Wrong Commencement Speakers!

Don’t invite people who succeeded. Invite people who failed.

Here are some of the people slated to be guest speakers at this year’s university commencements:

Jonathan Alter (Western Connecticut State)
Stephen Chu (Harvard)
Hillary Clinton (Barnard, NYU)|
Bill Clinton (Florida A&M)
Geena Davis (Bates)
Rahm Emanuel (George Washington)
Louise Erdrich (Dartmouth)
James Franco (UCLA)
Barney Frank (American)
Atul Gawande (Harvard School of Public Health)
David Gergen (Old Dominion)
Sanjay Gupta (University of Michigan Medical School)
Eric Holder (Columbia)
Gwen Ifill (Howard, Marymount, Georgetown)
Bobby Jindal (Loyola, Louisiana Tech, Grambling State University)
Anthony Kennedy (Stanford)
Matt Lauer (Harvard)
Michael Mukasey (University of North Carolina)
Barack Obama (Arizona State, Notre Dame, U.S. Naval Academy)
Michelle Obama (University of California-Merced)
Colin Powell (Franklin & Marshall)
Dan Rather (Michigan State)
Eric Schmidt (Carnegie Mellon and University of Pennsylvania *)
Elie Wiesel (Bucknell)
Oprah Winfrey (Duke)
Fareed Zakaria (Bates)

What’s wrong with this list? Mark Oppenheimer, editor of the New Haven Review, would argue that it has too many politicians. Leftist-turned-reactionary David Horowitz would argue it has too few conservatives. Members of the Facebook page “UCLA Students Against James Franco as Commencement Speaker” would argue that it’s tarted up with too many showbiz celebrities. Me, I have a different objection to the list. I think it has too many successful people.

Eminence is the one universal precondition to being a commencement speaker, and an implied (often explicit) theme of the speeches is, “Here lieth the path to success and happiness.” There are two problems with this formula. The first is that any narrative of success is bound to be at least a little bit dull. The second is that successful people are almost never able to pinpoint what it was that made them so. Take Warren Buffet. Here’s a guy who must get asked five times a day how he became the most successful investor of his era. His answers—”Reinvest your profits,” “Limit what you borrow,” etc.—are no different from what any fool could tell you. Buffet isn’t being cagey. He doesn’t know. Success is a wonderful thing, but it tends not to be the sort of experience that we learn from. We enjoy it; perhaps we even deserve it. But we don’t acquire wisdom from it.

Failure, on the other hand, is Harvard, Yale, and the University of Heidelberg rolled into one. We may not all possess the self-knowledge to absorb failure’s lessons, just as we may not all graduate with an education to go along with our diplomas. But people typically have a much easier time recounting, in often vivid detail, where they screwed up in life than they do explaining what they did right. Indeed, memoirs of spectacular failure have become a cottage industry—so much so that authors are sometimes tempted to embellish their narratives to make their stories even grimmer than they really are. Stories about life’s wrong turns are sometimes exaggerated but seldom dull.

You want a commencement speaker who can really tell a group of college graduates how to live their lives? Consider selecting from the following alternate list.

Edmund L. Andrews. Andrews is the author of the forthcoming Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown, an excerpt of which (“My Personal Credit Crisis“) ran in the May 14 New York Times Magazine. Andrews put himself into a financial tailspin by taking out a subprime mortgage on a house he couldn’t afford. It’s a not-uncommon tale of woe these days, but Andrews happens to be an economics reporter for the New York Times who, in covering the Federal Reserve, enjoyed a ringside seat to the meltdown in mortgage-backed securities. Andrews’ financial expertise proved no match for his powers of denial. Worthwhile message: If Andrews can be this stupid, anybody can be this stupid.

David Carr, another New York Times reporter turned memoirist of woe. Carr’s The Night of the Gun is a book-length confession (also excerpted in the Times Magazine) about the havoc he wreaked in his own life and others’ while addicted to drugs and alcohol. Because he couldn’t remember much of what he did, Carr bravely conducted interviews with many of the people most damaged by his addiction, including his ex-girlfriend (whom he beat up), his daughters (whom he left, as infants, in a freezing Chevy Nova for hours while he shot himself up with cocaine), and his best friend (on whom he pulled a gun). One of the best things about Carr’s book is its resistance to themes of redemption; although, through effort and luck, he eventually pulled himself together, the reformed and professionally successful Carr relapsed into alcoholism and nearly killed himself and his daughters while driving drunk. Worthwhile message: This is the luckiest ex-junkie you’ll ever meet, and you still wouldn’t change places with him.

David Denby,a film critic for TheNew Yorker and author of American Sucker, a memoir of how Denby graduated from an addiction to Internet porn to an addiction to financial speculation during the dot-com bubble. This from a man who has written eloquently about the redemptive power of the Great Books! Worthwhile message: The life of the mind won’t make you forget the pleasures of the flesh or the almighty dollar. Don’t expect it to.

Katha Pollitt.Pollitt, a Nation columnist and a celebrated poet, is eminent enough to make the real list, so it’s no surprise to see that she’ll be participating in a commencement-related seminar this year at Wesleyan. But in her excellent book Learning To Drive and Other Life Stories, Pollitt depicts unflinchingly her failure to see that her live-in lover was a philanderer and all-around shit, and her subsequent obsession with stalking him via the Internet. Universities should consider inviting Pollitt to tell these mortifying tales to their graduating classes. Worthwhile message: Don’t let love make you stupid.

Eliot Spitzer.On second thought, I’m tired of hearing New York’s former governor expel his sexual demons (or “gremlins,” as he called them on the Today show). So scratch that.

Mark Rudd. Rudd (author of Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen)is a refreshing departure from Weather Underground veterans like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, who continue to glamorize their radical past and to deny the Weather Underground’s violent intentions. Rudd sees “very little positive” in the Weather Underground and much to be ashamed of, including its destruction of Students for a Democratic Society, the anti-war group the Weather Underground grew out of. He does not deny that the explosives that killed three of the Weather Underground’s members in a Greenwich Village brownstone in 1970 were intended to kill soldiers and their dates at a dance at Fort Dix, N.J. He feels bad about the toll his life took on his parents. Worthwhile message: Don’t intellectualize violence.

As failures go, this is a pretty genteel list, heavy on published authors, most of them affiliated with establishment publications. I can’t promise they won’t help themselves to a little too much sherry or get a little too familiar with the dean’s wife, but on the whole they know (or have learned) how to behave. They are more familiar than most with the ways an otherwise well-lived life can go off the rails, and they’ve been willing to speak frankly about their own failures. Don’t expect that from Fareed Zakaria.

[Update, June 3: Columbia University is apparently thinking along my lines, because it invited  California’s recalled former Gov. Gray Davis to address this year’s law school commencement. The choice inspired this parody New York Times story. Judging from the published text  of Davis’ remarks, I’d have to rule this particular experiment a failure. Davis’ speech was 99 percent the standard “my life as a successful guy” peroration. Blink and you missed the mea culpa:

During the recall campaign, I was blamed for all sorts of things—a few of which were actually my fault. For example, there was a cartoon in the Los Angeles Times picturing two women wading in the Pacific Ocean. One woman says, “Wow, this water sure is cold.” And the other responds, “Ya, and that’s another thing I blame Gray Davis for!”

Oh well. Davis can claim some vindication from the budget crisis  currently bedeviling his successor. I mentioned Davis’ speech to Columbia Law grads in the  video version of this essay on CBS Sunday Morning.]

Correction, May 19, 2009: An earlier version of this column stated erroneously that Schmidt was a commencement speaker at Princeton. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)