Commencement speakers: the rude, the unfunny and the insightful

Commencement season is the college equivalent of the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

Institutions from the Ivy League to the local community college scramble to lure the shiniest star they can to their podiums on graduation day. And the match-ups often make about as much sense as inviting Lindsay Lohan to be your date for an event that celebrates heavyweights in the news media.

It helps if one of your alumni has actually made it big and is willing to come back to campus and tell graduates that it is up to them to make the world a better place.

Aaron Sorkin, the creator of "The West Wing," returned to Syracuse, but he did not exhort the new grads to go out and make us all proud.

He told them instead that they were "incredibly well-educated dumb people" and headed for some major screw-ups.

"It's a combination of life being unpredictable and you being super-dumb," he said. Not sure that's the take-away message the Syracuse president was looking for, not to mention parents in the audience in hock up to their neckties after four years of tuition, room and board.

This is the time of year when people who are not normally funny feel like they have to be funny. And, generally, fail miserably. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave exactly the same speech at two different commencements, was one of them. He shouldn't even try to be funny. His call-and-response Carolina cheer just made people uncomfortable.

It was different for Alice Cooper, who spoke to graduates of the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles and told them, "apparently chickens don't fly so much as plummet." That's not funny either, but at least it was in character for the addled rocker.

Actress Jane Lynch of "Glee" spoke at Smith College and, although she is a comedian, kept comparing life to improv theater and told students to always respond, "yes, and ..." That doesn't make any sense to me, either.

Google boss Eric Schmidt surprised the students at Boston University by telling them to turn off their computers and their smart phones for at least an hour a day, and "look into the eyes of the person you love. Have a conversation, a real conversation." Students did not immediately comply, as many of them were posting their reactions on Twitter.

The White House dispatched its "A Team" to the swing states — the first lady was at Virginia Tech and North Carolina A&T; — while the president went to Barnard College, a women's school, to reinforce the idea that the Democratic Party is not waging a war on them, unlike the Republican Party

Vice President Joe Biden, who forced the president's hand on gay marriage by speaking out of turn, was scheduled to do commencement at West Point as part of the regular service academy rotation. But he has been busted back to high schools for the rest of commencement season (although the high schools are in the swing states of Florida and Virginia).

And Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney went to ultra-conservative Liberty University, founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, where he said marriage is between one man and one woman. No risks there.

Yale landed Barbara Walters — a pretty big "get." I am guessing she understands the process better than most. And Southern Connecticut State invited Jenna Bush Hager, former first daughter and "Today" show contributor, to speak. You have to wonder what tips one 20-something would give other 20-somethings, what with all those parents listening. But a community college in New Hampshire had to settle for the state comptroller.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told students at Colby College: "Be a doer, not a critic." Meanwhile, protesters at the fringe of the gathering responded by shouting insults at him. Olympia Snowe, who is leaving the U.S. Senate because of its intractable partisanship, told students at the University of Southern Maine not to "perpetuate political absolutes."

There is money to be made during commencement season — $50,000 for some speakers, although most do it for free or for the honorary degree. That's the only degree newsman Brian Williams has because, as he told the kids at George Washington, he never finished college.

And you can even get a book deal out of your commencement speech. Economist Charles Wheelan has just released a book version of his 2011 address at Dartmouth, his alma mater. Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune wrote a book, "Wear Sunscreen," about what kind of commencement speech she would give.

Titled "101/2 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won't Tell You," his bits of wisdom include: "Some of your worst days lie ahead," "Don't make the world worse" and "It's all borrowed time."

Bit of a downer, certainly. But it beats being told you are "super dumb" on your first official day as a college graduate.

An earlier version of this column suggested that Colby College students shouted the comments to Tony Blair. The comments were made by protesters. That version also implied that "Wear Sunscreen" by Mary Schmich was based on a commencement speech she gave; it was not. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her email is