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Jim Messina Delivers 2013 Commencement Address

May. 18, 2013

Jim Messina, the architect of President Barack Obama’s successful campaign for re-election, was the featured speaker during the University of Montana’s 116th Commencement ceremonies held Saturday, May 18.

Messina graduated from UM in 1993, where he studied political science and journalism. He served as Obama’s national chief of staff for the 2008 presidential campaign and led the president’s 2012 campaign.

The influential Griz has been hailed as the “most powerful man in Washington you’ve never heard of” and the mastermind behind a new presidential campaign style that features social media, hard data and armies of grassroots volunteers.

“Going to The University of Montana is the single best decision I ever made in my life,” Messina said. “I couldn’t be more excited to come back to UM and watch as the next generation of leaders graduate from my alma mater.”

The text of his speech follows:

Thank you, President Engstrom, and the entire University of Montana community. It is my high privilege and distinct honor to be with you today. To the graduating class of 2013, I offer my congratulations on what you've accomplished.

I arrived on campus 25 years ago this fall to Jesse Hall Room 508 as a scared and skinny kid who only wore red Chuck Taylor Converse All-Star shoes and had a tasteful mullet. I didn’t know a single person in Montana and had never been to the state. I had no idea that coming to the University of Montana would be the single best decision I would ever make.

Jim Messina delivers UM's 2013 Commencement address

The first thing I realized is this University had world-class educators. I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to acknowledge the truly outstanding faculty we have here. Whenever I reflect on my U of M days, I can't help but be reminded of the Isaac Newton quote, "If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

The teachers here are true giants. They taught me more than facts and figures, dates and statistics. They taught me how to ask questions. They taught me how to approach the world. They gave me a moral framework. All of these things have proven to be immensely useful to me over the years. I learned one of the most valuable lessons from Journalism Professor Carol Van Valkenberg who is here today. During the Journalism 270 class that every one of you journalism students took, we reported each week from the Monday night meeting of the Missoula City Council. One night when the council went late, I was elected the emissary from my classmates to try to convince professor Van Valknberg to extend the 10 p.m. deadline. Her reply was simple: “Messina, it is NOT a maybe-line, it is a deadline, and yours is 10 p.m." I owe a lot to the teachers I had at U of M, and I'm sure you do too. I hope each of you takes the time to sincerely thank at least one professor who made an impact during your time on this campus.


Painful as it may be to hear this, your time as a student on this campus is very nearly done. As someone who understands that trauma all too well, I'm going to give you a few pieces of advice that might help you survive this transition.

My first piece of advice is this: “Leave your village.” This is a theme that's pervaded American literature from “Huck Finn” and Hemingway, to Jack London and “Less Than Zero.” And yes, even one of my personal favorites, “A River Runs Through It.” So what does this piece of advice mean? Does it imply that where you're from must be pushed aside and forgotten? Absolutely not! It means you've spent most of your lives up to this point preparing to go out into the world to achieve great things.

Whether that's climbing mountain peaks in the Himalayas or summiting skyscrapers in New York City. Whether you want to lead rural classrooms or manage corporate boardrooms. All those possibilities are before you. All of them are within your grasp. Most of them will require that you push beyond your boundaries, beyond your comfort zones, in order to attain them.

If you're anything like me, this place, this campus, this city has become a comfort zone for you the past four years. And it's certainly true what Norman MacLean wrote: "the world outside... is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana." But you need to know he didn't write that line until he'd left Montana and was living in Chicago. He never could have written it if he hadn't left his village. So when I give you this piece of advice, I'm not telling you to forsake your past. Once you've gone out, once you've picked which worlds you want to conquer and done it, come back, tell your friends and families where you've been. Come back and appreciate the simple pleasures of a familiar house, recognizable streets, and a cozy bar. I suggest the Mo Club, but that’s me.

I have done this. After years of campaigns across the country, I had settled in as chief of staff to Montana Senator Max Baucus in Washington. It was a job I had wanted since college. But in one phone call, everything changed. I was sitting in my office when the phone rang on Thursday afternoon. I answered “Hello?” “Jim, its Barack.” “Barack who?” I said. “Barack Obama,” came the voice. Now, I think of myself as a pretty smart guy. I mean, I AM a Griz not a Bobcat, so I’m obviously smart. But that day, not so much. I thought it was one of my friends screwing with me, so I hung the phone up. My assistant, also a Grizzly grad I might mention, ran into the room and screamed “You just hung up on Barack Obama.” Thank God, he called right back, laughing. “Wow,” he said, “no one has hung up on me in a little while.”

His request was simple: “I need you to move Chicago tomorrow to become my presidential campaign chief of staff.” I panicked and replied, “Well, Senator, I can’t just pick up. I have a job, a new house, a car, a dog and a new girlfriend. I can’t just leave.” He calmly replied: “Well, your decision, if you want the job, we’ll see you in Chicago tomorrow.” And with that he hung up.

