Which Brings Me to the Work I’ve Done in Africa

Politicians make lousy commencement speakers. Hire a celebrity instead.

Back in March, when UCLA announced that 2008 graduate James Franco, star of the small screen and the large, would be its 2009 commencement speaker, many students were outraged—so outraged that the Facebook page “UCLA Students Against James Franco as Commencement Speaker” now has 621 members. Apparently some students at California’s most selective state university felt they deserved better than Pineapple Expresssecond-most prominent stoner. Yet the same Inside Higher Ed article that noted the discontent on UCLA’s campus also reported that vocal students in Virginia were mobilizing for an entertainer. Students at the University of Virginia were upset by the selection of eminent jurist J. Harvie Wilkinson III —they wanted mock-talk host Stephen Colbert.

These minor controversies are representative of a far greater concern. This year, almost 3 million students will graduate from an American college or university, and the majority of them will be forced to listen to a speech. This speech will constitute the last words a graduate hears before he or she tosses a mortarboard in the air, has lunch with the parents, parties one final night at the frat house, hooks up one final time with that sort-of significant other who may or may not also be interning at PriceWaterhouseCoopers this summer, and heads to Denny’s at 5 a.m. These words may very well affect their decision to go for a Lumberjack Slam instead of a Moons Over My Hammy. So how best to choose a commencement speaker? A generational peer like James Franco? An éminence grise (and conservateur) like Wilkinson? Or, to put it more bluntly: celebrity or statesman?

Of course, most schools don’t have this problem. The average graduate of the average state university will listen to a low-level state assemblyman, a generous alumnus who has hinted he’d like to give a talk, or, if the student is lucky, a beloved professor. It’s only the schools with lots of students or lots of money who have the luxury of pickiness. So it’s to them that I say, filled with the confidence of one whose commencement speaker was the Fonz: Go with the celebrity, whether it’s a writer, rock star, athlete, or actor. But whatever you do, don’t get a politician.

The only reasonable goal for a commencement speech is to help students and their families celebrate the day. Now, as one who takes oratory very seriously, I sympathize with those students and parents who want a speech that will consecrate or solemnify the occasion. I am afraid, however, that that’s just too much to ask. Solemnity, gravity, awe—these emotions aren’t automatically called forth even by the best of speeches. In fact, everything about a graduation exercise militates against dignity and reflection, instead promoting boredom or annoyance. If the weather is too hot or too rainy, if too many students are drunk or high, if the awarding of honorary degrees takes too long, if the black polyester gowns don’t breathe well—then the profound words of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal or New York Rep. Charles Rangel fail to work their usual magic.

What? You don’t find Jindal and Rangel fascinating to listen to? Well, of course. Politicians are never likely to say anything unusual enough to be interesting. They are frequent commencement speakers in part because they can be counted on not to be meaningful. While most members of an audience prefer meaty, memorable speeches, no university president or trustee wants to deal with a minority of listeners who may be offended by a speaker’s endorsement of stem cell research or decriminalizing marijuana. Occasionally, a politician’s record can cause a scene on its own, as John McCain discovered at the New School in 2006 and Barack Obama may find this weekend at Notre Dame. But when speaking to a large cross-section of voters, politicians tend to defend their records in meaningless, self-aggrandizing—and thus noncontroversial—ways. Consider this gem, from Bill Clinton’s 2007 speech at Middlebury College:

I do a lot of work in Africa … with my AIDS project. We sell medicine at the cheapest price in the world in 66 countries, and we have health projects in 25, and I never cease to be amazed by the intelligence of people with no money, no education, nothing, just lots of observation and received wisdom.

(See, his extraordinary good works have put him in touch with the wisdom of poor foreigners.)

It’s not hard to find worse among the commencement speeches given by politicians last year. Good candidates include the speeches of Gov. Rick Perry, who bragged about the roaring Texas economy, and President George H.W. Bush, who spent the first half of his speech at Bryant University in Rhode Island talking about how hard he had searched for a topic. “And then,” he said, winding down, “it dawned on me that there really is nothing I can add to what you have learned and absorbed right here in countless everyday experiences at this wonderful school about the character of success.” Well, thanks for that.

Of course, commencement addresses bring out the hokum in more gifted orators as well. Just last Wednesday, President Obama reminded graduates of Arizona State University that “Julia Child didn’t publish her first cookbook until she was almost 50. Colonel Sanders didn’t open up his first Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was in his 60s.” Obama fell into the usual clichés, including dropping a bit of local knowledge, in this case about ASU’s basketball team (“I learned never again to pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket”). The occasion seemed to bring out the worst in his speechwriters, who are usually good at avoiding the redundant, vacuous nature of sentences like, “In your own lives, you’ll need to continuously adapt to a continuously changing economy.”

Bobby Jindal spoke at three Louisiana graduations last May, but none of them was the speech I’d like to hear him give. I’d love to hear what it’s like to be an Indian-born convert to Catholicism governing a state of blacks, white evangelicals, and Cajun Catholics. But he’ll never give that speech, because he just wants to be a good Republican Everyman. I’d like to hear Barney Frank talk about his homosexuality or Hillary Clinton talk about surviving Lewinsky—that’s what would hold my attention on a day when my immediate prospects are more drinking and partying, and my long-term prospects are unemployment and oblivion.

It’s not that all politicians give bad speeches, but the evidence suggests that schools should look elsewhere for their parting words of wisdom. So, the question is: Who’s best? According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2008 college graduates variously heard sports announcers (Vin Scully, Joe Buck, and Dick Vermeil all had gigs), public-radio personalities (Scott Simon, Renee Montaigne, Bob Edwards), poets laureate (Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, and Charles Simic), relatives and ex-relatives of the rich and famous (Bill Gates Sr., Bianca Jagger), and—how to categorize this one?—Star Jones. My hunch is that the very best of the best are prose writers, since putting words together in interesting and accessible ways is something they do for a living. (My favorite commencement speech was given at Colby College in 2004 by novelist Richard Russo.) But there’s no guarantee that a given writer is poised and can deliver a speech well.

Celebrities, on the other hand—and I am talking rock stars, movie stars, big-time stand-up comics—at the very least hold out the promise of making graduation day more memorable, not less. The day is supposed to be a celebration, not the occasion for one final lecture. Hearing Bono talk about world poverty may not engage everyone’s mental gears, but for a lot of graduates it would be pretty damned exciting to be within 100 yards of Bono. Sheer stargazing shouldn’t be the only criterion, of course: I wouldn’t want speakers chosen off the latest Billboard Top 100. (If that’s how it worked, the Black Eyed Peas and Lady GaGa would be very busy in the next couple of weeks.) But celebrities by their very definition are interesting to people, and it’s not impossible to find celebrities who also have interesting, even entertaining, things to say.

My graduation speaker was a case in point. I was excited to hear Henry Winkler speak because when I was 8 years old his Happy Days character, the Fonz, was the coolest man in the world. Thirteen years later, that was still good enough for me. But as it turned out, Winkler gave a very moving speech about the importance of reading—how he himself had battled dyslexia and how when the Fonz got a library card on television, there was a huge spike in library-card applications all over the country. (“I got a liberry card,” the Fonz told Richie, as Winkler recounted it. “This is very cool. You know, anybody can get one of these suckers, and you can meet chicks there, too.”) Is that the kind of wisdom you’ll get from Bobby Jindal? And even if it were, would you be awake to hear it?