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05.17.09

My Commencement Address

What would you say to 9,000 people whose fondest wish is to get you off the podium? The Daily Beast's resident wit waxes neurotic about an imminent speech to the Class of 2009.

I have to give a speech at a commencement exercise, and I’m a little nervous.

There will be seven or eight thousand or so people there. I once spoke to 9,000 people, but they managed to fit them all into a structure that resembled a zeppelin hangar, so it was a contained space in which whatever laughter I generated could ricochet and hang around for a bit, encouraging others to join in. With real estate, it’s location, location, location. In public speaking, it’s acoustics, acoustics, acoustics.

Next Sunday’s event will be, perforce, en plein air, and that giant sucking sound (to paraphrase Ross Perot) will be my words going straight up into the trees, clouds, and roar of passing airplanes; or quite possibly, rain. 

Let me say to President Obama, as he addresses Notre Dame today: I feel your pain.

It’s one thing if you’re say, Hitler, addressing 100,000 Nazis standing at attention in the stadium at Nuremberg—they pretty much had to pretend to be listening and laughing at his jokes. It’s another if your audience includes grandparents and fidgety 3-year olds who want to go to the bathroom now, to say nothing of eager grads thinking, Who is this dickhead speaking?


I’m haunted, too, by the fact that I spoke on this same spot at my own graduation day, a thousand years or so ago, albeit in a far lesser capacity than the featured speaker. Being young and oh-so-clever, I thought it would be witty to close my oration with a quote that depended on the f-word. I still wake up at 3 a.m. in a clammy sweat, remembering that golden moment. At the level of taste, it was on par with Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. How proud my parents were.

I’ve given one or two commencement speeches before, though never to a university. The first time was to my boarding school alma mater, Portsmouth Abbey, an excellent place run by Benedictine monks. I was surprised to be invited (by the lay headmaster), inasmuch as I had recently come out in print as an agnostic collapsed Catholic.

I cross-examined him suspiciously, at some length. “Are you sure?” I said warily.

“Absolutely,” he insisted. “We definitely want you.”

My very Catholic father, learning of the invitation, emailed me hotly to say that he was “appalled” that I had accepted such an “inappropriate” invitation, adding that “if I were a parent of one of the students graduating, I would walk out of the ceremony and urge the other parents to join me in boycotting you.”

We’ll put you down as undecided, leaning against.  

I replied, somewhat frostily, that I had not sought this invitation, had in fact tried to turn it down, and had only accepted it when it was pressed on me to such a degree that to decline would have seemed rude. He dismissed this as irrelevant. We did not speak for months. But let me say to President Obama, as he addresses Notre Dame today: I feel your pain.

Arriving at the headmaster’s office on the appointed day, I was greeted by a smirk and low, ironic chuckle: “I must say, your selection as speaker has proven to be most controversial.”

“Thank you,” I said somewhat grimly. “You certainly know how to make a speaker feel relaxed and full of confidence.” 
On the way to the stage, I was accosted by Father Damian, my old housemaster and English teacher, a man for whom I have abundant fondness, but who can still, 40 years later, instill instant terror in me.

“Ah, Buckley,” he said, giving me an appraising look.  “You’ve put on weight, I regret to say!”

The rest of the day went somewhat better. 

The invitation to speak this time arrived before Christmas, so I’ve had plenty of time to toss and turn at night, wondering what on earth to say to these very bright young people and their proud parents.   

Last year’s speaker was Tony Blair. I found his speech online and did a word count: 1,900 words. Some years before, it was Hillary Clinton, newly minted as a U.S. senator. Hers clocked in at 3,400 words. My goal is to be more Blairian than Clintonian.

I read some of my other predecessors’ speeches and was struck by their demure tone and evident worry about the Zzzzz factor.

Fareed Zakaria (2007) ended his very fine address: “Finally… you know, somebody once said to me, ‘About half-way through your speech, say, “Finally.” It wakes them up.’”   

Garry Trudeau (1991) said at the outset of his: “…the chief function of the graduation speaker has always been to ensure that graduating seniors are not released into the real world until they have been properly sedated.”

It’s all rather nerve-wracking, really. My only consolation is the knowledge that the speaker is entirely secondary (or tertiary) to the proceedings. However dull, or long-winded, or inappropriately profane the speaker might be, he or she is really just a bit of garnish on the platter, hardly the main course. There’s this consolation, too: Every person in the audience is about as happy and joyous as they have ever been. And 10 years from now, they won’t even remember who spoke on the big day.

Anyway, that’s going to be my mantra next Sunday as I mount the scaffold I mean, podium and look out on a sea of funny hats (the tradition at this university), on thousands of faces squinting upward into the descending rain, amid the sound of deploying umbrellas. Wish me luck.

Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine. His new book is Losing Mum and Pup, a memoir.