Keynote Address by Elizabeth Dole at the 2014 Pardee RAND Commencement
Storytelling in Modern Day Policymaking
President Rich, thank you so much for those very kind words of introduction. It is a privilege indeed to be with you, Dean Marquis, faculty, students, family, and friends to celebrate the remarkable achievements of the graduates of the Pardee RAND Graduate School. And what an honor it is to join Joan Petersilia, Charles Beck, and Peter Shapley (representing his father, Lloyd Shapley), for today’s commencement celebration. Henry Kissinger once said that, “the task of a leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.” Since becoming president and CEO of RAND, Michael Rich has focused extensively on extending the impact of RAND’s work by doing just that, staying ahead of the curve on some of the most important issues in the world today. Michael, thank you for your tremendous leadership and for the invitation to join you. You have become a very special friend, indeed.
Graduates, you’ve earned this moment in the sun – quite literally – and everything it represents. Very few individuals will achieve the heights that you have reached. As you well know, this is a significant milestone in your lives, and a passageway into the bright future you will undoubtedly have on your chosen path.
I’ll admit that I’ve done my fair share of commencement speeches, but I am feeling a bit of pressure on this one since I’m standing in front of some of the sharpest policy minds in the world today. For over forty years the Pardee RAND Graduate School has heeded, with remarkable success, the very call it has asked of each of its students: to “Be The Answer”. To paraphrase a famous Californian and a former boss of mine – President Ronald Reagan – an educational institution like this one is not just committed to today, but to the day after tomorrow. PRGS was founded, after all, to train future leaders in public policy. That was a bold ambition then, to which a bold answer was required.
And PRGS is answering that call with every graduating class. Over the years it has trained hundreds of men and women to address and anticipate some of the most complex policy challenges facing the world. I have no doubt that each of you graduating today will soon be making equally extraordinary contributions. You succeeded here, in this demanding academic environment, because you have superior analytical and reasoning skills. You’ve honed these skills to a sharp edge, and they will help you cut through much of the messy clutter that is so often part of the public policy process. There is little I could say that would do much to enhance that part of your skill set.
But there is another contribution I can make. I have long stood in the public policy arena, and I have learned something about the complex nature of decision making in our democracy. I believe with every fiber of my being that sound policy must be grounded in and guided by compelling research and keen analysis. But I want you to discard any affection you may have for the notion that having done the analysis, the facts “speak for themselves”. Instead, you will find that many people will either use or amend the facts as necessary to pursue a particular course of action.
And that sobering thought leads me to say that your ability to tell a story based on the facts is as essential as your ability to assemble the facts. The point of research and analysis is not simply to collect data, but to provide the basis for solutions. Think of storytelling as it has so wonderfully been described by Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston…“data with a soul”.
Robert McKee, one of the world’s most celebrated screenwriters and lecturers said recently, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” I could not agree with him more.
Storytelling is an ancient and underappreciated element of public life. Think of Christ's parables in the Bible or Plato's dialogues – both used stories to communicate, inform, persuade, and inspire action. In the American experience, think of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which fueled the abolitionist movement prior to the Civil War, or Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which contributed to a wave of reform and regulation in American industry. However they are communicated – by word of mouth, speeches, books, films, or the internet – stories have the ability to touch listeners in a way that the cold hard facts, on their own, never can. In truth, our ability to tell a story effectively enables us to break through barriers, overcome resistance, change minds, and even change the world. The analysis provided by each of you, and organizations like RAND, lays the groundwork for some pretty compelling stories.
Let me offer an illustration. I recently unveiled a comprehensive national study commissioned by my Foundation and carried out by RAND, with Wounded Warrior Project as the lead funder. In fact, our two superb research leaders are with us today, Terri Tanielian and Rajeev Ramchand. Terri and Rajeev were recognized just this past week for their great talent and body of work with RAND’s President’s Choice award. Congratulations to you both! The study they produced for my Foundation is full of convincing data laying out the evidence for why our nation must support its 5.5 million military caregivers who are, as we gather today, tending to wounded warriors at home. But we’re also telling a story. As a result, what two words do you think are trending across every possible channel of communication? Hidden Heroes. Everybody loves a hero. And in this particular case it is an untold story of heroism. The late Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Ladies and gentlemen, I’m proud to report countless individuals and organizations are now working together to tell this untold story. More on that later. But our work has reaffirmed my longstanding belief that it is crucial, in fact essential, to consider the communication of policy right alongside its development.
I’ve served in policymaking positions for almost all of my forty plus years in public service. I have dealt with more than a few transformative societal issues. In every instance I depended on the facts and I relied on evidence-based research…but in the cases where we were seeking a major breakthrough, we told a larger story. This is especially important in today’s world of sound bites. How many times a day do we see a politician or pundit getting into hot water over a sound bite? In a society where slogans crowd out the storyteller’s art, the sheer availability of so many communication outlets makes it tempting to emphasize speed over accuracy. The world produces tens of thousands of new blogs and hundreds of millions of Tweets every single day. Competition between ideas – and their presentation – is an inescapable part of policy making. In order to break through it all, you’ve still got to tell an effective story. Let me share a couple of examples from my own experience that further illustrate my point and hopefully highlight a few helpful tips along the way.
