Politicians make lousy commencement speakers. Hire a celebrity instead.

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May 15 2009 12:53 PM

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

Politicians make lousy commencement speakers. Hire a celebrity instead.

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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."

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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?

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.

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