The trouble with commencement speakers.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
May 18 2009 6:48 PM

Wrong Commencement Speakers!

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

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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.)

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.