This is a fan letter.
Commencement speeches are trampolines, elevating and entertaining with just enough risk to keep things interesting. So many ways to go wrong — faux erudition from civilians, faux folksiness from scholars, a trap for try-hards who would be crushed to know how few graduates remember a word that was said on graduation day. And usually, that’s no great loss.
But long after I forget what was said, I will remember what was done in a case I got to watch up close, a master class in class and wisdom about the moment we find ourselves in. When Tom Hanks, beloved actor, occasional author, typewriter aficionado and Most Trusted Person in America, spoke at Harvard’s 372nd commencement, he gave a performance in which the unscripted layers surpassed the careful text. And I’m betting those layers left a deeper mark on the more than 9,000 graduating students plus parents and friends who spread out across the quad to watch the show.
Spotlights brighten, spotlights burn, and people such as Hanks who seldom escape the beam are either strengthened or scarred. For a celebrity who has walked many a red carpet, the traditional commencement procession through Harvard Yard was just one more stroll, though, as is often the case with the movie stars you are used to seeing on huge screens, Hanks seemed almost small in the priestly red robe and goofy cap — small and strangely unprotected. No phalanx of guards, no barricades keeping the cameras contained, just a joyous disorderly procession down a winding path lined with very noisy seniors held back by nothing but restraint or respect.
Had he stopped for every selfie request, we’d still be parading in 2027. But neither could he just march in a stately manner, eyes forward, tassel bobbing, as students screamed, “Tom Hanks!” “We love you!” “Run, Forrest, Run!” and chanted and teased and bounced and roared. And so, just often enough, he stopped for a fist bump, a question, where are you from, nice shades, what does that cord mean, teasing back, reaching out, then moving on beneath the gaze of a thousand arching phones.
The language of the academy is increasingly centered on who or what is centered — what voices, what values — and there wasn’t the least doubt, on a day that also honored a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, a magisterial historian, a groundbreaking biochemist, a media pioneer and a four-star admiral, that Dr. Hanks was the center of attention. It takes an astute understanding of human physics to redirect all those energies and center the students. Over and over, he found ways to send the focus back to them, rising from his seat to kneel in awe before Latin orator Josiah Meadows, hugging Vic Hogg — who recounted a harrowing recovery from gunshot wounds suffered during a carjacking — grace notes and gestures aimed at the musicians and speakers whose names he wove into his own remarks, and at the parents whose pride pulsed across the sea of caps and gowns.
Our public square suffers an acute shortage of such acts of grace. Leaders find power and profit in crassness and cruelty, and signal that virtue is for suckers. It’s a cliché that Tom Hanks is “the nicest guy in Hollywood,” that he and his wife of 35 years, Rita Wilson, somehow manage to represent decency at a time when the country is so divided we can’t even agree on who is worth admiring. On a brisk spring day, watching the radioactive level of attention on him, and his ability to refract it into pure joy and shared humanity, was a healing energy in a sorry time. You can imagine that normal comes naturally to some people; but how often do people who are treated as being bigger, better, more special than everyone else resist the temptation to believe it?
And when it was time for Hanks to deliver his formal message, the script, while occasionally overwritten, rhymed with the mission. Flapping banners exalted the university motto, “Veritas,” and Hanks took up the battle cry. “The truth, to some, is no longer empirical. It’s no longer based on data nor common sense nor even common decency,” he said. “Truth is now considered malleable by opinion and by zero-sum endgames. Imagery is manufactured with audacity and with purpose to achieve the primal task of marring the truth with mock logic, to achieve with fake expertise, with false sincerity, with phrases like, ‘I’m just saying. Well, I’m just asking. I’m just wondering.’”
The opposite of love is not hate, Elie Wiesel said, but indifference, and Hanks put the challenge before his audience of rising leaders and explorers, artists and environmentalists, teachers and technologists. “Every day, every year, and for every graduating class, there is a choice to be made. It’s the same option for all grown-ups, who have to decide to be one of three types of Americans,” Hanks said. “Those who embrace liberty and freedom for all, those who won’t, or those who are indifferent.” Bracing as the words were, the actions spoke louder. For those of us in the truth business — which is to say, all of us — it was an actor who never finished college who set a standard we can work to live up to.
Nancy Gibbs, former editor in chief of Time magazine, is director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.