Speaking in front of 80,000 people in
Michigan Stadium, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the graduating
class of 1964. Calling on all citizens to work for a better future,
Johnson used the University’s commencement ceremonies not
just to glorify grads, but to first reveal his greatest political
aspiration. Addressing graduates directly, Johnson said,
“Your imagination, your initiative and your indignation will
determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant
of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are
buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the
opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the
powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.”

Jess Piskor – Opinion

Johnson is but one of the many illustrious graduation speakers
the University has attracted. In 1986, United Nations Secretary
General Javier Perez de Cuellar spoke on the threats facing the
world, including poverty and the Cold War. Another U.N. Secretary
General — Kofi Annan — spoke in 1999, when he urged
students to embrace universal human values and also defended the
ongoing peacekeeping mission in Yugoslavia.

Often it is not the speakers themselves, but the honorary degree
recipients that attract the most attention. Largely due to student
demand, Nelson Mandela received an honorary degree in 1987 —
a degree he could not receive in person because he was in jail in
South Africa.

Governors also make the rounds through campus — both Gov.
James Blanchard in 1985 and Gov. Jennifer Granholm last year were
featured speakers. Granholm attracted ire when she honestly
suggested that some University graduates were destined to become
“losers” and that they had wasted their degrees.

Of course not all graduation speakers preach words of importance
with lasting significance. Even the worthiest of speakers can slip
up: In 1993, First Lady Hillary Clinton said, “And I really
believe, standing here in this great university, that the Fabulous
Five are excellent and Chris Webber deserves the kind of thanks
that we can give him for going on and going forward.”

With this history of notable speakers in mind, I have waited in
eager anticipation for the announcement of the graduation speaker
for my commencement this spring. Maybe we would get a crazy lefty
who would blast President Bush and incite us to greater activism.
Maybe we would draw a political leader the likes of Dick Cheney
toward whom I could hurl invectives. Maybe we would attract a noted
philosopher or person of letters — like 2001’s speaker,
poet laureate Robert Pinsky — who would provide perspective
on life and teach us to value the arts. Would it be too much to
hope for Jon Stewart?

Instead, we have to settle for the founder of Automobile
Magazine, David E. Davis Jr. While he may lay claim to the title of
foremost automobile critic, his magazine is so influential that the
University Library — one of the largest in academia —
does not have even have one issue anywhere. His book, modestly
titled, “Thus spake David E.: the collected wit and wisdom of
the most influential automobile journalist of our time” is
also absent from our library. Influential indeed.

I’m sure this David E. (as he is known) is a bright guy.
He did after all found a magazine — with some startup capital
from Rupert Murdoch. And while he says that “I will never
have given a speech to as many people or as big of a place in my
whole life, and I feel an awful burden of responsibility in the
nature of this assignment,” I’ll trust that his
speaking ability is up to the task.

While I’d like to think the University can attract better,
more famous speakers, the fact that David E. is an unknown should
not disqualify him. What upsets me is that I do not think that
someone who has devoted his life to the material lust for an
inanimate object is particularly qualified to address me on
important matters. When he says in his columns that his “love
for cars is unconditional” I am not reassured that he can put
perspective on our graduation.

Contrast David E. who “fell in love with (his) new 2003
Range Rover” which is “Epsom green with sand leather
and burled walnut trim” with another rather unknown
speaker.

Addressing the class of 1965, New York Times Associate Editor
James Reston said, “The happiest men and women I know are not
those who are providing the material things that clutter up our
lives and dull our minds, or even those who escape from the
struggle, but those who are engaged in the tasks that nourish and
elevate the human mind.”

Piskor can be reached at
“mailto:jpiskor@umich.edu”>jpiskor@umich.edu.

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