America’s Dad is holding court at Temple University’s Commencement ceremony where, as a member of the Board of Trustees, he has an annual engagement. True to his paternal title, he starts off with a lecture. “I don’t mean to belittle anyone telling you this is your special day. I don’t mean to belittle anyone telling you you can chaaannnge the worrrllld with your C average.” He wrings the sarcasm out of every idealistic syllable.
It was 2010 and Bill Cosby, one of America’s most successful standup comics ever, was bombing. The graduates caught on camera sat stone-faced as he delivered the most “OK Boomer” speech of all time, and which was—sorry to say it, Bill—definitely belittling.
13 months earlier, another popular television personality who many considered “America’s dad” took the stage at Harvard. The man who built a career making celebrities and audiences blandly comfortable and who would, in eight years’ time, lose it all by making women coworkers very, very uncomfortable, was leaning a little too casually on the podium. He goaded and chided the audience based on old Hahvahd clichés, predictable tropes, and played-out stereotypes. His stories, intended to sound self-deprecating, came off as arrogant and triumphalist. “They thought I was an idiot for wanting to go to Harvard and getting rejected,” he seems to be saying, “well who’s the idiot now?”
Man, watching Matt Lauer’s 2009 Harvard speech is a trip. When viewed on the other side of his epic fall from grace, you see him smugly negging his audience—a pickup artist 30 minutes before last call. You feel for the fawning coed who awkwardly introduced him.
The cultural phenomenon of “cancelation” needs no explanation at this point. Most people (almost always men) who find themselves canceled were entitled, self-centered, heedless of boundaries, or, worse, outright abusive. (See the examples above, and the hundreds others like them.) And when reviewing their Commencement speeches—their opportunity to soak in 20 minutes of adoration—those qualities are impossible to ignore.
Maybe hindsight is 20/20, or maybe it’s more like a lens through which certain facets are highlighted and others are filtered out. Either way, going back and watching these moments of ceremonial triumph by some of the decade’s canceled men is a sight to behold.
While researching this piece, I viewed dozens of these speeches: some soaring, some banal and desultory, almost all cliché-ridden. The internet is littered with them. For every Steve Jobs at Stanford and J.K. Rowling at Harvard, there is Bill O’Reilly at Marist College; for every Shonda Rhimes at Dartmouth and David Foster Wallace at Kenyon, there is John Edwards at UNC Law.
These speeches say a lot about the people (okay, the men) delivering them, and those men break down into roughly two categories:
If cancelation is primarily about disillusionment, in the most literal sense of the term, then these speeches demonstrate a lot about the illusions the speaker is laboring to maintain. It’s a damning thing to discover: these are men who know the right way to act, the man they should be, but behind closed doors, they’re actively undermining the whole illusion.
Check out Charlie Rose, speaking at Georgetown in 2015 preaching female empowerment: “You define yourself. … Accept no limits because of race, or gender, or national origin. You are who you say you are. When somebody else says, ‘you are… ,’ you define who you are.” That’s right, the man with 30 accusations of sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to outright assault—whose behavior created an “offensive and hostile” work environment for women—playing a champion of women’s self-determination!
Or chef Mario Batali at Rutgers in 2005, whose four accusations of sexual assault—which ended his career and culminated in criminal charges—could be described as anything but “clean”: “It turns out to be a metaphor. Cleanliness is next to tastiness. Cook with a dirty fryer, and you cook garbage. Start with a clean fryer, and you get something perfect, simple and poetic. Just like all of cooking, and all of life. Garbage in, garbage out. Truth in, truth out.”
My personal favorite, though, is Rudy Giuliani’s speech, delivered just 12 days earlier, at High Point University. The former straight-shooter, who would become a key figure in a sprawling criminal conspiracy that led to the President’s impeachment, insisted, “It’s very, very important to develop a sense of ethics. To know what’s right and wrong – to ask yourself those questions. To understand that if you succeed, you want to succeed within the rules. That’s the satisfaction of accomplishment.”
The Telltale Heart
Then there are the other speeches. The ones where the speaker seems bound to tell on himself, to give away the game. Speeches like the one given by Les Moonves at Bucknell in 2016, whose habit of forcible touching and kissing during business meetings led to six accusations of sexual misconduct and his ouster as Chairman and CEO of CBS. Watching him encourage graduates in 2016 to “pursue whatever you crave for yourself … and, yes, whatever you think will make you happy,” it’s hard not to reflect on Les himself, relentlessly pursuing his cravings.
This is where Cosby and Lauer come in: Their speeches belie the dark underbelly of their seemingly humble and agreeable public personas. Their pompous and demeaning speeches offered glimpses into the men they were eventually revealed to be.
It’s cringe theater.