In 1983 President Reagan invited me to join his cabinet as Secretary of Transportation. It was an interesting time to take on the role because of the political atmosphere and the complexity of the policy issues facing the transportation industry. It was a period of dramatic transition, as businesses long accustomed to Washington’s close economic oversight were adjusting to a freer, more competitive climate.
The day after my appointment was confirmed, an editorial in the Washington Post described the kinds of issues I would be facing: chief among them, fixing the nation’s crumbling highways. In fact, at my confirmation hearing, my husband, Bob, surprised me by paraphrasing Nathan Hale as he introduced me to the Senate Committee. “I regret,” Bob said, “that I have but one wife to give for my country’s infrastructure.” That was clever, but he then went on to suggest, “Perhaps Elizabeth’s biscuit recipe might be used by the Federal Highway Administration for filling the nation’s pot holes.” This required a response, so I highlighted a major policy issue I hoped to take on in my work at Department of Transportation (DOT). I suggested to the Committee that I already knew all about airbags because I had been driving around with one for years.
The Washington Post went on to say that in addition to fixing America’s crumbling infrastructure, I would be tasked with improving training for air traffic controllers, engineers, and inspectors, and making automobiles – thus driving – safer. While privatization and deregulation were hallmarks of the Reagan White House, I saw a storyline developing. Safety cut across all of these areas, and thus I moved to make the story of safety a guiding force for my policy initiatives.
I knew from day one that I would need to build my case on sound evidence-based data. And the research I reviewed in my initial weeks was compelling. When I assumed my post at DOT the data on actual miles of automobile travel told its own story. Americans in 1945 traveled 250 billion vehicle miles. Four decades later the number had grown to over 1.5 trillion miles, however, Americans were paying a price. Annual motor vehicle fatalities had doubled since 1945. In fact, they had become the leading cause of death among Americans 35 years of age and under. All of that said, I was even more determined to push ahead, but because of the politics and the industry players involved, I needed to keep the process close hold. So I formed a small team of policy advisors, eight in all. I tasked this group with a very large assignment – taking a hard look at the relevant data and laying out all possible courses of action to improve safety. No disclosures of the team’s deliberations were made, not even to other DOT or White House staff. Together, my team and I tackled a trifecta of safety initiatives: a uniform 21-year old drinking age, state safety belt laws, and the installation of airbags in vehicles.
One of the most gratifying was the work we accomplished on Age 21. Prior to my becoming Secretary, I served as Assistant to the President for Public Liaison, and partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Safety Council to encourage President Reagan to create a Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving. My external partners were essential in making the case. Such partnerships, by the way, would prove critical to policy advancements throughout my career in public service. That’s worth remembering in your own work. I had another key partner every step of the way – Senator Bob Dole. I made sure he became a member of the Commission to help ensure its success. Later, as Secretary, I used the Commission’s report to help convince President Reagan of the need to take action. The bare facts became key elements in our safety story. Drunk driving had become the leading cause of death among teenage males. States had differing drinking ages, resulting in “blood borders” where teens were killed or severely injured returning from a neighbor state with a lower drinking age. Among its recommendations, the Commission proposed a uniform drinking age of 21. When the report got to the White House every single recommendation was supported except Age 21.
Senator Dick Lugar and I visited the President to press for his support. We told President Reagan about blood borders and the number of young teenagers losing their lives. We stressed evidence-based data pointing to steep drops in teenage fatalities in those states that had adopted Age 21. I remember a White House staffer, who shall remain nameless, saying, “Of course, Mr. President, you oppose this because of states’ rights.” President Reagan turned to me. “Elizabeth, you did say this will save kids’ lives, right?” I said, “Indeed I did, Mr. President.” He responded, “Well, then count me in. I support Age 21.” The Great Communicator had been won over by a compelling story.
On air bags, we took a different approach. The issue had been festering for twenty years and there was an all-out battle brewing amongst the automotive industry, consumer advocacy groups, and the insurance companies. Automakers were convinced that safety would not sell cars, while insurance companies and consumer advocates were strongly pushing air bags to deal with the increasing fatality rates. The auto industry was deeply concerned about the cost and liability issues of airbags. And there was the ego factor – few in Detroit were eager to admit that Ralph Nader just might have been right all along. Yet they were strongly in favor of increasing safety belt usage. Blessed with a brilliant staff, we began to address this complex issue methodically.
National belt usage was 13%, and there was not a single state law requiring their use. And there were virtually no cars with air bags available. Over seven months, we held numerous hearings across America to collect new crash data that would prove critical in making our case. Even with sound data, I knew I still had opposition from key staff at the White House to new regulations.
