The 30 All-Time Graduation Speakers

As commencement rolls out across the country, legends and celebrities trot out for a final speech. From Tom Brokaw to Marian Wright Edelman, The Daily Beast tallies the speakers who’ve sent the most college graduates on their way.

Joe Raymond / AP Photo

5. Elizabeth Dole

Former U.S. senator, Cabinet secretary, Red Cross director

Commencement Speeches: 19

“Graduates, when you are in your golden years looking back over your lives—my belief is it won’t be the cars you drove or the titles you held or the awards you were given that will matter most. No, a caring heart, respect for your fellow man, your character, your integrity—that will count for so much more than any bank balance, any résumé—and yes, any college diploma.”

—Greensboro College, 2007

Matthew Lofton / Newscom

6. Maya Angelou

Poet and author

Commencement Speeches: 18

“How will you manage to set aright a sad and tilting world? And make no mistake: That is your job.

Your parents, other adults, your teachers, the generation which preceded you is not proud—I include myself—we are not proud to hand you such an onerous task. We wish we had done more. Secretly we are ashamed to present you this bundle of snarled good intentions. But here you are and there it is. And here is your confused, tangled, and yet beautiful world.

How do I manage? I suggest that you use love. Love. By love I do not mean that indulgence, that sentimental indulgence, I mean that love which builds bridges, that love which is really a statement of your commitment to your species. That love.”

—Wheaton, 1981

Matthew Healey / Landov

8. George H.W. Bush

41st U.S. President

Commencement Speeches: 17

“It's a sad truth that nothing forces us to recognize our common humanity more swiftly than a natural disaster. I'm thinking, of course, of Soviet Armenia just a few months ago, a tragedy without blame, warlike devastation without war. Our son took our 12-year-old grandson to Yerevan. At the end of the day of comforting the injured and consoling the bereaved, the father and son went to church, sat down together in the midst of the ruins, and wept. How can our two countries magnify this simple expression of caring? How can we convey the good will of our people?

Forty-three years ago, a young lieutenant by the name of Albert Kotzebue, the class of 1945 at Texas A&M, was the first American soldier to shake hands with the Soviets at the bank of the Elbe River. Once again, we are ready to extend our hand. Once again, we are ready for a hand in return. And once again, it is a time for peace.”

—Texas A&M University, 1989

Charlie Neibergall / AP Photo

8. Bill Bradley

Former basketball player, U.S. senator and 2000 Democratic presidential candidate

Commencement Speeches: 17

“…as you launch your own journeys with your graduation and go your own ways, I envy you for the things you will see and know that my generation never dreamed of. But I hope your dreams go beyond personal ambition and the accumulation of material goods. I want you to have a bigger ambition: an ambition that drives you to excel for the sake of excellence, not vanity. An ambition that puts you in tune with nature’s harmony; an ambition that forces you to decide what’s right, as much as what pays; an ambition that disciplines desires in order to meet needs—in short an ambition for yourself as a citizen as much as a private individual—an ambition for yourself as a citizen who sees your own well-being tied to the well-being of your community and believes that in the end what matters is how you treat your neighbor. Nothing is more fulfilling. And nothing is more necessary to solve many of today’s problems. And finally, nothing is more essential to realize the potential of your own humanity.”

—University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999

Michael Okoniewski / AP Photo

10. Ted Koppel

Broadcast journalist; former anchor of Nightline

Commencement Speeches: 16

“I believe that, ultimately, questions of what is right and wrong require the individual to measure himself against absolute standards of ethics and responsibility. Not that any one of us ever completely measures up to those standards; but you can't set your compass, moral or otherwise, by a shifting North Star…We will not change what's wrong with our culture through legislation, or by choosing up sides on the basis of personal popularity or party affiliation. We will change it by small acts of courage and kindness; by recognizing, each of us, his or her own obligation to set a proper example.

Aspire to decency. Practice civility toward one another. Admire and emulate ethical behavior wherever you find it. Apply a rigid standard of morality to your lives; and if, periodically, you fail as you surely will, adjust your lives, not the standards.”

—Stanford University, 1998


12. Garry Trudeau

Creator of Doonesbury comic strip

Commencement Speeches: 15

“For four years, your teachers have stood before you directed to inspire you, excite you, to fire you up, whereas my job is the final cleanup speaker of the Goucher experience is to ensure that the graduating class is not released into the real world until it has been properly sedated.”

—Goucher College, 2007

Mike Mergen / AP Photo

13. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Former U.S. senator and U.N. ambassador

Commencement Speeches: 13

“Forty-seven years ago, on this occasion, General George C. Marshall summoned our nation to restore the countries whose mad regimes had brought the world such horror. It was an act of statesmanship and vision without equal in history. History summons us once more in different ways, but with even greater urgency. Civilization need not die. At this moment, only the United States can save it. As we fight the war against evil, we must also wage peace, guided by the lesson of the Marshall Plan—vision and generosity can help make the world a safer place.”

