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Dr. Larry Arnn On The Clarence Thomas Commencement Address At Hillsdale College

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HH: It’s Friday, the last radio hour of the week. That means it’s time for the Hillsdale Dialogue, my first in a few weeks, because I’ve been, of course, on vacation in Europe. Dr. Larry Arnn is the president of Hillsdale College, All of these dialogues are collected at Once a week, we sit and talk about the great works, people, literature, art of Western Civilization, and the events of the week before us and the month before us. Dr. Arnn, always a pleasure, I hope your commencement went well. I want to play some of that audio in a little bit, but it’s always, it’s busy. I was giving a commencement speech in Ashland University on the same day that Clarence Thomas was giving one at Hillsdale College. I think maybe the Hillsdale College people won a little bit there.

LA: Well, you’re pretty good, Hugh. You’d be a good commencement speaker. But Justice Thomas is the best I ever saw, and I’ve seen a lot of them now.

HH: Wow.

LA: It was, I knew it would be, and it was awesome. He, It was a picture of how the country would be if it was good, because he has such a dignity and such a knowledge, and such a character, that he could talk to seniors about how to live well, which is what commencement is about.

HH: Let’s do a little bit of playing what he had to say so that people can get a sense of this. This is the first cut where he remembers his friend and the great lion of the law, Antonin Scalia, cut number one:

CT: When I think of Justice Scalia, I think of the good man whom I could instinctively trust during my first days on the Court. And those were challenging days. He was in the tradition of the South of my youth a man of his word, a man of character. Over the almost 25 years that we were together, I think we made the Court a better place for each other. (applause) I certainly know that he made it a better place for me. He was kind to me when it mattered most in those early days. He is, and will be, sorely missed.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, there’s a lot packed in there, including the importance of kindness, the importance of reaching out to colleagues, the importance of enduring long periods of time at a task. That’s one minute of commencement speech probably outshining most of the speeches given over the last few weeks.

LA: Well, Justice Scalia was a great man. I invite people to notice that this is right at the beginning of Justice Thomas’ speech, and he begins by talking about somebody else. He, I’ve been privileged to know Justice Thomas now for 29 years. We put it together while he was here on the campus. He was here for three days. He stayed with me. And for 28 of those years, once I got to know him, I thought he was the greatest man I know, and I think that at this minute. And so he came, he had a cold. He is always in the top five request of the senior class to be a commencement speaker, and I have never asked him.

HH: Oh.

LA: And the reason I’ve never asked him is I know he doesn’t like things like that. And it’s also a burden to him. And I think that we’re supposed to, you know, if you know some great man, you should try to be of service to that man, and that’s how I regard him. This year, the senior class officers were sophistical. They said we’re worried about your relationship with Justice Thomas, and I said why.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And they said well, we’re afraid that he’s offended that you’ve never invited him to give a commencement speech.

HH: (laughing) That’s very sly.

LA: I told the story, you know, in introducing him, you know, and I said you know, please stand up senior class sophists. But it occurred to me that I could write the letter around that request, and I did, and he agreed to come do it. Well, as you’ll see, he begins with a fallen colleague, who is, you know, if you think about it for a minute, his rival as the greatest conservative on the Court of the era. And what he does is pay tribute to him, and he meant the tribute with all his heart, and the tribute is unreserved. And so I just, in introducing him, I referred to him as a certain paragon of virtue that occurs in Aristotle, the great-souled man, and this opening of the speech is an example of it.

HH: It continues. Let’s play cut number two:

CT: …since I left college in 1971. Things that were once considered firm have long since lost their vitality. And much that seemed inconceivable is now firmly or universally established. Hallmarks of my youth such as patriotism and religion seem more like outliers, if not afterthoughts. So in a sense, I feel woefully out of place doing this or any commencement. My words will perhaps be more of a vintage nature than current in content. Words actually matter, not our current new speak. I admit to being unapologetically Catholic, unapologetically patriotic, and unapologetically a Constitutionalist.

