LOS ANGELES, May 22, 2015—May has ushered in commencement season, when graduates don caps and gowns and march to “Pomp and Circumstance” to receive their hard-earned degrees.
With these commencement ceremonies comes the ubiquitous addresse by a public figure or celebrity. Thanks to the age of camera phones and YouTube, certain speeches have now become a part of the popular culture—think Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford.
Three addresses that have made this season’s news are from First Lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and actor Denzel Washington.
In “Why conservatives give better commencement speeches than liberals,” Washington Post columnist Carlos Lozada does a minute mention of two anthologies on commencement addresses, using this to launch off five points of difference between conservative speakers and liberal ones:
- Conservatives speak to you as an individual;
- Conservative speeches are shorter;
- Conservatives give more actionable advice;
- Conservatives tell better stories; and
- Conservatives are less likely to suck up to you.
These three speeches highlight his points quite well.
President Bush’s address to Southern Methodist University graduates Saturday received the least press coverage, and news outlets have supplied only soundbites of one self-deprecating moment when Bush drolly commented, “And to the C students, you too can be president!”
This is too bad, because in terms of a commencement address that is crafted to a specific audience but embodies elements for all who attend the graduation, President Bush hit the mark. He also made Lozada’s points of “Conservative speeches are shorter” and “Conservatives tell better stories.” His speech was just under 20 minutes, and the responses of laughter and applause indicate his stories were well-received.
The full text is posted at the Bush Center website and is worth the read, not only for the humor woven throughout, but also for the sense of optimism that Bush brought to the ceremony.
What most stood out about this speech was that he focused on optimism versus cynicism, and in the points he gave to the students, he highlighted reasons why the graduates could look forward to better days. Bush even managed to insert this message about the importance of an educated and engaged citizenry and why individual responsibility is first and foremost in order for corporate responsibility to work:
“One of the great strengths of America is our active public square. Issues are influenced by the will of the people. That is why an educated citizenry is so important to the success of our country. As SMU graduates, you are well-equipped to participate in these vital debates. My hope is that you speak out on the issues that matter to you. Participate in your nation’s civic life as citizens, not spectators. You’ll come to learn that who you are is more important than what you have—and that you have responsibilities to your fellow citizens, your country and your family. By taking part in American democracy, you will make our country stronger.”
The week prior, First Lady Michelle Obama gave the commencement address at Tuskegee University. She hit the liberal marks in Lozada’s column of going long (her speech was over 26 minutes), and speaking to the collective as opposed to addressing the graduates as individuals. Unlike Bush’s address, hers has received far more press. For all intents and purposes, it was a decent speech, but its focus was limited.
Mrs. Obama started out talking about the racism and hardships overcome by the Tuskegee Airmen and how they “paved the way forward” to a better future for all blacks. I found that opening quite compelling and had hopes that she would continue in that vein.
Where Mrs. Obama derailed was where Bush succeeded.
While Tuskegee is a historically black college, it does not mean the audiences, including the graduates, were all black. However, much of Mrs. Obama’s speech fixated on race-specific struggles. Instead of drawing conclusions to how blacks have paved the way forward and how the individual graduates can do the same (not just for a specific race, but in their world), Mrs. Obama devolved into “pity me” stories of what happened to her and President Obama on the campaign trail: how their fist bump over a primary win was seen as a “terrorist fist jab” and how she was satirized on a cover of a national magazine in an Afro wig with an AK-47.
Yes, you did overcome, and are now the First Lady of the United States of America with a huge international platform. So why not express this with graciousness? It would have been refreshing to have her acknowledge that people did not care about this and elected her husband to be president not once, but TWICE.
It would have been even more refreshing to further acknowledge that something or someone beyond her helped in that overcoming. Mrs. Obama made two references to “faith in God’s plan for me,” but the essence of gratitude and thankfulness for where she is today was sorely lacking. She focused on the struggle, while failing to laud and express appreciation for the success.
Mrs. Obama did talk about the importance of education and voting to elicit change, but it lacked any form of optimism about how this can still make a difference. Her illustrations and conclusions could have been crafted to incorporate the overall audience rather than attempting to hammer home black activism and how far we still have to go.
In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” Polonius said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
Actor Denzel Washington wins the prize for delivering the shortest speech (under 12 minutes) to the graduates of Dillard University on March 9, 2015. Aside from the fact that the famous actor delivered it, it’s no surprise that the speech has gone viral. While Washington is not necessarily vocal about his political leanings, he fits into Lozada’s point that conservatives give more actionable advice.
Washington’s content was the most pointed and the most compelling, and it gave salient steps that anyone, from graduate to grandparent, could run with.
He focused on acknowledging God in our successes, hard work and giving thanks. Two lines from his speech stood out:
“Hard work works. Working really hard is what successful people do,” and
“Say thank you.. for grace, thank you for mercy, thank you for understanding, thank you for wisdom, thank you for parents, thank you for love, thank you for kindness, thank you for humility, thank you for peace, thank you for prosperity. Say Thank You in advance for what is already yours. That’s how I live my life; that is why I am where I am today.”
You can be any faith or no faith, any race or any background, and gain tools from this speech that you could immediately apply to your life and world.
A majority of graduates may not even remember anything that was said by these public figures. As Lozada points out, “Most commencement speeches are, in fact, forgettable; the limits to the form persist regardless of politics. But when a survey finds that liberal graduation speakers far outnumber conservative ones at top U.S. colleges, it’s worth noting why you might be better off hearing a conservative speech. That is, if you’re listening at all.”
Having walked through two ceremonies, I certainly didn’t; but then, none of the speakers were conservative. We’ll see if this new generation of speakers and graduates changes that precedent.