“Gandhi said, ‘you must be the change you want to see in the world,’ ” Stephen Colbert told an audience of thousands at the Class Day ceremony this afternoon. “But may I also point out he drank his own urine, so let’s not go overboard on his advice.”
The host and executive producer of “The Colbert Report” and a one-time presidential candidate in his home state of South Carolina, Colbert drew laughter and applause from the assembled senior class and their families as he poked fun at Princeton traditions and urged the class to maintain the status quo after graduation.
Though the Class of 2008 “can change the world,” Colbert said, he pleaded with its members to “please don’t do that.”
“Some of us like it the way it is,” he explained. “Personally, things are going great for me right now.”
Colbert also pointed out that making a meaningful difference in the world will not be effortless.
“The job of savior looks like a really hard one,” he said. “I mean, Jesus only took the job to please his dad — and he reminded us that if you wanted to be like him, you had to take up the cross and follow him.”
“To me, that thing looks kind of heavy. Wouldn’t it be easier for you to take up your remote control and follow me?” he added.
Colbert did finally acknowledge the seniors’ potential for achievement, calling the Class of 2008 “a virus that will soon be unleashed upon the world with an unstoppable drive and infectious enthusiasm.”
“And you will reproduce — I’m fairly certain you know how to do that by now,” he added.
Colbert also advised the graduating class not to worry “about making a difference … with your lives,” explaining that “one of the things that stays the same is that you are going to change things, and there’s nothing my generation can do about that.
For example, “Aaron Burr certainly changed the way we think about the office of vice president,” he said. “After that it was completely acceptable for [the vice president] to shoot someone in the face.”
Colbert also alluded to the political significance of 2008 as a presidential election year, noting that the Class of 2008 would be the last class to graduate with President Bush still in office. When audience members began to applaud, Colbert said, “Don’t hide your grief.”
“Many of you are calling this election a change year,” he said. “Obama has said, ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.’ ”
“Well, if that’s true, what are we clearly good at? Waiting. I say we go with our strengths and just keep doing it,” he added.
Colbert recalled former Secretary of State George Shultz ’42’s speech at his own graduation from Northwestern University. “I don’t remember anything interesting about him,” Colbert said, except that “he had a tattoo of a tiger on his butt.”
“I’m just going to assume that we all have them, and I hope there will be a show and tell later,” Colbert added.
After concluding his speech by warning the seniors that “no one will understand that totalitarian salute you do, so keep that to a minimum,” Colbert received a standing ovation from the audience.
The senior class officers presented Colbert with a Class of 2008 beer jacket and “The Class of 2008 Understandable Vanity Award,” which consisted of a sketch of Colbert and a mirror.
“I loved the mirrored award,” Colbert said in an interview after the event, adding that he would put it right next to his other mirrors. The sketch of himself, he said, “has a feline quality to it.’
As for the beer jacket, he said it “will be great for bootlegging” and “sneaking stuff into concerts.”
When asked by another reporter whether writing a graduation speech is like writing an episode of his show, Colbert explained that one of the hardest things about “doing a speech like this is I don’t know who is invited to this: me or the character.”
“My show is an ongoing argument with my audience,” Colbert explained. “That’s what this sort of is: It’s a call to inaction.”
Though the Class of 2007 had invited Colbert to speak at Class Day, he declined since his book was due the weekend of commencement last year. Actor Bradley Whitford spoke at that event instead.
Class Day is the second of three graduation ceremonies, following Baccalaureate and preceding Commencement, and serves as an opportunity to honor members of the graduating class and to award several athletic, academic and service prizes.
President Tilghman opened the Class Day ceremony, telling the assembled members of the Class of 2008 “when you came here, your purpose was to acquire an excellent education and that is what you did — in spite of grade deflation.”
Tilghman emphasized the importance of the “collective experience” and shared memories she hoped would remain with members of the graduating class, noting that “it is together that you will go into world tomorrow as members of the great Class of 2008.”
Student speakers included senior class president Tom Haine, who delivered an inspirational address, and seniors Mark Bur and Chelsea Carter, who each spoke humorously about aspects of their time at Princeton.
Seniors Sarah Vander Ploeg and Landis Stankievech were recognized for their receipt of the Moses Taylor Pyne Prize, the University’s highest academic honor, which they had been awarded at Alumni Day in February.
The Priscilla Glickman ’92 Memorial Prize for community service was awarded to Jessica Gheiler and Josh Loehrer.
Thomas Lipp received the Harold Willis Dodds Prize, Katie Lewis-Lamonica received the Allen Macy Dulles ’52 Award, former USG president Rob Biederman received the Class of 1901 Medal, former Class of 2008 president Grant Gittlin received the W. Sanderson Detwiler 1903 Prize and Anna Almore and Sian OFaolain received the Frederick Douglass Award.
Director of Athletics Gary Walters ’67 awarded athletic prizes to Stankievech, Mike Moore, David Nightingale, Meagan Cowher, and Diana Matheson, Ted Gudmundsen, Michael Honigberg and Lewis-Lamonica.
The senior class officers then inducted the five other honorary members of the Class of 2008: Dining Services Director Stu Orefice, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Students Rachel Baldwin, University trustee Shelby Davis ’58, history department undergraduate administrator Etta Recke and Richardson Auditorium production supervisor Christopher Gorzelnik.
The original version of this article stated that the Class of 2006 asked Colbert to speak at Class Day and that former president Bill Clinton spoke instead. In fact, the Class of 2007 asked Colbert to speak, and actor Bradley Whitford spoke instead.