GOVERNMENT IS NOT A FOUR-LETTER WORD

Commencement Address
University at Albany, State University of New York
May 19, 1996

by
Joseph E Persico

Forty-four years ago, I graduated from a small teachers college located on a triangle of land squeezed between Western and Washington Avenues here in Albany.

The education which that little college gave me has stood me in good stead all my life.

It explains in good part why I 'm standing here today receiving this honor from the great university into which that small school grew.

On this day, I feel proud. I feel grateful. And I feel ancient.

And now, I want to congratulate all of you who have waited so long for this moment, and who worked so hard to make it happen, and who sometimes wondered if this day would ever come. I refer to you parents of today's graduates.

Above all, I congratulate you graduates. My wish is that you will enter a world of peace, good will, and low unemployment.

Finally, I salute your teachers. Some of them turned your lives around -- and changed them forever. It happened to me, at this very university.

Most of the teachers who profoundly influenced my life have gone on to their permanent sabbatical. But, they remain forever in my heart and memory; names from the SUNY past, Harry Price, Robert Rienow, Josiah Phinney, Varloy Lang among them.

They instilled in me a permanent passion for history and for language. And, to me, they still remain somehow god-like in their knowledge, authority and wisdom.

I'm going to take the few minutes allotted to me today to say some things that -- if not politically incorrect -- are at least politically unfashionable.

We are deep into an election year. And what we have had banged into our heads, month after month, is that the very idea of government is somehow oppressive at best -- or evil at worst.

Our government, we are warned again and again, by some who would govern us, is supposedly not the instrument of our will.

It is, they claim, an alien force, removed, remote, power hungry, uncaring, bent only on exploiting us -- not serving us.

If that indictment is true, then let's look back for a moment. Why do we have government in the first place?

Well, the Federal government created a Food and Drug Administration because, around the turn of the century, processors put arsenic and God only knows what else into food to preserve it, just long enough to sell it -- and the consumer be damned.

Why did state governments enact workmen's compensation laws? Because in the good old days, if some poor working stiff lost his hand in a machine, he was fired and sent home -- and he and his family be damned .

What led to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission? Well, in the good old days, six Wall Street tycoons could get together at their club in Manhattan and rig the market for their own enrichment -- and the little investor be damned.

Today, we have a major political figure, a potential President, who boasts that, over thirty years ago, he was one of a dozen or so members of Congress who voted against Medicare. He says he knew then that it wouldn't work.

Wouldn't work? How many older Americans, and their families would have been pauperized without Medicare? How many would have gone without vital treatment?

Is there anyone here today -- old or young -- who does not feel a certain sense of relief to know that their parents, their grandparents, or they themselves are assured of health care in their old age?

Can it be done better? Of course. Should it not have been done at all? Nonsense.

Take education. Every graduate present today is here because of an act of government -- principally the actions of a man I was proud to serve, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who built this university.

Before SUNY, if you could afford it, you went to one of the high-priced private colleges in New York, or you went to a teachers college, or you went out-of-state, or your head remained uncluttered by higher learning.

I'm personally grateful for this act of government -- the State University of New York. I graduated from here. My wife graduated from here. My brother graduated from here. My sister graduated from here. And I sometimes wish my children had graduated from here. It would have saved me a bundle.

You can go down the list, and with few exceptions most actions of government have been undertaken to end an injustice, to remove a public danger, or to extend opportunity to more Americans.

Can our government be improved? Be made less costly? Less wasteful? Less bureaucratic? More efficient? Of course. But so can General Motors, Harvard and probably the Girl Scouts of America.

An assistant commissioner at the Department of Health or an engineer at the Department of Transportation is not some power-crazed fiend. These people are your next door neighbors

Yet, there are those who seem determined to convince the American people that their freely-elected government is their enemy.

I say criticize the government when it deserves criticism. Fix it, if it needs fixing. Cut it back if it needs cutting. Change it when it is time for change. But don't ridicule it. Don't make people mistrust and despise the democratic system by which we govern ourselves.

I, for one, am sick of this government trashing and bashing. I say to you that in a democracy such as ours, it is more than wrong. It is dangerous.

Government in a free society is not a four-letter word. In my judgment, those who poison the people's minds against their government, are feeding the delusions of the anarchist, lunatic fringe who go on to commit horrors like the Oklahoma City bombing.

This is not Hitler's Germany. This is not Stalin's Russia. Ours is a freely elected, self-governed society, where we are free to throw the rascals out.

When I first began collaborating with General Colin Powell on his autobiography, the fact that he had led the nation's military impressed me, but it did not overwhelm me.

It was when he began telling me about his early life that he really won me over.

Colin Powell is the son of plain, working people. And he told me of the debt of gratitude that he felt toward the government of New York City, his home town.

The City had provided a first-rank institution of learning -- City College of New York -- that allowed a poor kid from the South Bronx to get a first-rate education.

He was grateful for a system of cheap public transportation that not only allowed him to commute to that campus; but allowed his parents to get to their jobs in the garment district.

And he was grateful that Medicare saw his folks through long, painful, terminal illnesses.

It was when he expressed those attitudes that I began to sense a man who had perception and vision that extended well beyond soldiering.

Another currently fashionable cry is that Washington should turn power back to the States.

I'm all for state governments serving as laboratories for innovation and imagination. I spent long, proud years working in New York State government.

But, in certain critical areas, we need a Federal government to set minimum nationwide standards. Otherwise, on matters like welfare and the environment, the states become locked into a downward competition against each other to see who can do least for their people in order to keep taxes down and the business climate up.

Only the Federal government can level that playing field.

Furthermore, some of us are old enough to remember when the cry of State's rights was merely a cloak to conceal and perpetuate human wrongs.

An American who lived in the 19th century once said something that I believe still offers wise counsel for us today. This man said that the legitimate object of government is "to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot by individual effort do at all, or do so well for themselves."

The man who uttered those words was Abraham Lincoln. And I don't believe I've heard any of the current detractors of government say anything half so wise.

If any of you graduates today decide that you want to commit your lives to fulfilling those Lincolnian needs, with the Federal government, the State government or your local government, you will have embarked on an honorable life's work.

You won't get rich. But you will go to bed at night knowing that you have done something for your fellow men and women that needed to be done, that they could not do by themselves.

At this point I am reminded of the little boy's essay on Socrates. Socrates was a very wise man, the boy wrote. He went around giving people advice. And they poisoned him.

And so I will cease giving any more advice today and wish you graduates only this; that when you reach the age of the grayheads and greybeards you see here today, you will have left this world no worse than you found it -- and maybe a little bit better.

Thank you again for this treasured honor, and good luck to all you graduates.