Answering an invitation from students, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno delivered the keynote address at UC Berkeley’s 2001 Commencement Convocation Wednesday.
Reno, the nation’s first female attorney general, was among the most requested commencement speakers in last summer’s survey of more than 9,000 UC Berkeley seniors-to-be.
Reno’s address in the Greek Theatre, capped off a well-attended ceremony full of nostalgia, good cheer, the requisite talk of endings and beginnings, possibilities and responsibilities and university pride.
“This is your day,” she began, “and this is a wonderful day for the country.”
Reno recalled her own early adulthood, and a dawning duty of “trying very simply to make the world a better place.” She referred to a visit she’d made to the concentration camp at Dachau, after which, “I resolved that I would never stand by, that I would try with all my heart and soul to look at what was wrong, and try to correct it and never give up.”
She went on to describe the rewards and disappointments of her life in public service, lessons learned there and from her parents – a mother who taught herself to build a house, and did so without “cutting any corners,” and a father who taught himself English and thrived as a newspaper reporter.
The audience loudly approved Reno’s mention of her imitated and actual appearance on Saturday Night Live. “It is so important to laugh at yourself every now and then,” she said. “Laughter is the great leveler. It puts attorneys general and Will Ferrell on the same level,” she added, referring to the actor who had portrayed her on the popular satirical program.
And, indulging the prerogative of every graduation speaker, Reno dispensed advice. “Fill the spaces of your life with poetry and music and... kayaking, and other good things,” she said to a chorus of approving chuckles. “Make your word your bond. When you say something, mean it. If you lose, pick yourself up and move ahead. Don’t duck. Accept responsibility. Stand and take it.”
Reno challenged the graduates to engage in public service. “I’ve challenged lawyers to stop talking and start doing,” she said. “You people who are headed for law school, help me. We have a nation to serve, and a world to serve, and all its people.” She said she assumed that many in the audience shared her determination to improve American public education, including raising teachers’ salaries and ending “the culture of violence.”
In fact, Reno’s advice, and advocacy, gradually began to sound something like a campaign speech, delivered to an enthusiastic group of political supporters. Most of the audience applauded what she called her decision “to return a little boy to his father,” citing the Elian Gonzalez affair, and, with the exception of two students holding a white banner bearing the words “Remember Waco” between them, the crowd made clear its support.
She follows other notable and sometimes controversial speakers, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, actor Bill Cosby, author Terry McMillan and Silicon Valley legend Steve Wozniak.
Diplomas will be distributed at various departmental graduations throughout this month.