Most Commencement Speeches Remain Apolitical

It's Campaign 2008 and commencement season, so where have all the politicians gone?

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It's Campaign 2008 and commencement season, so where have all the politicians gone?

The current president and high-ranking government officials aside, the 2008 graduation lineup has been conspicuously absent of prominent figures from the campaign trail. Of the three candidates still viable late in the race, only Barack Obama spoke at a graduation (as a last-minute stand-in, no less), and many of the early dropouts—Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and John Edwards—also passed on commencement appearances. Even Bill Clinton, who gave a whopping six speeches last year, was slated for only one address at UCLA this spring—which ultimately was cancelled over a labor dispute.

But the reason you might think these political headliners would be all over the speaker circuit is the same reason why they aren't. "With things like commencement, you're trying to find a voice and a message that speaks to all of your students," said Washington University in St. Louis spokesman Steve Givens. With the possibility of a partisan event, "you're risking making that day a little less special for some of your graduates." Although few (if any) universities have formal policies barring election big shots from speaking at commencement, it's something of an "unwritten rule," says Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage.

And even if the speaker doesn't go off the partisan deep end, the logistics—including candidates' busy schedules—and media frenzy don't appeal to many schools (although who knows with kids these days). Obama's last-minute speech at Wesleyan University is an example of the insanity that can descend upon an unsuspecting college town. Not that Wesleyan graduates and their families seem to have minded, but a number of other universities would prefer a day with less distraction—a "solemn and celebratory event," as Cubbage describes.

So of all the lesser celebrities who did make speeches, what did they talk about?

Themselves, for one thing. Meredith Vieira talked at Tufts about the tough "be true to yourself" decisions, while actress Jessica Lange detailed for Sarah Lawrence grads the benefits of directionless wandering. Bob Woodruff at the University of Michigan reminded students of his unfortunate run-in with an IED in Iraq, and New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz explained what he did with his enigmatology degree from Indiana University.

Climate change came up time and again (that's what you get when you have the Science Guy and Al Gore speaking), and Oberlin College even had a "green commencement," complete with post-meal composting and programs printed on 100 percent post-consumer paper.

Finally, when all the other graduation rhetorical mainstays were used up--the economy (Steve Forbes at Indiana Tech), politics (Chris Matthews at Washington University), Third World poverty (Lisa Ling at Quinnipiac), satire (Stephen Colbert at Princeton) and a straight-up laundry list of advice (Tony Blair at Yale)—a handful of speakers then wisely chose to appeal to the vanity of their audience.

The class of 2008 must be (and can be, apparently) the next "greatest generation" in these messy times. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne and journalist Samantha Power used the exact same John F. Kennedy quote to implore graduates to take ownership of the problems left behind by older generations: "I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or with any other generation." (Turns out, they're friends.)

"I do not envy your generation for the problems you are inheriting," Dionne said at Wake Forest, "but I do envy the opportunity that you have to break with failure, with flawed ideas, and with old arrangements." From Pitzer College, Power added: "Take the time this weekend to celebrate with the parents who made today possible, the teachers who made today valuable, and the friends who made your last four years unforgettable. And then go forth to be this 21st century's greatest generation."