Words to remember from politicians' commencement speeches

Posted at 11:09 AM, May 22, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-22 11:09:53-04

The political commencement speech has ranged from inspiring battle cries for the future to meandering platform speeches that students probably deserve a few extra credit hours for sitting through.

Vice President Joe Biden’s speech at Yale’s “Class Day” on Sunday was neither.

After acknowledging his tendency to say inappropriate things, he charged forth with a few classic Joe missives, including this gem: “Corvettes are better than Porsches. They're quicker and they corner as well.” And he wore aviators while saying it.

The class of 2015 got a few actual words of wisdom from America’s slaphappy uncle, too. Speaking about the need to work together, Biden told the soon-to-be Yale alumni, "Try to look beyond the caricature of the person with whom you have to work.  Resist the temptation to ascribe motive, because you really don’t know -— and it gets in the way of being able to reach a consensus on things that matter to you and to many other people."

But not every politico has been able to mix self-deprecation, wit and flashes of sage advice as well as Biden.

Here’s a look back at five political commencement speeches that are memorable -- for a variety of reasons:

John F. Kennedy, American University 1963: The classic

“Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are man-made — therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable — and we believe they can do it again."

Winston Churchill, Harrow School 1941: The call to action

"Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense."

Hillary Clinton, Wellesley College 1992: Disrupting the status quo

“As women today, you face tough choices. You know the rules are basically as follows:

  • If you don't get married, you're abnormal.
  • If you get married but don't have children, you're a selfish yuppie.
  • If you get married and have children, but work outside the home, you're a bad mother.
  • If you get married and have children, but stay home, you've wasted your education.
  • And if you don't get married, but have children and work outside the home as a fictional newscaster, then you're in trouble with Dan Quayle.

So you see, if you listen to all the people who make these rules, you might just conclude that the safest course of action is just to take your diploma and crawl under your bed. But let me propose an alternative.”

Bill Clinton, Middlebury College 2007: Was he really saying he was amazed at how smart poor people can be?

“I do a lot of work in Africa, as the President said, with my AIDS project. We sell medicine at the cheapest price in the world in 66 countries, and we have health projects in 25, and I never cease to be amazed by the intelligence of people with no money, no education, nothing, just lots of observation and received wisdom.”

George W. Bush, Southern Methodist University 2015: A president speaks up for C students

“Those of you who are graduating this afternoon with high honors, awards and distinctions, I say well done. And, as I like to tell the C-students, you too can be president.”

[Also by Abby Johnston: Experts say study doesn’t justify abortion ban]

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