So people keep writing me asking what I think about the whole Obama commencement thing. I’m flattered. My opinion, in brief, is that I think Notre Dame’s having him was a mistake, basically for the reasons Rick has laid out here, but I think that the reaction to the invite has been over the top and out of proportion to the issue involved. The sheer passion on both sides of the debate suggests, to me at least, that the controversy is really a proxy for some deeper political disagreements among Catholics. And as Forrest Gump was wont to say, that’s all I have to say about that.
Anyway, the whole matter got me reminiscing about the various commencements I’ve attended over the years.
Leaving aside minor events, the first commencement I attended was my graduation from college. Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg was the chosen speaker, and chose to make the focus of his remarks the need for additional research funding for his department, and the advisability of the state adopting an income tax in order to make that happen. The speech also contained the line “When you tell people you went to Texas, no one will care how the football team is doing . . . at least not if they are an adult.” This got a sizable boo from the audience.
My second commencement was at my brother’s graduation. The speaker was Michael Dell, notable for having dropped out of the very school he was now addressing. His speech was about Michael Dell, and how great he was.
Commencement number three was at my brother’s graduation from law school (I missed my own law school commencement, but that’s another story). After the opening prayer (which contained a number of anti-Bush statements), the announcer got up and said that so and so would now sing the national Anthem. My father, loud enough so that several rows could hear him, then said “I hope she can make it through the song without making a political statement.” The commencement itself was basically a lecture on international law (I don’t remember the speaker’s name, but he was some expert in the field).Last, but not least, was a friend’s commencement a few years back at Catholic University of America. Tony Snow gave the address. The speech was mainly about his work for the Bush administration and Foxnews and his struggles with cancer, though he did at least make an effort to tie his anecdotes to pieces of advice for the new graduates.
In other words, of the four commencements I’ve attended, only one had anything to do with the ostensible purpose of a commencement speech. I suspect that Obama’s speech will be no different in this regard. President Bush used his Notre Dame commencement address to give a speech on his faith-based charities program (remember that?), and I expect that President Obama will likewise use the opportunity to deliver some sort of major policy address (given that President Obama is not a stupid man, I assume that the subject of the address will not be abortion or stem cells). For my money, though, the best commencement remarks I’ve heard were not actually delivered at a commencement, but are contained in the Baz Luhrmann song Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen):