College graduates can expect to hear plenty of bromides from their commencement speakers: follow your passions, learn from your failures, and always wear sunscreen. But this year, many speakers are adding another item to the list of essential pieces of advice for the nation’s future leaders: beware Donald Trump.
Commencement addresses by Mitt Romney, Michael Bloomberg, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Elizabeth Warren, and Lin-Manuel Miranda -- just to name a few – show how Trump has become a convenient way for speakers from across the political spectrum to warn about the evils of bigotry, xenophobia, demagoguery, and greed.
Historians point out that politically charged themes have informed commencement addresses since at least the 18th century, when Princeton President John Witherspoon encouraged graduates to support the American Revolution. But rarely have the speeches taken on such a pointed partisan edge, right in the heat of a presidential campaign.
“This is so unusual,” said Craig R. Smith, the director emeritus of the Center for First Amendment Studies at California State University, Long Beach, and a former speechwriter for President Ford and Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca. But Trump has so loomed so large on the political landscape, Smith said, “people feel compelled to comment.”
By invoking Trump -- often without mentioning him by name -- the speakers have sparked a debate about whether overt political criticism is appropriate at such a celebratory occasion, particularly when many in the audience may not agree with the speakers’ harsh assessments of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
“Frankly, to be pulled into the current election cycle strikes me as very political, short-sighted and almost petty for a commencement address,” said Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush, who writes a handful of commencement speeches for business and political leaders every spring. “You want to be lofty.”
But others said it would be almost irresponsible for dignitaries looking out on a sea of young faces to ignore the rise of a caustic candidate who wants to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States and build a wall on the US-Mexico border.
“There is divisive, hateful rhetoric in the country right now, which will have a lasting effect on the lives of these graduates,” said Michael Waldman, a former speechwriter for President Clinton. “I think it’s admirable to push back and defend the core values of tolerance, equality and freedom. That’s the kind of thing we want commencement speakers to do.”
Predictably, many of Trump’s robed attackers are Democrats.
At Rutgers University’s commencement, President Obama took repeated jabs at Trump, without naming him directly.
“The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day. Building walls won’t change that,” he said, to applause.
Later, the president criticized the idea of “isolating or disparaging Muslims” and “suggesting they should be treated differently when it comes to entering this country,” adding, to applause, “that is not just a betrayal of our values... it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism.”
Warren, the liberal senator from Massachusetts, turned her ongoing feud with Trump into a laugh line at Bridgewater State University’s commencement.
“Heck, on my day of graduation, I never imagined I would visit foreign countries,” she said. “I never imagined I would be a commencement speaker. I never imagined I would get into a Twitter war with Donald Trump.”
Kerry, the secretary of state, made his own Trump-related crack in his commencement address at Northeastern University.
“You are the most diverse class in Northeastern’s history — in other words, you are Donald Trump’s worst nightmare,” he said, sparking cheers and applause.
Turning more serious, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee blasted “sound-bite salesmen and carnival barkers” who believe the US can “remain great by looking inward and hiding behind walls at a time that technology has made that impossible to do and unwise to even attempt.”
But Democrats aren’t the only ones targeting Trump from the commencement stage.
Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, criticized his party’s standard-bearer in his address to graduates of Friends University in Wichita.
“You know, there is this call out there to ‘make America great again,’ but I want to tell you that this nation will not be better because we have one more millionaire,” he said. “It will not be better that we have one more person that’s achieving fame and success.”
Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and a leader of the anti-Trump movement within the GOP, took on both Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders -- without naming either -- in his speech to graduates of Trine University in Indiana.
“Demagogues on the right and the left draw upon our darker angels, scapegoating immigrants and Muslims or bankers and business people,” Romney said.
And Miranda, the creator and star of the musical “Hamilton,” alluded to Trump when speaking at the University of Pennsylvania’s commencement.
“In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric,” Miranda said, “there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great, unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done.”
The broadsides against Trump may be a new phenomenon, but commencement speakers have been confronting politically potent topics since Witherspoon before the Revolutionary War, said Julie A. Reuben , a Harvard historian of higher education.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson used a commencement speech at the University of Michigan to unveil his “Great Society” program to combat poverty.
In 2006, Senator John McCain defended the Iraq war in a speech to graduates of Liberty University in Virginia, in which he also argued that opponents of the war had a “right and obligation” to speak out against it.
“The occasion does lend itself to some forms of political commentary, and that’s been true throughout the history of American higher education,” Reuben said. “It’s not supposed to just be empty words about going off and living a happy, successful life.”
But Smith, who has written commencement addresses for actor Michael Douglas and George H. W. Bush, said attacks on Trump should be delivered at civic clubs or chambers of commerce, not commencement ceremonies filled with jubilant graduates and parents.
“I just think it sullies the moment,” he said. “It’s their day, and to take it away from them and to take it to partisan politics is offensive.”