Why do you think they paid for college? So that you might finally, at long last, annoy
someone else. And now your professors are nodding. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Yeah, this
should definitely be in 3D.” No, what he said was, the test of a first-rate intelligence
is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the
ability to function. That’s what you have to do. You have to be confident in your potential
and aware of your inexperience. And that’s really tough. There are moments when you’ll
have a different point of view because you’re a fresh set of eyes, because you don’t care
how it’s been done before, because you’re sharp and creative, because there is another
way, a better way. But there will also be moments when you have
a different point of view because you’re wrong. Because you’re 23 and you should shut up and
listen to somebody who’s been around the block. Now the old people are applauding. It’s hard
to tell the difference. I love to get this one wrong. I got it wrong a ton when I started
out as a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton. I got it wrong again when I became a presidential
speechwriter. I worked on one speech about the financial system that caused the Dow to
drop by 200 points. So that speech could have been better, probably. Just this past year I faced the same dilemma
co-creating a show on NBC. It’s called 1600 Penn and while you may have heard of it, based
on the ratings you almost certainly didn’t see it, though it recently did make some headlines
when it was cancelled. I had never so much as written a line of dialogue before I wrote
this show but I was working with directors and writers and executives with years and
years of experience in “the Biz;” we call it “the Biz.” I will always cringe remembering
those little embarrassing moments when I said something dumb on a conference call, when
my inexperience poked through, when I should have been more solicitous of the judgment
of those around me. There’s a reminder that it’s not mutually exclusive to be confident
and humble, to be skeptical and eager to learn. But there’s another side to this coin which
brings me to lesson number two. Sometimes you’re going to be inexperienced, naïve,
untested and totally right. And then, in those moments you have to make a choice: is this
a time to speak up or hold back? And it won’t be easy. You know, I worked for then-senator
Clinton during her campaign for president, and I believed in her and still do. But I
vividly remember feeling that things weren’t right in that campaign. A lot of the young
staffers felt that way. It wasn’t a secret that there were problems in how the campaign
was being run. The campaign pollster, for instance, rolled out so many slogans that
it was impossible to keep track. Here is a sample: “Let the conversation begin.” “Ready
for change, ready to lead.” “Working for change, working for you.” “Strength plus experience
equals change.” Now, I like this one because it leads to the lesser-known corollary: “Strength
plus experience divided by change equals one.” And then there was my favorite: “Big challenges,
real solutions, time to pick a president.” One slogan which she had printed on the side
of a bus but it was basically too small to read. So I’m putting these slogans into speeches
and I look over at an Obama campaign rally on cable news and they have one slogan; it’s
just the word “change” in big letters. That’s even better. But I was timid and a lot of
us just assumed or wanted to assume that more experienced people must know what they are
doing but that wasn’t true. So the campaign ended, my candidate lost and I ended up as
a presidential speechwriter anyway which was cool. But the lesson I drew from that campaign,
other than the fact that it’s always a mistake to run against Barack Obama, is the subway
rule: “If you see something, say something.” And I’ve tried to honor that ever since, to
call B.S. when I see it and to not be afraid to get in people’s faces and throw a punch
or two to make a point, metaphorically; look at me, I wouldn’t do well in an altercation. Now, lessons one and two can be intentioned,
and I can’t tell you how to strike the balance every time though it helps to be very charming.
And from my point of view I’d rather be wrong and cringe than right and regret not speaking
up. But the good news is as long as you aren’t stubbornly wrong so frequently that they kick
you out of the building or so meek that everyone forgets you’re in the building, you’ll learn
and grow and get better at striking that balance until your inexperience becomes experience,
so it’s a dilemma that solves itself; how awesome is that? Finally, number three: Know that being honest,
both about what you do know and what you don’t, can and will pay off. Up until recently I
would have said that the only proper response to our culture of B.S. is cynicism, that it
would just get worse and worse. But I don’t believe that any more, and I think this matters
for what comes next for you. I think we’ve reached the turning point. I’m going to say
the word one last time. I believe we may have reached peak bullshit and that increasingly
those that push back against the noise and nonsense, those who refuse to accept that
untruths of politics and commerce and entertainment and government will be rewarded, that we are
at the beginning of something important. We see it across our culture with not only popularity
but hunger for the intellectual honesty of Jon Stewart or the raw sincerity of Louis
C.K. and Lena Dunham. You can even add the rise of dark, brooding authentic superheroes
in our blockbuster movies. We see it in locally-sourced organic food on campuses like this, at places
like the Shakedown, a rejection of the processed as inauthentic. And we see it in politics.
I believe Barack Obama represents this movement, that the rise of his candidacy was in part
a consequence of the desire for greater authenticity in our public life. But you don’t have to
be a Democrat to believe me. You see it across the political spectrum, from Elizabeth Warren
in Massachusetts to Chris Christie in New Jersey, to Rand Paul in Kentucky. And what’s
awesome is the graduates of schools like Pitzer, you guys, will be the ones who are best prepared
and most likely to lead this movement. What’s striking about the culture of this school
is an unabashedly sincere desire to do good in this world, to be responsible for one another
and to carry yourselves with integrity, and it’s exciting that maybe, just maybe, those
traits don’t just mean you’ll do good, but this earnestness, this authenticity, will
help you succeed in a society that is demanding those qualities with both hands. All you have
to do is avoid B.S.ing yourself in whatever you choose to do, to avoid the path of the
sad, gay judge filled with regret, to go forward with confidence and an eagerness to learn
and to be honest with yourselves and others to reject a culture of insincerity by virtue
of the example you set in your own lives. And I say this only as someone hoping to do
the same and go along with you for the ride. Pitzer Class of two thousand thirteen, you
don’t need any more encouragement from me, you’re going to do extraordinary things and
I can’t wait to see what’s next. Congratulations.