Dignity and respect are American ideals, Biden tells seniors
By Daniel Aloi
Former Vice President Joe Biden extolled his love of ice cream and his optimism for the future of America in his 2017 Senior Convocation Address at Cornell, May 27 at Schoellkopf Field.
Biden, introduced by Cornell President Martha E. Pollack as “one of the key figures in our national government over the last several decades … resilient and determined to serve the public good,” said he was honored to be asked to speak.
“Cornell is one of the great universities in the world – and there’s three great ones, all land-grant universities: MIT, Cornell and Delaware,” he said, the latter his undergraduate alma mater.
He met some of the graduates before the event, he said. “You guys are a truly impressive group. But I’ve got to admit the real reason I came today: I love ice cream. … Your dean of the school of agriculture told me this is the best ice cream because you all have the smartest cows up here.”
After Biden’s speech, Senior Convocation Chair Matthew “Chewy” Baumel ’17 presented Biden with an ice cream cone of the flavor concocted by Cornell Dairy in his honor, “Big Red, White & Biden.”
“What a great, great, great, great university – I hope it’s been full of great memories for you,” Biden began, mentioning some iconic Cornell places and experiences, from Olin Library and Libe Slope to the swim test.
“No graduating class gets to choose the world into which they graduate,” he said. “Tomorrow, when you walk across the stage to receive your diplomas, you’re going to enter a world where there are a lot of Americans uncertain and anxious about their futures. … Some are struggling to get by, and they’re worried that they won’t be able to keep up … and we saw how playing to their fears, rather than their hopes, rather than their better angels, can still be a powerful political tool.”
“This past election cycle churned up some of the ugliest realities that still remain in our country. Civilized discourse and real debate gave way to the coarsest rhetoric,” he said, including “hate speech and fringe ideologies.”
“I imagine, like me, for many of you seeing this unfold was incredibly disorienting and disheartening. Your reaction, you graduates in particular, is understandable. But I assure you that this is a temporary state of affairs. The American people will not sustain this attitude for long, I promise you,” Biden said to applause.
He stressed that “it’s more important than ever that we get back to basics. That we hold fast to what has always made America great and unique. It’s down to a simple idea – that every single person is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect … Everything, from your marriage to your job to your neighborhood to your country, works better when we actually take time out to look out for the other guy, treat them with a little bit of dignity and decency. When we honor that uniquely American egalitarian ideal.”
“I believe, from that uniquely American perspective, sprang this outstanding university,” he said.
In saying “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,” founder Ezra Cornell “wasn’t just talking about white men, about those born in the United States, not just the wealthy,” Biden said. “He was talking about any person with the desire, the drive and capacity to excel. And Ezra Cornell meant what he said. His response to a letter he received asking if a young black man could enroll, was unequivocal: ‘Send him.’”
“And look what has been sent. Who knows? They may be the next Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Or the next Janet Reno. Or the next Edmund Muskie. Or the next Gabby Giffords, who I’ll see in two days. The next Toni Morrison. The next Kurt Vonnegut. The next Mae Jemison. Or even Bill Nye the Science Guy. … And by the way, so can you be. And I hope you know that, in no uncertain terms.”
“I don’t have a lot of advice but I know one thing: The people that are successful and happy are the people who treat others with the same dignity that they demand for themselves,” he said. “To do that, you’re going to have to fight the urge to build a self-referential, self-reinforcing and self-righteous echo chamber of yourself online. I mean this sincerely. Living in your screens encourages shallow and antiseptic relationships that make it too easy to reduce the other to stereotypes.”
One of the principles Biden's father instilled in him was “an absolute intolerance of the abuse of power. … That was what ignited my political passion throughout my life,” he said.
In high school and in college, he joined the civil rights movement. He championed environmental causes when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1972, fresh out of law school. He served as a senator from 1973 until his swearing-in as vice president in 2009.
“You have a responsibility to engage, an incredible opportunity as well. You have a chance to bend history just a little bit,” just as his generation did in fighting to end the Vietnam War, he said.
“Graduating seniors, never doubt your capacity to make a difference. There’s no reason why you and your generation and the Class of ’17 can’t have a similar or more profound impact on this country than my generation did. … You’re the most tolerant, talented, engaged generation in American history. You have better tools to tackle the challenges that lie ahead than my generation did … I’m so optimistic about your generation and this country.”
“It’s time for America to get up. It’s time to regain our sense of unity and purpose and remember who we are. With all the brain power and energy I see in front of me, I know that nothing and no one in this world can beat us. … It’s time for the country to wake up. And ladies and gentlemen, the graduating class of ’17, go out and Wake. Us. Up.”