Anne Holton ’80 talks failure, hope and humility at Princeton commmencement

“We are not God,” says key figure of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign

At Princeton’s 270th Baccalaureate Day, Anne Holton ’80, former secretary of education of Virginia and wife of then vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, spoke about failure, hope, and humility in the wake of the 2016 elections.

“I was part of one excruciating loss this fall,” Holton said.

She added that after receiving word of her husband’s selection as the vice-presidential nominee and resigning from her post, she had often held hundreds of campaign events in the course of days.

“My direct assignment was to talk to teachers and my admiration for our country’s educators only increased,” Holton said, adding that she had gotten to know the Clintons very well during the process.

The race became one where the stakes were too high, Holton said. She described Donald Trump as someone who championed an agenda that was antithetical to her values. Holton added that during election night, she not only believed that her side must win but that they would.

Victory would mean a platform to champion education, she said, let alone the milestone for this country of finally electing a woman president.

But instead, she found herself coping with a grieving process that lasted the past seven months, she said, comparing it to losing a loved one. That’s where religion comes in, and specifically the virtues of humility and hope, she added.

“We are not God,” Holton stated. Reflecting upon her failures as a student in Princeton, she added that she and Tim Kaine are “half glass-full” people. She noted that her husband soon jumped back into the Senate, an environment much more collegiate than portrayed, and did all he could to stop what he perceived as “bad things” from occurring. Though Holton had resigned from her job, she soon joined the Virginia Board of Education.

Holton finds her experiences on the campaign trail rewarding. She spoke about one experience in which she had met a farmer in Iowa who struck a conversation about immigration. The farmer pledged support for dreamers, and turning to the man aside him, noted that this was his husband from Mexico.

There is a silver lining in our loss – a revived vigor to protect our nation’s democracy, Holton said.

Anne Holton ’80 served as the secretary of education of Virginia from 2014 to 2016. Holton graduated with high honors from the Woodrow Wilson School.

During the event, Princeton University President also noted that several families hail from London, where a terroristic attack occurred yesterday, and expressed compassion and solidarity with those who may be victims of violence or injustice.

The full text of Holton’s remarks is as below:

“Thank you President Eisgruber for that introduction and for your leadership here. I am especially grateful for your successful efforts to extend the Princeton experience to more students from a wider range of backgrounds – they will make  Princeton and the nation stronger!

And thank you class, faculty, parents and all.  What a treat to begin with you the commencement celebrations of the graduating class of 2017!  I am humbled and grateful for the  honor of sharing this important moment in your lives. I hope and trust, graduates, that you thoroughly enjoyed your first P-rade and the fireworks and that you then went home and got a good nights rest as you have, and as I did, every Saturday night of your career here.

So …  it’s risky to talk politics or religion, especially with strangers where you can’t assume that everyone shares your perspective, and I make no such assumption today. But  we are in this beautiful, sacred setting, and hey, we’re all Princetonians so really there are no strangers here!   So begging your Indulgence,  here’s fair warning I plan to jump in on both today.

But first I want to start on a  cheerier note and talk about… failure.  When I arrived at Princeton as a  freshman,  moving into my assigned dorm room in the remote but elegant dorm then known as Princeton Inn College (now known to you as Forbes), I frankly had not had much experience with failure.  Like many of you I expect, I had been a strong student and successful outside the classroom too.   Well, Princeton quickly remedied that deficiency in my experience.  I thought of myself as particularly good in math so signed up that first fall for linear algebra, a topic I can tell you nothing about now except that it came after calculus and was considered rigorous.  It did not take long watching  cryptic symbols fly and multiply across the huge chalkboards of our Fine Hall classroom for me to realize I was hopelessly incapable of the abstract thinking required for theoretical math a la Princeton 1976.  Thankfully our professor  allowed us to work together on the almost impossible weekly problem sets, and God blessed me with a freshman hallway full of math whizzes. I quickly abandoned  abstraction in favor of honing my “collaboration” skills. I organized our hallway homework sessions and took a lot of notes.  I eked out a passing grade and promptly switched my focus to economics and Woody Woo  — and learned crucial lessons of humility and appreciation of differential human talent. I also learned sometimes it’s okay to try something so hard that success is not a foregone conclusion.

I have gone on to lots of successes in life.  I won nationwide class action lawsuits for legal aid clients.   As a juvenile court judge I helped my court become more family-friendly.  I led much-needed reforms to strengthen family connections for young people in foster care in Virginia,  and as Virginia’s secretary of education I obtained new money and more flexibility for our public schools.  I have supported my husband in his electoral career at the local, state and federal level, and with him I have raised three practically perfect children.

And yet … now my talk of politics — I was part of one …. excruciating  … loss this past fall.  As you know, my husband Tim Kaine was asked to serve as Hillary’s vice-presidential running mate in the 2016 presidential campaign.  I resigned my job as Virginia’s Secretary of Education, which I loved, to campaign full-time for Hillary, holding literally hundreds of events in 22  states in my 100 or so days on the trail.  It was an honor and a privilege. My assignment direct from Hillary was to talk to teachers, and so I held education roundtables and visited schools all across the country.   My admiration for our nation’s educators only increased – so many of them doing more with less in almost impossible circumstances – and I gathered  feedback from them for what I  hoped would be a strong education-friendly Clinton administration.

And I had some crazy fun along the way.  Tim and I literally snuck through bushes along our side porch in Richmond to escape the press camped outside our home when we went to meet with the Clintons just before Tim’s selection in July.  We got to know the Clintons, and their children and grandchildren very personally, an opportunity I will always treasure.  We blasted our eclectic music choices late at night through the sound system on a campaign bus through Pennsylvania and eventually on a campaign plane all over.

