NBC News correspondent Ken Dilanian ’91: Dear Williams grads, we’ve made a mess of things. Please help us clean it up.

Ken Dilanian

Dear Williams Class of 2020:

Congratulations! Neuroscientists say struggle is crucial to learning, so there’s no doubt you will learn a lot over the next few years. America has dug itself in a Mariana Trench-sized hole, and you are at the bottom of it.  You are now free to start climbing out. Take us with you, if you don’t mind.

In your lifetime, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on wars that didn’t make us safer while the country’s infrastructure crumbled, inequality deepened and the Earth warmed. Our worship of individualism — a social atomization that began long before you were born — has helped our civic fabric erode and our political system seize up like a car engine drained of oil. Authoritarian China, meanwhile, is pulling ahead in developing the technology of the future, including artificial intelligence and 5G networks.

When I was growing up, politicians could still call America the “shining city upon a hill” – aspirational, sure, but not a laugh line.

I don’t imagine you’ve ever heard that phrase.

While you were in nursery school, our government secretly tortured terror suspects with a green light from lawyers in Washington.

As you entered primary grades, federal and state incompetence caused the flooding of a great American city.

While you were learning long division, the economy collapsed because of what most scholars agree was a government failure to reign in financial speculation, and almost nobody was held accountable.

While you were studying in the Purple Valley, your government was separating kids from their parents in the Rio Grande Valley.

Now, just as you were poised to emerge from college into a sizzling economy armed with a sterling Williams credential and the unparalleled network that comes with it, a global pandemic that experts saw coming — but couldn’t convince our leaders to prepare for —has bludgeoned your job prospects and robbed you of your senior spring.

And to many Americans, it’s done a whole lot worse.

Let me pause here and say that I am not trying to prompt you to crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head.  The country has faced even more difficult, dispiriting times — during the Civil War; before the tide turned in World War II; during the assassinations and riots of the late 1960s; throughout the trust-shattering saga of Watergate. I’m just trying to level with you: Things are not OK. And it’s not your fault.

It’s common in commencement addresses to flatter graduates with the idea that we’re all looking to their generation to solve society’s problems.

This time we really mean it.  We need you to help us make things better.  And you are well equipped to do it.

Former President Barack Obama made news recently when he told high school graduates in a video address that “this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing.”

He was being gentle.

The people in charge — all of us — have totally screwed this up.

There is a mountain of evidence that an epic failure by our government has made the impact of this pandemic much worse than it should have been. And a lot of that evidence points to the man currently occupying the Oval Office.

But we don’t just get to wash our hands (though we must) and blame our political leaders. We put them there, even if you didn’t. This pandemic has exposed a much larger malfunction — a breakdown of self-government.

We are living the consequences of years of devaluing the dull mechanics of the public sector, coupled with the collapse of local journalism. In its place has arisen a social media culture that exacerbates divisions and prevents compromise.

The coronavirus arguably has exposed a decades-long decline in American competence and power. Even as Silicon Valley remade the world, Washington’s role in it diminished. We’re not even participating in the global consortium to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

I take this personally, not only because I love our country and wish my two sons a prosperous and pandemic-free future. I have devoted my career to covering the affairs of government as a journalist, and I have been witness to much of this diminishment. I have written about it in newspapers and reported about it on television. 

Along the way I have met amazing people in government — dogged prosecutors, dedicated law enforcement officers, intrepid intelligence operatives, talented politicians who were in it to help people. I lived for weeks with a group of paratroopers who risked their lives and performed admirably in a war that never should have been fought. I see an echo of their quiet competence in the doctors and nurses who have been risking their lives during the pandemic, and just like the troops, they were sent to war without the right equipment. It’s been infuriating to see the system let them down.

In your lifetime, there have been collective national successes. Through three administrations, the U.S. government defeated al-Qaeda and ISIS and vastly reduced the threat of a 9/11-style terror attack at home. Former President George W. Bush saved millions of lives, mostly in Africa, with his AIDS prevention program. Former President Barack Obama expanded access to health care for more than 20 million Americans. A powerful social and legal movement led the Supreme Court to grant LGBT people the right to marry.

If this pandemic teaches us one thing, it is that good government matters.  Google, Apple and Amazon can’t stop the next pandemic. It matters that we still don’t have enough tests  in this country to go back to work with confidence, and it matters that the U.S. Treasury has just incurred World War II levels of debt to keep the economy afloat. That $3 trillion will have to be paid back with interest.

Here’s why I have hope. 

You are the most diverse and best-educated generation in history, and arguably the most enlightened.  You have helped create a culture of expanded rights and opportunities for people your elders excluded.

Also, as Melissa Batchelor Warnke put it in The L.A. Times last year, you are “the first to come of age with an understanding that ecological collapse is not a dystopian movie premise but a real likelihood,” and therefore are “dedicated to public action and public service.”

Surveys suggest you are more inclined to pay extra for products that were produced in a sustainable and ethical way.

You are digital natives who have grown up with vast amounts of information at your disposal, and are “more pragmatic and analytical about [your] decisions than members of previous generations were,” a study by the McKinsey consulting firm notes.

That last part is really important.

As a journalist, I can tell you that we are fighting a daily battle for truth, and right now it feels like we are losing. It’s great that your generation has no interest in Facebook, which has become a fount of disinformation. But the challenge is much bigger.

People on both sides of the political divide have closed their minds to anything that makes their team look bad. They consume only news that makes them comfortable. The term “biased,” thrown around with regularity, has come to mean, “information I don’t like.”

I see this every day on social media, where, as a correspondent appearing on MSNBC, I am regularly trashed in the most vitriolic terms by Trump supporters and people on the political Right. But the second I or any of my colleagues utter a critical word about a Democrat, we are pilloried in even nastier language by people on the Left. It’s a civil war, and there is no room for dissent, let alone compromise.

In our political system, that is a recipe for stagnation. Nothing can get done without compromise, and facts and evidence must triumph over ideology.

You all, empowered with your amazing Williams education, have the critical thinking skills to rise above this destructive dynamic. But we need you to be involved in public life even as the temptation is to turn away. That doesn’t just mean running for office, although I hope some of you do that. But there are lots of ways to row the American boat. There is a Williams graduate in the U.S. Senate, but there are many more federal scientists, senior government managers, teachers and professors, social workers, police officers, CIA spies — even a Navy SEAL commander.  And there are of course Ephs who have helped create new technologies and medical breakthroughs that have made all our lives better.

Even if you feel the need to go make as much money as you can — and who could blame you for that — I would urge you to find ways to get involved in politics and civic life. Stay informed, volunteer, write your elected officials. Listen to people with whom you disagree. Challenge your beliefs and assumptions.

Capitalism has led to an incredible rise in living standards in the U.S. and around the world, but the pandemic is causing people to question long-held assumptions about how it should work, and who benefits. Those questions — how to make our economic system more fair and less damaging to the planet — could define politics for the next two decades. You should be part of this debate.

Somebody has to lead the way out of this hole.  It may as well be you.

Ken Dilanian ’91 is an NBC News correspondent covering national security and intelligence in the Washington bureau. He previously worked for the Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times, USA TODAY and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He lives with his wife and two sons in Bethesda, Md.