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Chris Matthews ’67, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball”

Holy Cross 2003 Commencement Address
June 1st, 2003 by 

Father McFarland, chairman of the board of trustees Dr. Michael Collins, my fellow honorees Cardinal Dulles and Iris Cantor, distinguished faculty, Emily Collins of the class of 2003, a member of the extended Matthews-Collins clan, and Kathryn Casey of the class of 2003, daughter of my loyal classmate Jim, Inez Russo of the class of 2003, who helped me write my last book, and Liz Maloy of the class of 2003, one of my stellar Holy Cross interns.

My fellow Crusaders, ALL!

It’s good to be home!!!

It’s my great honor to congratulate the entire Holy Cross class of 2003 for graduating from the best Catholic liberal arts college in the country….. from one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country period.

My older brother Herb went here and my younger brother Jim. My nephew Steve went here where he met Maura, otherwise known as the “the genetic perfection.” So before I go further, let me pay special, enduring tribute to other Holy Cross families here today; especially those who made today possible: the proud parents of the Holy Cross Class of 2003.

The great Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died this year, was asked in the last interview before he became ill what he had learned through a long life of public service from White House domestic policy director to ambassador to the United Nations through four terms as the United States Senator from New York.

“Pray,” he answered.

And this morning that is what I did before coming here, prayed that what I said would help you young people build lives of freedom, achievement and value.

William Butler Yeats said that “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

When I was here I had three different nicknames – “Gyro Goose” because I was the same height but seventy pounds lighter then; “Matty Mattell” because of my last name and the toy commercial; finally, my least favorite, “Arguing Matthews.”

Amazing what you can make a living off of!

Each evening I would go up to the old Kimball – this is long before Hogan – cafeteria to buy a Coke, hang out and talk politics. Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey, who is a friend of mine and a B-C double eagle, says I still do. I make a living, he says, “just going down to the Holy Cross cafeteria each evening.”

Actually, it’s just about the same time: 7 PM Eastern.

So here it is, in a quarter the time of a Holy Cross class period, the bottom line of everything I learned getting from doing it for free to doing it for a living, from getting odd nicknames here at Holy Cross to getting satirized on “Saturday Night Live.”

In ten minutes flat, I’m going to tell you how to fight for your best values, find your way in this world, pursue your dream, follow-up on the very best hunch you ever had about yourself.

Rule One: Get yourself in the game.

Ever watch a little kid standing along courtside while the big kids play basketball? When a ball goes out of bounds, he runs for it and passes it back in. As time goes on, when an older kid has to get home for dinner, somebody yells “Hey punk, wanna play?”

That’s it, the heart of it really: the first rule of career-building. If you want to play a game go to where it’s played.

Three things happen when you do:

You learn how the game is played but also how the players act with each other. You learn the game’s manner, its cadence, its culture.

Second, you meet people. It’s not who you know; let’s face it, it’s who you get to know.

Third, you’re there when the lightning strikes!

When I was at Holy Cross, I was in student government with an upperclassman named Joe Bastien. Interested in politics like I was, he got a job after graduation as a legislative assistant to a US Senator from Florida.

That gave me a goal. When I came back from Africa, I knocked on 200 doors on Capitol Hill. I first tried the Catholic guys from the Northeast. I thought they’d be the most impressed with a guy who’d gone to Holy Cross and spent two years in Jack Kennedy’s Peace Corps.

One guy was. He showed me the pen LBJ had used to sign the Peace Corps bill mounted right there on his office wall.

He was about to hire me, even promised me a job.

Unfortunately for both of us, he was on his way to federal prison. Some mob guy had planted a body in his basement. Nice fellow, though I always thought he did me a favor by not putting me on his payroll. It wouldn’t have been a good way to start a career.

I kept looking. Got an interview with a fairly hardnosed fellow from rural Texas. Didn’t like my “hair style” – too long – or my voice – too fast. Or where I’d been, for that matter. “The people who visit the office from home might get the idea you’d become idealistic over there in Africa.”

He said the word “idealistic” as if it were an infection.

But he gave me what I needed most: encouragement.

Politics, he said, is like selling insurance door to door, what he’d done himself before running for Congress. You visit ten families. Three invite you back to make your pitch. One buys a policy.

You don’t get the sale without the three pitches. You don’t get to make the three pitches without first making the ten visits.

