Forty years ago this week I sat where you now do, degree in hand, the prestige of this great law school on my résumé and, perhaps immodestly, a real sense of achievement in my heart, but no sense of what my future would be or if in fact there would even be one.
Please understand, I was not alone in my uncertainty — for this was 1968, and America was unraveling.
Our cities were burning, and Vietnam was beckoning. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated, Bobby Kennedy was about to be, and within a few months and a few miles from here, Chicago would explode around the dysfunction of the Democratic National Convention. I remember thinking that our sheltered existence at law school, however prestigious, seemed totally detached from the chaos that consumed the world outside.
There were 190 of us in my graduating class, and believe it or not, only two of the 190 were women. Of the 188 men, only one was African American. As a class we were too white, too male and too privileged. And though it certainly took too long to change, what comfort it is today to look out at all of you and see the racial, gender and ethnic diversity that really is America.
But as happy as I am to look out and see all of your faces, I understand there are a number of you who aren't too happy to see mine.
To the students who invited me — thank you. I am honored. To the students who object to my presence — well, you've got a point. I, too, would've chosen someone else. But once asked it would've been kind of arrogant, or at least unappreciative, for me to have said "no." So, here I am.
I've been lucky enough to enjoy a comfortable measure of success in my various careers, but let's be honest, I've been virtually everything you can't respect: a lawyer, a mayor, a major market news anchor and a talk show host. Pray for me. If I get to heaven, we're all going.
Let's assume that your prime discomfort with me is based on the ethics of what I do for a living. Well, that's a fair question, worthy of a serious response. I can tell you with some confidence that you, too, will likely deal with these very same ethical considerations, no matter what path your career takes.
Surely, in every one of my chosen professions there were ethical "red flags" rising virtually every day. When I was Cincinnati's mayor, there were two or three issues I really wanted to focus on. But how much would I compromise on other legislation just to get the votes I needed on my priorities? And how much pandering would I do to the voters, rationalizing that if I didn't get re-elected I wouldn't be able to get anything done?
Then for 10 years I became a journalist — perhaps the most ethically challenging profession of all. You see, I knew that 90 percent of what's in the paper or on the television news, we don't really need to know. And yet, how often do we go with a story anyway because it will make a great headline, sell papers or drive up ratings, even if we know it might embarrass or hurt the business or career or family or reputation of the person we're reporting on? That is a daily ethical question that I can tell you is almost always ignored.
And then, of course, there is my profession now as host of a crazy talk show. Well, at least I can rationalize that the show is only open to those who really want to be on it, and they get to choose the subject matter, what is revealed and what must not be revealed. Even with this I grapple with ethical questions.
What about the career most of you will be choosing, that of an attorney? Think of the ethical issues you will have to deal with. Will you work for a corporate client who perhaps is polluting? Will you walk into your senior partner's office after having been asked to prepare a memorandum in support of this client's case and say, "I'm sorry, I'll have to leave and find another place to work," and then explain to your family why there won't be a paycheck coming in this month?
I'm not suggesting that these moral dilemmas don't have answers. But what I am saying is that whatever you plan to do with this diploma, the ethical questions will never stop.
Welcome to life. Unavoidably, you will all join me on this witness stand of conscience, trying your best to figure it out — never perfectly but, hopefully, always sincerely.
It is perhaps inevitable that we are inclined to always judge others. But let me share this observation. I am not superior to the people on my show, and you are not superior to the people you will represent. That is not an insult. It is merely an understanding derived from a life spent on the front lines of human interaction. We are all alike. Some of us just dress better or have more money, or perhaps we were born into better circumstances of parental upbringing, health, brains and luck.
On this great day when we honor your achievement, we might also say thank you to God in full recognition that whatever we achieve in life is 99 percent a gift.
Life is a gift — as is living in America. And I know that from personal experience. You see, I am not the first lawyer in my family. My dad's brother was. His practice was cut short, as was his life — in Auschwitz. My grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins — they met their end as well in Chelmno, Theresienstadt and in camp after camp, Hitler turning my family tree into a single vine. Mom and Dad, by the grace of God, survived, enabling them to bring my sister and me ultimately to America.
With four tickets on the Queen Mary, January 1949, we sailed into New York Harbor. In silence, all the ship's passengers gathered on the top deck of this grand ocean liner as we passed by the Statue of Liberty. My mom told me in later years (I was 5 at the time) that while we were shivering in the cold, I had asked her "What are we looking at? What does the statue mean?" In German she replied, "Ein Tag, alles!" (One day, everything!)
She was right. In one generation here in America, my family went from near total annihilation to this ridiculously privileged life I live today because of my silly show. Indeed, in America, all things are possible.
So as we honor your achievement, may it be for you as it was for me, "Ein Tag, alles!" One day, everything!
Thank you for having me.
Jerry Springer (L68) is the host of the Jerry Springer Show, which is produced in Chicago.
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