Daily columnist Jess Piskor read my mind with his column in today’s paper, titled “From LBJ’s Great Society to David E.’s Range Rover”:
“Speaking in front of 80,000 people in Michigan Stadium, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the graduating class of 1964. Calling on all citizens to work for a better future, Johnson used the University’s commencement ceremonies not just to glorify grads, but to first reveal his greatest political aspiration. Addressing graduates directly, Johnson said, “Your imagination, your initiative and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.”
Johnson is but one of the many illustrious graduation speakers the University has attracted. In 1986, United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar spoke on the threats facing the world, including poverty and the Cold War. Another U.N. Secretary General — Kofi Annan — spoke in 1999, when he urged students to embrace universal human values and also defended the ongoing peacekeeping mission in Yugoslavia.
Often it is not the speakers themselves, but the honorary degree recipients that attract the most attention. Largely due to student demand, Nelson Mandela received an honorary degree in 1987 — a degree he could not receive in person because he was in jail in South Africa.
Governors also make the rounds through campus — both Gov. James Blanchard in 1985 and Gov. Jennifer Granholm last year were featured speakers. Granholm attracted ire when she honestly suggested that some University graduates were destined to become “losers” and that they had wasted their degrees.
Of course not all graduation speakers preach words of importance with lasting significance. Even the worthiest of speakers can slip up: In 1993, First Lady Hillary Clinton said, “And I really believe, standing here in this great university, that the Fabulous Five are excellent and Chris Webber deserves the kind of thanks that we can give him for going on and going forward.”
With this history of notable speakers in mind, I have waited in eager anticipation for the announcement of the graduation speaker for my commencement this spring. Maybe we would get a crazy lefty who would blast President Bush and incite us to greater activism. Maybe we would draw a political leader the likes of Dick Cheney toward whom I could hurl invectives. Maybe we would attract a noted philosopher or person of letters — like 2001’s speaker, poet laureate Robert Pinsky — who would provide perspective on life and teach us to value the arts. Would it be too much to hope for Jon Stewart?
Instead, we have to settle for the founder of Automobile Magazine, David E. Davis Jr. While he may lay claim to the title of foremost automobile critic, his magazine is so influential that the University Library — one of the largest in academia — does not have even have one issue anywhere. His book, modestly titled, “Thus spake David E.: the collected wit and wisdom of the most influential automobile journalist of our time” is also absent from our library. Influential indeed.
I’m sure this David E. (as he is known) is a bright guy. He did after all found a magazine — with some startup capital from Rupert Murdoch. And while he says that “I will never have given a speech to as many people or as big of a place in my whole life, and I feel an awful burden of responsibility in the nature of this assignment,” I’ll trust that his speaking ability is up to the task.
While I’d like to think the University can attract better, more famous speakers, the fact that David E. is an unknown should not disqualify him. What upsets me is that I do not think that someone who has devoted his life to the material lust for an inanimate object is particularly qualified to address me on important matters. When he says in his columns that his “love for cars is unconditional” I am not reassured that he can put perspective on our graduation.
Contrast David E. who “fell in love with (his) new 2003 Range Rover” which is “Epsom green with sand leather and burled walnut trim” with another rather unknown speaker.
Addressing the class of 1965, New York Times Associate Editor James Reston said, “The happiest men and women I know are not those who are providing the material things that clutter up our lives and dull our minds, or even those who escape from the struggle, but those who are engaged in the tasks that nourish and elevate the human mind.”