You may have heard about the brouhaha at Northwestern University School of Law. Jerry Springer was invited to address graduates at this year's commencement. Springer, a '68 law school grad, accepted the invitation and delivered his address last week.
I'm an NU alum (not law), but the flap was of little interest to me. Although I wasn't bothered much by the selection of Springer as a commencement speaker, I do understand why the Springer invitation bothered some students a great deal. (I must admit I was actually a little more annoyed when Oprah started referring to herself as a Northwestern "professor" after she co-taught a class at Kellogg with her then boyfriend. To her credit she admitted that teaching was much more difficult than she'd expected).
I decided to post an edited transcript of Springer's address simply because it's a masterpiece of ethical weaseldom. Draped in pretentious humility and peppered with familiar bits of "wisdom," the address was framed around the notion that only the sinless are entitled to throw stones. Springer implicitly chided his audience for failing to realize that they, too, will likely make many ethical compromises during their lives. He also informs the recent graduates that, like all of us, they have earned very little in their lives and that almost all they have has been a gift. Springer makes it clear that he appreciates these truths because he is older and because his parents escaped the Nazis while most of his relatives perished at Auschwitz. (Take that you little pishers).
Never mind that Springer is still the ex-mayor who saw prostitutes and that he made his personal fortune taking television down an unprecedented filthy road. And never mind that the real objection to Springer's invitation was simply that a man widely regarded as a dirtball is an inappropriate choice for this special occasion. Despite Springer's insinuation, some of these grads feel deeply about their ethical obligations and, when it counts, at least a few will make the right ethical choices.
Springer's comments are below the fold:
Forty years ago -- I sat where you now do -- degree in hand -- the prestige of this great law school on my resume -- 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 -- America was unraveling. Our cities were burning -- Vietnam was beckoning. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated -- Bobby Kennedy was about to be -- and within two months and 2 miles from here, Chicago would explode around the dysfunction of the Democratic National Convention. To be honest -- contracts, torts and civil procedure seemed of little relevance -- because in the world outside Lincoln Hall -- nothing seemed civil at all.There were 190 of us in my graduating class -- only two were women and 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 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. To the students who object to my presence -- well, you've got a point. I, too, would've chosen someone else -- but once asked, I don't know -- it would've been kind of arrogant, or at least unappreciative, for me to have said "no." So, here I am.
But in an attempt to soften the pain, let me stipulate to the facts. You are right. I am an imperfect being -- (on my talk show, more colorful language might be employed) -- and I feel hardly qualified to tell you what to do with your lives.
The truth be told, though I've been lucky enough to enjoy a comfortable measure of success in my various careers -- let's be honest -- - I've been virtually everything you can't respect -- a lawyer, a mayor, a major market TV news anchor and a talk-show host. Pray for me. If I get to heaven, we're all going.
No, I don't feel at all qualified to tell you what to do with your lives -- because I've noticed as I've gotten older, the wisdom of Winston Churchill's words, that I'm not nearly as certain about anything as I used to be about everything.
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 -- because 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?
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. Oh, we may want to know it -- or we might find the story interesting. 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, having been in the newsroom, is almost always ignored.
And then of course, in my profession now as a host of a crazy talk show.
Well, at least with this, I can rationalize that the show is only open to those who really, and I mean really, want to be on -- and they get to choose the subject matter -- what is revealed -- and what must not be revealed. But even with this, I grapple with ethical questions -- not to mention the business consideration, that a so-called "cleaner" show would certainly be more profitable, a la "Oprah" and "Ellen" and "Dr. Phil."
Then, of course, what about the career most of you will be choosing? Think of the ethical issues you will have to deal with. Will you work for a corporate client who perhaps is polluting -- or 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, despite the need to pay your child's tuition?
Will you work for an insurance company that would prefer to find a way not to pay a claim, or to pay less than is warranted? How about a client who seeks personal injury damages when you kind of know it wasn't that bad? Will you help a client find a way to pay less taxes, even though you're taking advantage of an unintended loophole?
Look, I'm not suggesting that these moral dilemmas don't have answers -- and my guess is you've come up with a few, even as I've been talking.
But what I am saying is that whatever profession you choose, the ethical questions will never stop.
Welcome to life.
It is perhaps inevitable that we are inclined to always be judging 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 -- 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, cousins -- they met their end as well -- camp after camp -- Hitler turning my family tree into a single vine -- Mom and Dad, by the grace of God, surviving -- enabling them to bring my sister and me to America.
Four tickets on the Queen Mary -- January 1949 -- sailing into the 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 majesty of the Statue of Liberty.
My mom told me in later years (I was only 5 at the time) that I had asked her, "What are we looking at? What does the statue mean?"
In the German she spoke, she replied -- "Ein tach allas." "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 may it be for you, as it was for me, "ein tach allas" -- one day everything!