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May 19, 2014

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Dave,

You know I love you. I do.

("The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft.")

I am surprised that the editor of Vital Speeches would make the following statement:

"But I think commencement speeches aren't for those rigorous and constructive purposes. Commencement speeches, like many speeches, are essentially ceremonial and symbolic events, rather than communication opportunities. They are form, not substance."

What?!

I don't have the time to list all of the examples that refute this misguided argument, so I'll choose one from my generation: Kennedy's 1963 commencement address at American University.

This speech, delivered shortly after the terrors of the Cuban Missile crisis, signaled a fundamental shift in Kennedy's view of the Cold War. Historians mark it as the beginning of a rapprochement with the Soviet Union.

http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/BWC7I4C9QUmLG9J6I8oy8w.aspx

Start at 2:20.

When I was a political reporter in the 1980s and 1990s, presidential candidates almost always used the commencement speech to make substantive policy announcements.

So ubiquitous was this use of the speech that their advisors would tell us beforehand, to "expect a major policy statement."

My two cents.


Mark, I love you too. I also love me, and would never take the chance of enraging all the supporters of Vital Speeches of the Day, or members of our Professional Speechwriters Association, by saying that no weighty commencement speech has ever been given. The example you cite is significant. The experience you had is valid.

But both are decades old.

Could a modern leader use a commencement speech as a platform to make a major argument or an important policy proposal? Yes, and it would be awesomely cool if one did. But I read 100 of these speeches a year, and I don't come across anything like that. (And I'm quite sure Condi Rice had no intention of giving a speech like that at Rutgers, and she didn't give one at University of Minnesota.)

I do come across some nice speeches, in my search for the best 10 for our annual Commencement issue. Funny ones, personal ones, inspiring ones. But they are the exception and not the rule—and whatever they are, they are very rarely intellectually or academically or politically rigorous or challenging.

The whole society has become less serious over the last few decades, and I guess commencement speeches have become less serious along with it.

Let's both keep our eye out for commencement speeches that are sufficiently substantive to merit a REAL controversy ... rather than a phony one, like this Rutgers nonsense, that really doesn't leave us with anything but hard feelings and grumbling about those closed-minded kids these days.

You want recent? I'll give you recent. How about next week?

The groundwork is now being laid by the White House to announce a new foreign policy vision and strategy. And where will he do this?

Like Colin Powell, who used another commencement speech to announce the now-famous Powell Doctrine, Obama will deliver his new vision to graduates of West Point.

Here you go:

http://www.politico.com/story/2014/05/president-obama-west-point-commencement-speech-107075.html

Now, I will concede that most commencement speeches are not substantive, but you raised the issue of policy, politics and government, so I thought you needed a little correction.

You're welcome.

Mark

Thank you.

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