Keep trying, he said. “I’m sure somebody will like someone with your background.”

Finally, I knocked on the magic door. A top aide to a Utah senator had worked for both Robert and Ted Kennedy. He loved the fact I’d been in the Peace Corps and had majored in economics. Thank you, Doc Petrella! Nobody else in the office had. He offered me a job: working during the day in the office answering the complicated mail and writing short speeches, then working another at night as an armed Capitol policeman.

“It’ll pay for the groceries,” he said trying to brighten the offer.

Though I ended up with some colorful assignments – I stood, armed with a .38 police special guarding the Pentagon Papers after they’d already been printed in The New York Times and Washington Post, it got me in the door. Within three months, I asked for and was given a full-time job working as a United States senator’s legislative assistant, the job I’d coming looking for in the first place.

“If you knock long enough and loud enough at the gate you are bound to wake up somebody.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

That’s Rule Two: If you want something, ask for it!

Some people aren’t going to like the cut of your jib. But those who do will change your life. They will open doors for you. If nine people will say “No” to you, then ask ten.

It’s like dating.

It takes only one strike to transform a prospector into a gold miner, only one “Yes” to turn a proposal into a marriage.

There is magic that results when a person invests in you. He becomes a big-time investor in your success, a stockholder in your dreams.

Because, when you ask someone for help, you are implicitly asking him to place a bet on you. The more people you get to bet on you, the larger your network of investors and the shorter your odds. “If you want to make a friend,” said Benjamin Franklin, a fellow who grows wiser the older I get, “let someone do you a favor.”

Many people hesitate to ask for help. They see it as an admission of weakness. But this do-it-yourself mentality can be lethal. It can limit and isolate you, leave you without allies. People spend their whole lives resisting having others do favors for them. In doing so, they forfeit not only the help but the new alliance. And people are most likely to invest in someone they’ve helped before. It’s the way people are. Know that and you know a lot.

How did I get to be a Presidential speechwriter? First I got a no-big-deal job at the White House. I got the tip on that from someone I worked with in the Senate.

As for the speechwriting job? I had met a guy while working in a Congressional campaign in Brooklyn. We’ve been friends ever since. He introduced me to a Presidential speechwriter. When that fellow moved up to chief speechwriter, he put me up for his job. My try-out was to write the Catholic Charities speech. I was the one guy working at the White House who knew the material.

How’d I get the TV job?

Joe McGinness, who graduated from here a couple years before me, was a hero of mine when I was here at Holy Cross. This is even before he wrote The Selling of the President or, later, all those best-selling true-life crime stories. At 25, he was the hottest columnist in Philadelphia, writing three times a week for the Inquirer, the kind of stuff that had people buzzing even as the sun came up.

McGinness was so hot in Philly that radio talk shows would start the morning off taunting the audience with, “What did you think of McGinness this morning?”

Now, that’s hardball!

About ten years ago, I was having dinner with my college hero at The Grill in Beverly Hills. He told me he was having drinks afterward over at the Four Seasons with some guy he thought I would hit it off with. A few years later, that guy Joe McGinness had introduced me to gave me my first TV show.

And thanks to NBC chairman Bob Wright, another guy a few years ahead of me here, I’ve had one ever since!

There’s a false assumption out there that talent will surely be recognized. Just get good at something and the world will beat a path to your door.

Don’t believe it. The world is not checking in with us to see what skills we’ve picked up, what idea we’ve concocted, what dreams we carry in our hearts. When a job opens up whether it’s in the chorus line or on the assembly line, it goes to the person standing there. It goes to the eager beaver the boss sees when he looks up from his work: the pint-sized kid standing at courtside waiting for one of the older boys to head home for supper. “Hey, kid, wanna play?”

Rule Three: Follow your Hunch.

As I told you I have a clear memory of Kimball cafeteria. There was a local lady with big hair behind the counter who taught us foreigners from far beyond New England the difference between milkshakes and frappes. “Be My Baby” played relentlessly on the juke box, and there were people talking politics. I argued with my beloved friend Charlie Domson, an exuberant, true-believing Franklin Roosevelt fan. I once heard the great Doc Callahan of the English department dump on an upstart California governor named Ronald Reagan, another old Roosevelt fan, for having been “all across the board in his politics.”

