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Commencement Address 2006

Jane Lakes Harman ’66, LLD ’94, May 21, 2006

Commencement 2006

U.S. Representative Jane Lakes Harman, a leading Congressional expert on terrorism and security issues, was the speaker at Smith College's 128th commencement ceremony, Sunday, May 21.

Seventeen years ago I watched the Smith commencement ceremony. Delivering the address that year, in 1989, was a giant of a man: John Kenneth Galbraith, whose robe looked more like a cape over his 6'8" frame.

Sorry, this year you’ve got me — and I’m 17 inches shorter! Some of you may know that I gave the commencement address at Smith 12 years ago, soon after I was first elected to Congress. When I asked Carol Christ why she wanted a “repeater,” she responded “Jane, it’s a whole new generation of students.”

Eek! Is that possible? Can I be that old? Well, yes. But you do me a favor. You give me a chance to tell my youngest daughter, Justine, who graduated Penn on Monday, what is on her ancient mother’s mind.

My message to the Class of '94 was that dreams don’t just come true, they must be pursued. I talked about arriving at Smith from a Los Angeles public school and how my mother, the first in her immigrant family to go to college, had been accepted at Smith but failed to qualify for a scholarship because she was under 16.

Though I had never seen the college before my first day as a freshman, I felt I was fulfilling my mother’s dream. But once here, I soon realized that I had to discover my own dream, and pursue it.

I did, and I have.

I am passionate about public service and I have the job I dreamed of since, as a high school sophomore, I attended the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, met Eleanor Roosevelt, and witnessed the nomination of John F. Kennedy for President of the United States.

My late mother was proud of me. When she died in 1993, I had just been elected to Congress — my first elected office. I was 47, part way between 40 and 60, the years my mother said would be the best of my life.

But though she was very wise, my mother was wrong to claim age 60 as an end-point.

I turned 60 last year, ran a marathon, and became a grandmother for the first time two months ago. Thank you. If I’m counting right, Lucy, named after my mother, should be the Class of 2027!

My talk today is about how women lead.

My view — and my advice to you — is that leading is tough work. It starts when you are ready, and it ends…when you are ready.

What is leadership? It is barely defined in the New Oxford American Dictionary (a gift I recently gave my literate husband). First definition is to “cause a person or animal to go with one by holding them by the hand, a halter, a rope, etc.” Yikes! Not what I meant.

Leading is a tough thing to describe or quantify. Actually, if done well, people being led don’t know it is happening. Instead of feeling pulled or tugged, they feel inclined to follow the right vision or message.

Being a leader requires a number of things:

  • First, an instinct to move people to do something.
  • Second, a vision of where you want them to go — or what you want them to do.
  • Third, a path or plan to get them there.
  • Fourth, the self confidence to get started.

None of this is easy — and anyone who tells you it is, is lying.

So how to get started?

Well, today would be a good time. You are graduating from a top-tier college and look great in your caps and gowns. Your families have spent a fortune on you, and are here to cheer you on. Thank you, families.

Perhaps you have a job lined up, or graduate school, or summer travel. What will any of those opportunities mean to you?

I doubt you completed four years here and have no answer to my question. I would guess your answer has something to do with what you have learned, what you will learn, or what you expect to accomplish.

In each case, whether you believe this or not, you now have the self-confidence to know you are bringing some capabilities with you: a well developed brain, a work ethic, curiosity, and — maybe — a sense of duty.

All of these attributes contribute to leadership.

So how does one learn to lead?

Well, there are tomes and courses on leadership, but there’s no rule book. There are great mentors, but I think the best way to begin is by looking inside. Even if it is not yet obvious to you, you have what it takes to be a leader.

You have graduated — or almost graduated — from Smith. That is a big ticket.

What did Smith teach me about leadership, and what have I learned since?

Smith was a nurturing environment in which I took my first shaky baby steps as a leader. I often say that Congress is my first elected office since my run for junior high school treasurer, which I lost. But at Smith, I did run the Young Democrats and organized an event for Hubert Humphrey in 1964 when he was the Democratic candidate for Vice President.

I still have the clip from The Sophian showing me and fellow Smithie, Trudy Rubin, now an author and ace reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, on the front page. We did a pretty good job! And if you don’t believe me go to the new collection in the library and you’ll see the clip.

Smith also gave me the tools to reach higher. I had to take the law boards at Amherst because Smith didn’t offer them. But I felt well prepared for my Harvard Law interview, and was accepted.

At Harvard, I pursued my political interests and marveled at being one of only 30 women in a class of 550.

Though my life after law school has not always come up roses, there has been a clear trajectory, and I’ve never stopped reaching.

I love public policy, and suffer withdrawal when I can’t find a good newspaper, hear an informed panel discussion or find substantive news program on TV. From time to time, I’m even part of breaking news! Something I could barely imagine as a dreamer and student here.

A few stories may be instructive.

When I ran for Congress in 1992, few thought I could win in a so-called “lean-Republican” seat. I won the Democratic primary easily, but my break came when Maureen Reagan — daughter of the former President — lost the Republican primary.

