Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, gave the commencement speech at Stanford University yesterday. His was the 4th commencement speech I’ve heard there, and I daresay it was the best by a fair margin, though I suspect more than a few in the audience were disappointed.
The traditional commencement speech is a tricky affair: balancing out the expectations of graduates, their families, and the university worthies organizing the show. Comedy, advice and a certain amount of praise is the norm, although the formula varies widely.
What mayor Booker offered however was a series of life lessons, wrapped in a compelling personal narrative and leavened with more than a touch of humor. This he did without sounding particularly preachy, speaking smoothly and steadily for more than half an hour with no discernible prompting or notes. I found it a compelling performance.
I guess if I were to summarize his message in a sentence, it would be that all of us are where we are thanks to a whole community of people, and that it is by working together in such communities that worthwhile things are achieved. But really, it is worth reading in full**.
I’m not terribly up-to-date on how Newark is doing these days, but if Cory Booker is half as effective at governing as he is at delivering speeches, the city is definitely on the right track.
Meanwhile I still can’t believe the best my graduating class (2006) could get was Tom Brokaw. Inspiring he was not…
** Stanford has now posted a full transcript of Cory Booker’s speech. Video of the event is available on Youtube.