Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dissenting on Plouffe

In an email timed to coincide with today's Student Assembly meeting, former SA President C.J. Slicklen announced that David Plouffe, campaign manager for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential run, is this year's convocation speaker.

I think this is a regrettable choice.

I understand why Plouffe was an attractive speaker for the 2009 convocation. He is the man behind a campaign which enjoyed strong support from Cornell students and faculty. (In The Cornell Progressive's final pre-election campus poll, 74 percent of students backed Obama.) Hundreds campaigned for him.

Slicklen writes in the press release:
The Class of 2009 sought an individual who has had a profound impact on the society that our class has been prepared to enter. Mr. Plouffe was the mastermind behind one of the most significant and groundbreaking elections in our nation's history.
I disagree with none of this. However, the choice of an unquestionably partisan figure strikes me as inappropriate for this type of occasion. Convocation is not a political rally, and it should be noted that there are many on East Hill who opposed Obama's candidacy. If Slicklen's desire was merely to choose a successful public figure to deliver a motivational speech, there were plenty of nonpartisan options available. Imagine if five years ago the committee had brought Karl Rove to speak, yet attempted to mollify a rabid student body by promising that Rove wouldn't focus solely on politics.

As we find the student body -- at least those who write for the Sun -- divided on the Gaza issue, complete with dueling Arts Quad exhibits, Convocation provides a great opportunity to unite students with diverse perspectives. Plouffe, while certainly charismatic, was a major player in a lengthy, often negative presidential campaign, in which hundreds of millions of dollars were spent by both sides. He is celebrated as a hero by those of us who supported Obama, yet no doubt vilified by those who did not. Plouffe never attained a college degree, something the thousands of graduates in front of him worked hard to achieve, and has spent his adult life working for a succession of Democrats. I fail to see how his personal story, taken separate from partisan politics, is compelling.

I know that the search for a speaker began long before the Gaza issue captured students' attention, but bringing in someone as highly political and partisan as Plouffe spoils what would otherwise be a rare opportunity to bring the Cornell community together.


  1. It's hardly the first time, and surely won't be the last, that the convocation speaker is a partisan political figure. It was Chuck Schumer in 2000, Janet Reno in 2001, James Carville in 2003, Bill Clinton in 2004, Wesley Clark in 2005... even recent Convocation speakers Danny Glover and Maya Angelou, who have not run for elective office but have been extraordinarily active on political issues, could be seen as partisan and/or polarizing in their own way. Soledad O'Brien is the only recent speaker I can think of who doesn't fit into that category.

    In any event, I suspect Mr. Plouffe is not being invited to take a victory lap in front of the Cornell Class of 2009, and I'm willing to bet he has a lot of great insights into how politics has changed (or remained the same, or both). If the seniors who vilify him don't want to attend, that is of course their option - as it was also their option not to get involved in selecting the speaker.

    Either way, if senior classes only ever invited Convocation speakers whose presence wouldn't offend anybody, I suspect it would be a boring annual affair indeed.

  2. Oh, by the way, Eliot Spitzer was my law school graduation speaker. I'd kind of like my money back on that one.

  3. I have less of a problem with actual politicians, since I think the offices they have held make them more qualified to give this kind of a speech. Plouffe is more of a back-room politico than a public servant. Carville, Plouffe, Rove, etc., I think are poor choices from a symbolic viewpoint.

    I don't really see how this isn't a victory lap, however. Would he be speaking if McCain had won? The reason he's speaking is because he helped Obama win the election. If the committee was looking for someone to provide insight as to how politics have changed, a more senior politician or member of the news media would suffice, no?

  4. Wesley Clark was so awful I cringe every time I think about my graduation.

    They really need to reform this system. Of the speakers over the last decade, only Bill Clinton and Maya Angelou are defensible. Maybe Soledad.

  5. "Reform" the system how, though? Who should be making the decision, other than a committed group of seniors who are interested in making the decision? It's a senior class event, traditionally planned by the senior class, so I can only assume the students wouldn't want the administration to have veto power.

    Plus, I have yet to hear any decent rationale as to why it should be "reformed." Fine, Wesley Clark wasn't a good speaker - neither was Matt Ruff in '93, despite being the overwhelmingly beloved author of a cult Cornell classic novel, "Fool on the Hill." In fact he practically got dragged off the stage he was so bad, at least as a convocation speaker. But that choice certainly made sense at the time, and it wasn't partisan or political.

  6. "If the committee was looking for someone to provide insight as to how politics have changed, a more senior politician or member of the news media would suffice, no?"

    And yet the committee decided to invite Mr. Plouffe. Did you offer your input?

  7. No, I did not offer my input. It is not my graduating class and my advice was never solicited.

  8. Beeeej -- I offer some suggestions on the blog.