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Remarks by
John P. LaWare
at Northeastern University
Boston, Massachusetts
September 14, 1989

President Curry, graduates, ladies and gentlemen.

A Commencement is a very special time.

It is special

to you recipients of degrees because it is the culmination
of years of hard work and the beginning of a new period in
your lives when you seek to put what you have learned to

It is a special time for families and friends who are

proud of your achievements and are looking forward to your
future successes.

It is also a special time for recipients

of honorary degrees.

For me it is particularly gratifying

because of my high regard for this great university and the
tremendous academic contribution it makes to Boston, the
Commonwealth and the nation.

Thank you for this great


It is not uncommon for commencement speakers to burden
their impatient audiences with lengthy recitations of the
lofty achievements of their generation, and then, with
sometimes apparent misgivings, pass the torch to the


graduates and challenge them with something that amounts to
"can you top that?"

Indeed I am very proud of much of the record of my

We won a war for survival in the Forties and then
helped our shattered and defeated enemies to rebuild their
economies and societies and rejoin the family of nations in
good standing.

We fought valiantly in two other wars with far
less well-defined objectives and with less well-defined

We built the world's greatest economy and presided
over a technological explosion that made the computer our
most important servant.

Technology also took us to the

moon, launched the space shuttle, sent Voyager II to Neptune
and beyond, licked polio and made organ transplants routine
surgical procedures, although cancer still resists our
massive efforts to find a conclusive cure and the scourge of
AIDS spreads unchecked.

I am proud that my generation had a part in those

But I am deeply ashamed of our failures.



these failures are allowed to continue at their present
rate, they may undo all that has been accomplished.

And, t h a t /s where you come in.

I am not here to pass

the torch of our successes and challenge you to beat our

I am here to confess our failures and challenge you

to clean up the mess we have left.

The mess is pretty bad.

Consider that the nation's

capital, Washington, D.C., where I now work has had more
than 300 homicides already in 1989 — one of the highest
rates in the country.

The police estimate that about 80

percent of the murders are drug-related.

Marijuana, heroin,

cocaine and crack are openly dealt on the streets and some
parts of the city are unsafe for pedestrian travel after

Washington is a convenient example because it is where
I work and it is the capital.

It should be a shining

example of what is best about America.

Instead it is a

representative example of one of our worst problems, rampant
in many other cities as well.

There seems to be no question that drugs, their
distribution and abuse, are a root cause of escalating crime
rates and urban decay.

That the problem is out of control

is well illustrated by the spectacle of a sovereign nation,


Colombia, in which the gangster elements who run the drug
trade can openly challenge the government and warn it to
keep hands off.

We have poured billions of dollars into the

drug problem and it has only gotten worse.

My generation

has failed you on that one.

Another prominent feature of urban life today which
represents a failure of our society is the pathetic plight
of the homeless.

Every street corner in Washington which

has a ventilator grate discharging warm dry air has one or
more homeless persons, sometimes families, huddled around it
to keep from freezing in winter and to dry out after rains
in summer.

Some of these people have jobs, but the jobs

don't pay enough for them to be able to afford shelter.
Others are unemployable and some perhaps ineligible for
public assistance or incompetent to obtain it.

We have

thrown billions at this one, too, and haven't made a dent.

Maybe of all our nightmare failures education, both
public and private, is the worst because the consequences of
our failures in education will handicap future generations
and further frustrate them in finding answers.

We will

spend $353 billion on education in the coming academic year,
an increase of 81 percent in just nine years.

And yet

tuition costs in privately endowed colleges and universities
are rising so rapidly that even with generous student aid
and scholarship programs, a degree from those institutions

may be slipping out of the reach of some of our best

More shocking and much more worrisome is the

collapse of public school education, particularly in the
inner cities.

Boston is a frightening example but it is

just one of many.

Almost 40 percent of those in Boston who

enter 9th grade drop out of school before graduation.


Boston spends more per student than most other cities.
That's a special tragedy in the. city which was the
birthplace of free public education.

If poverty, joblessness and homelessness are most
prevalent among minority urban populations, then it follows
pretty clearly that the failure of public schools to prepare
inner city kids to compete in the economy perpetuates their
plight and may even make it worse from one generation to the

We really blew that one, and I don't know anyone who

has a fresh idea of how to fix it.

