White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Commencement ceremony on the National Mall, University officials confirmed Wednesday afternoon.
Widely regarded as one of the most powerful players in the Obama administration, Emanuel is a veteran of the Clinton White House and a former Illinois congressman. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2005 to 2006, he was widely credited with winning back the House of Representatives for his party in the 2006 midterm elections.
University President Steven Knapp selected Emanuel from a list of potential speakers because of his commitment to public service, background in business and influential position within the Obama Administration, University spokeswoman Tracy Schario said Wednesday.
Schario said it would be premature to speculate on the topic of Emanuel’s speech.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman, said Emanuel was “honored” to be addressing graduates and their families at the event on May 17.
In addition to Emanuel, the University will bestow honorary degrees on Jeanne Narum and John Safer. Narum serves as president of the Independent College Office and Project Kaleidoscope – an organization devoted to improving math and science programs in colleges. Safer, a GW alumnus, is an internationally renowned artist and entrepreneur, best known for his sculptures that are displayed in museums, galleries and embassies around the world.
“All three of them represent the excellence in their particular field and the excellence of what a college education and a commitment to public service can accomplish,” Schario said. “We hope that our graduates find them very inspirational. “
Emanuel also is known for his energetic and sometimes explosive temperament. He reportedly once sent a decomposing dead fish to a political opponent.
The selection continues a tradition of prominent political figures appearing at GW Commencement ceremonies. Former President George H.W. Bush spoke at the 2006 commencement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2005 and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner in 2003. Last year’s ceremony featured former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond.
Senior Benji Davis said he was pleased to have a prominent Jewish figure speak at the event.
“The fact that he grew up with a strong Jewish background just shows students who are Jewish that they can grow up and do anything Emanuel did,” Davis said.
Senior Vanessa Okoro said she was thrilled that her graduation will feature one of the country’s most prominent political figures.
“I think it is a great to have such a fantastic speaker,” she said. “It is so relevant with the election, and to have someone from the White House is amazing.”
College Republicans Chairman Brand Kroeger said the selection of another Democratic speaker was unfortunate, but Emanuel’s stature is a redeeming quality.
“As a conservative, I am disappointed. But as a GW student, I am pleased to have a high-profile speaker for our commencement celebration,” Kroeger said an e-mail. “This is certainly a tremendous improvement from last year’s troubling selection of Julian Bond.”
Student Association President Vishal Aswani, one of two students on the nomination committee, lauded Senior Vice President and General Counsel Beth Nolan for her work overseeing the nomination process.
“Essentially, we were President Knapp’s vetting committee for the potential speakers and I am proud for the work we did and the selection that he did as well,” Aswani wrote in an e-mail.