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At Yale graduation, Kerry urges optimism on government institutions

Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s speech to Yale’s graduating seniors featured pop culture references, a little self-deprecating humor, and his hopes for how the class will set about making contributions to the world.

Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s speech to Yale’s graduating seniors featured pop culture references, a little self-deprecating humor, and his hopes for how the class will set about making contributions to the world.

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Sunday tapped into what he characterized as a growing sense of global unease while urging Yale University graduates to remain optimistic that government gridlock can be broken.

“People around the world seem to have grown used to systems or institutions failing to respond,” Kerry said. “And the result is an obvious deepening frustration if not exasperation with institutional governance.

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“The sum total of all of this inaction is stealing the future from all of us,” he added, before calling the graduating class to action.

“It is indifference that says our problems are so great, let’s not even try,” he said. “We have to reject that. It’s hopelessness that says that our best days are behind us. I couldn’t disagree more.”

Kerry was addressing the Yale graduating class in New Haven almost exactly 48 years after he was chosen to deliver a speech when he was a senior. In that case, he threw away mundane text and decided instead to deliver a speech raising doubts about the foreign policy doctrines that were escalating the Vietnam War in which he was about to fight.

Returning to campus nearly a half-century later has caused the nation’s top diplomat to review his words and reconsider his views of the US role in the world. In 1966, he warned that “an excess of isolation has led to an excess of interventionism,” but on Sunday he warned the exact opposite.

“We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade,” Kerry said. “I can tell you for certain, most of the rest of the world doesn’t lie awake at night worrying about America’s presence — they worry about what would happen in our absence.”

The former Massachusetts senator and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate also delivered a bit of a stand-up routine, which included some self-depreciating humor and a knock on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who has been criticized for making racist remarks.

“Today you are graduating as the most diverse class in Yale’s long history,” he said. “Or as they call it in the NBA, Donald Sterling’s worst nightmare.”

Kerry also joked about his long-windedness (“I promise I won’t go a minute over four hours”) and his generation’s drug use.

“It’s not true that everyone in my generation experimented with drugs,” he said. “Although between Flomax, Lipitor, and Viagra, now we do.”

After delivering the commencement address at Yale, Kerry planned to return to Boston, where on Monday he will deliver the commencement address for undergraduates at Boston College.

It is another homecoming of sorts for Kerry, who graduated from Boston College Law School in 1976. “I became far more disciplined as a student, and far more — really trained — in how to think,” Kerry said in an interview with the Globe.

Kerry, the first Catholic to serve as secretary of state since Edmund Muskie, said he was excited to return.

“I’m only a single Eagle — that doesn’t score well at some places,’’ he said, referring to the fact that he earned his undergraduate degree at Yale. “But it’ll be fun.”

Kerry attended law school after returning from the Vietnam War, and after having lost his first bid in politics, a race for a congressional seat in Lowell. He started days after his first child, Alexandra, was born, and while attending classes he moonlighted part time as a radio talk show host on WBZ-AM.

After graduating from law school, Kerry became a prosecutor in the Middlesex district attorney’s office, where he worked until becoming lieutenant governor in 1983 and US senator in 1985.

In the speech at Boston College, Kerry plans to reflect on teachings of his own Catholic faith. He plans to highlight the words of Boston College theologian David Hollenbach, who spoke of human dignity coming to the forefront of Catholic social teaching.

“When men and women have access to clean water and clear power, they can live in dignity,” Kerry plans to say, according to excerpts provided to the Globe. “When citizens can make their full contribution, no matter their ethnicity, no matter who they love or what name they give to God, they can live in dignity.

“The demand for dignity of men and women across the world matters deeply to our own prosperity — it matters to our security — and diplomats and development professionals cannot respond to these demands on their own,” he adds.

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.

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