Words for the Class of 2020

By Mark Shields

There will be no graduation festivities this spring at dozens of American colleges and universities, including Ohio State, Brigham Young, Howard, Swarthmore, Notre Dame, Duke, UCLA and Yale. That means this year’s graduates and their closest relatives and friends will not have the benefit of sitting on hard chairs and listening to the commencement speaker.

As someone who has, on 15 different occasions, tested the patience as well as the attention span of graduation audiences, I semimodestly offer the proud but uncelebrated grads of 2020 the generic commencement speech they will not have to sit through.

The speaker should always remember the wise counsel of President Franklin Roosevelt, a man who knew how to give a successful speech: “Be sincere; be brief; be seated.” My own favorite opener, to assure those present that they would not be subject to a filibuster was this: “As King Henry VIII said to each of his six wives, ‘Don’t worry; I won’t keep you long.'” Believe me, in the long history of oratory, no listener has ever said to any speaker, “Boy, that was a really good speech, but it was too short.”

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The graduation speech includes some practical advice for the young graduates from the sage veteran on the stage. My personal favorite was the late Art Buchwald’s timeless charge to a graduating class at his alma mater, the University of Southern California: “We, the older generation, have given you a perfect world. So don’t screw it up.”

Graduates have a civic responsibility to engage in public life, and, yes, that includes politics. They deserve to know the inescapable political truth: “In every political campaign you’re ever in, you will invariably encounter somebody on your side you wish devoutly was on the Other Side.”

Graduating seniors deserve the unvarnished truth: “Yes, life is unfair. For example, no one really cares at all if a banker writes a bad poem. But pity the poor poet who writes a bad check.”

Every graduate must be told the following: “Call your mother.” We’re not talking email or text messaging.

Because she knows you better than you know yourself and because she loves you, your mother wants to hear your voice to know how you really are doing.

Not all presidents have railed about and against “fake news.” Franklin Roosevelt, the only American president ever elected four times, used to read and devour five newspapers every day. One evening, with a first edition of The Washington Post, President Roosevelt, who was under the weather read the front-page headline: “FDR in Bed With Co-Ed.” Immediately, the president, laughing, called the Post and requested 100 copies of the paper. He wanted to distribute them to his friends. The embarrassed Post immediately corrected the headline to “FDR in Bed With Cold.”

Finally, we should all be reminded of our responsibilities to one another and our debt to those who went before us: “Always remember that each of us has been warmed by fires we did not build; each of us has drunk from wells we did not dig. We owe no less to those who come after us, and, together, we can do even better.” Happy graduation.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at



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