The year 2016 is a hell of a time to graduate. Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee, the past four months have successively been the hottest on record, the chasm between the rich and poor continues to widen, and bloody Andrew Sullivan is openly wondering if this whole Democracy thing has run its course. WTF!
Fortunately, this time of the year brings one reliable reprieve from the dispiriting caprices of our politics: commencement speeches. This year’s crop of speeches were as pointed, witty and incisive as ever, taking on hot-button topics ranging from political apathy to the big orange elephant in the room.
Here’s a look at five of this year’s best lines.
1. Elizabeth Warren at Suffolk University.
Zinger: “How’s this speech polling so far? Higher or lower than Donald Trump’s unfavorable numbers with women?”
As if you needed another reason to love Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts and skilled Trump Twitter troll, used her address at Boston-based Suffolk University to congratulate the school for making higher education more broadly available and to offer a rousing defense of government that works on behalf of the people.
But of course she was not going to let the occasion go by without offering a jab at Trump, which came when she noted that Suffolk “runs one of the best public opinion polls in the country,” a distinction that makes it a little hard to square with the hackneyed graduation message of not caring what others think of you. Warren’s swipe at Trump’s abysmal numbers with women voters doubled as a cutting attack on his fragile ego. When she said, “How’s this speech polling so far?” it sounded like something one could totally imagine coming out of Trump’s mouth without a hint of irony. After all, the guy begins most of his speeches by reading off his most recent poll numbers.
Warren has locked horns with Trump multiple times over Twitter recently, launching salvos against his fraudulent business practices, his disgusting remarks about women and minorities, and his overall unfitness for the presidency. Trump has responded in the trumpiest of fashion, calling Warren “Pocahontas,” a reference to her Native American ancestry.
2. Lin-Manuel Miranda at University of Pennsylvania.
Zinger: “In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose hit musical Hamilton has garnered widespread critical acclaim and recently earned a record-breaking 16 Tony nominations, is having a huge moment right now. A child of Puerto Rican immigrants, Miranda is using his new platform as a celebrity to advocate for political causes he believes in: just recently, he performed a blistering rap about Puerto Rico’s debt woes on "Last Week Tonight."
At his University of Pennsylvania commencement speech, Miranda wisely took a different tack. He framed a relatively contemporary issue—the hateful rhetoric around undocumented immigrants—in its historical context, reaching all the way back to the nation’s founding for some perspective. This wasn’t coincidental. Many of the same people who cheer on anti-immigrant rhetoric tend to forget, or at least conveniently overlook, that our nation was founded by immigrants.
Ultimately, Miranda’s message was simple. Not only do immigrants have something to contribute to civic and cultural life in America, they’re the reason we’re here and that we enjoy many of the advantages we do.
3. Cory Booker at George Washington University.
Zinger: “My dad would’ve joked about [my chances of being elected as an African-American senator]. My dad would’ve done the math and said, son, let’s see. Between the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the White House, there’s only four black folks. It looks almost as bad as an Oscar nomination list."
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a rising star in the Democratic Party (who is rumored to be on Hillary's VP shortlist), has made a name for himself by championing criminal justice reform and restoring voting rights to felons.There have been murmurs about him following in Barack Obama’s footsteps further down the road, as a young, intelligent, charismatic African-American senator ascending to the highest office in the land.
In his address to the graduates of Washington, DC-based George Washington University, a school known for its politically active student body, Booker wove together his inspiring personal story with some biting social commentary, taking both the U.S. government and the Academy to task for their appalling lack of diversity. His withering criticism was in the same vein as Chris Rock’s speech at the Oscars earlier this year, which used humor to eviscerate the overwhelming whiteness of the nominees.
Ever the optimist, Booker promptly pivoted to a sunnier message about persevering despite the odds and making the world a better place through political engagement.
4. President Barack Obama at Rutgers University.
Zinger: “Apathy has consequences. It determines who our Congress is. It determines what policies they prioritize. It even, for example, determines whether a highly qualified Supreme Court nominee receives the courtesy of a hearing and a vote in the United States Senate.”
In the fourth quarter of his presidency, President Obama is far looser and less restrained than he was eight or even four years ago. He is also willing to use his bully pulpit, or whatever podium he might be standing behind to settle some scores.
In his seniority, Obama has tended to take a slightly scoldy tone at times. He has excoriated Black Lives Matter activists for too much yelling and too little action, for instance. At Rutgers, he exhorted the class of 2016 to “have faith in democracy,” laying out the case for getting involved in politics. He brought up the burning issue of income inequality and acknowledged how little progress has been made in addressing it, despite the plethora of ideas floating around. Rather than demonizing congressional Republicans for inaction, he blamed “political apathy,” especially during midterm elections and especially among young people.
The statistical picture he offered was sobering: in 2014, Obama said, “fewer than 1 in 5 young people showed up to vote.” That apathy has real consequences he pointed out, resulting in Republicans strengthening their hold on the House and regaining their majority in the Senate. The refusal to give Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, a hearing is but one of the more annoying effects. In other words, to all those invigorated by the dark horse candidacy of Bernie Sanders, no disappearing into the woodwork in 2018 when midterms roll around.
5. President Obama at Howard University.
Zinger: “Be confident in your blackness. There’s no one way to be black. Take it from someone who’s seen both sides of the debate about whether I’m black enough.”
Okay, so maybe it isn’t fair to double-dip with commencement speakers, but President Obama was really making the rounds this year, and he landed more than one blow.
The president offered this hard-earned wisdom to the historically black Howard University, whose illustrious alumni list includes award-winning authors Ta-Nehisi Coates and Toni Morrison, as well as California Attorney General Kamala Harris, among many others. Although Obama’s words may seem somewhat intuitive, especially given the audience, this message actually represents a major shift in the way he talks about race. In 2013, he addressed the graduating class of Morehouse College, an historically black institution that is all male, placing a heavy emphasis on personal responsibility. His remarks were lambasted by none other than Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote that Obama’s message discounted the structural disadvantages that people of color, especially African-Americans, continue to face.
This year, Obama seemed to take Coates’ words to heart, with less finger-wagging about personal responsibility. Instead he urged graduates to embrace and be confident in their blackness—whatever form it takes.