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At Harvard, Tom Hanks offered moments of grace

Nancy Gibbs

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. Usually, that’s no great loss.

But long after I forget what was said, I will remember what was done. A master class in class and wisdom about the moment we find ourselves in. When Tom Hanks, actor, 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.

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, Hanks seemed almost small in the priestly red robe and goofy cap.

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 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 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. 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.

“The truth, to some, is no longer empirical,” Hanks said. “It’s no longer based on data nor common sense nor even common decency. Truth is now considered malleable by opinion and by zero-sum endgames.”

The opposite of love is not hate, Elie Wiesel said, but indifference. Hanks put the challenge before his audience, saying there are three types of Americans. “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, a former editor in chief of Time magazine, is director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. Gibbs contributes to The Washington Post.