So, I did what any of you would have done, I called my momma. Her advice was simple and direct: “Baby,” she said, “this is not hard. In my lifetime there’s been no other politician like Barack Obama. If you turn down this job, you’re out of the will.” Now, in my family this is not a real threat. It means you don’t get grandma’s china plate. But, the point was right: It was time to leave my safe village and try.

The next day I arrived in Chicago and had no Senate job, no dog, no car and no girlfriend. I think it’s safe to say though that decision turned out pretty well for me.

The corollary to "leave your village," is "never forget where you came from." I had the honor of being the first staffer who walked in to the West Wing after the president was sworn in in 2009. I did two very important things: I measured the distance between my office and the Oval Office—41 feet—and I hung up a Grizzly banner for all to see in my office and to remind me where I had come from.

The second idea I'd like to impart is: "Try. Go out and really try." To TRY to do something. Really try.

Teddy Roosevelt once put this better than anyone ever. It is my favorite quote of all time:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I had a rule when I started in politics: I would be the first in the office each morning and the last to leave. I would move anywhere someone would pay me to work in politics and I would find a way to be the best. I left UM three times to work on campaigns; it took me five and a half years to graduate and many gray hairs for my mom and dad.

Once, I moved to Minnesota to work for a long-shot candidate who everyone said couldn’t win. Even worse, he couldn’t pay me. So I worked for free and got a job working nights in a corn factory. One night I was tired and not paying attention and I put my hand into the corn machine. This finger to this day doesn’t straighten, but it’s the most important reminder I have. My long shot candidate was Paul Wellstone, who went on to come from 40 points behind to win a seat in the United States Senate. This finger reminds me every day if you work hard enough, anything, anything is possible

For my third piece of advice I'd like to borrow the immortal words of the poet and philosopher, Jay-Z: My favorite song is called “On to the next one." Today, you're celebrating a tremendous accomplishment, a smashing triumph. Many of you have overcome long odds to be sitting where you are today. I sure as hell did. Many of you have endured great trials for this privilege. Many of you, by earning the piece of paper you're about to receive, have made the haters of the world shut the hell up for at least a little while. For that, you rightly deserve to congratulate yourselves and celebrate. But know that tomorrow; it's time to set your sights on the next challenge.

I learned this lesson from the president of the United States. I had the honor of being involved in the fight to pass the health care bill. Whether you support that legislation or not, it was historic and took over 80 years to pass. The next morning after the president signed the bill into law, I was, shall we say “Mo Club hung over” when the White House called to say the president wanted to see me. I was excited. I thought, I’ll get some vacation days, maybe a raise. Instead the president said: “You are running the campaign to pass the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell. Go.” And he walked out. It really was “on to the next one.”

Just because you've made it past some milestone, just because you achieved a benchmark, doesn't mean you're job is done. It means the next challenge is waiting. The people I've seen in life who have achieved the most, and who – not coincidentally – are the happiest, are the ones who never stop pushing themselves, the ones who never feel like there's nothing left for them to go out and get. 

The final piece of advice is the advice my friend Jim Fleischman gave me the night before I left Missoula to move to Washington, D.C. He said, “The secret to life Messina, is half gin and half tonic. Half gin and half tonic, don’t forget that.” It was a while before I realized he wasn’t giving me a drink recipe. He was giving me advice about life. Every single day you have to laugh and you have to work. The secret to life is finding a way to make your love also your work. That has turned out to be the best advice of all. It doesn’t mean you’ll love every moment, or every day. I promise you won’t. But every single day of the Obama campaign, the president was silly to have paid me. I would have done it for free. If you find a way to get paid for your passion, you’ll never work a day in your life.

This is the advice I offer to you, but this this my list. I gathered it, piece by piece, throughout the course of my life. Each success, each setback has helped shape it, polish it to a high gloss. From today forward, you need to create your own list.

And my list is always changing. If you talk to me next year, I'm sure it will be different.

There's a quote from Joseph Campbell, author of "A Hero's Journey" that goes, "If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path."

My path came full circle from Montana to Washington last November. A long tradition is that the campaign manager to the president tells their candidate whether they’ve won or lost. I had spent my adult life dreaming of that moment. On election night, after the networks declared the President the winner, in his suite in Chicago, he refused to begin the celebration. He simply said “Go get Messina.” I raced from our war room to the presidents suite to tell him a simple truth. His greeting was perfect: He said: “The man from Montana is here to deliver some news.” This man from Montana began to cry as I said “Congratulations Mr. President, you have been re-elected the President of the United States of America.”

It has been a long road from Jesse Hall to the president’s suite, but I promise you I wouldn’t have made it had that skinny kid with a mullet not gone to the University of Montana.

Thank you all very much for the honor of speaking with you today. I have been all over this world. I’ve met kings and queens and presidents and seen lands afar that I never dreamed of. I promise you that you have just spent four years in the last best place. Congratulations. I wish you all the best of luck in the rest of your lives. Go Griz.