She was pro-choice, and her moderate Republican supporters decided to support the pro-choice candidate in the race: me! They formed the nucleus of Republicans For Harman, a key to my close victories thereafter.

I got over 50 percent of the vote — for the first time — in 1996, and was beginning to relax about my vulnerability when, at the last minute, Senator Dianne Feinstein dropped out of the 1998 race for Governor of California.

She and I are great friends and our voting records are similar: progressive on social issues, moderate on economic and security issues. A large group supporting her turned to me. Would I run?

Only someone like me, they argued, could defeat the very conservative Republican candidate, then California Attorney General and former Congressman Dan Lungren.

It was pretty heady stuff. I learned then that political advisors and pollsters will always tell you that you can win … especially if they will get hired.

I decided to do it, and had to give up my House seat to do so. (In California and most states, a candidate cannot run for two offices simultaneously.)

What followed was an out-of-body experience. I had to win in a three-way primary in 12 weeks, but I was virtually unknown statewide. So my team cut a few introductory biographical TV spots, and I vaulted quickly into first place.

Then, one of my primary opponents unleashed a relentless $42 million attack campaign against me. Every vote I had made in Congress was dissected and twisted. I was called an agent of communist China — notwithstanding the fact that the Cold War had ended nine years earlier and our country had recognized the People’s Republic of China for a quarter century!

I was able to put up a modestly funded rebuttal. “Leadership is about attacking problems, not each other,” my face-to-camera spot said.

In the end, it was called a “murder-suicide.” I was murdered, and his negative campaign killed him. The third candidate in the primary, named Gray Davis, won, and he did go on to beat Dan Lungren — only to be recalled a few years ago.

But here’s the irony. By being out of Congress, I had the chance to become Regents Professor at UCLA and to refine my views on public policy. I was appointed to the National Commission on Terrorism, a position I used to gain expertise on the security challenges we face — and faced — prior to 9/11. Our Commission predicted a major attack on U.S. soil.

But also, when the Democratic Leadership persuaded me to run against the moderate Republican who had been elected to my vacated seat, I was promised that my seniority would be restored — which is why I am now the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

In that post I have traveled to the four corners of the world: Libya (twice), Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq (three times), and North Korea, to name a few. And I was a principal author of the major intelligence reform bill that became law in 1994.

Earlier this month, I was the principal co-author of another bill, the SAFE Port Act, a massive maritime security reform bill that passed the House by a slim margin — 421 to 2 — a legislative miracle in a sea of toxic partisanship.

But here’s the fun part. My co-author was … Dan Lungren! Yup, the very fellow I was recruited to beat in the California Governor’s race.

Dan returned to Congress in 2004. I strongly disagree with his views on social issues, but we serve together and work together on the Homeland Security Committee and our ports bill reflects that collaboration. By the way, a similar bill is moving through the Senate, and I predict our effort will become law.

So, what are the lessons?

One: As mentioned, leadership is inside out. It starts with your own head and heart. If it doesn’t, people will know it and won’t believe in you.

Two: Leadership takes work. You have to trust your own instincts and marshal your arguments.

Three: Failure is your friend, and learning from tough experiences will set you up for even greater success.

Let me leave you with a few more lessons about leadership, which I’m still learning, too.

Four: Leaders never give up. Think Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, or my dear friend Geraldine Ferraro. Gerry has survived political losses for Vice President, Senator and serious cancer. She is currently the inspiration for the Win with Women campaign, which is teaching women around the world advocacy skills and how to run for office.

I recently taught a campaign seminar in Kuwait and was blown away by the enormous talent in the room. Gerry is just as excited as they are!

Five: Leadership is lonely — especially for women. You have to assume you won’t please everyone and will make enemies. Sadly, I have learned that women don’t always support each other.

Six: The mountain is steepest at the top. The higher you rise, the less oxygen there is. It takes enormous fortitude to keep climbing.

Seven: When you succeed as a leader, your most important obligation is to mentor and help the women who come after you. I hope I’m doing some of this today.

And eight: Never forget that leaders are also family members. Some of you will marry and start your own families. But all of you have families. They need you too.

John Kenneth Galbraith died recently at 97. An author, beloved professor, diplomat, counselor to Presidents — his life spanned the 20th century.

He never stopped questioning the status quo, and had some rather pithy things to say about leadership as well. Said Galbraith:

“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

He also said:

“There are times in politics when you must be on the right side and lose.”

He also said:

“If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.”

Pretty fabulous!

Of course you know that his witty and wonderful wife, Catherine, was a Smithie!

So to fabulous women surrounded here by family and loved ones, and to the hardy Smithies who preceded you, I say:

Look inside yourselves and find your passion.

Go for it.

Don’t quit if it doesn’t come easily.

If time permits, clue in your parents. They will be more supportive than you think.

Know that you make those who came before you — especially Smithies — very, very proud!

Congratulations. Best wishes. You made it!