For the first time, not one, but two Class Day speakers entertained—and at least one shared some serious points with—Harvard’s graduating seniors as they celebrated their Class Day on May 23. Barney Frank ’61, G ’68, K ’71, J.D. ’77, a longtime U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts, brought his humor, eloquence, and gritty, Bayonne, New Jersey voice to the platform as the Alumni Speaker, a newly created slot.
Frank got the afternoon exercises going by peppering the audience with a variety of witticisms and tongue-in-cheek advice. (Watch a video of Barney Frank’s address.) He started by saying that “at least once before I retire I’d like to be introduced with further ado. In my mind, it looks like a man on a unicycle with a trombone….” Speaking of financial reform legislation he backed as chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Frank noted that “The CEO of JPMorgan Chase thought it went too far.” He compared speaking on Class Day to singing the national anthem at the World Series: “Nobody came to hear you, it’s not an official event unless you do it, and nobody will remember you unless you screw up.”
On the subject of the swag one receives at various occasions as gifts—coffee mugs, T-shirts, and so on—Frank counseled the seniors: “Never throw out anything within one mile of where it was presented to you.” He shared some real-world advice for graduates who might someday hold elective office, a nugget he picked up early in his political career, at Boston City Hall in 1967: “Never write when you can talk, never talk when you can nod, never nod when you can wink.” Even this timeless advice, though, might need revision in an era of handheld communications: “I don’t know how you get a Blackberry to wink.”
Frank touched on his personal life as an openly gay man by first citing a joke by one of the “great philosophers of the twentieth century,” comedian Henny Youngman, who, when asked, “How’s your wife?” snapped back, “Compared to what?” Having previously announced that he would marry his partner, Jim Ready, this year, Frank said, “Within two months, I’ll be able to say, ‘How’s your husband? Compared to what?’”
He also voiced support for “hate crimes” legislation, and for adding anti-gay motives to those identified in such bills. At the same time, Frank staunchly affirmed his support of free speech. He told one voter, “If this [hate-crime] bill passes tomorrow, it will still be completely legal to call me a fag. I just wouldn’t recommend it if you are in the banking business.”
More seriously, Frank observed that along with a set of ideals, “you are morally obligated to be pragmatic. What good are ideals if they are unrealized?” He also counseled against the use of metaphors in political discourse, especially regarding foreign policy: “There are no dominoes—countries don’t hit each other. Metaphors mislead you. Try to avoid them.”
Frank acknowledged that many in the audience might wonder why his law degree came in 1977, while his college class is 1961. He explained that in the interim, he had pursued a career as an academic, and advised the seniors to “Try to find a line of work where your personal characteristics are strengths, not weaknesses. I had one characteristic that was a drawback as an academic and a strength as a politician. I have a very short attention span—if I were you, I’d have already lost track of what I’m saying.”
In conclusion, the congressman pulled out a copy of the most famous Harvard Commencement speech of all, the one announcing the Marshall Plan, which was proposed at Harvard’s 1947 Commencement. “George Marshall changed the world in two pages—single spaced,” Frank declared. He ended with a serious exhortation, saying that it is “time to announce the graduation of Europe,” noting that the Marshall Plan had succeeded, and it was no longer necessary for the United States to protect Europe militarily. Beyond that, the United States “doesn’t need to be the dominant power everywhere in the world, all the time, spending hundreds of billions of dollars” overseas, “even where people don’t need us.”
Comic actor Andy Samberg, a fixture on Saturday Night Live for seven years who has appeared in feature films like I Love You, Man (2009), was the day’s closing act and slew his audience. Early on, he confessed, “I’m just over the moon to be receiving an honorary degree here today…” only to feign surprise that no such honor was in the offing. In consternation, Samberg then yelled into the microphone, “Dean Hammonds, you lied to me!” He returned to the theme of treachery perpetrated by dean of Harvard College Evelynn Hammonds several times more in his remarks.
Samberg ticked off a list of undergraduate majors that “are useless as of tomorrow,” including several humanities fields, East Asian studies, and in fact, “anything that ends in ‘Studies.’” His advice, therefore, was to “study something useful and play World of Warcraft in your spare time.” The fallout from this was that “Math and science majors—you guys are cool,” he declared. “Finally.”
Samberg admitted that he might be unqualified as a Class Day speaker, as he did not even go to Harvard. But he had a counter: “I didn’t even apply to Harvard,” proudly noting that he realized he had no chance of getting in. He pointed to some highly successful dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, and suggested their examples indicate that “If you’re in this class that is graduating, then you are doomed to massive failure.”