—Harvard University, 2002

Michael Smith / Getty Images

13. Kofi Annan

Former Secretary-General of the United Nations

Commencement Speeches: 13

“For you I have a special plea. Your country, the world's most powerful, even now is debating its future role in the new world community, and the place of the United Nations within that overall foreign-policy vision.

I call upon you to work tirelessly to anchor the United States firmly to the course of internationalism, to its historic mission as an agent of progressive change and to a world order that reflects your country's commitment to the rule of law, equal opportunity, and the irreducible rights of all individuals. The need is pressing; the moment is now. Let us continue the productive partnership between the United States and the United Nations and go forward together with a positive, can-do attitude to win the peace and prosperity that beckons.”

—Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1997

Larry Downing / Reuters

13. George W. Bush

43rd U.S. President

Commencement Speeches: 13

“As you embark on this journey, let me leave you with a few last pieces of advice. First, listen to your mother. As you can see, Mom is out of the hospital and everything is back to normal. After all, she's still telling me what to do.

Second, develop a set of principles to live by—convictions and ideals to guide your course. There will be times when people tell you a different way is more accepted or popular. Remember that popularity is as fleeting as the Texas wind. Character and conscience are as sturdy as the oaks on this campus. If you go home at night, look in the mirror and be satisfied that you have done what is right, you will pass the only test that matters.

And finally, be on the lookout for role models—people whose conduct you admire and whose paths you can follow.”

—Texas A&M University, 2008

Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

17. Cokie Roberts

Journalist and author

Commencement Speeches: 12

“You will make that choice no matter what other choice you make, that you will be the caretakers in this society. It's what we do. That's what women do. We're the nurturers, we're the carriers of the culture. And whether you run for president or run the Patriot's Day race or become editor in chief of The New York Times (though you might want to talk to me before you do that), whether you do, as Hillary said, ‘make policy or bake cookies,’ (it's been my experience that one generally does both) that what you will still be doing, no matter whatever else you do, will be being the caretakers.”

—Wellesley College, 1994

Frank Franklin II / AP Photo

17. John McCain

U.S. senator and 2008 Republican presidential candidate

Commencement Speeches: 12

“No, we are not a perfect nation. We did not act on reports of the Holocaust. We ignored the slaughter in Rwanda until it was too late. We have not made enough of an effort to stop the atrocities in Sudan and Burma and elsewhere. For too long, we refused to respect the full civil rights and dignity of Americans whose skin color was a shade darker than others. We mistreated enemies in our custody. But with each failure, our conscience is stung, and we resolve to do better. Each time, we say, never again, and fall short of that vow again. But whatever our flaws, whatever dangers we face, however sharp our debates, we must remain a country with a conscience. And we must feel ashamed when we ignore its demands….

It is your responsibility, your good fortune, to be expected to do better than your predecessors have done to advance our ideals; to live in your own time the authentic character of a country that was founded not to preserve tribal or class distinctions, but to defend human dignity.”

—Ohio Wesleyan University, 2010

Peter Schumacher / AP Photo

19. Andrew Young

Former Atlanta mayor, U.S. congressman and U.N. ambassador

Commencement Speeches: 11

“It makes no difference what you have done up to now. It doesn't even matter what you think of yourself. There will be many dangerous toils and snares through which you must pass. But our presence on this campus today should remind us that we as Americans approaching the 21st century, we as Americans in a Judeo-Christian tradition, we as Americans with the educational opportunity afforded by this college, we live in the midst of an amazing grace. And nothing is impossible.”

—Connecticut College, 1998

Alan Solomon / AP Photo

19. Mario Cuomo

Former New York governor

Commencement Speeches: 11

“Most of us have achieved levels of affluence and comfort unthought of two generations ago. We've never had it so good, most of us. Nor have we ever complained so bitterly about our problems. The closed circle of materialism is clear to us now—aspirations become wants, wants become needs, and self-gratification becomes a bottomless pit. All around us we have seen success in the world's terms become ultimate and desperate failure.

…Tell me… are we the ones to tell them what their instructors have tried to teach them for years? That the philosophers were right… that Saint Francis, Buddha, Muhammad, Maimonides all spoke the truth when they said the way to serve yourself is to serve others; and that Aristotle was right, before them, when he said the only way to assure yourself happiness is to learn to give happiness.”

—Iona College, 1984


21. Gloria Steinem

Political activist and journalist

Commencement Speeches: 10 “When I was a student, we used to sit around discussing whether a particular end justified a particular means. On the assumption of everyone from Marx or Machiavelli, I thought that was the question.

It took me 20 years to figure out that the means are the ends—and vice versa. Whatever means you use become an organic part of the ends you achieve…. If you have to choose character or intelligence—in a friend or in a candidate—choose character. Intelligence without character is dangerous, but character without intelligence only slows down a good result.”