HH: Again, Dr. Arnn, bracing, because it is bold and blunt, and he says quite a lot when he says much that seemed inconceivable is now firmly or universally established, haunting words, really.

LA: Yeah, you know, there’s so much to worry about today. And you know, my, I met Justice Thomas in 1987. I have a letter from him that day, which is how I date it. And just think what, you know, Ronald Reagan was the president. Think where we’ve come. Think how we’ve fallen. And the things that he has built his career around, I mean, his, you know, he had a period where he was a sort of radical left-leaning guy. He tells the story in the book called My Grandfather’s Son. It’s an autobiography. It’s very worth, people should read it. It’s really great. And he found his way, found his way back toward freedom, and he found his way back toward the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And he became again fully his grandfather’s son, which is the action of his autobiography. And so he’s fought for that, and he suffered for that, you know. I mean, think of the attacks on him and how bitter they are, and how they reoccur even this year. And he sees now that those forces that he almost joined in this life are in the ascendant in our country. And he is still defiant.

HH: He is very defiant, and I love that book, My Grandfather’s Son. I think it’s one of the really more amazing memoirs that have been written. Mitch McConnell has another great amazing memoir that comes out. But no one began in the grinding poverty that he talks about, and he mentions it in this next clip, cut number three:

CT: In my youth, we had a small farm. I am convinced that the time I spent there had much to do with my first resolve to never farm again. (laughing) Work seemed to spring eternal like the weeds that consumed so much of our time and our lives and our efforts. One of the constantly conveyed messages was our obligation to take care of the land and to use it to produce food for ourselves and for others. If there was to be independence, self-sufficiency or freedom, then we had to first understand, accept and then discharge our responsibilities. The latter were the necessary, but not always sufficient antecedents or precursors of the former. The only guarantee was that if you did not discharge your responsibilities, there could be no independence, no self-sufficiency, no freedom, no crops.

HH: How final, Dr. Arnn. I was reminded by your colleague at Ashland, Dr. Campo, that 80% of the Ashland undergraduates have grown something and nurtured it to the point of eating it, whether it be animal or fruit or vegetable, and that that’s a lost thing. He begins in the land and in farming, which is a great place to begin for a commencement speech.

LA: Well, that point reminds me of, Justice Thomas himself reminds me of the character of George Washington, because if you look at his first inaugural and his second inaugural, and his farewell address, they all make the point that to be happy, we have to be good, and that good doesn’t mean that we’ll be happy in some easy or ordinary sense. But it is, but being good is the key to everything, and that is the perfect message for a commencement. Remember, we don’t call commencement termination, right? That’s what it’s like. We’re saying goodbye. And we’re sad about it. But we call it commencement, because now it’s time for them to do what they have learned to do. And that passage right there, see, he never wanted to farm again, he said. He never did farm again, so that’s kind of a joke. But on the other hand, what he learned on the farm, what grew in him, was what he is.

HH: And far from a joke, but very serious indeed. More of Clarence Thomas’ address to the students graduating from Hillsdale College when we return to this, the Hillsdale Dialogue, all of them available at Dr. Arnn is my guest. Stay with us.

— – — – –

HH: He delivered it at a particular place and a particular time. And he mentions that in this next excerpt, cut number five:

CT: Because you all are graduates of Hillsdale College, it is quite appropriate and quite convenient to reflect briefly on their understanding of what was to be preserved, what had to be earned. The founders and many successive generations believed in natural rights, and that, as the Declaration of Independence makes clear, to establish a government by consent, they gave up only those rights necessary to create a limited government. They then structured that government so that it could not jeopardize the liberty that flowed from these inherent or natural rights. Of course, these limitations have roots that go as far back as the original Magna Carta over 800 years ago. But even though this liberty is inherent, it is neither guaranteed nor assured. The very founding documents of our country, for example, are an assertion of this liberty against arguably the most powerful man in the world. And it was secured at the risk of the lives, fortunes and sacred honor of those who dared to assert that liberty.

