Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on the left, was honored by Williams College President Adams Falk.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took aim at both the left and the right on Sunday at Williams College.
In the commencement address to the school's 225th graduating class, Bloomberg hearkened back to a speech given 50 years ago at the University of Michigan, where then-President Lyndon Johnson coined the term "Great Society."
He told the graduates that now, a half a century later, the promise of the Great Society remains unfulfilled.
High school graduation rates are declining, 30 million Americans go without health insurance, the immigration system is a "stifling our economy and locking too many people out of it," and the poverty rate is "higher than that when Johnson left office," Bloomberg said.
The reason, he argued, is that the federal government has been paralyzed by partisan bickering that has impeded progress.
And there is plenty of blame to go around.
"The most important lesson we've learned since  is not that government did too little, as liberals tend to argue, or that government does too much, as conservatives tend to argue," Bloomberg said. "But that both liberals and conservatives walked away from the spirit that gave rise to the Great Society."
That spirit, Bloomberg said, is found even further back in the annals of American history.
"In 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt gave a commencement address [at Oglethorpe University], in which he offered a simple idea that would save America from ruin," Bloomberg said. "He said, 'the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.' "
Bloomberg said that FDR understood what scientists and entrepreneurs know: Failure is part of success. In politics — at the national level at least — that lesson is sorely lacking, he said.
"In the decades that followed , those in Washington, especially Democrats, refused to hold programs accountable when they failed to produce results, preferring to throw good money after bad," he said. "Others in Washington, especially Republicans, attacked government spending without offering solutions to problems that free markets cannot solve on their own.
"Ideology blinded both sides."
Bloomberg's 18-minute speech was short on specific advice to the graduates and long on his perspective on how to move the nation closer to LBJ's dream of a Great Society.
Like at Harvard a week ago, Bloomberg attacked the idea of partisanship. In Cambridge, it was oppressive ideological homogeneity in elite colleges that Bloomberg targeted. In Williamstown, it was finger-pointing politicians of both stripes in the nation's capital.
Bloomberg told the Williams graduates that local government has been the antidote to paralysis in Washington, D.C.
He called city halls "laboratories," and lauded the nation's majors as pragmatists who are worried about results instead of ideology. He made local reference to the creation of Mass MoCA in North Adams, singling out longtime mayor John Barrett III for his efforts to reuse the former Sprague Electric complex.
"While Washington was making excuses, local governments were conducting experiments," he said.
Bloomberg, who as New York's mayor crusaded against smoking, sugary drinks and climate change, had his biggest applause when he talked about the issue of gun violence.
"One of the toughest parts of being mayor is the call you get in the middle of the night when a police officer has been shot," he said. "The members of Congress don't have those moments because they don't get those calls in the middle of the night, and they don't get asked to speak at funerals.
"For them, the issue of gun violence is political. For mayors, it's personal."
On gun control among other issues, Bloomberg said the spirit of innovation has to percolate from Main Street to Pennsylvania Avenue.
"We must demand that Congress try something," Bloomberg said, echoing FDR.
And he challenged the Williams graduates to make those demands.
"As long as there is a United States of America, the work of building a Great Society must continue," he said.
He did incorporate some humor into his remarks, including a gibe at the Village Beautiful; Bloomberg told the grads he wanted to experience Williamstown's nightlife on Saturday but could not because, "I did not get here until after 6."
Williams held their 225 Commencement on Sunday morning.
Humor was more prevalent in the remarks from the three members of the Class of '14 who spoke before a crowd of thousands on the college's West Lawn.
Julia Davis, who was selected to speak by the college's Phi Betta Kappa chapter, told her classmates she wanted to write a speech the way she learned write papers at the college.
"So I started it an hour ago and plagiarized most of it," she said.
Julia Juster likewise offered some self-deprecating descriptions of her creative process.
"For the record, I was tempted to use these three minutes to show you how to fold your program into an Origami cow, so I'm really grateful to my editors," Juster joked.
Juster noted with pride that she was just the second woman to be chosen by the graduating class to speak at a Williams Commencement.
The Class of 2014's valedictorian thought he was even more of a trailblazer.