Ladies and gentlemen, you always need to think ahead about your plans for implementation of your evidence-based data, and sometimes you might even have to use a few props. I didn’t take any chances on decision day. I had to search, but I found a car with airbags and parked it in the White House driveway, just in case. I also flew in a prominent physician from Northwestern University with ties to the family of First Lady Nancy Reagan. Dr. Meyer was positioned outside the Oval Office to share stories of the multiple victims who’ve crashed through the windshield, unbelted. As it turned out, I didn’t need the good doctor or the car. Again, President Reagan recognized, despite the views of his Regulatory Relief Task Force, that what we were proposing would save thousands of lives. On July 11, 1984, our safety trifecta was born. Age 21 was signed by the President, and I announced the rule that resulted in airbags and incentivizing states to pass safety belt laws. To date, national safety organizations tell us this trifecta has saved 400,000 lives with 20,000 more projected each year moving forward.
You might say that I have developed a habit for turning to RAND at critical times. When I became President of the American Red Cross it was obvious that we needed a complete transformation of the collecting, testing, and distribution of one half of America’s blood supply. I commissioned RAND to provide rigorous and objective analysis right at the beginning of that huge undertaking. It was a seven-year grueling process designed to move antiquated World War II-era blood banking practices to a centralized state-of-the-art system with standard operating procedures, and RAND’s input helped tremendously once again. This was yet another chapter in my safety story. We had one aim in mind: the safety of the public we served, that blood is safe to give, and safe to get.
Graduates, stories are the creative conversion of our life’s work into powerful and meaningful mission fields. Sometimes you can anticipate those stories and plan your mission. Other times you might find yourself smack in the middle of a compelling narrative that you just have to embrace. The latter describes my Foundation’s recent work with RAND. It’s the quiet story of the women and men caring for those who cared for us. I am talking about the 5.5 million military caregivers I mentioned at the top of my speech.
I learned about their struggles four years ago when my Bob was hospitalized for almost 11 months at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. In my time there and since, my eyes were opened to the incredible challenges faced by young spouses, mothers, fathers, and other loved ones caring for wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan. Becoming a caregiver is complicated, consuming, and emotionally and physically debilitating with no advance warning, no preparation, and often nowhere to turn for help. For example, Joe Briseno, a caregiver involved with my foundation, is presently managing 100 medications for his wounded son Jay. In addition, he’s administering injections, bathing, feeding, dressing Jay, and arranging for rehabilitation. Uncertain about their future, and often alone, caregivers like Joe soldier on with incredible strength and resilience.
After witnessing what they were going through, I knew I had to find a way to help. But in doing so, I depended on my previous experience to plot the path ahead. I turned to RAND to undertake the largest comprehensive national study ever conducted on military caregivers. On April 1st of this year we unveiled the RAND findings, and as we suspected, countless disturbing headlines emerged. Among the discoveries:
- Most military caregivers are isolated, with little to no consistent support around them;
- Most are desperate for relief and respite care;
- Post 9-11 military caregivers are experiencing critical health problems themselves, as well as serious financial and legal burdens. In fact, the costs of care require most post-9/11 caregivers to seek employment as the family’s sole breadwinner;
- And many lack adequate health care. Often they have no doctor at all.
This, then, is the story – the profoundly disturbing story – that is just beginning to receive national attention. On April 11th, following the public release of the RAND study at the National Press Club, we launched a nationwide coalition from the White House with First Lady Michelle Obama. I am a firm believer in approaching complex societal issues, such as this one, holistically. Government solutions can’t always be the silver bullet. As future contributors to public policy, as I’ve already mentioned, you must be alert to opportunities to engage and energize partners. I believe the coalition model is an effective means of achieving major policy breakthroughs that defy purely partisan or ideological solutions. In fact, our coalition spans the public, private, labor, nonprofit, and faith communities. To date, the responses have been extraordinary.
Democrats and Republicans have stepped up. Leader Nancy Pelosi of California has become one of our strongest allies on Capitol Hill. Already, two new pieces of legislation have been introduced – one in each chamber – and we’ll soon be announcing a new bipartisan initiative across both houses of Congress. Nonprofits are also a leading force for progress, from organizations like Wounded Warrior Project to Easter Seals. The private sector is stepping up, in addition to the labor community, and we have strong ambassadors in both Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Rich Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. Faith leaders have also become a very effective force for galvanizing communities across America. We’re honored to have Pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen, the Jewish Chaplains Council, and many more among our coalition partners.
Graduates, Winston Churchill once famously observed that, while we make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give. Today is a celebration of all that you have achieved by putting your gifts to work. But it is also an invitation to apply those gifts in ways that make life better for mankind. I look forward to reading about – and passing on – the great stories that you will foster in the years ahead. I wish you every success in crafting and telling your stories, entering them into the chronicles of possibility. God bless each of you and God bless this great land of the free, America.