President Barack Obama’s commencement speech in Michigan Stadium last spring was characteristically eloquent and powerful, with narratives of “real Americans,” moments of levity, tales of the founding fathers and all the grandeur befitting a president’s biggest public appearance since his inauguration.
Sure, his address was dishearteningly political and it lacked anything resembling the big announcements of presidential speakers past (Lyndon Johnson laid out plans for his Great Society programs in the Big House in 1964). But even Obama detractors — they were in there somewhere — had to admit it was cool to be inducted into real life by the leader of the free world.
Many of us came to a realization within minutes of finding out Obama would be here in 2010: The class of 2011 may be in store for a serious letdown.
Go ahead, call us the entitled generation. I call it unavoidable recency bias. Any speaker would be a disappointment following a president.
Rick Snyder, Michigan’s new governor, is the obvious choice for this year’s commencement. A great choice, actually. He has three degrees from the University. He broke the tradition of living in the governor’s mansion to instead remain an Ann Arbor resident. As a longtime venture capitalist who once called the shots for Gateway, he’s earned a reputation as a champion of innovation. The previous four governors all sent off Wolverine graduates while in office, including Snyder’s predecessor, Jennifer Granholm, who spoke in the year of her inauguration.
I can hear the basic outline of his speech already. He’ll share a nostalgic story and corresponding life lesson from his days as a student here. He’ll assure everybody that he’s just a “nerd” and a businessman, not a politician. He’ll talk about jobs, jobs, jobs. He’ll say something like “putting Michigan back to work starts with you.” He’ll make those of us leaving Michigan to work elsewhere into the unspoken villains of the “brain drain.”
If the University selects Snyder, it won’t be the end of the world. I like Snyder. In fact, he was the first Republican I’ve ever voted for. But I’ll eat my cap and gown if a Snyder speech doesn’t satisfy the aforementioned predictions. And that’s the problem — he would be entirely too predictable. He’d be another politician, except, well, he’s not the president.
In my conversations with fellow class of 2011 Wolverines, I’ve suggested — to near-unanimous agreement — that if there’s one person capable of matching or topping the excitement for Obama, it’s Jon Stewart.
To say “The Daily Show” host is popular among Michigan students would be an understatement. He’s almost universally admired on this campus, and many keep an 11 p.m. weeknight appointment to watch Stewart challenge conventional knowledge (and make fart jokes) on Comedy Central.
While he often downplays his influence by insisting he’s just a comedian, Stewart is dependably sincere in a way no politician could ever be. He combines insight and debate with entertainment — not to dumb it down for his demographic (that’s us), but because that’s how he can best shed light on issues.
For this, people like us trust him and identify with him in a way we rarely identify with people more than twice our age. By keeping us laughing and thinking critically in a format that stays on top of the cable news cycle, Stewart has become a singular figure in our cultural landscape.
Can Michigan land him? Who knows? The University can’t deliver a crowd to match that of Stewart’s last large public speaking engagement — October’s “Rally to Restore Fear and/or Sanity,” during which Stewart and his TV faux-foe Stephen Colbert performed for an estimated 215,000 on the National Mall. But the Big House represents at least an opportunity to one-up Colbert — the total capacity at Northwestern University’s stadium, where Colbert has committed to speak this spring, is 47,130 people, while an estimated 80,000 turned out for Obama last year in Ann Arbor.
Stewart should at least be sought out. He’s notoriously unafraid of saying “this is absurd,” and as we enter a world as uncertain as it’s ever been, who better to mark the transition?
Matt Aaronson was the Daily’s managing editor in 2010. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.