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Mark Shields: Words of Advice for Graduation Day Speakers

Once again, graduation time is upon us. By some iron rule, every graduation must have a graduation speaker, whose role has been compared to that of the corpse at a great Irish wake: His presence is deemed necessary for the event to be take place, but other than that, precious little is expected from him.

The odds are pretty good that more people could name the United States’ last 10 vice presidents* than could tell you who spoke at their own graduation.

As someone who has more than once tested the patience and exceeded the attention span of a captive audience, I modestly offer some suggestions for the prospective graduation speaker. First, remember that the ceremony can run long, the day can be warm and the chairs can be hard. President Franklin Roosevelt, a man who knew how to give a successful speech, may have had this in mind when he advised: “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”

Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a gifted but long-winded speaker, was reminded by his wife, Muriel, “Hubert, a speech does not need to be eternal to be immortal.” An old-timer once counseled me that “if you don’t know what to talk about, then talk about three minutes.”

Begin by reassuring the audience that you will not tax their forbearance with an opener: “As King Henry VIII said to each of his six wives, ‘Don’t worry. I won’t keep you long.’”

The graduation speaker’s duty is to provide some rules or advice for the graduates. The first is to urge them to pay attention and some respect to their parents or the elders who have helped them through the recent years. Mark Twain put it perfectly: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant, I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years. “

Give the grads some practical guidance. For example, “You will never be permanently happy with a roommate or a life companion who insists on pronouncing the ‘d’ in Wednesday.”

Or this: “In every political campaign you will ever find yourself in, there will always, without fail, be somebody on your side you wish devoutly was on the other side.” Conrad Hilton, after a successful lifetime in the hotel business, was once asked what he had learned, and his answer: “Always keep the shower curtain inside the bathtub.”

Graduates, how many times have you been told that “life is not like college”? Actually, that is true. Life is not like college. No, actually life is a lot more like high school.

For that reason, the story about the great philosopher William James’ son, also named William but called Billy, is appropriate for the occasion. Young Billy, then about 21, was asking all those vexing questions that young people have forever asked about how and what to do with his life. Billy wrote his uncle, the great novelist Henry James, for his wisdom. Henry James wrote his nephew: “Three things, Bill, three things I tell you to do in life. The first thing is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third thing is to be kind.”

And remember, it is impossible at breakfast to over-tip the waitress. Congratulations!

*Last 10 vice presidents: Joe Biden, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush, Walter Mondale, Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, Spiro Agnew and Hubert Humphrey.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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