Ohio University graduate Matt Lauer feigned awe at the start of his Harvard Class Day oration on June 3 by encouraging audience members with digital cameras to e-mail photographs to him afterwards: “I’m going to need proof of this!” He recalled trying to convince his high-school guidance counselor that he was academically qualified to apply to Harvard, citing SAT scores of 780 verbal and 800 math. But, he reported, the counselor reminded him that “You do not get to add up the scores for all three times you took the test.”
The Today show cohost nonetheless linked himself to Harvard through NBC colleagues like the show’s executive producer, Jim Bell ’89, and Jeff Zucker ’86, president of NBC Universal. Yet Lauer warned the College seniors not to hire him in the future. “Stay out of my way—I’m sick and tired of working for Harvard graduates,” he declared. “I’ll be your worst nightmare. What I lack in academic pedigree, I make up for in pettiness and aggressiveness.” He offered still another caveat regarding this year’s Commencement speaker, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who was scheduled to speak the following afternoon. “Sexy!” Lauer enthused, adding that “Unless he gives each and every one of you one of these nitrogen fuel-cell cars to keep, you are in for a long afternoon.”
Despite the abundance of hilarity, Lauer did have some serious counsel for the imminent graduates. First, he advised them to “Have kids. Have lots of kids.” Children, he felt, were a leavening influence on their parents’ lives; he cited an interview he did with President Obama on Super Bowl Sunday for a television audience of 45 million or 50 million. Lauer took his seven-year-old son, Jack, to the White House for the event, and during the interview, he glimpsed the utterly unfazed boy with a finger in one nostril.
Second, Lauer said, “Make sure you bring one person into your life who will always look you in the eye and tell you the truth.” Third, he observed that although the modern world pays undue attention to “the trimmings” of material possessions, for him, a touchstone is a remark by Horace Greeley to the effect that “the only thing that remains constant is character.”
Lauer told the future alumni to “use all your tools,” including kindness, compassion, and generosity, and “Don’t take yourselves too seriously.” He also admitted to the seniors that “You are the object of my enormous jealousy,” saying that he would gladly trade places with them. “You are the best and the brightest,” he said. “I will be standing on the sidelines cheering wildly for you.”
The realities of current economic life obtruded into several of the student speeches that preceded Lauer. One of the two Ivy Orators, Alison H. Rich ’09, asserted that when “people talk to me about the future and the ‘real world,’ I reply,”—putting her hands over her ears— “La, la, la! I can’t hear you! La, la, la!” The other Ivy Orator, William Houghteling ’09, began by calling his classmates “the most intelligent, accomplished, and unemployed class ever to graduate from Harvard.” Shortly thereafter, he bluntly announced, “We are screwed.” Houghteling got the day’s biggest laugh with a deadpan line: “Harvard is an indestructible American brand—like Lehman Brothers, or General Motors.”
The Class Day exercises began with the First Marshal of the class of 2009, Lumumba B. Seegars, quoting the opening lines of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “I celebrate myself, I sing myself.” Seegars returned to the singing theme in his closing remarks, citing a song that he felt epitomized the way he hoped his class would treat each other after graduation. He then sang, in a rich, proficient baritone, the entire first verse of Bill Withers’ 1972 anthem to mutual support, “Lean on Me.” The audience, Matt Lauer included, clapped along.