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Commence With the Advice

It’s the height of commencement season, and life advice is flying as Members of Congress and other big-name political types dispense their wisdom to the class of 2012. 

President Barack Obama delivered remarks at Barnard College in New York. His all-but-certain opponent in November, Republican Mitt Romney, addressed students at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) spoke to students at institutions in their home states. 

Others traveled far and wide to impart their wisdom to the thousands of graduates entering the workforce — such as it is — this spring. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who pondered a cross-country move to run in Washington state before deciding against it, went the other direction to deliver a commencement address at American University in Dubai. 

But no matter where they spoke or what ideological stripes they wear, politicians tended to hew to the golden rule of commencement addresses: lots of platitudes, not much politics. 

“When you’re talking to a college audience that includes parents as well as students, you are communicating [with] a bipartisan group, and you have a chance to reach out to segments that may not be naturally with you and show us a more friendly face on your policies and your approach,” said former Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), now director of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “And so a wise politician would not try to advance partisan angles in a speech but would try to be taking the high ground.”

Many speeches already given this year follow Kennedy’s guidelines.

A recurring theme in this deeply divided election year has been to get involved in the political process in a “respectful manner,” as Warner put it when he spoke at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

That’s a political theme with few obvious negative connotations from a lawmaker with a solidly centrist and civil reputation. 

“Today we’re living in a nation that engages too much confrontation and too little conversation,” Warner said in his speech. “Disagreement and rigorous debate about the big issues of the day and the challenges we face is both healthy and proper. But we should be able to debate these critical issues without questioning each other’s motives or our shared commitment to America’s success. No one in politics — and I mean no one — has a monopoly on virtue, or patriotism, or on the truth.”

Of course, such innocuous-sounding messages are delivered with intent — in effect, “I’m not going to make an obvious political pitch today, but the subtext of what I’m saying is that I’m the kind of person you should support because I’m civil and virtuous and patriotic.”

Snowe gave her last commencement address as a sitting Senator — she is retiring at the end of this Congress — to graduates of the University of Southern Maine. She charged graduates with voting for leaders who seek compromise and eschew ideological purity — in other words, she asked them to vote for people like her.

“The political polarization can be diminished over the long term,” Snowe told the graduates. “However, that change will only occur when Americans support and vote for individuals who will follow the principles of consensus-building.” 

Another popular and timeless message for graduation day is persevering in the face of adversity.

Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) told graduates of the University of South Alabama to keep trying, even when failures come their way. 

“Don’t be afraid to take risks; don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” Bonner told graduates. “The key is to learn from them, and to grow stronger and smarter from those failures.”

Know Your Audience

Sometimes, the nature of the audience can give a politician a bit more license to expound on the issues of the day.

When Romney spoke at Liberty, which bills itself as “the largest Christian university in the world,” he delivered the usual ration of feel-goodism. But he also tackled the relationship between culture and economics, and the even touchier subject of same-sex marriage.

“For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2 percent. But, if those things are absent, 76 percent will be poor. Culture matters,” Romney said. “As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) added an audience-specific flavor to the routine exhortation to get involved in political life when she spoke to the graduates of Regent University, a Christian school in Virginia Beach, Va.

“As believers, we cannot shy away from political problems, and we shouldn’t,” Bachmann said. “There’s a move to tell Christians to get out of politics. Don’t listen to it.”

Kucinich, speaking in the Middle East, was also not shy about making the case for some of his pet political causes.

“We are constantly being told that there is nothing we can do about war, nothing we can do about global climate change, nothing we can do about poverty,” he said. “Those who accept the self-fulfilling prophecies of doom may have a stake in the status quo or, fearing a new order, delay change.”

Speaking at a women’s college, Obama couldn’t resist testing out some campaign themes.

“Of course, as young women, you’re also going to grapple with some unique challenges, like whether you’ll be able to earn equal pay for equal work; whether you’ll be able to balance the demands of your job and your family; whether you’ll be able to fully control decisions about your own health,” he said.

Kennedy, who has given a few commencement speeches himself, said that although politicians are often selected to speak at certain institutions based on their political views, they should resist bringing hot-button topics into their speeches to avoid alienating anyone in the audience.

“Don’t try and step into the partisanship … or it will harm you,” Kennedy said. “Broadly appeal to a higher sense of purpose and engaging in public life that benefits the entire audience.”

Or at least try to be subtle about it.

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