David Gergen, former adviser to four U.S. presidents, dispensed with the usual vanilla message when he gave the commencement address Saturday at Elon University.
Instead, in a passionate speech, he urged graduates to “take North Carolina back.”
Gergen blasted the state’s political leadership for House Bill 2 and for the direction it has taken the state in recent months and years. He decried “the forces of political extremism” that represent “a sharp break from our past.”
“Enough is enough,” Gergen said. “For those of us who have stayed on the sidelines, it is time to stand up and be counted. It is time to raise our voices against this darkness. Indeed, it is time for fellow citizens of all stripes – white and black; young and old; native and newcomer; men, women and people of chosen gender — everyone — to join forces and preserve the best of who we are as a people.”
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Gergen talked about the civil rights history of North Carolina and the leadership of former Democratic Gov. Terry Sanford. He also praised former Republican governors Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin, as well as Democrat Jim Hunt.
Then he outlined a series of decisions by the state’s current Republican majority since winning the legislature in 2010.
“The moderation that characterized our state — the belief among Republicans and Democrats that we are all in this together — gave way to a new, angrier, extremist politics.
“Let’s be clear: the people elected to state office got there fair and square. They had the gumption to run for public office and voters chose them to serve. I am sure most of these newcomers also meant well.
“But the signals coming out of the State Capitol in Raleigh have sent a thunderous message rolling out across America: that North Carolina is no longer a pioneer in advancing people of color, people who are gay, people living on the margins. Instead, many here want to go back, far back to a darker time.”
Gergen said the issue isn’t Republicans versus Democrats; it’s moderates versus extremists. He pleaded with the graduates to “get in the arena and join the fight” on important issues.
Gergen is senior political analyst for CNN and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. He was an adviser to four presidents – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.