Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson spoke at the Wake Forest commencement this morning, taking the podium at a moment when the debate about why she was really fired from the paper shows no sign of concluding quickly.
Given the recentness of her departure — and presumably, the terms of whatever settlement Abramson reached with her former employers — the speech was a bit awkward. Abramson could not have really made a detailed case for herself without looking petulant, and besides, Bloomberg’s Al Hunt did that for her in his introduction. “It is said she can be a tough, no-nonsense, even pushy in her passionate commitment to truth and accountability, no matter rank or party. That’s what makes a great editor,” Hunt told the graduates. An inspiring message might have seemed deluded, platitudinous or even hypocritical.
The short text Abramson delivered did not manage to transcend the difficulty of the situation. But in her demeanor even more so than her words, Abramson managed to make some good points for the graduates.
1. A great deal of life is in showing up, not just when it’s easy, but particularly when you would rather not: It might have been natural for Abramson to cancel, even if it created an awkward situation for Wake Forest, which would have needed to replace her on short notice. She could have avoided the spotlight, and the students would not have had a speaker who was in the awkward situation of having been recently terminated. But Abramson showed up, and she was game. “Leaving the protective cocoon of school for the working world must seem scary,” she told the graduates. The example she set, of coming and doing what was asked of her even when she might not have felt like it, is Adulthood 101 in that working world.
2. It is not always about you, and a sense of occasion counts for a lot: Abramson was smart enough to start her speech by downplaying the reason that so many people with no connection to Wake Forest were watching it. “I think the only real news here today is your graduation from this great university,” she said. The speech was at its strongest when Abramson stuck to the idea that her job was to serve the graduates. It was most awkward when she turned the attention back to herself, particularly when Abramson mentioned something newsworthy but a little self-pitying (and not terribly in keeping with the ideals of journalistic objectivity): that Anita Hill, about whom she co-wrote a book with Jane Mayer, had written Abramson with condolences.
3. Proportion will always serve you well: Abramson’s address was awfully brief, and she might have done well to spend some more time on the examples of resilience she gave the graduates. She told the story of Patrick Zuo, a Times employee in China, who went back to work immediately after he was detained for his journalistic work. And Abramson talked about Dana Lerner, the mother of Cooper Stock, a young boy killed by a taxi, who reached out to Abramson after she and her colleagues wrote a piece about the dangers pedestrians face. Rather than staying mired in grief, Lerner and her husband have become advocates for pedestrian safety legislation.
Abramson hit a bit of a false note when she told the graduates: “What’s next for me? I don’t know. So I’m in the same boat as many of you. And like you, I’m a little scared, but also excited.” She has many more financial and professional resources than any of the young people who got their degrees today. But for the most part, Abramson was right to play down her own troubles. Embarrassment and anger are uncomfortable, but they are not crippling disasters.
4. As will a sense of humor about yourself: One of the many minor questions floating around in the wake of Abramson’s departure from the Times is what she might do about the paper’s “T,” which she has tattooed on her back. Abramson was smart enough to include an answer in her speech, after Wake Forest students asked her about it. Will she cover it up or get it removed? “Not a chance,” Abramson said, combining humor and a sense of graciousness for her former institution.
5. Always keep working: Abramson’s speech, which one presumes was somewhat hastily written, did not always hang together or pace well. But she closed out strong, invoking Robert Frost’s 1956 Colby commencement speech and his charge to the graduates to mind their knitting. “My mother was a great knitter, and she made some really magnificent things, but she also made a few itchy, frankly hideous sweaters for me,” Abramson told the students and their parents at Wake Forest. Sometimes the work will be good. Sometimes it will fail. But making sure you always have something to do, and something to work towards, is the best possible cure for melancholy and discouragement.