HH: Now Larry Arnn, there’s two things I want to make about this. The second, we’ll come back to. But the first is he says because you are all graduates of Hillsdale College, it is quite appropriate and quite convenient to reflect briefly, and he goes on to talk about the founders. You must have enormous and justified pride in the assumption of that statement, because you are all graduates of Hillsdale College, or as we might, you say in modern terms, what a brand that he can say that.

LA: (laughing) Excuse me, I have Justice Thomas’ cold. But Justice Thomas has come to the campus and taught the Constitution, and of course, one of our students has been a clerk for Justice Thomas. And I’ve known him a long time, so yeah, I was very proud. And you know, honor depends more on the one who pays it than the one who gets it. So I caught that, of course.

HH: (laughing) Yeah, you did. I wanted, I caught it, too. I said that is not something that many commencement speakers could say about any particular place that they are. It’s really, it’s really remarkable. Now I had occasion to say, and I want to repeat it here, that commencement addresses can be long, and they can be wrong, and they can be long and they can be boring. I’ve been to both of those. I was at, Solzhenitsyn was my speaker. He was long and wrong. And then from law school, Judge Webster, he was long and I fell asleep, because he was talking about the Exclusionary Rule. This one is guaranteed not to be wrong, correct? He can’t be wrong. He’s talking about natural rights. He cannot be wrong.

LA: Well, you know, I’ve, so I’ve grown experience in the college president business. And the only people consistently who could give a good commencement address are excellent academics, and only a few of them. But there are certain people you can ask, and you know they’re going to do a good job, because they understand what the college is, and they understand what the moment is. Public figures almost never do. And so when we have them, whoever they may be, I always coach them like crazy. Justice Thomas said what do you want me to say, and I said I want you to say whatever comes to you, because it’ll be perfect. And it was. It was awesome.

HH: Framing it about the founders and about the willingness of them to take on arguably the most powerful man in the world, and we have 30 seconds to the break, that’s a wonderful thing to remind people. They risked their lives, their honor, their sacred trust to do that.

LA: It’s a great, he’s reminded, it’s like the farm, isn’t it? In other words, how’d we get here? And the answer is any time one is in a good place, it’s because somebody paid. And you have to understand that, right? It’s not us deserving. This is America, right? It’s been built over 200-plus years. And Justice Thomas lives in reverence of that, and wants to help with that, and is prepared to fight his own war to keep it alive. And he exhibited that to the seniors. So he told me many times while he was here. We’d talk about how bad things are, and he said yeah, but think of those 350 kids you just graduated.

HH: Oh, well said by him. I’ll be right back with Dr. Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. Every single Friday at this time, we do ourselves the great good of listening to the Hillsdale Dialogues. Stay tuned.

— – – —

HH: Dr. Arnn, this past week, I was at the American Cemetery in Florence. You said before we went to break we are only at a good place because some people paid the price, Clarence Thomas referencing the framers. But as I looked out over those 4,400-plus crosses, Stars of David and unknown soldiers, I was just thinking of what you said. I wrote down two of their names – Jackie Toma of Ohio, Joseph Glasser of Pennsylvania. Both were privates. I don’t know anything about them, yet. I haven’t been able to find…but there is an enormous debt at these commencements. You don’t get there by accident. People sacrificed to put you there, both those in the audience and those unnumbered and unseen.

LA: Yeah, that’s right. And you know, we always remember Josiah Lippencott, one of our best seniors, is a lieutenant in the Marine Corps now, on active duty, because he graduated. And he graduated in his uniform. And we always remember that you know, thousands who have done that in the history of the college, including back to the Civil War. And that’s right, you know, in other words, freedom is hard, and it’s in danger right now. And everybody needs to graduate from college understanding that if they care about their freedom.

