It’s that time of year. The sun is shining, the flowers are in bloom and all across America, graduating students are forced to endure that dreaded rite of passage, the commencement speech. Often boring, typically clichéd and frequently self-aggrandizing, commencement speeches form their own subgenre of fatuous prose.
Get out the barf bag! Here are a few choice orations from some of America’s most illustrious jerks.
1. Ivan Boesky at Berkeley, 1986
Ivan Boesky was a big-time stock trader who hustled his way to riches betting on corporate takeovers. On May 18, 1986 at the University of California, Berkeley, he shared these lustrous pearls of wisdom with business school students:
“Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”
Boesky clearly felt very good about himself at the time. But not for long. Several months after the address, Boesky was nabbed by the SEC when it found that his stock manipulations were often based on tips from corporate insiders which is –oopsie! – illegal. Mr. Greed soon found himself in possession of a nice prison cell.
Oliver Stone used Boesky’s speech as the inspiration for one given by the ethically challenged corporate raider Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street. “Greed is good” became the catchphrase for Wall Street callousness and excess.
2. Jamie Dimon at Syracuse, 2010
Just two years after the Wall Street-driven crisis left many Americans itching to grab the nearest pitchfork, the JPMorgan Chase honcho was invited to speak to Syracuse students, despite a wave of protests. His speech pretty much alternates between insisting that he’s not like the rest of those banker a-holes and finding new ways to praise himself. He also makes a stab at humor:
“Graduating today means you are through with…the cold sweat of sleepless nights preparing to answer seemingly impossible questions. Well, that’s a feeling we banking executives know pretty well these days – we call it ‘testifying before Congress.’”
Haha! LOL! In 2012, Dimon demonstrated his coolness under pressure by calmly lying to Congress when questioned about the infamous London Whale fiasco in which billions of dollars went missing from his bank.
Which is interesting when you consider how much lip service he gave to the subject of honesty in his speech, including this gem: “One must be honest with one’s self to be accountable. Shakespeare said it best: ‘To thine own self be true.’” (Dimon evidently skipped English 101 in college, or he would have known that Shakespeare was being sarcastic.) It must be said that Dimon honestly likes being really rich, so in that sense he has remained remarkably true to himself.
3. Lance Armstrong at Tufts, 2006
The cyclist and doper extraordinaire gave the commencement speech at Tufts in 2006, where he was also awarded an honorary doctorate (since rescinded). The subject of Armstrong’s oratory was the need for students to follow his shining example and become actively engaged citizens. At one point he describes his cancer doctor speaking to him of the need to fight for the cure:
“I, of course, loved the idea that he wanted to talk to me about something that even mentioned the word 'cure,' thinking he might want to tell me he snuck me the secret stuff that works every time.”
Turns out Armstrong knew all about the secret stuff that works every time. Too bad for the millions of kids, sports fans and cancer patients who looked up to him.
4. Glenn Beck at Liberty University, 2012
Liberty University teaches its students that the Earth is 5,000 years old and that dinosaur bones washed up in Noah’s flood. So it’s little wonder that the school would not only select the loony and fact-averse Glenn Beck to address its graduating seniors (which included his daughter), but award him an honorary doctorate, a gesture that gave Beck the weepies.
“We live in a time when it seems truth is on the run,” said Beck, an observation that no doubt stemmed from watching reruns of his Fox TV show (since canceled). The man who says what people who aren’t thinking are thinking, as Jon Stewart aptly described Beck, began with various meditations on the evilness of Barack Obama and then launched into a tidal wave of homilies, which included a mandate that students always ”shoot to kill.” This from a man who was constantly warning of the inherent violence of the left.
5. John Ashcroft at Bob Jones University, 1999
Attorney general-designate John Ashcroft delivered a speech-cum-sermon to graduating students of Bob Jones University, the great bastion of Christian fundamentalism, in 1999.
“You could quote the Declaration with me, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.' Unique among the nations, America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal. And because we have understood that our source is eternal, America has been different. We have no king but Jesus.”
All righty then! Social studies teachers across America, take note that the country's founding document is actually a religious pronouncement.
But Ashcroft is just a godly sort of fellow. After having Clarence Thomas anoint him with oil, a ritual he insisted on before taking each office in his career (and which was once performed by his father with a dollop of Crisco), Attorney General Ashcroft expressed his unique vision of America’s holiness in his dedication to initiating secret detentions, thwarting gun control, and hounding physicians who help terminally ill patients commit suicide.
Ashcroft has also been famed for his Christian charity, evidenced in his reasons for vetoing funding for an AIDS care center when he was governor of Missouri: "Well, they're there because of their own misconduct, and it wasn't very reputable misconduct, either."
He is now a highly paid lobbyist in Washington. God works in mysterious ways.
6. Alan Greenspan, Basically Everywhere
Alan Greenspan, Ayn Rand acolyte and free-market fundamentalist, was a favorite commencement speaker at elite colleges for decades. As white-collar criminologist Bill Black put it, “his standard commencement speech while Fed Chairman was an ode to reputation as the characteristic that made possible trust and free markets.”
In his address to the 2005 class of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, the Master of Disaster goes to great lengths explaining how the markets magically regulate themselves and make themselves resistant to fraud without any need for oversight. Companies would not cheat or violate ethical standards, he assured, because they value their reputations and would quickly be driven out of business if they misbehaved. While acknowledging a few business scandals in the 1990s, Greenspan blithely asserted “We should not be surprised then to see a re-emergence of the value placed by markets on trust and personal reputation in business practice.” Bernie Madoff certainly hoped so.
Less than three years after Greenspan made that speech, the fraudulent and criminal behavior of large financial institutions nearly wrecked the global economy. And the crime wave continues, in part because of the widespread acceptance of Greenspan’s discredited economic theories.
7. Manny V. Pangilinan at Ateneo de Manila University, 2010
It’s so damn hard to think up what to say to graduating students. So why bother when you can just pinch someone else’s words? The great tradition of plagiarizing commencement speeches has been carried on by Ivy League valedictorians, law school students, politicians, deans, and school board chairmen.
Telecom mogul Manny V. Pangilinan, head of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Inc., made his mark in this fine tradition by admitting that his speech included portions lifted from commencement addresses given by Oprah Winfrey, Conan O’Brien, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, and President Obama. (Like a true corporate titan, he blamed it on his speechwriter.)
In addition to the old “I was born poor” story and a variety of platitudes, Pangilinan’s speech contains a section on the various types of bosses students were likely to encounter in their careers, including despots and narcissists. He neglected to include cheats, which are easily just as abundant.