—Tufts University, 1987

Brian Snyder / Reuters

21. Paul Volcker

Chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board; former chairman of the Federal Reserve

Commencement Speeches: 10

“I cannot deny that attractive options open to earlier law school classes are more difficult today. At the same time, there’s clearly no shortage of work to be done, work for which those with legal training, an inquiring mind, and a yen for service are well suited. I referred a moment ago to the change in national mood. Hard times force new thinking. There is today better appreciation of the need for financial prudence, surely.

More broadly, there is a greater understanding of the need for more effective, more efficient, more responsive government whether national, state, or local. And I can say more than any time in recent memory, more than any time in decades, young men and women are respondent. I hope a fair share of you here today, despite all the obstacles, will want to participate in public service. Ready, willing and certainly able to participate the rebuilding of our economy and the strength of our nation. There may be no greater source of pride and personal satisfaction than to participate in that effort.”

—Brooklyn Law School, 2009

Carlos Rene Perez / AP Photo

21. Ted Kennedy

U.S. senator

Commencement Speeches: 10

“In the early days of our republic, the world of scholarship and the world of public affairs existed side by side. The ones who wrote our Constitution were teachers, authors, and lawyers. They were the intellectual leaders of the nation... But over the years, the academic world and the world of public affairs have tended to drift apart. …A man in public life has so many demands upon his time that he has not enough chance to think deeply about the complex issues of the day. The fresh ideas, the landmark ideas often come to us from the colleges, where men have time to think and reflect… Professors and politicians may be different kinds of people with different ways of working and thinking, but in the end, we are both servants of the public. The more we can cooperate, the better we can accomplish our goals.”

—Assumption College, 1964

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27. Johnnetta Cole

Director of Smithsonian National Museum of African Art; former president of Spellman College

Commencement Speeches: 9

“The founder of this college, that magnificent and mighty woman, Mary Lyon, used words that give yet another meaning to the notion of a woman's place: ‘Go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do.’

And so, my sisters, the world needs for you not only to do the work that men have traditionally done—you must do it in new and better ways. For example, once you are on the top floor of a corporate building, you must manage more fairly than has traditionally happened in the world of business and you must help to change the complexion of that floor as you bring more folks there who have been traditionally blocked by one kind of ceiling or another.”

—Mount Holyoke, 1998

AP Photo

27. Sol Linowitz

Former diplomat; former chairman of Xerox

Commencement Speeches: 9

“We have been living at a time that has been called both the age of anxiety and the age of science and technology. Both are accurate, for indeed one feeds on the other. As our scientific and technological competence has increased, so have our fears and our anxieties.

No one needs to remind us that this moment may be one of the most fateful in all the long history of mankind. By that I mean far more than whether glasnost and perestroika will succeed. I am talking about whether the human intellect, which has invented such instruments of total destruction as nuclear weapons, can now develop ways of peace that will keep anyone regardless of ideology, race or nation from pushing the fatal button… The overriding fact is that today we are all part of a global society in which peace and prosperity have become truly indivisible.

And the fact is, whether we like it or not, either we will all survive together, or none of us will. Either we will all share in the world's bounty, or none of us will.”

—Johns Hopkins University, 1990

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

27. Michael Bloomberg

New York City Mayor; founder of Bloomberg, LP

Commencement Speeches: 9

“The fourth lesson is... in the words of Ali G... is ‘Respect.’ Don't worry, I'm not going to start quoting Borat. Respect is so important—especially in times of conflict. And I think a lot of you here know what I'm talking about….

This country—and other campuses around the nation—needs more of that. And I’ve always wondered if people who block each other from expressing their opinions do so because they have so little confidence in their own. To me, encountering an opposing point of view is a chance to gain a deeper understanding of the issues at stake... and develop my own point of view. But the first thing you’ve got to do is you’ve got to let people speak and you’ve got to listen. And that’s what the First Amendment is all about. That’s what really distinguishes this country from others.

In my generation, the one word of advice you gave to graduates was "plastics." Your parents will have to explain that to you. But today, I think the one word of advice should be the word "respect."

—Tufts University, 2007

Yuri Cortez, AFP / Getty Images

27. Oscar Arias

Former president of Costa Rica; Nobel Peace Prize recipient

Commencement Speeches: 9

“We must constantly ask ourselves if what we do helps contribute to the happiness of our fellow humans or to their suffering. We must always examine whether our actions favor the cause of peace or promote war. Sometimes the narrow pursuit of our own comforts or needs can mean pain, poverty or death for other human beings. At all times, our knowledge can be employed to do good or to facilitate evil. Because of this, an enormous responsibility rests on our shoulders. As representatives of the generation that will next govern this country, you are faced with great responsibilities to your communities, your nation and the world. …

I invite you to liberate the compassion, the creativity and solidarity that lives inside each of us, so that we, together, can work to change this world. Human destiny must be changed, not by chance, but by choice.”

—Colorado College, 1996