Bob Franken: The graduate speakers

  • Saturday, May 17, 2014 9:23pm
  • Opinion

Call me “doctor.” It’s true: I have an honorary degree, conferred after I gave a commencement address at a small college I won’t identify to spare them disrepute. I was the choice after a meth maker became unavailable because he was in prison (I’ll admit it, that’s a slight exaggeration). But I became a “Doctor of Humane Letters,” which means, I suppose, that I can write to someone: “Dear ___: I feel your pain. Compassionately, Dr. Bob.”

I will point out proudly that not one student objected to my appearance beforehand. That’s probably because none of them had any idea who I was, but it does set me apart from a few heavyweights these days. Former Bush Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pulled out at Rutgers after a Rutgers Ruckus by some students, objecting to her role in getting the nation into Iraq and Afghanistan. And International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde withdrew from graduation day at Smith College after a petition was circulated on campus objecting to the IMF cooperation with autocrats and financial empires: “Although we do not wish to disregard all of Ms. Lagarde’s accomplishments as a strong female leader in the world, we also do not want to be represented by someone whose work directly contributes to many of the systems that we are taught to fight against.”

What has followed is a ton of handwringing about how snot-nosed kids are stifling the free expression of certified worthies. Actually, I think the snot-nosed kids are onto something. Quite frankly, without disparaging Rice or Lagarde, far too many of our leaders have achieved their status by hook and crook, with an emphasis on the latter. Furthermore, why even have a commencement address in the first place?

Why turn a happy occasion into such a boring ego trip? What do you usually get at these things, other than somebody telling the graduates that it’s their world? (This is also true: I gave another commencement address in which I told everyone that, no, it was not, and to expect themselves to compromise their idealism. I wasn’t invited to return.)

If there really is a desire to expose the graduates to a diversity of ideas, then maybe the school could invite Donald Sterling. And yes, that’s just my cheesy way to segue into his latest outrages.

First of all, let’s hear it for Anderson Cooper’s bookers. Don Sterling was a big “get.” And Cooper did his usual fine job interviewing him. Sterling might want to hire some new PR advisers, though, because he just dug a deeper hole for himself. Asked about Magic Johnson, the basketball great who has been harshly critical of his racist comments, he dismissed him with “What has he done? Can you tell me? Big Magic Johnson — what has he done? He’s got AIDS.”

Actually, Johnson has been very public about the HIV virus he has carried for decades. He doesn’t have AIDS, and he apparently got infected during heterosexual contact. But of course, AIDS is a code word to all the homophobes out there.

They don’t really need code words. Not only does gay marriage send them into a frenzy, but they’re going ballistic at the televised images of NFL prospect Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend to celebrate his selection in the pro football draft. Let’s raise a glass to ESPN, which simply inserted the video into its program as part of its coverage of Sam’s getting drafted after announcing his sexual orientation.

The St. Louis Rams demonstrated that they would not be deterred by the extraneous cultural storm. By making their decisions based mainly on football considerations, they confronted the bigots. Next, they might want to take on Daniel Snyder, whose Washington franchise in the league identifies itself with a racial slur.

Chances are Snyder won’t be making any commencement addresses anytime soon. But who knows? Maybe he’ll slip in under the radar. Like I did.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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