This is the first in an occasional series of stories that bring a smile to my face (even in the re-telling), and may do the same for you.
As many of you already know, I’m in the throws of my daughter’s-graduation-from-college-week in New York City. While there have been several noteworthy aspects to it, having the President of the United States as your only child’s commencement speaker was certainly one of them.
Of course he doesn’t just stroll in and provide a little inspiration. You line up hours before. You too get the opportunity to meet members of the secret service up close and personal. Snipers gaze down on you from the rooftops. You get to deposit your water bottles, umbrellas and other weapons in trash cans outside. But despite it all, there are amazingly palpable feelings of expectancy as the pomp & circumstance builds to a presidential salute of your daughter’s Class.
(If you’re lucky enough to have the combined firepower of Barnard College and Columbia University contributing to logistics—as we were—you also are delighted to discover that there are only a handful of functioning port-o-potties for a couple thousand people to share during roughly 7 hours of secure confinement on the commencement grounds. Emily being a psych major and all, I was sure it was some kind of experiment involving a control group’s sense of urgency, attempts to suppress irritation, and on-going ability to sacrifice painfully for a college education.)
Barnard has been the women’s college at Columbia since 1889, and not surprisingly usually features a distinguished woman as its commencement speaker. Indeed, the President’s immediate predecessors in the speaking slot were Meryl Streep, Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg, who is Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer.
In describing the tradition he was stepping into, I don’t know whether the President was relying on his own speechwriters or came up with the hook that follows on his own (it was really hard to tell), but there’s no question that his timing was perfect, and his relish in the embedded why-not-just-call-it-like-it-is almost sublime.
“You set a pretty high bar [here] given the past 3 years,” the President intoned. “Hillary Clinton. Meryl Streep. Sheryl Sandberg. These are not easy acts to follow. But I will point out that Hillary is doing an extraordinary job as one of the finest Secretaries of State America has ever had. We gave Meryl the presidential medal of arts and humanities the other night. Sheryl is not just a good friend, she’s also one of my economic advisors.
It’s like the old saying goes: Keep your friends close, and your Barnard commencement speakers even closer.”