And I recall my classmate Kevin Condron talking up a political neophyte upstart back in Scranton, a scrappy guy who would one day be called “the three-time loss from Holy Cross,” who was later elected Pennsylvania’s governor, then re-elected by a million votes.

And I remember the more serious arguments: about what we really believed about life, about God, about truth and untruth, right and wrong and how or if we could ever get to the bottom of it. If there was a midnight fight over a fact, it would be solved back in these olden days before Google by somebody invoking that ancient standard of proof:” “How much you wanna bet?”

That was my Holy Cross and it prepared me to argue those things on a larger stage than I could have imagined.

We, all of us, are lucky to live in a country where such things are possible. Thank God, and I mean that quite literally, America is a self-invented country filled with rebellious self-invented people.

Stuart Long, who graduated from Holy Cross a few years before us, owns several restaurants in Washington. Actually they’re bars. One he owned over the years was called “Jenkin’s Hill.” That was the original name, he once told me, for the high stretch of farmland where the United States Capitol sits. It’s where George Washington rode out on horseback one day with his architect Pierre L’Enfant to lay out the final plans for the city.

Just think of that: two guys on horses looking down over a marshland and imagining a national capital for a great continental nation.

And if it seemed precocious for a French-born architect and a former surveyor who’d never done anything like it before to design a national capital, it was more precocious still for a group of men in Philadelphia who had never done anything like it before to confect a country that guarantees as unalienable a set of rights the world had never before recognized, to ensure not only its citizens’ lives and liberty but also their right to “pursue happiness.”

All that started, as so much does, as it will for you in your life, with a notion. I urge you to make it a grand one.

As the great Czech leader Vaclav Havel once said, “Consciousness precedes Being and not the other way around, as Marxists claim.”

I was in Budapest early in 1989. It was just months before the fall of Communism but the world didn’t know it. I was sitting having tea with a soft-spoken professor as he spoke with hope. Writers and intellectuals and other peoples were meeting in the countryside. People were watching Boris Yeltsin challenge the old Soviet order and they were gaining courage.

“Freedom is contagious,” he said to me.

I couldn’t know that within five months the government in Budapest would rip down the Iron Curtain, that within a year Hungary would be a free republic, that the man sitting across from me was its foreign minister.

I was in East Berlin that drizzly night the Wall was about to open. I stood in a crowd of people waiting at the Brandenburg Gate and organized a little rump session of “Hardball.” I decided to ask the crowd of East Germans who had lived their whole lives without it – what “freedom” meant to them. “Was ist Freiheit?” I kept asking. Finally, a young man in his twenties looked me solemnly in the eye and said, “Talking to you.”

I was in South Africa the day of the first-ever all-races election. I watched lines of voters stretching from one horizon to the next. Waiting in one was a young South African white woman. She said: “This is the day I’ve waited for my whole life.”

I will never forget the way she said that word: her whole life.
So: get in the game, be quick to ask for help, but most important, be true to your ideals, starting with the ideal you hold of yourself.

That’s right, with true self-respect. Do I have to tell you, warn you, that you will meet people out there – you’ve met them already – who aren’t honest, who don’t deal in truth. They will lie and cheat to get what they want. Their only code is what will get them what they want.

How can they live with themselves you’ll ask. Don’t they know they’re giving away the one thing that matters from the start – that will always matter – their integrity? Don’t they know that is who they are?

Ninety-nine years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt stood here and argued that the world of politics was divided in two groups: men who mean well and cannot do anything and the other of men who are thoroughly efficient but don’t mean well at all.

“I want to see a combination of the power of efficient action with the power of fealty to lofty ideals,” he told the 1905 graduating class.

Teddy wanted to get the good people ready for action.

Me, too. Today, like the great Rough Rider himself, I’ve tried to level the playing field a bit, because while it’s morally healthy to be innocent of cheating, as the Jesuits were the first to grasp, it’s not healthy to be innocent of the game.

So today is your day. But don’t worry. There were will be time to dream, to think, to try, to fail, to learn, to carry on, to dream some more. You leave here with two gems for which men and women have come here to seek from the world over:

A rebellious spirit that triumphs even now over repressive government.

An only-in-America attitude toward what is possible.

They are this country’s crown jewels and today, my fellow Crusaders, through the grace of God, hard work and hope, they are yours.

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