HH: Let me play more Clarence Thomas, cut number six:

CT: I resist what seems to be somewhat formulaic or standard fare at commencement exercises – some broad complaint about societal injustice, and at least one exhortation to the young graduates to go out and solve the stated problem, or otherwise to change the world. Having been where you all are, I think it is hard enough to first solve your own problems, not to mention those problems that often seem to defy solution. In addressing your own obligations and responsibilities in the right way, you actually help to ensure our liberties and our form of government. Throughout my youth, even as the contradictions of segregation persisted, we revered the ideals of our great nation. Of course, we knew that our country was, like all human institutions, a flawed nation. But we also knew that in the ideal of liberty lay our last, best hope.

HH: He also, he went right on. I don’t want to break this up so we get the full thought, cut number seven:

CT: I often wondered why my grandparents remained such model citizens, even when our country’s failures were so obvious. In the arrogance of my early adult life, I challenged my grandfather and doubted the ideals of our nation. He bluntly asked so, where else would you live? Though not a lettered man, he knew that though not nearly perfect, our Constitutional ideals were perfectible if we worked to protect them rather than to undermine them. As he said, son, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. That is don’t discard which is precious along with that which is tainted. Sadly, today when it seems that grievances rather than personal conduct are the means of elevation, this may sound odd, or at least discordant. But those around us back then seemed to have resolved to conduct themselves consistent with the duties that the ideals of our country demanded. They were law abiding, hard-working, disciplined. They discharged their responsibilities to their families and neighbors as best they could.

HH: And he said one more thing about his grandfather, cut number eight:

CT: As my grandfather often said, we were duty bound to do the right thing, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. In a sense, they were teaching us that what we wanted to do did not define what was right, nor, I might add, did our capacious litany of wants define liberty. Rather, what was right defined what we were required to do and what we were permitted to do. It defined our duties and our responsibilities, whether those duties meant cutting our neighbors’ lawn, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, or in rare cases, going off to war as my brother did. We were to honorably discharge them.

HH: And he’s honorably discharging his duty of a commencement speaker, Larry Arnn, which is to get people to reflect on their duties back.

LA: So I’ll tell you why it was sublime. It’s in those quotes. The beginning of those string of quotes you just read was about each senior living his or her life well.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And so a lot of people at the campus thought it’s so perfect, because he talked to the seniors. That’s what we like at the college, right? He, I told him, I said you can, you know, Justice, you’re not well, so after you give your speech, we’ve got an hour and a half left to give out degrees. You can slip away. And he said it’s commencement. So I conferred the degrees formally, and then the choir sings. And when I sat down for the choir to sing, he said when are we going to give out the diplomas? And so then I rearranged things. I called over the photographers, and I got another photography station set up. And before I shook their hand and got my picture took with them, he did that for every senior, right?

HH: Wow.

LA: So that’s, I’ve never seen that before. And of course, they’ve all got a picture with Justice Thomas now, the sublime. But then to think of that quote, see, because they say he talked to the seniors, not just to a wider audience. That quote ends with do as you would be done by, right?

HH: Right.

LA: With the universal claim of God on every human being. In other words, he talked to the seniors as representatives of every human being.

HH: And he did not spare them hard truths. Let’s play cut number 10:

CT: Indeed, some of you will most assuredly be called upon to do the very hard things to preserve liberty, perhaps even give the last full measure. But all of you will be called upon to provide that firm foundation of citizenship by carrying out your obligations in much the way that those around you did, and so many did during my youth. You are to be the example to others that they were to you. The greatest lecture or sermon you will give is your example. What you do will matter far more than what you say.

HH: Two sets of wisdom there. One, do the hard things, even the hardest, the last full measure, and then don’t tell me what you’re going to do. Do it. There is no try. There is do, to mix a little Yoda in with Clarence Thomas, perhaps for the first time, very sublime, Larry Arnn. You must have known it was a great address you were listening to.

