An Open Letter to Senator Ben Sasse Concerning His Fremont High Commencement Speech

In just seven minutes, Sasse dismissed psychology, mocked students’ fitness, insulted Jeremys everywhere, and much more.

The following is an unabridged version of the message that I sent to Senator Ben Sasse via his website.

As I’ve considered your recent commencement speech to the graduating class of Fremont High School (video embedded above, transcript here), several thoughts have gone through my mind:

  1. It’s irresponsible and particularly mean-spirited of you, an elected leader, to dismiss an entire branch of medicine and science that deals with mental health during a time when our country almost certainly faces a mental health crisis.
  2. The manner in which you demeaned the high school experience seems odd given your own background in education. One would expect a former college president to be a bit more charitable, gracious, and encouraging toward those who will soon be entering college, especially when they’re doing so during such a tumultuous and uncertain time as now.
  3. Your smug, condescending tone seems out of sorts with the whole everyman “brand” that you’ve carefully cultivated over the years by selling Runzas at Memorial Stadium, driving for Uber, etc. But perhaps that’s all it ever really was, just a brand that made you look nice and approachable.
  4. Chinese leaders should certainly be held accountable for their own mishandling of the pandemic. But calling out China in the way that you did feels like a smokescreen to distract from the fact that the pandemic has spread across our nation as a direct result of our feckless President and those around him who continue to empower his incompetence.
  5. If I’m being really charitable, I think you thought you were trying to be funny. Unfortunately, your rambling, incoherent speech felt less like something you’d expect at a graduation ceremony, and more akin to a mid-level executive telling jokes at the office Christmas party after having a few too many drinks. It was certainly not the sort of behavior that one expects or hopes from their state senator. (Then again, maybe this is just more evidence of how thoroughly Trump has corrupted everyone and everything around him. He’s lowered the bar so much in our national politics that perhaps you just felt like you didn’t really need to put forth much effort.)

When you arrived in Washington, I thought you were a breath of fresh air. I still remember watching your maiden speech to the Senate, the one where you laid into both parties and communicated, with refreshing bluntness, that Americans have grown tired of our politicians’ antics. That we’ve lost faith in their ability to govern as well as their ability to actually care about the plights of the people whom they serve.

Perhaps you thought your commencement speech, with its talk of “grit” and “resilience,” was simply communicating some necessary hard truths to a group of 18-year-olds. The truth is that your commencement speech is further evidence of why we still have those aforementioned feelings. Congratulations, Senator Sasse; you’re part of the very problem that you once criticized so eloquently.

At this point, there’s no use trying to convince many of us to vote for you. We’ve grown tired of the duplicity and cravenness of the Trump-era GOP. We’ve lost faith in you and your fellow Republicans. And we’re earnestly hoping and praying for the day when the GOP receives its political comeuppance, when its cravenness becomes impossible to deny or downplay.

But there’s still something you can do to regain some measure of personal dignity. You can apologize to the students, families, and teachers of Fremont High for your patronizing mess of a commencement speech. You can apologize for crapping all over a day that should’ve been an important celebration, especially given that so much associated with said celebration has been stolen by the pandemic.

You can apologize. And then you can promise to never try to perform comedy on your own ever again.

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