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Commencements: Enduring Wisdom or Partisan Tirades?

May 23, 1996 [ Printer-friendly version ]

It may be too late to stop the slide toward partisanship at commencement addresses, but it is worth trying. If politicians cannot look beyond the next election to find 20 minutes' worth of wisdom for the next generation, let them go on "Meet the Press."

On Wednesday, President Clinton used his commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy not to deliver inspiration or a stirring challenge to the young graduates but to deliver a broadside against a GOP proposal for a missile defense system.

"I think we should not leap before we look," Clinton said. This was not selfless advice from a man who has done plenty of leaping before looking -- it was just one more swipe at his political enemies.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes -- "To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven" -- is particularly appropriate during commencement season, when partisan politicking ought to be as frowned upon as white shoes before Memorial Day.

In fact, some of the best commencement speeches are by politicians willing to transcend politics.

That is what Mario Cuomo did at Iona College, in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1984. The result was memorable. "We thought the Sermon on the Mount was a nice allegory and nothing more, " he said. "What we didn't understand until we got to be a little older was that it was the whole answer, the whole truth ... We have for a full lifetime taught our children to be go-getters. Can we now say to them that if they want to be happy they must be go-givers?"

While political leaders who rise to the occasion eschew party politics when they don the gown, many entertainment figures barely finish straightening their caps before launching into political tirades.

Last year, I heard Robert Redford give the commencement address at the Claremont Graduate School. The audience of 3,000 students, parents and guests was clearly thrilled to have him. But the speech was a tired compendium of yesterday's political platitudes. "We have to make it really a political liability," he said, "for our elected leaders to decimate public education, poison our air and water, jeopardize the health and safety of children, infringe on our right to creative expression. ... "

Sitting on the stage behind him, I felt an irresistible urge -- which I resisted -- to tousle that gorgeous salt-and-red-pepper hair of his and whisper: "There, there, you'll feel better in the morning."

Contrast Redford's outburst of shallow outrage with Ted Koppel's sermon-like speech to a graduating class that included his daughter at Duke University in 1987. "What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the ten suggestions; they are commandments. Are, not were. ... I caution you, as one who performs daily on that flickering altar, to set your sights beyond what you can see. There is true majesty in the concept of an unseen power which can neither be measured nor weighed."

Transcending our ephemeral concerns to address enduring questions that cannot be answered with a stump stemwinder is the essence of a good commencement speech. But the restlessness of our age has seeped into commencement day -- the search for novelty culminating in Kermit the Frog speaking at Southampton College in Long Island earlier this month.

The puppet was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters for his contribution to environmental awareness. Apparently, the amphibian troubadour's song, "It's Not Easy Being Green," has become a rallying cry for environmentalists. It was Kermit's first commencement speech, and judging by some of the student response, it may be his last.

"I am officially unhappy," said Samantha Chie, a marine biology major. "I've been laboring for five years, and now we have a sock talking at our commencement. It's kind of upsetting."

Just so. It may be cute to have as a commencement speaker ecologically enlightened hosiery or a politically engaged marquee idol. But replacing ancient wisdom with the latest novelty does not honor the spirit of commencement.

The culmination of a near-lifetime of study deserves a ceremony marking the end of youth and the advent of adulthood. Pride, fear, relief, sadness -- these are profound emotions stirring in the hearts of graduates. A speaker owes them a speech that addresses their concerns, not his.

There is a place for Kermit the Frog raising our environmental consciousness, and for Robert Redford railing against government cuts, and for President Clinton opposing the Republican missile defense bill. But that place is not at a commencement podium.

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