LA: Yeah, he wrote it, some of it at least, while he was here. He printed it on my wife’s printer. Mine wasn’t working, of course. Just before we left to go do our duty, right, and I wasn’t worried about it at all. And he was. He said, the night before, he said I don’t think I have anything to say.

HH: Oh, my gosh.

LA: And I said yeah, I said, you’ve never known yourself very well, have you? And then he said as we were going over, he said well, I’m afraid it’s too long. And I said, and you know, I want you to know, I’ve done this a lot. I like for it to go well. I hurry like crazy, because it’s a long ceremony. And there isn’t anybody else I would have said this to. I said take your time.

HH: Ah, dangerous. Very dangerous.

LA: Yeah, well, it wasn’t with him. He, it wasn’t, people, you know, when it finished, I, let’s say there’s a public figure who came to our campus and gave what everybody at Hillsdale College knows it’s the worst commencement address we ever had. It’s still talked of, years later, whoever it was. And I noticed it was going long when I looked up, because I was organizing what I had to do next, and I looked up, and I saw the way people were paying attention. With Justice Thomas, there was rapt, contented attention all the way through. And you’ve been playing, you heard the cadence of it, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: He was not hurrying. It was just awesome. He just was, you know…

HH: You know immediately, I remarked at Ashland, I’ve heard more than 25 commencement addresses, because I’ve been a faculty member, and I’ve got kids, and I’ve gone to my own. You know in about five minutes whether you’ve got a good one or a bad one going, so I’m not surprised you can remember the, and I’m not going to ask you who it was. It wasn’t obviously anyone we know. But it must have been torture for a college president to sit through a terrible commencement address and then reflect upon who inveigled that invitation from you.

LA: Yeah, it was, you know, when you’re thinking about it, you know, because every year, I meet with the senior class officers. And over the summer, they poll the class and get a list, and they rank the list by how many people mention it. And then so we start with a list from the senior class officers, from the senior class, and then with the officers, I say so we’re going to pick the commencement speaker together. And that means I’m going to pick him, I’m responsible, but I’m going to take your advice. And I’m going to try to do what you suggest. So my very great student, Ryan Walsh, who came in hard-core for Chuck Norris, I put that one down. But…

HH: He would be good. He would be good.

LA: He would have been good. Yeah, you know, I wasn’t ready for that. But why, because commencement is a big deal, because these parents, you know, there were 5,500 people at our commencement. And it’s a culmination of the effort of raising a child. And so it needs to be as sobrite as it can possibly be. And it needs to sound the themes that brought us all together in the first place. And because the college has a lot of attention, you know, close to 40,000 people have watched this thing on our web channel, and it was on C-SPAN, too. I don’t know how many watched it there. It’s the message of the college. And so it matters so much, and it’s so hard to get right, and the reason it’s hard to get right is who knows how to do it? And people with great reputation and gravity and high station who know how to do it are very, very few.

HH: Now I don’t want to confuse the subject, but President Obama gave an address at Rutgers, which was a campaign speech against Donald Trump. I thought it unfortunate for the graduates and their parents. I thought it was a misuse of the platform. And ten seconds, Larry Arnn, do you agree with me that we ought not to politicize these events beyond big issues?

LA: That’s right. It’s, you know, if you can’t stop a minute and celebrate these lives that are commencing, and exhort them and educate them to live well, whenever in life can you do that?

HH: Yeah, I’ll be right back. One more segment with Dr. Arnn this week. I want to finish Clarence Thomas’ commencement address. Stay right where you are.

— – — –

HH: I want to conclude this Hillsdale Dialogue, which has been going for four years, with this bit of closing rhetoric given by Justice Thomas to those gathered at Hillsdale last week, cut number eleven:

CT: Do not hide your faith and your beliefs under a bushel basket, especially in this world that seems to have gone mad with political correctness. Treat others the way you would like to be treated if you stood in their shoes. These small lessons become the unplanned syllabus for becoming a good citizen. And your efforts to live them will help to form the fabric of the civil society and a free and prosperous nation, where inherent equality and liberty are inviolable. You are men and women of Hillsdale College, a school that has stood fast on its principles and its traditions at great sacrifice and great cost. You are men and women of Hillsdale, steeped in the best traditions and principles of our great nation. If you don’t lead by example, who will?