Finally, we have the sorry spectacle of our rapidly
decreasing competitiveness in the world economy.
leadership in technology has eroded.
productivity has evaporated.
world to finance our deficits.


Our leadership in

We depend on the rest of the
Our savings rate is less

than one-third that of the Japanese.
the will to deal with our problems.

We seem to have lost
We are unwilling to

spend less on government and government programs, but we are
also unwilling to accept tax increases to pay for them.



we must borrow from the Japanese or others to make up the

Elected officials are preoccupied with getting

elected and re-elected f and the special interest groups who
finance those elections are able to override sound public
policy in exchange for their support.

The news is full of

appropriate examples every day.

The challenge to you is to turn this thing around — to
clean up the mess that we have left.

Are you put off by the magnitude of that challenge?
hope not.

You ought not to be.


You have everything going

for you to be able to meet it head on — and win.

You have

a superb education, and your generation has demonstrated a
greater concern for the world around you than mine did 40
years ago.

Now bear with me while I indulge in the speaker's
privilege of being avuncular.

A few reflections then on why we are in this mess and a
few pieces of gratuitous advice to you who must clean it up.

My generation has been too passive by far on public
policy issues.

We have been reluctant to sully ourselves by

mixing it up with politicians.

We have been preoccupied

with making money and spending it conspicuously.

In fact,


we have been so focussed on material success that the end
has begun to justify any means to gain it.

And our

amorality has spilled over into the political process to the
extent that decisions by elected officials on public policy
issues are often made in consideration of campaign
contributions rather than the public interest.

When a

campaign for a Senate seat can cost several million dollars
and a House race may cost many hundreds of thousands, it is
not hard to understand the weight those contributions carry.
The result is that public regard for Congress, state
legislatures and politicians in general is at a low point,
in some cases bordering on contempt,

The old tried but not necessarily true remedies
resorted to by my generation in dealing with tough problems
have not worked.

For much of this century our big problems,

whether social or economic, were routinely dealt with by
more government intervention and more spending.

The result

is government so bloated at federal, state and local levels
that much of the spending is simply to support the apparatus
set up to administer it, and less and less gets directly to
the problem being attacked.

The so-called "drug wars" are one example.
housing is another.


Dozens of public housing projects

bravely thrown up as recently as 20 or 30 years ago have
been abandoned or bulldozed.

They were so institutional in


design that no one could feel at home in them and the


hopelessness of the inhabitants assured their decline.


yet, with all of that, we have people living on the streets.

And where are we as a country in the global economy?
Still at the top, but the trend lines aren't up.

The thirst

for short-term financial gain has dampened our willingness
to invest for increased productivity to assure future growth
and competitiveness.

We are so absorbed in the opportunity

for windfall profits in takeovers and leveraged buy-outs
financed with junk bonds that we have lost sight of the fact
that these transactions regularly extinguish corporate
equity and require the dismemberment of vital enterprises to
meet debt service requirements.

Graduates, the old ways are not working to solve the
problems we face.

They may, in fact, be making them worse.

We need new approaches, renewed creativity and a powerful
commitment on your part to become involved.

Resolve, I beg

you, not to be couch potatoes on public issues.


write, talk, shout if necessary, but make yourselves heard.
Create new approaches and demand that they be tried.


will take courage, because change is always traumatic.

For example:

Could we improve the composition of our

legislatures and other elected institutions if we put
statutory limits on the length of election campaigns for all


offices, limited the amount to be spent on a campaign and
financed it all out of public funds at a fraction of current

Wouldn't that go a long way toward disarming the

special interests?

Give some thought to our housing problem.

If public

housing is badly designed and has a life expectancy of a
fraction of private housing, should we be devising ways to
incent private capital to build affordable housing —
perhaps through subsidies or tax advantages that would be
only fractionally as costly as many of today's failed

I am deeply disappointed that m y generation has not had
more success in dealing with these great issues.

But, I am

supremely confident that your generation can and will deal
with them and with all the new ones which will spring up
along the way.

Truly the world is your oyster, but you may

have to use a lot of energy and ingenuity to open its shell.

Congratulations and God's speed to you all.