Clarification to This Article
A May 13 Style article about college commencement speakers mentioned newswoman Katie Couric's address to graduates of the University of Oklahoma, for which she was paid $110,000. The article should have added that Couric is donating her fee to charity.

Big Names On Campus

Paul Marion, left, president of Tiffin University, walks to commencement ceremonies with Porter Goss, who kept his date to speak at the Ohio school's graduation ceremonies May 6, one day after Goss stepped down as CIA director.
Paul Marion, left, president of Tiffin University, walks to commencement ceremonies with Porter Goss, who kept his date to speak at the Ohio school's graduation ceremonies May 6, one day after Goss stepped down as CIA director. (By Madalyn Ruggiero -- Associated Press)
By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 13, 2006

Three Princeton University seniors are feeling pretty good about themselves these days. As Class Day chairmen, Harrison Frist, Lauren Bush and Shaun Callaghan had the job of arranging for a top-drawer speaker for the event, part of the school's commencement next month. Frist is the son of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Bush is the niece of President Bush, and they were successful in landing their first choice.

Bill Clinton.

"Very cool! It's awesome," Princeton Class of 2006 President Christopher Lloyd said of the reaction on campus to landing the former president for the first of four addresses he will give this graduation season.

The current White House occupant is fully booked, too, of course. As are thousands of other politicians, writers, comedians, athletes . . . and the guy who starred in "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper." (Mark Curry, in case you've somehow forgotten. He'll address the graduates of Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., next Saturday.)

Under pressure to find speakers who are galvanizing, glamorous or at least able to keep the students awake, universities compete against one another. They pull strings, poll students for suggestions, even dispense big bucks to reach for the stars who might inspire their grads with a lasting message. And the invitees consider just as strategically where their adages and assurances will get best play (or pay).

For President Bush, it made sense to speak last Saturday to the graduating class at Oklahoma State University. Oklahoma's a conservative state that cast 66 percent of its votes for him in 2004. The last sitting president to speak at an OSU commencement -- his father, George H.W. Bush, in 1990 -- got a warm reception. Even Watergate-scandalized Richard Nixon, his approval ratings lower than Bush's slumping numbers, got a group hug at OSU's 1974 commencement, three months before he resigned from office.

"If you read the papers, you know that when some want to criticize me, they call me a cowboy," said Bush, invoking OSU's nickname to loud applause from 30,000 graduates, families and faculty. "This cowboy is proud to be standing here in the midst of a lot of other Cowboys."

Never mind that 350 protesters demonstrated outside Boone Pickens Stadium and that some grads decorated their mortarboards with antiwar statements. The president will take that 30,000 vs. 350 ratio any day. And as new grad Leslie Wiesman said: "I am personally thrilled that he is speaking. . . . Whether or not they admit it, many graduating seniors feel the same."

The sites of Bush's three other speeches this season were equally logical. Each year the commander in chief gives the address at one of the U.S. service academies. Bush will visit two: West Point and the Merchant Marine Academy. As for Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, where Bush spoke Thursday, the school suffered $17 million in damage and lost 28 percent of its student enrollment after Hurricane Katrina hit last summer. The president's response to the storm was widely criticized, so it may have been good politics to schedule this, the first commencement speech ever given by a sitting president at a community college.

"Achieving a college degree is always a happy time for students and families," said MGCCC spokeswoman Colleen Hartfield. "But in these circumstances, there is a greater emotion about this milestone. Most importantly, his presence honors our graduates."

The method by which commencement speakers are selected varies from college to college. At some campuses, students draw up wish lists; at others, college presidents make the choice alone.

At the University of Pennsylvania, where actress Jodie Foster will speak, the process takes two years, says University Secretary Leslie Kruhly, who oversees the selection of speakers.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company