HH: Larry Arnn, you must love that he ends with a question.

LA: Yeah, well, he’s so noble, you know? That’s why he did it. He, it is funny, you know, how would he know how to do that so well? You know, because I will tell you, there are several public figures that I personally have explained everything that we’ve talked about in this time we’ve been together talking about this speech, and it’s amazing how they can’t hear.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And they can’t hear, because they don’t live in that world. They don’t see it all the time. It’s no particular distinction for me to understand what it’s like. I do it for a living, right? But for him to just know? For him to look at me and say, he thought, you know, suspected in the middle of it that I had decided not to give out the diplomas in respect to him, because I would do that, almost, right? He said when are we going to give out the diplomas?

HH: (laughing)

LA: You know, I mean, and see, eternity is present in these seniors. And the art of a commencement address is to find it there and explain it, and that’s what’s so hard to do.

HH: Yeah, he hit the perfect pitch, and not surprising, actually, given the life that he has lived and the service he has rendered, and the loss that he has suffered in recent weeks of a good and great friend, and a great-souled man with whom he served next to him. I think he was next to him on the bench, I think.

LA: Yeah, he was. He was, yeah.

HH: Yeah, so bench mates for a long period of time, except when perhaps they were at opposite ends of the bench until the new justice came on. But it would be quite a loss, and to giddy up an go and to speak bluntly about important truths is a good thing. And I’m glad to hear it is over at if people want to watch it as well?

LA: Yeah, it is.

HH: Do they get to hear your introduction about the sophists in the crowd as well?

LA: Oh, yeah. Well, if you like that kind of thing, I mean, I introduced him and called him the greatest man I know, which is what he is, and explained why. But before that, I made fun of the seniors, and told them how great they are.

HH: Well, that’s good.

LA: That’s my job.

HH: That is your job. That is your job. And once it ends, now you of course have to top that. You have a junior class that’s rising, right?

LA: Yeah, yeah, what are we going to do? Maybe we’ll invite you, and you’ll have to…

HH: No, you need to go find Reagan or Scalia, somebody like that. Thomas, you put yourself in a box once you do that. They’re the class of 2016, and don’t you know, they’re going to lord it over the class of 2017 forever.

LA: In all places. You know, they, you’ve got no idea how many people have said to me well, we’ll never match that. And I say I feel like Scipio Africanus weeping after he conquered Carthage. What is there left to do? (laughing)

HH: And did not, was Churchill’s Fulton address a commencement speech?

LA: No, it was not. It was in March. But Churchill did give, Churchill was chancellor of the University of Bristol for a long time, still their longest-serving chancellor, 28 years, I think. And there are actually newsreel footages when he was appointed chancellor of them, of students, hordes of students carrying him on their shoulders. Well, in 1938, he gave a speech called Civilization that’s about 800 words long, and it is one of his prettiest speeches, and it’s a commencement address.

HH: Perhaps we will go there next week. It remains the season of graduation. Perhaps we will go to the Churchill commencement from 1938 called Civilization. I don’t know this to be true, but we have 30 seconds. Do you think it’s apt for the time in which we live?

LA: Oh, very much. Oh, very much, yeah. Yeah, it’s…

HH: Well, then, we have set down…

LA: It is a stunning, it defines civilization and shows why Hitler doesn’t have it, hardly doesn’t mention Hitler.

HH: Then we have a plan, which is but more than most weeks, I can tell you, America. Dr. Larry Arnn, my colleague and friend from Hillsdale College, congratulations on your commencement, and to all your graduates from Hillsdale College, and to Justice Thomas for a speech well-written, well-delivered, and well enduring. I’ll be back next week, America, on the next Hugh Hewitt Show.

End of interview.


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