In spring, when commencement committees bloom, universities search the nation for an orator to send the graduates forth.

Not just anyone will do. And all the better if that silver tongue delivers a speech that makes the network news. But commencement committees, like voters, can be fickle.

Jimmy Carter isn't making any speeches this year. President Ronald Reagan has "more invitations on his desk than there are hours in the day," according to assistant press secretary Mark Weinberg. Other than speaking at Notre Dame, the president hasn't accepted any invitations yet. Georgetown University is still waiting to hear from him; if he doesn't make it, Georgetown students will be listening to U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was grading exams at G.U. this time last year.

Former vice president Walter Mondale has two commencement engagements. Vice President George Bush has five.

Former presidential candidate John Anderson has eight, one more than Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) has only three, but his office says that will give him a lifetime total of 45 honorary degrees.

CBS anchorman Dan Rather isn't making any speeches. And neither is -- gasp -- Walter Cronkite. Or ABC's Barbara Walters. But Frank Reynolds is, at Catholic University.So is local anchorman Jim Vance, before American University's Community Studies graduates.

Commencement. If it weren't for the fact that it comes but once a year, it wouldn't be a bad way to make a living. According to agent Ardis Leigh, a commencement speaker can expect to take home anywhere from $1,000 (local bank presidents) to $15,000 (secretaries of state, vice presidents). Not bad for a morning's work, though there are times an honored guest earns every penny of it.

When Jeane Kirkpatrick spoke at the University of Pittsburgh last month, 45 students turned their backs in silent protest of U.S. policy in El Salvador and South Africa. Six students walked out. The speech centered on a recommendation that students maintain a positive outlook on life.

Kirkpatrick ran into trouble at Washington's Trinity College as well. She voluntarily withdrew her name in late April, after a member of nuns and students made it clear they thought a speech by Kirkpatrick would be inappropriate. The opposition was primarily in response to Kirkpatrick's position on military aid to El Salvador. "If she hadn't withdrawn," said Sister Helen James John, a philosophy professor and former colleague of Kirkpatrick's, "I have reason to believe there would have been demonstrators such as the one at Pittsburgh."

Now Trinity has replaced her with three graduating students. "It's a little high-schoolish," says Ellen Callinan, one of the students chosen to do the honors. "But it's an emergency situation."

At Catholic University this year, Secretary of State Alexander Haig was the unofficial choice for "three or four days," according to senior class president John Dougherty, one of the ranking members of the commencement committee. "He was very, very close to being involved. Very close. But the students were saying, 'Oh no, not him.' I think he was looked upon as a warmonger." Frank Reynolds got the not instead.

Not everyone who graduated from school waited for the commencement speech. Some grabbed their diplomas and skipped town. Others stayed -- and fell asleep during the ceremony.

"My commencement?" says a 1980 graduate of Saint Bonaventure University in Upstate New York. "We had the chance to have an interesting speaker, but the university was so money-grubbing they invited a woman bank president instead. She spent two hours patting herself on the back."

If you missed your own, or even if you just want to wax nostalgic, the following is an annotated list of some of the commencements in the area.

May 9: The University of the District of Columbia's speaker is Dr. Benjamin Mays, the president emeritus of Morehouse College in Atlanta and president of the Atlanta Board of Education.

Howard's commencement is also today. They went with the local talent. Vice President George Bush is going to make a foreign-policy speech outlining the subjects of the administration. As of Thursday the speech wasn't ready. "We just finished the Duquesne speech," said Bush's press secretary Pete Teeley.

May 10: American University has George Gilder, the author of "Wealth and Poverty," Virginia Lt. Gov. Charles Robb and anchorman Jim Vance.

"I'm going to tell them that we're moving into the roaring '80s," says Gilder, "that they shouldn't see lean years ahead, a great depression or impending doom. They've gotta have faith. And jobs in the business sector are going to be the most plentiful."

Gilder thinks his speech at A.U. may be controversial, but he's an old hand at commencement day politics. "Dartmouth invited me a few years back, as part of their university lecture series," he says. "They withdrew the invitation just before I arrived. A bunch of protesters called me a hatemonger. But two conservative groups on campus rallied, and raised the money, and I wound up giving two speeches instead of one." His speech? "It was critical of sexual liberation," Gilder says.

May 15: Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) at the University of Maryland.

May 16: Frank Reynolds at Catholic U. He's going to talk about courage -- in Poland, El Salvador and Afghanistan.

May 17: At Trinity, the student trio is hard at work. "I don't know what I'm going to talk about," senior Ellen Callinan says breathlessly. "I'm still studying for exams."

May 24 and 25. Georgetown University will have either Kirkpatrick, or the president. Former U.N. ambassador Donald McHenry, now professor at the university's School of Foreign Service, will speak at the law school.

And finally, a word of wisdom from someone who has already done his duty.

"Veritas is a college motto," says Americanologist Marcus Cunliffe, who spoke to the graduates of George Washington University on May 3. "A good commencement speech should contain a demitasse of veritas."