Since GW’s Commencement was moved to the Ellipse in 1992, an assortment of famous speakers have stood behind the podium to deliver the ceremony’s keynote speech.
From First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1994 to comedian Bill Cosby in 1997, GW Commencements have drawn high-caliber performances from celebrity speakers.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, Israeli senior statesman Abba Eban and Washington Post columnist William Raspberry have all imparted words of wisdom on GW graduates.
“We try to find someone who represents the University – someone who is likely to have something to say that students will find interesting,” GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said.
The process of selecting a keynote speaker begins months before the ceremony, when the university marshal sifts through nominations for honorary degrees. The nominations are passed on to the Faculty Senate, which presents its choices to Trachtenberg. The Board of Trustees makes the final picks from Trachtenberg’s suggestions.
Though all honorary degree recipients accept their degrees at the Commencement ceremony, only one usually is selected to deliver the keynote address.
“(Degree recipients) have to come here,” said Lynn Shipway, director of University special events. “We don’t mail them a certificate or take the show on the road.”
Trachtenberg said some past speakers have stirred controversy.
“Cosby was a great hit, but many people were upset that a comedian, a showbiz guy, would be delivering such a serious speech,” Trachtenberg said. “Personally, I think it would be a deadly and dull idea to have all academics talking.”
In 1994, the announcement that the first lady would be speaking at Commencement drew mail from “Hillary-bashers,” Trachtenberg said.
“The hard part is when you ask someone to speak and they say they’ve already done 19 commencements,” Trachtenberg said. “I usually write back, `OK, then do one more and make me happy.’ But in general, any time you get the spouse of a president you’re doing well.”
President Bill Clinton, a sought-after speaker, gives an average of five Commencement speeches a year. Clinton speaks at graduation ceremonies at a military academy, a religiously-affiliated school, a state school and a historically all-black institution, Trachtenberg said.
But since GW doesn’t fall into any of those categories, the University is competing for the one remaining spot, lowering the chances of an appearance by the president, Trachtenberg said.
The morning after election day in 1996, Trachtenberg said he knew who he wanted to see on stage at this year’s Commencement – Bob Dole.
“We wrote Sen. Dole a letter that basically said `you live across the street. All you have to do is get out of bed and come over,’ ” Trachtenberg said.
A year later, Dole found himself hosting a series of Saturday morning coffee meetings with groups of a dozen or so students at the F Street Club.
After getting to know members of the GW community, Dole was eager to deliver the Commencement address, Trachtenberg said.
Trachtenberg said he imagines the theme of Dole’s speech will be public service, a topic “near and dear to GW’s mission and close to the hearts of many students and faculty.
“His life makes him a leading expert,” Trachtenberg said. “Through his heroism in World War II, his tenure in the Senate and his candidacy for president, he is a very plausible spokesperson.”