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Chafee's gift -- a useful commencement address

Earlier this week, WPRO AM's Dan Yorke took on Lincoln Chafee, one of his favorite bete noires, using the former senator's commencement address at URI last Sunday as a metaphor for, as Yorke and other critics view it, Chafee's fecklessness. The offense? The phrase "Go waste, young man" -- a message, the talk-show host said, at odds with what young people should be hearing.

At least one of Yorke's callers rose to Chafee's defense, describing his graduation address as being both complex and instructive. With a short piece in this week's Phoenix, I heartily agree:

Trying to find one’s way as a young adult can be a slightly bewildering process at times, and even the best or most well-intentioned recommendations upon graduation are subject to interpretation and execution.
 
Chafee, though, deserves credit for distilling something thoughtful, universal, and wise from his own personal experience.
 
As [the ProJo's Bruce] Landis wrote, the “Go waste, young man” quip was a play on words – “Go West, young man” — usually misattributed to the mid 19th-century editor Horace Greeley, “which encouraged the young and ambitious to join in the nation’s expansion.” And, “Chafee wasn’t encouraging the graduates to waste time, but rather to ‘give themselves some space,’ the chance to have ‘experiences that might not immediately relate to a career path, but that nonetheless [might] be important in building a personal foundation.’ ”
 
Chafee explained to the graduates that his horse-shoeing experience remains with him, in how he learned the importance of diligence and gained an enhanced appreciation for the world beyond his native Rhode Island. “West is a state of mind,” he said, “that I urge you all to find in the coming months, before you accumulate too much in the way of real responsibility — career, family, mortgage, credit-card bills.”
 
There was an echo in the former senator’s words of Henry David Thoreau: “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music in which he hears, however measured, or far away.”
 
Chafee, who is now teaching at Brown University, his alma mater, manifested this outlook during his Senate career — most notably by being the only Republican to vote against the war in Iraq. He was notable in Washington, too, for speaking like a real person, not a plastic and overly calculating political creature.

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