American University of Beirut

Peter Jennings Acceptance Speech

Having listened to Sir Michael, and to Vartan, and now about to listen to Yo-Yo, I find myself in a most unusual position reminded, I find, more than I am on most occasions, of having had from an academic point of view somewhat humble, and as my father would say, somewhat useless beginnings.

I'd really like to start, and I'll be very personal about this, with my coming to Beirut. I came here in the late 1960s, at a very charged and burdened time, as a man with virtually little knowledge, virtually no knowledge, of the Middle East other than the casual travel through. No real sensitivity, I think, about the nuances of the region or the opportunities here, or the challenges for the region or for the United States and the rest of the world.

On almost my first day, after I stood in awe on the Corniche and said I'd really thought twice about coming to live here, I came up to the University to an economics class. Not, Sir Michael, by the way, with any sense of gaining knowledge or getting anything specific out of it, but because I wanted to meet some of the people who were teaching here. The professor teaching an economics class was Nabil Shath, who had recently returned from the Wharton School in the States. One of his star pupils was then a very lovely young woman named Hanan Mikail, who became Hanan Ashrawi when she married some years later. I realized at the very first moment here that I would meet people in the region of whom most of us living in North America had thought little.

I spent, not only that first day, but ensuing happy months and happy years from the eastern side of the Mediterranean all the way to India coming to realize that the nuances of which John spoke and the opportunity here to plug in and be a part of creative, intelligent thinking was something any reporter in his right mind would want to take advantage of all the time.

No matter where I went in the region, whether it was to Afghanistan or Iran, or whether I went to the Gulf or to Syria or to Jordan, I would always run into people who had gone to AUB or had had an AUB experience. Because I lived just down the street from AUB in Ain el Mreisseh, I was somehow a physical neighbor, and was almost invariably taken in by people who said, This is a man who seems to care a little about AUB; therefore, we should care about him. And time and time again, whether it was in the halls of power or in refugee camps or in street cafes, I met people who had had at least some experience here which they were willing and eager to share with someone who was in every respect callow and uninformed.

Over time I came to be slightly more informed. I remember after being here for about six years picking up the phone from a caller in the United States wanting to ask me a question about the region; I answered with some fluency. When I put down the phone, I turned to a colleague in the office and said, You know, after all this time I've spent with all these people out here, I'm beginning to know how to answer the questions in the first instance. All of you know that only when you begin to think you know something about the Middle East do you go on from there to understand how much you don't know.

John Chancellor Nick Khuri reminded me today of an experience that I've had many times. John Chancellor, former NBC correspondent, a great friend of mine, on the AUB Board of Trustees, and also chair of the International Advisory Council, would come to Beirut. He spent a lot of time as all of you reporters who come to the Middle East have depressed by the situation, which he knew in some respects we could, ourselves, make better. Whenever John got truly depressed and feeling utterly cynical about the place, he would come up here and walk on the AUB campus and spend ten minutes here and say to himself, as I would often say to myself, Well, there's one great thing that the United States did in the Middle East.

Last night I sat in the courtyard here talking to the president's national security adviser in the White House and watching the young people coming to this Assembly Hall to rehearse for the distribution of diplomas the following night. I found myself looking around the quad and looking at them and saying to the White House, You know (I feel a little like Vartan in this sense, like I'm selling), we must do much for this institution, especially at charged and difficult times when we in the United States struggle, quite desperately, to find out what we have got ourselves into out here. What is the way out of this What can the United States do to show itself in the way in which it perceives itself, rather than in the way others see us  And the answer, of course, so clear in this particular neighborhood in Beirut, is how much more we could do by simply supporting this University and taking advantage of the ideas and the spirit that exist here.

The United States, not for the first time, is deeply challenged by the process of trying to win the hearts and minds of people living in the Middle East. You who have lived and worked and partaken of it even in a small way have been able to share in what is truly the one place in the entire region in which the great ideals of the United States have come together and have been fertilized or enriched, perhaps, by the cultural and political ideals, not only by the faculty, but by the students here who've helped the rest of us who come here understand what a deep and profound contribution the region can make to those of us in the United States.

Now, of course, we are losing the hearts and minds, in many respects, of the region, and facing forces that we do not really understand. I'll go back to the United States and remind my colleagues that if we want better to understand, we should all come back and spend just a little time on this campus talking to those people, both Americans and Arabs, who've taught not just generations of students here but at least a couple of generations of reporters' that there is something nuanced and optimistic, not just pessimism, to be learned on this campus.

It was Thomas Jefferson more than anybody, who said best what we must all in America be reminded of to pay decent respect to the opinions of mankind because thus America also pays respect to what it is in its better self. I think that those of us who come from afar and partake of this leave here with that idea very much in mind that we leave here having had an opportunity to pay decent respect, if we so choose, to the opinions of other people of the rest of the world. And if we take those ideas and opinions when we go home, we will all ourselves be better off. It's an honor to be among you. Thank you.

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