"When I first learned I was chosen to speak at graduation today ... I thought to myself, 'Sweet. You must be the first international [student], the first Bulgarian, or at least the first Ivan to get this honor,' " Ivan Badinski of Sofia, Bulgaria, told the crowd. "You can imagine my horror, then, when I found out that just in the last 10 years or so, there were at least three internationals who gave the valedictorian speech, one of them was a Bulgarian, and, to top it all off, he was named Ivan as well.
"I felt just a little less special on the inside and pondered for a moment the deep existential question of why Ivan is such a popular name in Bulgaria."
Bloomberg, however, shows that having a common given name is no bar to success.
Berkshire County residents conferred degrees on Sunday included:
Megan Jane Bantle, daughter of Carrie Garivaltis of Adams and Kevin Bantle of Tolland, Conn. Cum Laude. Majored in English. Was editor-in-chief of The Williams Record and performed in the Frosh Revue. Won the Henry Rutgers Conger Memorial Literary Prize.
Josephine E.V. McDonald, daughter of Vincent McDonald and Dorothy French. Majored in English and French. Was a member of the Williams College Accidentals, Cap & Bells, Immediate Theatre, and Clarinet Choir.
Rahul Sangar, son of Anup and Ritu Sangar. Majored in biology with honors and psychology. Was a member of the South Asian Student Association, Chinese American Student Association, Asian American Students in Action, Biology Majors Advisory Committee, Minority Coalition, and Anime Club.
Kaitlyn Carrigan, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. McCarron. Majored in history. Served as senior class president and president of All College Entertainment.
Caitlin F. Bird, daughter of Laurence and Kelly Bird. Cum Laude. Majored in psychology. Served as co-captain of the Anime Club and was a social member of the Equestrian Team.
Jamie Lynn Dickhaus, daughter of Charles and Brenda Dickhaus. Majored in biology with honors. Served as a science tutor and an America Reads/America Counts tutor at Williamstown Elementary School. Conducted summer research in Hopkins Memorial Forest. Worked at Tropical Raze in Pittsfield and at Price Chopper in Lenox.
Bradford G. Koenitzer, son of Ms. Jane Koenitzer Siegars. Majored in political economy. Was a member of the sailing team and the Purple Bull Investment Club.
Caroline A. Sinico, daughter of Anthony Sinico, Jr., and the late Kathleen Sinico. Majored in music. Won the William W. Kleinhandler Prize for Excellence in Music. Participated in the Concert Choir, Chamber Choir, Classical Voice, Opus Zero Band, Jazz Ensemble, Wind Ensemble, WilliamsTheatre, Midweek Music, and intramural sports. Sang the National Anthem at home football, basketball, and baseball games and at the 2011 NCAA Division III men’s basketball final in Salem, Va.
Kassandra Violet Spiller, daughter of Richard Spiller of Windsor and Mary Anne Pellegrini of Pittsfield; stepdaughter of Angelo Pellegrini. Magna Cum Laude. Majored in chemistry with honors. Was elected to the science honorary society Sigma Xi. Participated in the freshman orientation program.
Jesse Richard Sardell, son of Dr. Aaron Sardell and Dr. Deborah August. Majored in biology. Participated in theatre, fencing, and spoken word, and was a WCFM radio DJ.
Dylan Dethier, son of Ms. Nancy Nylen and Mr. David Dethier. Majored in English. Was varsity golf team captain. Served as a Junior Advisor and as a member of College Council and of the Student Athlete Advisory Council. Interned as a sports information assistant and wrote for The Williams Record.
John Taylor Foehl, son of Brooks and Alison Foehl. Majored in political science. Played varsity squash.
Patrick Magnus Neset Joslin, son of Monica and Allen Joslin. Majored in biology with honors. Was a member of the Nordic ski team and of the pre-medical society.
Nicholas S. Kraus, son of Dana Kraus of Lakeville, Conn., and Robert Kraus of Williamstown. Majored in political science.
Sato Matsui, daughter of Susan Matsui. Majored in music with highest honors. Won the Hubbard Hutchinson Fellowship in Music. Was a violinist with the Berkshire Symphony, a chamber musician, a conductor of the Student Symphony, and co-coordinator if I/O Fest.
Gregory W. Payton, son of Cindy Nikitas of Williamstown and Mark Payton of Sarasota, Fla. Majored in psychology. Was a member of the varsity football and basketball teams.