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Congress’ Captive Commencement Audiences

Perhaps Lewis' heroism inspired Aydin over the weekend. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Perhaps Lewis' heroism inspired Aydin over the weekend. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Congress’ most popular commencement speaker this year is Rep. John Lewis. By the end of graduation season, the Georgia Democrat will have spoken at six ceremonies, including one Saturday at Antioch College in Ohio.  

At Virginia’s Hampton University on May 10, he told the graduates, “You must find a way to get in the way. You must find a way to get into trouble — in good trouble, in necessary trouble,” — a familiar message from the civil-rights icon. So far in 2015, Lewis has spoken at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, Elms College in Massachusetts and Goucher College in Maryland.  

Members of Congress are popular speakers, sometimes tailoring their message to locale, sometimes to politics — sometimes both.  

On May 23, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi traveled south of her California district to San Jose State University, a school that “sits at the confluence of two great, diverse American legacies: the humanity of Cesar Chavez, and the ingenuity of Silicon Valley,” she said.  

Sometimes it doesn’t work out. That same day, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., was to speak at Lewis & Clark College. But the Senate stayed in session, and she couldn’t make it to the Oregon campus where she received her law degree in 1980.  

Other times, it’s busy.  

On May 17, Sen. Edward J. Markey spoke at two graduations, at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Boston University Law School. Markey, who received his B.A. and J.D. from Boston College across town, told the graduates, “The collective power of the new BU Law lawyers is awesome.”  

Sometimes they check in with old friends.  

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., spoke at Marlboro College’s graduation on May 17, where his former chief of staff, Ellen Lovell, is president. His topic was U.S.-Cuba policy. “Forging a new, more normal relationship has required new thinking by both governments. In fact, there were times when I was as frustrated with the White House and the State Department as I was with the Cubans,” he said.  

At times, they recount how plans change.  

On May 16, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told Kennebec Valley Community College that before GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe announced her retirement, his biggest plans were a cross-country camping trip with his wife.  

Other times, they encourage risk.  

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told Tidewater Community College in Virginia on May 16 that when he was considering investing in “this new technology … the cellular telephone,” his law school classmates thought it was crazy and he should get a “real job.” He made a fortune that paved his path to politics.  

Members like to encourage youth to get going.  

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., told Oklahoma State University students on May 9, “We’re Americans. We fix things. We get to work. We get off the couch and get to work.”  

That same day, Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., told Shaw University in his home state, “In this country, 50 million people live in poverty. One out of three children – black and white and brown – lives below the poverty line. You cannot ignore humanity – you cannot ignore the world. I challenge you to be faithful to others, of all races, who need your attention.”  

Sometimes members get wonky. Back on April 25, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., exhorted Cal Maritime graduates to, “Demand that Congress pass a simple law requiring that the export of our strategic national asset, natural gas and oil, be shipped on American-flagged ships built in America’s shipyards with men and women just like you designing the ships at the naval architect’s computer and managing the construction in the yards.”  

And who says you can’t go home?  

On April 18, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., told his home-state alma mater, Alma College, “We need leaders like today’s Alma graduates to keep the promise of the American dream alive, so that 10, 15 or even 35 years from now, the graduates walking across this stage will be heading out into a prosperous and promising future, where everyone is blessed to pursue their own version of the American dream in the world’s greatest country.”  

Maybe one of them could even be a senator some day.


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