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Speeches & Remarks

Remarks of OPM Director John Berry

University of Maryland

College Park, MD

May 20, 2012

As prepared for delivery

Congratulations! Congratulations to you, and also to your parents, your professors, and your loved ones who have raised you up, taught you and stood by you. Don't these folks look good in a cap and gown?

It's good to see some things are the same. Carroll Hall is still the best dorm on campus. That statue of Testudo the Terrapin's nose is as shiny as ever. And the best pizza in the world still comes from the original Ledo's on University Boulevard… ah, I guess some things do change.

When it was my turn to sit in a cap and gown, back in 1980, things were different – you actually had to pick up the phone to know who was calling. A tumbler was a kind of cup. Angry Birds was the plot of a very scary Hitchcock movie.

In 1980, milk was $2.16 a gallon, and my undergraduate tuition was $442 a semester. Today's graduates often owe more than $25,000 in loans – a heavy chain holding you back, and one that my generation must find a way to help you break.

Perhaps most unbelievable of all, back in 1980 Democrats and Republicans were often friends, and regularly worked together – even in Congress – to get things done.

Today, our politics have grown divided, deeply divided. Compromise is too often seen as a failure.

But that's not the way it should work.

So here's your challenge: Heal the nation.

No one party has a lock on the truth. No one party has every solution. Our debates need a lot less anger and irony, and a whole lot more humility. They should be about thinking through solutions – and arriving at compromises that make the best sense for our country.

How do we get beyond the yelling and the finger-pointing? I try to ask three questions: Is this how I would treat myself? What uplifts the weak? What defends the rights of the unpopular?

I also try to lead by example. I was sworn in by a dear friend and mentor, Connie Newman. Connie was appointed the first African-American Director of OPM by President George Herbert Walker Bush – she's a passionate Republican.

Now I recognize it's hard to rally to a call for compromise. But I want you, our brightest up-and-comers, to break the gridlock that is now too common. Find ways to work with people who disagree with you. Make sure the Hunger Games remain a fantasy, and never a reality.

Now this will take time. It will take changing many minds. But minds do change.

I grew up in a time when being gay was clearly not okay. Yet I knew I was. I knew it from a young age.

I learned to hide it, because I was afraid. I was afraid my God didn't love me. I was afraid my family would reject me – especially my conservative father. I was afraid my dream of a career in public service would be forever deferred.

From today's perspective, this all may seem silly. But times were different, then.

In 1957 – not long before I was born – a man named Frank Kameny was fired from his Federal job, just for being gay. This was a man who fought his way across Europe in World War II, came home, got a Harvard Ph.D., and was told he was unfit to serve. In fact that every gay person was a security risk. He was called a criminal and a pervert by the head of the Civil Service – the precursor to the office I hold.

Frank fought back. All the way to the Supreme Court. He lost. But he persisted. He joined together with allies, and slowly – at times very slowly – he changed opinions and changed laws.

American psychiatrists stopped counting homosexuality as a disease, and laws stopped counting gays as criminals. Because Frank demanded equal treatment. He made my career possible. And he lived to win our agency's highest award, named for the most famous holder of my office, Teddy Roosevelt, and given for the defense of the principle that in America, you should be judged only by how well you do the job, and nothing else.

As for myself, I faced my fears. I drew strength from my faith, finding joy in the extravagant and all-encompassing love of God. I spoke to my family and my father.

When I came out, my Dad asked me to never bring my partner to the house. This was hard because we were a close family, that gathered every Sunday for dinner, even after we'd all left home. Ten years later, when my partner was dying of AIDS, it was my father, a man who survived the Great Depression and Guadalcanal, who held him in his arms weeping, and saying "I love you like my own son."

Wounds do heal. Minds do change.

That is the value of truth. It lays a bedrock of certainty that the sand of half-truths can never rival. Be true to yourself and your values, because the world needs the whole you.

We need each and every one of you. If you hold back – or if you are held back, by prejudice, by fear of failure, by cynicism, then it is our world that will miss out.

We need the power of your diversity; the passion of your religion; the energy of your age; and the strength of your family and home.

We often think of diversity as a concept born in the 1960s. But think about it.

The first person killed in the American Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a black man with Wampanoag ancestry, who died at the Boston Massacre in 1770.

In 1863, Corporal Joseph H. De Castro carried the Massachusetts flag into battle at Gettysburg. With only the flagpole as his weapon, he struck down opponents amidst the onslaught of Pickett's charge, and became the first Hispanic-American awarded the Medal of Honor.

In 1883, the world's longest suspension bridge opened, taller than any building in the Western hemisphere. It was the Brooklyn Bridge, an engineering marvel capably managed through construction to completion by Emily Roebling.

The Moon Shot: The average age in Neil Armstrong's mission control room in Houston was 26.

And throughout our history, the motto sparkles on our coins: "E pluribus unum;" out of many, one.

Diversity made America. And it makes America great.

Our country is the freest nation in the world. Our secret is that we have better unlocked the potential of our people – and their creativity and optimism – than any other nation. And the good news is this: Our best days still lie before us.

You – all of you – can serve our country any way that you can imagine. I hope you will consider government service – because it offers a place to do great good and on a scale that simply can't be beat.

We've just launched a new program – called the Recent Graduates program – that gives you two years to easily join the Federal government after you graduate. I hope you'll consider it.

But wherever you go, public, private or non-profit, do good. And if you find yourself working for a bad person – walk away. No matter how much they pay you or how much power they offer. Walk away.

Let me leave you with a thought about our moment in history, and how we compare to the past six thousand years or recorded human history.

Think about it. We've decoded the human genome, walked on the moon, and sent our space shuttle 140 million miles.

Research that took my generation two days and three trips to a library, you can do with two thumbs in three minutes. If the printing press launched the Age of Reason, what wonders will your smartphones unlock? More is possible than ever before. You are better than us. We expect more of you.

Make something great. Make it so wonderful that ages hence, people will look back, as we do to the Age of Pericles, and to the Renaissance, and say – there – that is what people can achieve and accomplish.

Make an Age worthy of a name.

Make us proud. Even prouder than we all are today.

God bless your every effort. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.

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