We got a peek at life inside the Secret Service bubble – here’s a tip: when the handsome young agent standing next to you whispers into his sleeve “Dogwood to the secondary hold”, a cast of dozens suddenly pauses patiently while you use the bathroom!  Yes Dogwood was my secret service name — Virginia’s state flower — and Tims was Daredevil, both chosen by us in haste from an offered list of words beginning in D.  You can imagine the grief my kids gave Tim for Daredevil!  Most importantly, we met incredible people all across the country who care deeply about our democracy.

BUT:   We failed in our mission of winning the election!  And it was not just any failure.  After all, every election somebody loses – those of us in electoral politics especially understand it is a 50/50 proposition at best. But this was one race where many of us felt that the stakes were so high.  On one side we had a candidate whose words and actions were so antithetical to my values.  On our side, we had a candidate I believed uniquely well qualified by temperament and experience to lead in difficult times.  And a chance to elect the first woman president!   And hard as one tries not to put too much faith in the polls, by Election Night I  believed deeply not only that we must win but that we would.  I was so excited about what Hillary  would do to advance our nation, and I couldn’t wait to watch Tim as a strong man show the world how to support a strong woman at the top.  For me personally,  a victory would mean a platform from which to champion  public education, military families, children in the foster care system – and have some fun along the way.

So needless to say we shared the loss of so many for our nation,  and also felt it in a personal way – for the Clintons, for her and our hard-working staffs, and for ourselves.

So these last seven months have been quite the lesson in dealing with failure. It has been a grieving process,  almost like losing a loved one.  There were indeed tears and sleepless nights to start with. And yes there was wine, and bourbon.  For Tim, his work in the Senate was a blessing – he had to and did jump right back in, working to stop what he sees as bad things and advancing the good where he can.  And his bipartisan colleagues in the Senate were so kind to him from his first day back – there is more of that in the Senate than people realize.

I had no such obvious path forward, having quit my job for the campaign, but I did have time to reflect.  Ok here’s where I get to religion, which for me is a crucial source  of two values that have helped me get through:  humility and hope.

I have told you how my linear algebra failure here at Princeton taught me  intellectual humility.  My Princeton days were important to my spiritual journey in other ways too.   In short, between my Presbyterian upbringing and my present life as a fellow-traveler with my Catholic husband, my Princeton days began me on an important sojourn with the Quakers.  The deeply spiritual Friends (as Quakers are called) community here in Princeton worships  in a historic building  best reached from campus via a half-hour walk through the Institute for Advanced Studies Woods. That regular  walk and  worship — plus an upper level religion  class –largely over my head —  with the then young but already amazing  Professor Jeff Stout, helped me begin to develop a coherent understanding of my faith as a choice really, of certain fundamental attitudes, humility and hope amongst them.

Humility, one of the core values of perhaps all the great world religions. Our relationship to the Eternal reminds us that we are not God. No matter how much I might strive to be, no matter how much my Ivy League training told me I could learn anything or be or do anything, I am not omniscient or fully in control of my own or the nation’s or the world’s destiny. We see only through a glass darkly, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians — our understanding is at best incomplete, and we are not fully in charge of our own destinies. There is a certain freedom in accepting that.

And hope – while I am not in charge, I find cause for hope, in that of God in everyone, as the Quakers say, in the glimpses of the divine I see throughout nature and humanity, and even in my own soul.  When I think about how Tim and I are really getting through this difficult time of failure and loss, the truth is that we are both fundamentally glass-half-full people. We just see the world that way.  Some of that comes from an innate disposition with which we are both gratefully blessed, but some of it is also a choice – to believe, sometimes against all evidence –and that’s where it becomes faith — that things do ultimately work out for the good.  Not necessarily in ways we understand, or on our human timetable, or even in ways of earthly accounting.  But fundamentally as Martin Luther King said, that the arc of history bends toward justice,  and I will add, toward mercy, and indeed toward love.

My time on the campaign trail fed that optimism. We met so many amazing people all across this nation — here’s just one: I met a  farmer in a small town in Iowa, an older gentleman in his overalls, who approached me and wanted to talk about immigration.  To my surprise, he begged me to protect our dreamers and other immigrants. When I asked what motivated his concern,  he turned to the man beside him and introduced him as his husband, a Mexican immigrant.  Our world is changing and in my humble opinion, for the better.

So I choose to believe things happen for a reason, even when it is beyond my understanding.  I can even acknowledge some silver linings in the loss  for us as a nation –not the least being a renewed vigor of participation in our constitutional democracy.  Personally l am moving on to the next chapter of my life, working in education policy at George Mason University and on Virginia’s Board of Education. I hope to help teachers and policy makers build a successful pathway to the future for all children, especially those who most need a way out of poverty through education.  I do so a little humbler, perhaps with more questions than answers to share, but with hope, faith really, that together we can make advances.

 I will close with wishing you a wonderful few days of celebration, and congratulations for your many successes to date and in the future, but I will also hope that life and Princeton have dealt you an instructive failure or two. They won’t be your last –   Hopefully your future ones won’t be of the nature of losing a presidential election – except that would mean you had indeed tried hard things! It would be great if some of you jump into the electoral fray —  If you have the courage to try that, or other hard things, you will undoubtedly have some failures.  When you do, I wish for you humility and hope.  While you too are not God, you will indeed in your humility find that of God in yourselves and those around you if you choose to look for it.”

Princeton University