David Bradley '75
At the 2011 Commencement, President Chopp bestowed upon publisher and philanthropist David Bradley '75 the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. "I can still see the change in me that year as if it were a physical crossing," he said. "My mental frame was as if you could think and think and think and eventually hit a wall where the insights stopped. Then, against any reasonable expectation, Swarthmore would demand you think farther."
David Bradley, you are a gifted business leader, an innovative entrepreneur, a dedicated community servant, and a prominent public intellectual. You are the chairman and owner of several distinguished publishing, news, and media properties, among them the award-winning magazine The Atlantic, which you have elevated to new heights of prominence and influence. You have combined your business acumen and organizational skills with your commitment to volunteerism to create public service opportunities for your employees. Your philanthropy has enabled other institutions to carry out their own imaginative service programs to serve their communities and save lives.
I hate to begin this way. I hate to start with a confession. But, we all have moments of indiscretion from our college years. And being honored like this, by the College, I just find it on my conscience.
So, in the spirit of AA, let me begin with my confession:
"My name is David Bradley and, while at Swarthmore, I was a college Republican."
It gets worse. I transferred to Swarthmore my junior year. The two years preceding, I worked in the Nixon White House.
I know the College made a mistake in taking me. But what in the world was I thinking, deciding that it's really Swarthmore where, finally, I would fit in:
Picture a very lonely transfer student, walking to Sharples Dining Hall alone, stopping to ask strangers, "Do you know where the Republican table is?"
So eager to please, I'd start conversations enthusiastically: "Don't you think Henry Kissinger deserves a Nobel Peace Prize? Ok, apart from the Cambodian bombings…?"
This now seems inconceivable - but it was literally the case. Needing one more letter of recommendation, I turned to my mentor in the Nixon White House. I'm sure this made my application distinctive: I was the only applicant that year with a character reference from John Erhlichman.
The Atlantic publishes the writing of a popular French philosopher, Bernard Henri-Levy. BHL, as he is called, is a handsome man with black hair to his shoulders and, famously, a shirt unbuttoned all the way down. He's considered, by other academics, to be a little vain and a little shallow. One fellow philosopher explained BHL's moral philosophy as: "God is dead but my hair is perfect."
And I suppose that captures my arrival at this extraordinary college: a little vain and a little shallow.
If you will allow me, I want to use my time remaining to tell you two stories: a story of gratitude to the college and a cautionary tale to the graduating seniors.
As to gratitude, it is fulsome. However, I had gotten by in high school and the first two years of college, it was not by life of the mind. So, you can imagine the intellectual shock and awe of arriving on the Swarthmore campus. The workload, to me, was unimaginable.
My first week, I was seated at a carrel in McCabe Library, trying to absorb the semester reading list for a political theory seminar. I can remember welling up with tears of frustration, maybe even anger, at the semester's workload.
A woman from the same seminar walked by and stopped to talk: "You're the transfer student, aren't you?"
We talked and I explained my genuine fear that I couldn't do all the reading on the semester syllabus.
She said, "Did you say ‘semester syllabus?' That's this week's reading list."
And, therein began Swarthmore's gift to me — the invitation to enter and eventually the confidence to occupy, the life of the mind.
I can still see the change in me that year as if it were a physical crossing. My mental frame was as if you could think and think and think and eventually hit a wall where the insights stopped. Then, against any reasonable expectation, Swarthmore would demand you think farther. And, suddenly you discover that terminal wall in that is porous. It's like a gauze curtain. And, thinking harder, you cross over — or through — and find a whole new space of original ideas. Surely, most students crossed over more easily than I. But those moments where I did cross, where I found for myself some original idea, were transporting. They were foundational to the two companies my wife and I built, and central to the privilege I've felt in owning The Atlantic.
I have spent 36 years being grateful to Swarthmore College. And, now, the Board and President Chopp bring me this honor. I didn't know that I could be more grateful to Swarthmore. But, like that first week in political theory seminar, you took me to a deeper place. And I find therein nothing but gratitude.
But, as to the students, I have a far darker message. This is a cautionary tale - the story of woe in my life. Listen closely and with mounting fear.
As an aside, I have a friend named Leon Wieseltier. He is the literary editor for The New Republic. He once saw me winding up to deliver some deep message and interrupted to say: "Ah, I see a flood of light is about to be cast where heretofore there was no darkness."
So, my cautionary tale. In 1975, my senior year, it came time to think about life after Swarthmore. There is a little known rule at Swarthmore that all Republican students are required to apply to Harvard Business School. So, February rolled around and I left the Swarthmore campus for my HBS interview in Boston.
It was a typical February day in Boston...
Witness the high manners of my early 20s: three parts courtesy for every one part sentient thought.
But, what's the moral for these graduating seniors? I'm sure you see it. It shouts out to you: never, ever leave the Swarthmore campus. I tell you, it's a frightening, vicious, terrible world out here. It's all Hobbesian - it's short and brutish and filled with armed robberies in darkened streets. It's windier and it's raining. It ages you horribly. Look at me. Look at me. Is this how you want to turn out?
So, and I hope President Chopp will consider this a constrictive recommendation, my advice to you is to refuse to graduate. Don't do it. Don't come across this stage. Don't take that cheap parchment that eats you up in the outside world.
Chain yourselves together in McCabe Library. Handcuff yourselves to the furniture in Parrish Hall. Hoping that I can take this liberty, I'd suggest that some large number of you make yourself at home in President Chopp's office. You can trust me on this - it worked out really well in the 1960s.
And, now, old Swarthmore Republicans never die. We simply fade away.